The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Directed by Mike Gabriel and Hendel Butoy
In Australia, a young boy named Cody rescues Marahute, a giant golden eagle, from a hunter’s trap. Later, he is abducted by the same poacher, McLeach, who wants Cody to lead him to the eagle’s nest. A call for help goes out, and reaches New York and the Rescue Aid Society. Bianca and Bernard are given the mission, interrupting Bernard’s proposal dinner in the process. They charter a flight from Albatross Air, and head down under.
Due to a crash-landing on arrival, their albatross pilot, Wilbur, has to go to the hospital. That leaves them without transport, so they hire the hopping mouse (<u>not</u> a kangaroo mouse, those are North American) Jake to be their Outback guide. Jake is immediately and obviously attracted to Bianca, causing Bernard to be rude and dismissive of him. Meanwhile, Cody is imprisoned with the other animals that McLeach has trapped. They attempt multiple escapes, before McLeach gets the bright idea to release Cody and then follow him to the nest.
At Marahute’s nest, McLeach is successful in trapping the eagle, along with Cody, Jake and Bianca. Bernard, usually the most timid member of the crew, is left on his own to effect a rescue. Following Jake’s example, he successfully browbeats a razorback into helping him, and manages to save Cody from being fed to crocodiles and disable McLeach’s vehicle. McLeach tries to shoot the rope holding Cody above the water, but is knocked in himself and goes over a waterfall. Bernard is able to save Cody from the same fate long enough for Marahute to rescue him. Not willing to be put off any longer, Bernard finally proposes to Bianca, who accepts.
Production on this one began while Oliver & Company was in progress. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney had publicly committed the company to releasing a movie a year, instead of every 3-4 years as had become standard since the 60s. That meant that there would always be at least two, and sometimes three different movies in some stage of production at the studio.
Oliver’s supervising animator, Mike Gabriel, was initially approached to helm the movie as director, but he’d seen how much difficulty George Scribner was having as a solo director. He held off on accepting until one of the other Oliver animators, Hendel Butoy, was offered a spot as co-director. One of Gabriel’s first decisions was to promote a storyboard artist on Little Mermaid, Joe Ranft, to story supervisor. This was his first time being in charge of the story for a movie, something that Ranft would go on to be famous for with Pixar. He worked as story supervisor on all of Pixar’s movies from Toy Story to Cars (getting an Oscar nomination for the former) until his death in a car accident in 2005.
This was also the first major feature project for the new animation studio at Disney’s MGM Studios. They’d originally been intended to produce TV animation and theatrical shorts, but production on Rescuers Down Under was running behind, and the seventy animators at the studio were needed if it was going to make the promised yearly release window. Together, the two crews made multiple trips to zoos and wildlife sanctuaries to study animals for the movie, and a dozen or so even made a week-long trip to Australia (the first big travel junket for the animation division in decades).
This movie marks one more additional first, and it’s a big one. This was the first movie to be completely animated using Disney’s new CAPS system. CAPS, which stood for Computer Animation Production System, was developed by a little spinoff of Lucasfilm called Pixar, and was the first system for allowing animators to ink, color and composite animation frames directly in a computer. It not only eliminated the need for the expensive, time-consuming hand inking and painting, but it also finally ended the xerography process for good. As such, this is technically the first all-digital movie, as every single frame was run through a computer first (Toy Story is still the first CG animated movie, as the pencils for Down Under were done by hand).
Unfortunately, Rescuers Down Under had the bad luck to come out in theaters on the same weekend as Home Alone, which ended up becoming the highest-grossing comedy of all time (at the time). It only made $3.5 million, and Jeffrey Katzenberg impulsively pulled the plug on all advertising for the movie despite positive critical reviews. It ended up only making $28 million in the US, a third of what Little Mermaid had.
This tends to be the forgotten movie of the Disney Renaissance. Even lesser-received Renaissance movies like Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have their vocal fans. But you never really hear anybody talking about Rescuers Down Under. Maybe it’s because of how unsuccessful it was on initial release, or that it was unavailable on VHS for most of the 90s. It’s a real shame, though, because I think this is one sequel that actually improves on the original in many ways.
First, though, I have a question that wasn’t really answered by any of my research. Why a sequel to the (then) 13 year old The Rescuers? Sure, it had been one of the few unqualified successes of the post-Walt Disney era, but Disney had never released an official sequel before this. Why change that now?
Now, why Australia is a bit easier to answer. The movie went into production shortly after the unexpected smash hit of Crocodile Dundee, and Aussie-raised actor Mel Gibson was also one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time. “Aus-sploitation” was a real thing in the late 1980s, and with corporate and marketing-focused executives now running the studio, it probably made perfect sense to them to set the movie in Australia.
I’m glad they did, because the combination of the Australian Outback locales and the possibilities of the CAPS system made for an absolutely gorgeous movie. The animators started showing off from the very first frame, as the movie opens with a massive tracking zoom shot across a field of flowers with Uluru in the distance, all the way in to Cody’s house. It nearly goes all the way through his window, only cutting as it passes the frame. It’s the sort of shot that would have been nearly technically impossible pre-CAPS. The visual splendors continue whenever Marahute is on-screen. The giant eagle is wonderfully realized, with every wing feather moving independently as she soars through the air with Cody on her back. Even with CAPS, it must have been a pain to articulate for every individual frame, which is probably why she only appears at the very beginning and end of the film.
In both this movie and the original Rescuers, Bernard and Bianca set out to help a young person being held against their will by a villain with a reptile companion. Cody, however, is way more proactive in effecting his own rescue than Penny was. While Penny, despite a couple attempts, never even came close to escaping Madame Medusa, Cody is shown to be much more creative and resourceful. The second he’s on his own in the animal cages, he’s already talking the captive animals there into helping him to formulate an escape plan. He nearly succeeded twice in the space of a couple days, while Penny had been in the bayou for weeks, if not months.
In fact, Bernard and Bianca almost seem to be in an entirely different movie for a good portion of the running time. They only really meet up with Cody and McLeach with about twenty minutes left in the movie. Before that, their adventures in the Outback with Jake are completely separate from Cody and his escape attempts, and are actually the less interesting half of the movie. While I enjoy the concept of the Rescue Aid Society and think that Jake was a good addition to the cast, I think the movie might have been stronger if Cody was actually the main character. As it is, all of the animals that he befriends in the cages completely disappear from the movie once McLeach lets him go, never to be seen again. It’s a waste of a good supporting cast, on both sides of the plot.
As for McLeach himself, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, he’s actually a very effective villain. Way more menacing than Madame Medusa from the first Rescuers, and way more competent as well. He would have completely gotten away with it, even with Bernard and Bianca’s presence, if Bernard hadn’t managed to finally get over his timidity. On the other hand, that very menace works against the movie, as he’s a little too dark for a kid audience. Also out of place is a lengthy sequence with Wilbur in a hospital/torture chamber, where the “doctor” uses a shotgun to inject him with a sedative, and is about to operate using a chainsaw before Wilbur escapes. It’s a borderline horror sequence being played for laughs, and stands out like a sore thumb.
Overall, though, I think this one is unjustly overlooked. Sure, it’s not as good as the movies immediately before or after it in the canon. But you could say the same thing about 90% of Disney’s animation when comparing it to Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It’s certainly on par with the latter half of the Renaissance, and deserves to be seen by more people.
Animation: A (the CAPS system has finally banished the ghosts of xerography for good)
Main Characters: C+ (honestly, Bernard and Bianca are kinda boring, and don’t do all that much)
Supporting Characters: A- (I think the movie would have been stronger if it was just Cody with Jake trying to rescue him. All of the other captives are fun as well, though I’m docking the movie a little for them just disappearing from the final act)
Villain: B+ (McLeach is actually a good villain, but I don’t think he fits with some of the broad comedy that they’re going for – though the scene with him and Joana and the eggs is great)
Music: C+ (no songs, and the score is decent but not truly memorable