A substantial number of Disney animated feature debut on Blu-ray this Tuesday. One release, perhaps more than any other, stands as a crossroads between "old school" and "next generation" Disney animation: The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under.

When The Rescuers premiered in 1977, it was very well received but the public and the press, though things behind the scenes were getting tumultuous.

Based on Margery Sharp's book, The Rescuers follow two mice who rescue humans on behalf of their Rescue Aid Society (a group that co-exists behind the walls of the United Nations building).  Eva Gabor voices the lovely Bianca and Bob Newhart plays Bernard.

There's wonderful casting all the way around, harkening back to an era when Disney did enlist celebrities for the lead characters (who promoted the film on The Merv Griffin Show) and allow character actors and voice actors to round out the casts. Disney was still the name above the title and the studio had neither the budget nor the inclination to cast the multi-million-dollar variety of superstar often heard today in theatrical animation.

Times were simpler then, perhaps, and so is the film, which follows a very linear storyline as the mice board an albatross (voiced by longtime radio star Jim Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly) and head for the bayou to rescue a little girl from Madame Medusa (the flamboyant Geraldine Page in her second Disney film) and her flunky Snoops (a caricature of Disney historian John Culhane voiced by Disney comedy veteran Joe Flynn in his only animated Disney role).

Not a musical, the film does have atmospheric songs performed offscreen by Shelby Flint, who hit the pop charts with "Angel on My Shoulder" and had become a very busy vocalist for TV shows, commercials and animation (Snoopy Come Home, Rankin/Bass' Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, NBC's The Borrowers). An Oscar nomination for Best Song went to "Someone's Waiting for You." (Robie Lester fans take note: she is the singing voice of Bianca.)

But at the Disney studio, animators were becoming divided about artistic direction and Don Bluth was not pleased with what he saw as shortcuts on The Rescuers. Within a few years of this film, he would lead an artist walk out that impacted the next feature, The Fox and the Hound, the last feature to combine the talents of new and veteran animators.

You can also see this blend in The Rescuers -- masterful work by artists who worked with Walt and those that they mentored. Of course, the animation of Medusa is astounding, its roughness and energy captured in the sketchy, "scritchy" look of the xerox cel process. This a look didn't always suit the films in which it was used, but it works well here.

The Disney studio had never produced a sequel to any of its animated features before The Rescuers Down Under, but much had changed by 1990, including a new management team and transformations in corporate philosophies. But unlike some of the direct-to-video features that would emerge, this film boasts superior production values that actually exceed that of its predecessor.

Some of that sheen is due to rapid advances in computer technology, making specific settings, effects and animated objects more accessible. The CAPS system was perhaps the biggest develop to debut in The Rescuers Down Under. This eliminated the need for inked and painted animation cels -- the artwork went directly into the system for outline and color. Because of this, there is no breakdown in image quality (which could happen with layer upon layer of cels).

Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart are back as Bernard and Bianca, this time flown by a different albatross. Jim Jordan had passed away, so John Candy's voice added not only contemporary celebrity, but also a broader comedy potential and therefore appears in much more of the film as comic relief.

The biggest difference is that the villain is, this time around, not played at all for laughs, but completely evil and disturbingly unbalanced, brilliantly voiced by George C. Scott.

There are no songs at all in this sequel, though "Rescue Aid Society" is part of the underscore. Bruce Brougton's score is excellent -- and the recurring theme heard in his music is also used for the dancing fountain at the Epcot theme park.

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