I often forget The Rescuers Down Under exists. More significantly, I often forget it is part of the Disney Canon. The title and the history of the Walt Disney Company since the nineties would make you believe this is yet another of those awful direct-to-video sequels. This is an especially sad situation for a movie that already suffers from being a formal anomality sandwiched between two of the most emblematic, successful and critically acclaimed movies in Disney history.
Nobody could have expected the gigantic success achieved by The Little Mermaid. It became the highest-grossing animated film of all-time by a substantial margin. It also won two Academy Awards and gave start to the animation boom of the nineties. Throughout the decade, hundreds of movies would try to capitalize on the success of The Little Mermaid by following its winning formula and Disney’s attempt at doing the same would become the period that is now known as the “Disney Renaissance”. That is to say that none of those developments were expected at the time The Rescuers Down Under was developed and produced, and thus, it stands out as a weird non-musical sequel arriving at the precise moment where it couldn’t be further away from the zeitgeist. You can’t blame Disney, though. There was simply no way for them to know that musical fairy tales was the way to regain their popularity. Still, it’s a little puzzling that the studio decided to make their one in-canon sequel at this time and for that particular film.
Well, that part isn’t all that difficult to comprehend. There is hardly any Disney movie whose structure is friendlier to producing a sequel than The Rescuers. The idea of association of mice dedicated to saving kidnapped children lends itself to serialization by nature. In fact, at some point in the eighties, Disney considered producing an television series starring Bernard and Miss Bianca that ended up becoming Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers. The real reasoning behind deciding to make a sequel at such a dramatic moment for the company -they didn’t know the success they were going to have, but there was a pretty ambitious plan of producing one movie every year underway. Because the film was a big box-office disappointment (especially coming off the success of The Little Mermaid), it has become one of those forgotten entries Disney doesn’t like to remember exist.
All those reasons make it so that it’s nearly impossible to find information about the production of The Rescuers Down Under besides the fact that it became the first movie to utilize the CAPS Process. The Computing Animation Production System was a program designed to aid in digital ink, painting and compositing. This is why there is a noticeable change in the post-production quality in the animation of The Rescuers Down Under and the films that came before it. The work done by CAPS give the movie a more “perfect” look, leaving behind the hand-drawn imperfections of previous films. As all of the other films in the “Renaisance” period, there is a considerable amount of CGI used for special effects. All this technology is put to good use in the movie’s best sequence, when little kid Cody saves trapped eagle Marahute, who in turn repays him by taking him on a flight. Like the best flying sequences in film, a certain level of wonder and excitement is achieved. The animators did a pretty fantastic job of putting us in the shoes of someone who is suspended hundreds of feet above ground. Many animated movies have succeeded at crafting amazing flying sequences (with the absolute pinnacle being How to Train Your Dragon), but I can’t think of any previous movie that did as good a job as The Rescuers Down Under.
That sequence is quite the piece of animation, but it’s also kind of pity that is comes so early in the film. It is, practically, the first scene in the whole movie. After Cody rescues Marahute, he falls into a trap designed by evil hunter McLeach (George C. Scott), who is desperately trying to capture the majestic eagle. He kidnaps Cody hoping he would reveal the location of Marahute’s secret nest, but the nature-loving boy refuses to talk. Lucky for him, though, a mouse was present at the moment of the kidnapping, so the Rescue Aid Society is notified about the deed and immediately sends its best agents to take care of the job. They are, of course, Bernard and Miss Bianca.
As you may or may not remember, I wasn’t a big fan of the original The Rescuers, finding it unbearably sentimental and sappy at times. But despite the fact that there is nothing as good as Cody and Marahute’s flight, The Rescuers is still a superior movie to its predecessor. The sentimentality is turned down, but like in the original, the scenes with the kid are the most problematic. There are thankfully no melancholy songs playing over Cody’s sad stare, but he is an incredibly bland character. It doesn’t help that most of his scenes are shared with McLeach (a villain that is not allowed an interesting personality) or with talking animals that are either as bland as Cody or incredibly annoying. The only Cody scenes that truly work are those that can benefit from the spectacle of Marahute’s flight.
All those scenes aren’t particularly worse than Penny’s (although Madame Medusa is far more entertaining a villain), but what really stands against The Rescuers Down Under is that it lacks the strengths of the original. When The Rescuers came out in 1977, whenever an animated movie featured mice, they were supporting characters serving comic relief. Having mice as its leads, The Rescuers treated Bernard and Miss Bianca as far richer and realistic characters than any movie mice that had come before. As voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, there is an offbeat rhythm and a particular tenderness and simplicity to the way Bernard and Miss Bianca relate to each other. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why this is, but I find their interaction beautifully charming. By the time The Rescuers Down Under came out, a whole lot of movies with either mice or other small animals in the lead, like An American Tail, The Secret of NIHM and The Great Mouse Detective –not to mention hundreds of television shows- had come out and defined what a talking small animal story looked and felt like.
Even though Newhart and Gabor came back to voice Bernard and Miss Bianca, their sweet banter was replaced for the characteristic style of the time. It’s not like the conversations they had in The Rescuers were deeper or had objectively better dialogue, but they had a certain unique rhythm that is absent from the sequel. The Rescuers Down Under seems to live by the rules established by all those eighties cartoons. The most significant example is the exchange of albatross Orville for his rock-n-roll loving brother Wilbur (John Candy), the type of fast-talking comic-relief character that if this were a Don Bluth movie would have been voiced by Dom DeLuise. It’s kind of sad to see The Rescuers Down Under be influenced by the status-quo of what were popular properties when Disney was going through hard times. Even though it is visually more ambitious than any of those movies, I think it is ultimately a forgotten film, because it doesn’t offer much originality. By that point, it didn’t matter either way, Disney had reinvented the wheel with The Little Mermaid and suddenly all other studios were, once agin, going to start playing by their rules.
Next Week: It was quite a big deal when it became the first animated movie nominated for Best Picture, but Beauty and the Beast more than deserves it.