By Scott Ross
When The Rescuers opened in 1977, I went to see it, as a dutiful but not terribly hopeful 16-year old who felt that the Disney animators had pretty much lost their way. I grew up on their stuff, of course, and counted a 1967 reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs among the most powerful movie-going experiences of my then very young life. I had loved Cinderella on reissue as well, but I was absolutely potty about The Jungle Book when I saw it in 1968. It became my world: Jungle Book comic books, Jungle Book puzzles, Jungle Book Colorforms and paint-by-numbers scenes, a whole box of Royal Pudding customer premium Disneykins figurines (dear god, how I wish I’d held onto those!), the Jungle Book soundtrack album (I drove my parents to despair with that one.) I was, I think, at just the right age for it: A cartoon-mad seven-year-old, seeing his first new Disney feature, not terribly long after Walt’s death.
But while I had enjoyed The Aristocats, and Robin Hood, and a mid-’70s reissue of The Sword in the Stone, I got much more from 101 Dalmatians and Fantasia and Pinocchio and Dumbo when they went into rotation. By comparison to the new, Walt-less work, those pictures had a richness with which the more recent movies couldn’t really compare. It wasn’t the post-50s Xerox process that struck me, however vaguely, as thin; it was the stories themselves, and the characters, and the means by which the Nine Old Men were telling those stories and presenting those characters. In retrospect, I suppose it was largely the fault of Woolie Reitherman, the named director of the features. His pictures aren’t terribly inspired, and he seemed to abhor heart — I don’t mean sentimentality, but genuine sentiment. And there is a difference. It’s something Disney himself may have embraced too heavily at times, but I would rather the unabashed emotional pull of, say, the “Baby Mine” sequence in Dumbo than almost anything in The Fox and the Hound.
Some of the fault may lie with Disney himself, more aloof as the years went on and far less involved in the production of his studio’s animation (although he was still the greatest editor his animators ever had.) Somehow, though, someone — perhaps John Lounsbery or Art Stevens, both of whom co-directed with Reitherman — managed to get that heart back into The Rescuers, whatever Woolie’s reticence; it’s present from the first moment, and the first notes of the Artie Butler score (I have only to hear are the initial strains of “Rescue Me” and I go misty) and it’s seldom far from the action. Situated within those more emotive parameters, however, is Milt Kahl’s superb, satirical character work on Madame Medusa, the movie’s hilariously frumpy villain.
Kahl said the character was his vengeance on an ex-wife, but Medusa’s facial design surely owes something to the great Geraldine Page, who provided her voice. (Kahl did nearly all the animation for the character.)
Like his confreres Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, Kahl was a master of behavioral animation. (Kahl worked his special magic on the Tar Baby sequence in Song of the South, the amusingly narcissistic Brom Bones in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the slightly befuddled Fairy Godmother — as well as the pugnacious King and his humorless Duke — in Cinderella, Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone, and the suavely frightening Sher Khan — as well as King Louie and Kaa — in The Jungle Book.) “Anyone worth his salt in this business,” he said, “ought to know how people move […] You have to understand movement, which in itself is quite a study. You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance.” With Medusa, his final work on a Disney feature, Kahl gave the performance of a lifetime.
Madame Medusa is personality animation with a vengeance. Her every movement is fulsome, from her big, sagging bosom and the ghastly hips her walk leads with, to her set of damn near independently working teeth. Much of Kahl’s inspiration no doubt came from Page’s ripe, deliberately hammy vocal work, but Medusa is his creature. (There’s no remotely one like her in Margery Sharpe’s “Miss Bianca” novels, on which the movie was based.) And her crowning moment as an animated figure, and Kahl’s as her creator, is the simple removal of a false eyelash. It takes less than a minute of screen time, but once seen it’s never forgotten.
I can still remember the genuine sense of awe I felt when I first saw it, even as the moment made me laugh out loud. It could only have been done with animation, and only then by an animator who understood movement and personality to his bones.
The sequence comes as Medusa attempts using child psychology on Penny, the small orphan she’s kidnapped to help retrieve a priceless diamond from the grotto of a Louisiana bayou. As she talks in what she believes is an encouraging manner to Penny, she’s removing her voluminous makeup before a mirror.
Page gives a particularly rich reading to the line Medusa is speaking during the action of pulling off the second of two false eyelashes (“Then we must try harder, mustn’t we?”) her voice taking on a slightly irritated lilt that works beautifully with the action Kahl animates. It’s a perfect illustration of “squash-and-stretch” animation.
The first two images represent the lash that doesn’t give Medusa trouble.
It’s the other one that’s the source of her brief, wonderfully comic struggle:
Above, and below, Kahl’s animation drawings. The final stretch, as it were. What’s missing (because I couldn’t find it online) is the way the aging flesh around Medusa’s eye, freed from the lash, undulates briefly before sagging back into place — the topper, as comedians say, to the joke.
If this isn’t “putting on a performance,” I don’t know what is. A simple moment of action, wholly incidental to the narrative but infinitely rich in personality. 36 years later it still makes me smile — and marvel.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross