CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Rescue Rangers


I came into Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers fully ready to be disappointed by it. I knew that there was no way that the cutesy show of high-pitched rodents saving puppies, children, and other helpless animals could possibly hold up in any way. Heck, it wasn’t may favorite show as a child, so if it was lukewarm then, I figured I’d hate it now. I could see the leading line now: “Rescue Rangers signaled the cracks in the Disney Afternoon’s impenetrable armor.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In a complete and unexpected twist, not only did I deeply enjoy Rescue Rangers, it actually became my favorite show of the entire lineup. Let me be clear: it’s not the best show of the afternoon block – Ducktales has much more exciting and fun adventures; Darkwing Duck is funnier, more subversive, and more stylistic with the format; TaleSpin has richer characters and distinct relationships. Rescue Rangers, on the other hand, feels inventive. It feels clever, ambitious, and confident. It has this indomitable free-spirit couched in a wildly creative world of rodents and animals living their own lives among a bunch of humans. It doesn’t take itself seriously, only when it needs to. In a word: it’s fun.

Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers

Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers – (1989)

Director: Alan Zaslove, John Kimball, John Zamboni
Starring: Tress MacNeill, Corey Burton, Peter Cullen, Jim Cummings
Screenplay(s) by: Julia Luwald, Tad Stones, Dev Ross

Here’s the thing you should think about: when it comes to the idea of rodents living beneath humans, nine times out of ten, there’s a hidden message. Most of the time they’re about humanity’s wanton destruction of the environment – The Secret of NIMH, Ferngully, The Rescuers Down Under – or they’re about contrasting humanity’s cruel treatment of each other and the world at large, as compared to life underfoot – The Rescuers, Capitol Critters – or maybe they’re allegorical – Watership Down, An American Tail, Animal Farm. The exception might be the fantastic The Great Mouse Detective, but that’s in a league all its own. In fact, Rescue Rangers is more analogous to that film than it is to The Rescuers films that it is based on; it is the completely tonal opposite of Capitol Critters. While that show portrayed its mice and roaches as refugees and scavengers desperate to stay alive, Rescue Rangers showcases its pint-sized cast as normal critters comfortably attuned to the humans overhead. Humans are more like natural phenomenon – forces you have to deal with and handle, forces that can be dangers but also can be extremely helpful and exciting to behold. Getting around by car in Capitol Critters is a dangerous venture; in Rescue Rangers, sliding down a drainpipe and launching yourself onto the bumper of a speeding car is Tuesday.

That kind of commitment and normalization of its pip-squeak world is what makes Rescue Rangers so much fun. It reminds me a lot of Phineas and Ferb, a world that also spritely normalizes miniscule characters (the kids) and their outlandish worldview. No one really comments on the kids purchases or their incredible abilities, nor the sight of a hat-wearing platypus or the alarming number of mad scientists in the Tri-State Area. Likewise, no one bothers to comment on the sheer number rodents and small animals wearing clothes, or their surprising efficiency at building planes or go-carts, or the ease in which a superhero dog can be a huge TV star, or a crazed scientist wearing a bumblebee outfit is fighting five tiny rodents on a live stage using bees. Things just happen. The humans and animals live with it. The audience just enjoys it.

And even the most exciting stuff needs a great core cast, and incredibly, they deliver. Individually, Chip, Dale, Gadget, Monetery Jack, and Zipper would probably be annoying, but together, they’re fairly efficient and create an interesting dynamic.  Chip is a solid leader, if impatient and somewhat dismissive. It’s a flaw that works, especially when certain episodes reflect Chip’s flippant responses to other characters as being genuinely hurtful. Then there’s Dale, the goofball, comic relief character that probably rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I was okay with him though. There are some moments where he takes things too far, but for the most part, Rescue Rangers showcases Dale’s wackiness as inherently important to the crew. His outsider “silly” status often positions him outside of trouble, often by luck, leaving him the only person to save the day. A goofy show uses Dale’s unpredictability to add to the circumstances instead of forcing inane comedy relief to every scene. This is particular notable in “Chocolate Chips,” one of the strongest episodes of the series. Dale’s wacky passion for chocolate leaves him the only one not hypnotized by a cloud of malicious mosquitoes, and there’s a genuinely tense sense where Dale is running for his life as the bugs give chase.

Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers 2×25 – Chocolate Chips

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Gadget is a lot of fun. A brilliant, absent-minded inventor based on the character of Jordan in the 1985 film Real Genius, Gadget functions like an endearing robot, thinking and speaking intelligently but putting very little emotion behind her decisions. It’s interesting to see her bounce between her genius and her awkward insecurities, which is addressed often, like in the “To the Rescue” five-parter and, specifically, “The Case of the Cola Cult,” another classically brilliant episode that gives Gadget a badass moment. Monetery Jack, the muscle, regales the cast with his broad, outlandish tales that may or may not be true, but also able to back it up with brute force. He’s addicted to cheese, at some points treated like a comical take on alcohol addiction. He’s brash and self-sufficient, to the point that he’ll dismiss the team and strike off on his own. He always comes back though, understandably needing the team as much as they need him. “Love is a Many Splintered Thing” is his signature (and fantastic) episode, delving into a past love life with tragic consequences. And then there’s Zipper, the tiny fly whose fast and nimble, able to help out the team in a pinch. He even gets his own standout episode, “Zipper Comes Home.”

You may have noticed I mentioned a lot about various episodes being “brilliant”. Because they are. What’s remarkable about Rescue Rangers is that a majority of the episodes are written so well. They’re tense, intriguing, mysterious, and fun, but from a narrative perspective, their tight, focused, and crafted well enough to gradually raise the stakes throughout all 22 minutes. Not every episode is a winner, though – some of the earlier episodes, like “Out to Launch” and “Bearing Up Baby” hue more towards a classic Disney-short sensibility, where the Rescue Rangers randomly find themselves in a crazy scenario and work their way out of it (“Bearing Up Baby” even brings back Humphrey the Bear, a classic Disney character.) These episodes are merely okay, especially since a lot of the show mines comedy from the old school tension between Chip and Dale from the 60s.

The truly great episodes are that follow a formula, a formula specifically built for the show: 1) introduce a weird event, 2) introduce a team conflict, 3) slowly explain the weird event while tying the team conflict, 4) show how the team cleverly solves the mystery and saves the day. Points 3) and 4) are the key to why Rescue Rangers works. Sure, as an adult, it’s easy to predict the stories and the twists (“When You Fish Upon a Star” might keep people baffled until the end though), but how they’re told is remarkably well done. The show wisely doesn’t spend too much time on building mysteries though; after they’re exposed, Rescue Rangers shows how the team actually saves the day, with smart (if albeit silly) use of various small objects and talismans and charms and whatever’s on hand, which is wonderfully endearing, especially when they use their fully capabilities to beat the most clever villains, both great and small.

Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers 2×01 – To The Rescue – Part 1

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The “To the Rescue” five-parter is not only an excellent series, but an abject lesson in character introduction. The story of a mastermind villain that manipulates a retiring cop in order to enact a hilariously ridiculous plan that actually works, “To The Rescue” shows each character coming to life – Chip matures into his leadership role and Dale shows his silliness as an asset. Gadget establishes herself as separate from her late father as an inventor. Monetery Jack and Zipper finds his place with the team after losing their home. Fat Cat is a ambitious, flashy mob villain and Professor Nimnul is an eccentric mad scientist. “To the Rescue” is notable because it brings out the characters flaws and creates dramatic tension with it, which is something increasingly rare in kids’ cartoons (oddly enough, Kung Fu Panda seems to an exception, for better or for worse). It also just an enjoyable hour and a half of TV.

The show, overall, is both charming and exciting, with beautiful animation from the unstoppable TMS for a majority of the episodes. The character designs are lovely, to the point that… well, let’s just say that crushing on cartoon characters is quite alright. I was somewhat surprised by the amount of sexual tension on the show, both intentional (Gadget is quite often portrayed in, um, “form-fitting” outfits, complete with accompanying jazz chords) and intentional (I’m not saying that shipping Chip and Dale is a thing, but it could be). There’s also a fair share of 90s violence and language, with quite a number of instances of “Shut up!” and “Stupid!” being tossed around. Hell, when Chip and Dale meet Monetery for the first time, they get into an all-out brawl with each other, which is hilarious but definitely evocative of an era long gone.

The creativity behind Rescue Rangers is what gives the show an edge that makes it stand out. It’s a delight to look at the miniature world underneath our feet and see how these animals re-purpose various things for their daily use. The Ranger-Mobile, for example, is a skateboard with a hairdryer attached to it with a bottlecap as a wheel. Chip and Dale use a record player as a treadmill. Surround sound is a pair of headphones above the couch. Being able to make and utilize paper airplanes for semi-long distance travel is must. A lightbulb doubles as a fortune teller’s crystal ball. Part of the appeal is pointing out the various little things that everyone uses for themselves. Sponges are mattresses? I love it.

That kind of creativity sneaks into the writing, which, well, could probably annoy some people, but it really requires a particularly keen ear, since a lot of gags are more of the guise of passing puns and references. These puns and references are not THE joke, but canny watchers might spot them and laugh/groan. At one point, Monetery Jack mentions helping a talking barnacle “out of a scrape.” A villainous mother-and-son, who are kidnapping birds out of the sky to make meat pies, are known as The Sweeneys; the son’s name is Todd. They also have two cats named Jack and Nichols, who – you guessed it – sound like Jack Nicholson. One character calls Chip “Alvin,” and follows it up with, “all you chipmunks look the same.”  A more obscure allusion lies in a story Monetery tells when he once went off with a bunch of flying squirrels to Frostbite Falls to hunt for mooseberries. Gags like this are peppered into the show, particularly for older viewers, but they aren’t driven into the ground, making their discoveries all the more wonderful. (My favorite, random gag comes in “Pound of the Baskervilles,” where Chip discovers a blood-stained manuscript during an unrelated investigation, which is completely ignored. It’s an out-of-left-field, bleak non-sequiter that made me laugh more than it should have.)

Rescue Rangers builds so much good will with it’s energy and spirit. It creates a nice balance between the human and animal characters, deriving characters and conflicts from both, and letting the team work to their strengths and weaknesses to deal with them. The world-building, in its own insular way, is just fun to watch, with various one-off characters adding to the kind of adventures that take place underfoot, like Sparky the lab mouse (who sounds like Christopher Lloyd), Rat Capone the rat gangster, and fan-favorite Foxglove, the bat lover for proper Dale shipping. Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin work in their own individual ways, but Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers works because it has a vision, a formula, and a creativity that’s unmatched. As cliche as is sounds, Rescue Rangers is proof that great things comes in small packages.

 

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