My take: 2.7 stars/4 (see bottom for detail)
As tv tropes blithely states, this movie is about
“Two mice, Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) and Bernard (Bob Newhart), travel around the world to rescue cute human children while dealing with their own unresolved sexual tension.”
Close enough. We’ll start from the beginning. The film opens in an international NY airport. The crowd here is pretty diverse, so even though all the main human characters end up being white, the movie at least acknowledges global racial diversity. Which isn’t saying much, but it again serves as an odd comparison point for modern Disney movies that couldn’t do event that. Anyway. It gets a little more interesting once mice representatives climb out of their respective suitcases and make their way to a delegation for a mouse organization known as the Rescue Aid Society.
The corresponding mice are also diverse in appearance and implied race, though some of these mice rely on cultural and racial stereotypes of appearance (Presumably Chinese mouse in the opening has buck teeth, is pretty yellow toned, etc). Disney has had many past issues with portraying asian stereotypes through animal characterization (x y z)
Not all representations here were negative or based in outright stereotyping, of course. Many cultures have different clothing etc. norms, and it was positive that they were all shown to be undeniably good countries/mice for having this international meeting. When the delegation meets, note that an exception to countries being listed on their name plates is the representative for “Africa.” This is not just a typing error, but reflects a larger issue with how the west reductively views Africa as a singular place and story rather than a diverse group of people, countries, languages, cultures, et cetera.
What’s the No. 1 stereotype about Africa? Arguably, that Africa’s not a continent, but a country. Ever hear someone refer to African food or African art or even the African language? Such individuals have no idea that Africa’s the second largest continent in the world. Instead, they view it as a tiny country with no distinct traditions, cultures or ethnic groups.
They fail to realize that referring to, say, African food sounds just as odd as referring to North American food or the North American language or the North American people. Africa’s home to 53 countries, including island-nations along the continent’s coast. These countries contain diverse groups of people who speak a variety of languages and practice a wide range of customs.
Moving on. There is an interesting moment when Bianca steps up and asks for the assignment. The head of the delegation blusters, ”You? …dear lady… it’s absolutely without precedent. However, I suppose, there has to be a first time.” He then mutters to himself, “A janitor and a lady! Good heavens.”
He sounds incredulous. Yet he smiles as he says it, and neither he nor anyone else at the delegation even suggest that they might not be able to finish the job. A bit of second wave feminism for you there, I suppose, but then, it was the 1970s. I thought it was also interesting that the janitor was her- chosen by Bianca, too- companion. I thought that was a positive choice since it sort of flies in the face of a lot of classist denotations of who “ought” to represent a country, etc.
When it comes to Bianca, many people have asked me to talk about her, and she is an interesting character. She has a lot of the marks of “traditional” (aka culturally approved) femininity- soft voice, naturally eyeshadowed eyes (how do you do that you’re not even human!), wears flowery smelling perfume that alligators are attracted to, and her figure is more “hour glass” than that of the other mice. As the audience, we are not surprised when all the men in the delegation eagerly volunteer to be her partner.
So in many ways her character does seem to uphold a lot of expectations about how the ideal woman should act, look, et cetera. She has an old world cinema appeal to her.
What I like about Bianca is that she is very self-assured. She does not struggle with trying to prove she is equal to men, even in a world that, for all appearances, seems quite surprised she would even try. She assumes without doubt that she is equal and acts upon it. She moves through the world expecting it to treat her right. She is not afraid. Bianca does not wait for the assignment to be given to her. She strolls up and basically says, “I would be great for that!”
Most of the time she and Bernard are shown to be equals although “Help, Bernard!” is heard fairly often throughout. He often makes a lot of half hearted attempts to be “the man” in a situation and goes first when he thinks it is dangerous. When push comes to shove though, she pulls her own weight. In the tunnel where Penny is being forced to search for the diamond, Bernard goes down first to make sure it is safe, but who ends up having to save him when he almost falls down the hole of tide water? Bianca does.
As a child character, Penny served her purpose for the plot. She was characterized as vulnerable almost to the point of being a giant sack of audience teardrops. But, Penny rallies and has a lot more grit than you would expect from a tiny orphan girl whose kidnapping captor feels comfortable telling her something like “No family would ever want a child like you.” Penny is not afraid to run away. She runs away from the boat into a Louisiana Swamp with alligators in it. She actually takes a jibe at Mr.Snoops by reminding him that he’s afraid of Medusa’s pet alligators, but she is not. And indeed, she has no issue taking a swing at them while yelling, “Put me down, Brutus!” At the end of the day, she is a brave little girl.
I felt less positive about Miss Medusa, especially owing to the unfortunate circumstance of name (consider how the story of the original Medusa is a reflection of patriarchal values buuut old tyme history isn’t my thing so anyway). In the one scene where she is talked to Penny, the “camera” zooms in and we watch as she plucks her fake eyelashes off her eyelid. Not the biggest deal, but overall it seemed like there was a statement being made about “fake” femininity. Basically, it is the age old lose-lose story; women are bad if they do not “take care” of themselves by wearing makeup and “freshening up,” yet will be mocked if they wear more makeup or have brighter hair etc. than what looks “natural.” Also note that Medusa is hyper focused on getting the diamond- material possession and something she thinks will bring her power.
…Miss Hattie also furthers the notion that women can’t handle power (it turns them evil) and, further, that a woman who does not love children is truly heinous. Like Miss Hannigan of Annie or Medusa of The Rescuers, Miss Hattie is bad not because she is a world-threatening villain (as Gru and Vector are) but because she refuses to abide by the norms of femininity—a key requirement of which is to be nurturing.
-Ms. Magazine (also note the contrast with the feminine Bianca, whose seemingly only fear in the world is for something to happen to “that poor, poor child.”)
Besides all that overly feminist dissection, on a purely wow level, Medusa is so scary! She basically says multiple times- and by all means appears to mean it- that she is okay with Penny drowning in a dark tunnel by the ocean if she cannot find the giant diamond in time. They lower her down via a rickety bucket. And the diamond? Is stuck in a skull that will not pry open. Pretty intense imagery there for a children’s movie.
Finally, I wasn’t sure how okay the swamp people were in terms of fair representation. As you might have noticed, there were not a whole lot of reviews, especially feminist ones, available for this movie, so the above and the below quotes are actually excerpts from other Disney movie reviews with similar problems, that cross-compare to The Rescuers.
Further, the stereotypical hill-billy representation of the frog hunters and the lightning bugs rubbed me the wrong way. The two-fingered idiocy and gap-toothed naivite of these Bayou characters traded in the typical “oh, aren’t these backwoods people dumb” humor that also colored earlier films such as The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon.
Overall I would say this film fairs fairly typically among Disney’s lineup in terms of (not especially) adhering to the intersectional ideals of third wave feminism. I think it would be fine for most kids.
(also note: I am aware it is based on a book.)
Promotion/Equal Voice given to women: ***~
Representation of Women present (are they more than typecasts of female stereotypes etc): ***
LGBTQ representation: ** (no one really present, but no queer villain coding)
Break from Gender Binary adherence: **~