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Walt Disney Originally Shelved The Rescuers For Being Too Political

Like any major American cultural institution, Walt Disney Animation Studios exists as the center of its own grand arc of storytelling, with ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, and all kinds of fascinating characters entering and exiting the picture as the plot rages on. If today we look at Disney animated films as events so reliable and enmeshed with the very fabric of pop culture that a cinematic landscape without them is almost unthinkable, there was a time when their supremacy was considerably less of a given. To be more specific, after Walt Disney's passing in 1966, the studio faced nearly two decades of uncertainty, artistic and economic wobbliness, and general public disrepute.

The films of this period have since become classics in their own way, with the eccentricity and narrative variety of titles like "Robin Hood," "The Black Cauldron," and "The Great Mouse Detective" endearing them to more adventurous animation fans as the years went by. But, at the time, only one of the era's releases was considered truly, unambiguously successful: 1977's "The Rescuers." A certifiable box office hit, originally grossing $48 million against a $7.5 million budget (via The Los Angeles Times), it rescued Disney from an economic slump and spawned the first-ever sequel in the "official" Disney Animation canon, 1990's "The Rescuers Down Under." And, interestingly enough, it was a movie that almost didn't happen at all. "The Rescuers" originally began development in 1962 — and got stalled when the boss himself deemed it too political for Disney.

Walt Disney was uncomfortable with the original version of the story

It took 15 years between the beginning of "The Rescuers" as a project and its actual release to theaters. It all began when English novelist Margery Sharp wrote "The Rescuers" in 1959, which was then followed by a sequel titled "Miss Bianca" in 1962. It was in that same year that Walt Disney himself optioned the books and began the development of an animated feature adaptation, per Cartoon Research.

"The Rescuers" film was originally supposed to take after the first novel, which followed Bernard and Miss Bianca's efforts to rescue a Norwegian poet from his unfair imprisonment in an unnamed Eastern European country. Retaining the Cold War undertones but bringing the story closer to home, the folks at Disney retooled "The Rescuers" into a story about a poet imprisoned in Cuba, whom the mice would help escape to the U.S. — mind you, that was just a few years after the success of the Cuban Revolution and beginning of the Fidel Castro government. This original version would feature an epic, action-packed finale featuring machine gun rounds and a boat chase in the Bahamas.

Walt Disney was not happy with that story treatment, finding it too political for the studio. In the words of story artist Burny Mattinson, "Walt looked at it and said, 'Geez, it's too dark.' So the whole thing was shelved." Indeed, "The Rescuers" remained shelved until well after Disney's death in 1966 — and would go through a few more retoolings still.

It took some time for the story to arrive at its final version

Some years after Walt Disney's death, the studio started work on a whole new version of "The Rescuers." This version would feature a polar bear as the victim in need of help, and — if you can believe it — a penguin as the villain. "We had a premise where a penguin came up from the South Pole and was dumped in the zoo. In the zoo, he met a performing bear named Willie," director Wolfgang Reitherman recalled, as quoted by Cartoon Research. The penguin would then convince Willie to escape from the zoo to the South Pole with him; once there, Willie would be trapped in a rundown circus, and forced to put on a show for other penguins. This idea also fell apart, largely because the story folks had trouble justifying the penguin villain's authority over a polar bear.

Finally, following Reitherman's pleas for a simple, effective story in the vein of "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" and its kidnap plot, Disney turned to another book in the "Rescuers" saga, specifically "Miss Bianca" — which told the story of a little girl being held captive by the dreadful Diamond Duchess. The final film combined elements of both "The Rescuers" and "Miss Bianca" (the presence of Bernard and his budding friendship with Miss Bianca are lifted from the first novel), and was, of course, inordinately successful. This left even Reitherman surprised that they managed to arrive at such a simple story after so many years of grunt work.