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The Rescuers Down Under is a milestone in the canon – it is Disney’s first full-length animated sequel film; but, to be honest, the idea of a The Rescuers sequel has been hovering around ever since its release in 1977. They initially considered Oliver and Company as a possible sequel to The Rescuers (what with the whole Jenny/Penny and her ‘awful adopted parents’ debacle). Basil the Great Mouse Detective was on the shaky ground of not being greenlit because it was too similar to The Rescuers, and then on steady ground when they remembered that The Rescuers made a lot of money. The Rescuers is really the last Disney film that was purely in the hands of the older animators before they passed the torch in The Fox and the Hound. It is fascinating and remarkably symbolic that the newer animators, with a handful of canon films under their belt at this stage, chose to produce a sequel to that particular film.
At the time, Disney were referring to it as their first animated action-adventure film, with Jeffrey Katzenberg saying, ‘I wanted to do an action-adventure movie, which Disney’s never done’.
What Jeffrey? You mean THIS isn’t an action adventure?
The film was produced by theatre-man Thomas Schumacher. Schumacher is currently the President of Disney Theatrical Group and The Rescuers Down Under was his first project – the first of many! The screenplay was written by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson and Joe Ranft. Ranft was also the Story Supervisor. Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel directed The Rescuers Down Under. They were allegedly inspired by live-action films more than animated films with directors such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean as major visual influences. Gabriel saying, ‘We were inspired by great films, not great animation or great comics or great cartoons. We try to incorporate great film techniques to tell a cinematic story’.
Disney had set up an Animation unit in Florida in 1989 at Disney-MGM Studios, and The Rescuers Down Under was the first feature-length film in which they had contributed. They took on key scenes that lead to ten minutes of the final film. Mark Henn, who co-animated Ariel with Glen Keane, moved to Florida to base himself at this studio, and he was responsible for a few scenes that featured Bernard and Bianca, and McLeach. Henn had not worked on the original The Rescuers but saw the film six times: ‘Having a chance to do them [Bernard and Bianca] in a new film for a new generation was a real thrill, a real challenge. I just remembered the things I liked about those characters and put myself into it.’
While The Rescuers is probably one of the best candidates in the canon for a sequel (truly – we went through them all – for us The Rescuers, Alice in Wonderland and Basil are films in which a [good] sequel would make sense in their contexts), but the timing to do a sequel to this film does seem off. First of all, a child who watched The Rescuers in 1977 would, by 1990, be either in their late teens or early twenties – the youngest that a person would be who was alive in 1977 would be 13 years old in 1990 (and a kid wouldn’t even be that aware or focused between the ages of 0 and 3, so really the age would be 16!) – hardly your average Disney spectator – re-releases notwithstanding.
Even Mike Gabriel seemed on the fence about whether it was a good idea – the DIRECTOR: Peter Schneider asked me if I’d ever consider directing and I said, “Well, after watching George [Scribner, director, Oliver & Company], it doesn’t look like it would be much fun.” It was sort of a non-committal reaction, but in a couple of months he called me into his office and asked if I’d direct Rescuers Down Under. And I thought to myself at the time, and I probably should have said it out loud, “Now there’s a movie everyone’s gonna want to see. How could you top the first one?” But I didn’t and I took the job and co-directed with Hendel [Butoy]’.
That fills us with confidence
Did everyone go and see it? Did they top the first one? Let’s find out!
But first, Original Trailer Time for an Original Sequel:
But first, Original Trailer Time for an Original Sequel:
- A frantic and over-excited drum-beat tries to overpower the Original Trailer Man in volume
- The music is really trying to convince us that it’s Indiana Jones we’ve come to see
- ‘Australia’ – a solitary house and tree in the middle of a big field … that’s all there is
- According to Original Trailer Man, Australia is ‘mysterious’ and ‘untamed’ … we’re sure it’s not to Australians!
- ‘It was a world of amazing adventure and discovery until’ … they blew up?!
- An ‘eagle’ trapper or ‘evil’ trapper?! We have no idea!
- It makes it look like Cody’s just been hanging over the crocodiles this whole time …
- ‘It’s the rescuers in the most dangerous mission ever’ … that’s a bold statement
- Jake’s ‘army of misguided mates’ … you’d do better to refer to them as ‘a miscellaneous group of weirdos who are barely in the film’ … also … JAKE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW ANY OF THEM!
- ‘Hey who killed the music?’ The trailer editor did!
- ‘Throw another shrimp on the barbie sports fans’ … oh dear … the 90s have arrived
‘Uh Miss Bianca … it has been 13 years since we last appeared on screen together’
‘Still superstitious nonsense’
‘Also Miss Bianca where has my superstitious nature gone? David and Melissa felt the need to put that quip in for me because that part of my personality has vanished’
For the first time in the canon, main characters are returning for a sequel, but there is a problem: despite the insistence in the ‘Making Of’ documentary that it is a ‘film about them’, Bernard and Bianca do not appear until nearly 18 minutes in, and they do not engage with Cody until close to the hour mark. They did not interact with Penny until roughly the same time in The Rescuers but in that film we meet Bernard and Bianca very early in the running time. In the sequel we meet them approximately a quarter into the film, and on top of that, it keeps cutting back between them and any number of other character – meaning that their screen time is cut down even further. This creates a dilemma when naming them as the protagonists – even though, logically speaking, they are the obvious choices, but they feel much more like supporting cast this time.
Why did we get behind Bernard and Bianca in the first film? They were perceived as underdogs within their world. The Chairman questioned their ability to complete this mission – ‘You? Miss Bianca?’ (with the added patronising comment: ‘Dear lady, this is absolutely without precedent. I mean, it’s not like the old days, when it was a man’s world. However, I suppose there has to be a first time’) and of course, ‘A janitor and a lady? Good heavens. Bless my soul’. Not only were they underestimated for their gender and social status, they were underestimated for being mice. Rufus said, ‘Two little mice? What can you do?’, Bernard had self-doubt, and even Penny questioned whether they had brought someone ‘big’ with them. In the end however, they completed the rescue mission, despite mass scepticism, and this was the film’s through-line. In The Rescuers Down Under, they do not need to prove themselves anymore – time has passed, they clearly have cases under their belts, and they are perceived as the RAS’s top agents.
So where does the film decide to take returning protagonists? The film becomes bogged down in a subplot about Bernard attempting to propose to Bianca, only to be interrupted before he can pop the question. This is a writing trope for an episode of a sitcom, not a feature film.
(Special Note from David: I had not seen the film before, but as soon as the characters appeared I groaned out loud, because I knew exactly what was going to happen, saying: “please tell me this won’t be drawn out for the whole film”)
(Special Note from Melissa: And I responded by looking sheepish – ‘Um … yes’ … There are other ways in which they could have integrated the proposal subplot in, with more tension and emotional connection between the two characters. What if Bernard loses the ring in order to rescue another? What if Bernard proposes to Bianca during a dangerous moment in which they don’t know if they will survive?)
Here is something that we wrote in our review of The Rescuers that we feel is very relevant:
‘As individual protagonists they may not be dynamic enough to hold an entire film on their own, but together they work beautifully’
‘It is a co-dependent partnership as they both rescue and protect each other from danger. In other words, there is no incompetent male or damsel in distress in this male-female pairing – it refreshingly avoids that cliché’
What we praised about them, sadly, is very limited in The Rescuers Down Under. We loved Bernard and Bianca’s co-dependant partnership, but this is not something that is sustained in the sequel. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to make it Bernard’s story instead of Bernard and Bianca’s story – it is as if the 1970s original was a more pro-feminist film than the 1990s sequel. They are not as dynamic on their own, but as a team, they are appealing; there is not enough of them working as a team in the film. Furthermore with the addition of Jake, the dynamic duo has become a trio, and, unfortunately, a sort-of-but-not-really love triangle, which is where we lead to a flanderisation of Bernard.
Let’s consider a non-Disney sequel – Back to the Future Part II (a similar era after all). Back to the Future and The Rescuers have somewhat similar finales – after the adventure and its obstacles have taken place, the protagonists are back home, mission accomplished and all is well, until someone blasts in, with news of another mission that they need to immediately pursue. A sequel has to add further conflict to the ‘all is well’ tone of the previous film’s ending. In the case of Back to the Future Part II, Marty has suddenly gained a ‘tic’ that he didn’t have in the first film – he flips out when anyone calls him ‘a chicken’. It is incredibly goofy, but it is meant to be the source of his developmental arc, which is taken seriously. Despite previous character development, in The Rescuers Down Under, Bernard is even more insecure and feels threatened by other potential partners for Bianca, primarily Jake, although this extends out to the degree of insane implausibility:
Bernard we are sure that Wilbur is not going to have a fling with your girlfriend. We are sure that it’s not possible. Can we get a second opinion? Professor Lupin, can an albatross have a relationship with a rodent?
Despite the development he had in the first film, they have to make this ‘love-triangle’ to give Bernard something to fight for, and this arc that he has to be tougher and more direct in order to succeed – even though he was tough and direct in the original’s climax so it feels redundant. Because Bernard’s point-of-view and arc are given more focus, Bianca has been shafted as she has been given a lot less to do. Eva Gabor still does a great job, and her character has not been flanderised (fortunately!), but she is pushed to the side and plays less of a part in the rescue. We never have any doubt that Bianca will choose to leave Bernard, and start a relationship with Jake – it is not even an issue. Jake flirts and Bernard is insecure, but Bianca treats everyone with her Bianca-esque charm and friendliness; we know she loves Bernard, and she is confident in her love for him. She stands up for him when Jake calls her faith in him a bluff. But the finale is all about Bernard proving his manliness – the climax music is titled ‘Bernard the Hero’ in the soundtrack – which really says it all. Top RAS agent, who underwent scepticism due to her gender, has now become ‘a girl worth fighting for’. It’s hard to say who of the two get the worse treatment – flanderisation or reduction?
In the original film, they are clearly the central characters, and we watch their relationship grow and develop throughout. It could be argued that, since the characters (and their relationship) underwent a lot of development in the first film, there is not as much need to develop them further this time around. However, there still needs to be a better justification for bringing these characters back, than the one we get. Character interaction is much less nuanced, but whenever there is a fleeting moment of tender interaction between Bernard and Bianca, we really enjoyed it, because that is when they are their old selves. Their roles in this film are probably best summed up by this moment:
A sweet and genuine moment, which harkens back to the first film
But then, almost immediately the moment is literally turned upside down (for a cheap laugh) and all the focus is put on one of the other characters:
And the moment’s over
Bryan Brown, Clint Eastwood, Paul Hogan, John Mahoney, Jack Palance and Mandy Patinkin were considered for the role of McLeach.
(Special Note from Both: Consider for a moment the ‘could have been’ scenarios for this character…)
‘Hello my name is Percival McLeach. You stole my eagle. Prepare to die’
Clearly the studio was aiming high with their expectations with the villain, looking at the calibre of actor they were considering. In the end the role went to George C. Scott, who does about as good a job as can be done with material that is far from stellar. After all we know that we’re well and truly in the nineties when the film’s villain is an evil poacher, who doesn’t really have much of a motive for his actions other than ‘just because’.
McLeach is a more realistic type of villain than many of his counterparts: there is nothing grand or theatrical about his plans or actions, he is simply a selfish poacher who wants to kill or capture rare animals. A problem with this is that he is not a very entertaining character to watch – and in many ways he could be seen as a forerunner to many of Pixar’s villains (often more realistic, but consequently less entertaining).
One of the biggest problems with McLeach as the film’s villain is that he is featured too prominently throughout the film. A great many villains within the canon often appear for short bursts at a time, but McLeach gets many lengthy scenes, during which not much is accomplished. Having just seen The Little Mermaid in which Ursula wastes little time in any scene in which she appears, always moving the plot along, it seems a bit counter-productive to have a villain be so uncertain about what his plan actually is. Moreover, McLeach spends quite some time musing out-loud to himself, as he tries to figure out how to outwit a young child.
Another significant issue with McLeach is that his status as a threatening villain is frequently undermined by the presence of a comic sidekick. McLeach is too prominently featured, and so is Joanna.
Nevertheless, he does have some genuinely impressive villainous moments, such as gleefully admitting to Cody that he killed Marahute’s mate; then capturing Cody and leading everyone else to believe that he was eaten by crocodiles.
And only a TRULY EVIL person would do this
He also succeeds in capturing Marahute, and nearly triumphs during the film’s climax, were it not for the timely intervention of Bernard.
“I would have gotten away with it too, had it not been for those pesky mice!”
He is not a particularly intelligent villain either, demonstrating a severe lack of logic when it comes to Marahute’s eggs (after all, why sell rare eagle eggs when you can just feed them to your pet?). His lack of education is something in which he takes a great deal of pride, bragging about having made it to the third grade.
“If only I’d made it past the third graaaaaaaaaaaade!”
Alongside Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart, the filmmakers wanted some of the original voice actors to return to reprise their roles.
Maybe you can appear in the TV series … or the third Rescuers film?
Unfortunately, Jim Jordan, who played Orville, had passed away two years before the film’s release. Instead of replacing Orville with a new voice actor, they decided to create a new character called Wilbur, Orville’s brother and an allusion to the Wright Brothers. Dan Aykroyd, James Belushi, and Steve Martin were considered but in the end the role went to John Candy.
John Candy is an incredibly likeable actor, and the filmmakers must have been delighted to have him be a part of the film – but his presence really affects the film in a negative way. The character of Wilbur is far too prominent throughout the film – especially when you consider how brief Orville’s involvement was in The Rescuers – and just about every scene he is involved in becomes centred around his character. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Bernard and Bianca were reduced to playing supporting roles in their own film, as soon as Wilbur arrives on the scene the film becomes ‘the John Candy show’. Worse still is the fact that his material is not funny, and instead seems to be purpose-built to test the audience’s patience. Entire scenes are dedicated to his character throughout the film, nearly all of which could be removed and it wouldn’t affect the plot in the slightest. He just goes on and on and on and ON!
When thinking about Cody, we truly wondered whether he was the film’s protagonist instead of Bernard and Bianca. The film could easily have been called The Boy and the Eagle and it still would make sense. While Penny never steals the spotlight, but instead is the emotional centre, Cody is a lot more featured. Cody, unlike Penny, could be included in the title as one of the ‘rescuers’ – after all, when we first meet him, he immediately answers a call from a digeridoo-playing kangaroo –
Who forgets whether she’s doing an accent or not … is it English? Australian? American? What are you doing???
– who tells him that the great eagle, Marahute is in danger and needs to be rescued. His prerogative throughout the film is making sure that Marahute and her eggs are safe, and that’s what gets him into trouble. Technically the reason as to why Cody was captured in the first place was because he tried to rescue a mouse caught in a trap. McLeach lets him out of the hole, tells him to run along home, and Joanna sees the mouse, attacks the bag, and that is how McLeach catches sight of the feather.
‘So if you think about it, this is all … your fault’
‘Yeah but don’t push it though’
‘A stupid mouse!’
In a way the Cody/Penny comparison is going back to the argument that we made in terms of Disney princesses, they fall into the privileged and unprivileged categories – Penny is an unprivileged child while Cody is privileged, with the former being an orphan, and latter who has a loving mother. Furthermore, Penny was going about her business when she gets abducted – she wasn’t looking for trouble – while Cody actively puts himself in dangerous situations. A trope of the Disney Renaissance is ‘curiosity killed the cat’ – characters are either curious or bulldoze their ways into dangerous situations – even when told that it’s a trap.
‘Why did you do that? … I was running towards you waving my arms yelling ‘Don’t do that!’’
He is nearly killed at the film’s beginning, firstly from climbing a huge cliff and then when he is knocked off the cliff after freeing Marahute.
Long live the kid!
Luckily, Marahute rescues Cody from a nasty fall (see, she’s a rescuer too … they’re ALL rescuers!), and they go on a fantastic flying adventure.
Speaking of that, akin to The Sword in the Stone’s Arthur, Cody makes a series of scary faces:
Cody is almost killed multiple times in the film, which is probably why critics questioned the film’s darkness so frequently. In pursuing a selfless pursuit by rescuing animals from harm, he is, in a way, selfish and thoughtless as he is risking his life, shutting out his mother and making her worry – quite like our previous protagonist, Ariel! He is passionate, courageous and cares deeply about the animals’ welfare, however to the extent that he makes stupid decisions that get him in trouble, and consequently put the animals at risk too.
He constantly insists that the Rangers will come and save him … but this doesn’t lead to anything … because they never show up.
My rangers will come and save me
Your rangers are dead. I killed them myself
Then why is there fear in your eyes?
They didn’t come
‘Cody stop trying to make the rangers happen. It’s not going to happen’
So where were the rangers all this time?
It’s just … odd. We know from watching the film that the rangers found the bag and they assumed the worst, but why do they build up this notion from Cody that they will come and save him?
Cody doesn’t have an Australian accent, which admittedly is strange. Apparently, Joe Ranft wanted an Aborigine Australian child to voice Cody, but he was overridden with the decision to cast “a little white blonde kid.” Adam Ryan is Norwegian-American, and ended up voicing the character for the Norway dub as well. He does a good job: much better than some young male voice actors from Disney’s canon:
We’re talking to you
There was one thing that bothered us about Cody – the tone in which he speaks to Bernard.
Don’t you dare be patronising towards Bernard! He is an agent and a grown man, not your hamster! Plus he just saved your life! Also go and see your mother! NOW!
OK … Cody’s Mother is an unusual situation. We both love how it is handled and yet simultaneously we feel puzzled. We never see her face:
‘It really doesn’t matter that I haven’t seen her face!’
This is effective, particularly in specific scenes like hearing her calling his name as the camera pans away from her isolated home, and of course, the scene when a ranger knocks on the door and hands her Cody’s destroyed bag.
It is incredibly sad and subtly handled, but it means that we really wanted a reunion between her and Cody. Even if we never see her face, but instead just being able to see her reunited and able to hug her child, knowing that he is alive – it felt like we were building up to that moment but it never happened. We really appreciated that the film seemed to be embracing the power of maternal love, paralleling Marahute’s love for her eggs with the Mother’s love for Cody – but the ending didn’t satisfy that feeling – even Marahute is not reunited with her eggs at the end. Instead, we get a dumb scene between Wilbur and the hatched eagles … that is only in voiceover.
(Special Note from Both: Bravo. You nearly got us with a strong emotional anchor and you blew it by not concluding it)
(Special Note from Melissa: Or as I like to call him, Hugh Jake-Man the Kangaroo Mouse)
– is there to be the token Australian … in a film set in Australia. He is also there to be the Mark to Ross’s Rachel; in other words, Bernard sees him as a threat to his relationship with Bianca. He is forward and openly flirts with her, to the extent of even stealing Bernard’s move.
Cocky, adventurous and self-confident, Jake is clearly inspired by Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee. He is an air traffic controller who, oddly enough, seems to leave his post in the name of rescue … and likely in the name of a possible fling with a European. While he is attracted to Bianca, he doesn’t think much of Bernard (the feeling the mutual), and is patronising towards him:
He even calls him Berno:
‘What’s his name Berno?’
‘No it’s Bernard’
‘You big tree!’
Jake does have a few snarky zingers up his sleeve:
But with the occasional damp squib:
He does teach Bernard a thing or two about wildlife in the Outback – having to look a potential predator in the eye:
Plus he seems to be happy for Bernard and Bianca at the end – he gives him a thumbs up!
‘You know Jake … You really are a good guy’
‘I know … I hate that’
The supporting cast also features two non-speaking characters in prominent roles. Marahute the eagle, is saved by Cody, but becomes a rescuer herself when she saves Cody from nasty falls on multiple occasions. A mother and a widow, she is a very sympathetic character – aside from how stunning the flight sequences are, it is the nuanced details in close up shots that are special. The gesticulations are so realistic and the relationship between her and the boy is very sweet and touching.
Our other non-speaking character, Joanna, is well-animated in terms of her movement. As a character, she has occasional funny moments in terms of slapstick, but while Marahute is featured too little (likely due to the complexity of animating her scenes), Joanna is featured a lot. She seems to be inspired by Disney cats from the past like Lucifer and the Siamese Cats. The scene with her trying to eat eggs is funny to watch:
So who have we missed out?
Not you … but close
Instead of the Winnie the Pooh B Squad, we get the C Squad:
‘The C Squad also known as the Odd Squad’
Winnie the Pooh’s Australian cousins – like the Care Bear Cousins. The film itself seems to know how inconsequential these characters are because McLeach says, ‘It’s the last you’ll ever see of them’ … and it is!
Unless Cody goes back to rescue them after the film is over, for all we know, they’re still there. At least the B Squad did something in the climax. It’s a pity, only because the Koala is probably the best character in the film, seeming rather self-aware that he has been shunted into the pointless scene:
However, it is not a pity because the C Squad contains Frank, or, as we like to call him, “Iguirgi”.
It is as if someone has taken Bill, Gurgi, Roger Rabbit and an iguana, thrown them into a blender, and thus Frank was created.
(Special Note from David: To sum up, he appears … is annoying … and then is gone)
‘Will somebody shut him up?!’
But seriously there is this whole scene that goes on FOREVER in which Iguirgi has to get the keys to let them all out, and is so ANNOYING along the way … only for McLeach to come in, and take Cody away.
‘It was a waste of ******* time’
The trouble is that in terms of supporting cast, with the exception of Cody and Marahute, they consist mainly of show offs trying to chew the scenery. There are too many characters packed into a short film, meaning that there is less focus on the more interesting characters for the sake of indulging too many ‘performers’ into one cast. The Little Mermaid had a big supporting cast but every character was either useful or entertaining, and if there was ever a chance that a character could have become annoying, they would not outstay their welcome.
Artwork and Imagery
The Rescuers Down Under is the beginning of a new era in animation as it was the first 100% digital animated feature film at Disney – CAPS, initially a development tool that has been integrated into all of the Passing the Torch era films is now running wild and flying high and painting the town red – Pixar has even appeared in the credits! The colouring, effects and final print were all digital. Production time was cut down by approximately six months. It is also the first Disney animated film to use fully-rendered CG backgrounds, with the shots of the UN building, the globe and the Sydney Opera House:
Once Upon a Time in Sydney [City]
(Special Note from David: Retrospectively speaking, this shot does not look great!)
Multi plane shots through computer layering was much easier to do than manually producing the shots with multi plane cameras. The flying scenes with Marahute were allegedly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Glen Keane recalled, ‘We were told to pull out all the stops in the eagle sequences’ – he spent one year working on the Marahute scenes – only seven minutes of the film’s running time! His work on Marahute is magnificent – you’ve done it again Glen! The Bear, Ratigan, Ariel, Marahute, what next?! We’re sure whatever it will be will be really –
… Keep working on it
It is much more polished, glossier and cleaner than the original film. Even returning characters look like they’ve been scrubbed up – they’ve had a good wash!
The landscape designs are very grand, creating a very strong sense of scale that the older art-styles would not allow. The close-ups of wildlife at the beginning look very distinctive. The zoom through the fields may have looked impressive … once … but now it feels jarring and odd – not as majestic an effect as one would hope for (particularly for the film’s opening). However, for the most part, it is a very good looking film – in fact, at times, it could be considered one of the most striking looking films in the canon so far – the artwork and imagery is the film’s best feature. Here are some particularly striking shots:
The way in which animal characters are animated is pretty decent, but Marahute’s design, again, is the stand out. Animators went to the San Diego Zoo to observe Australian animals and the Peregine Fund in Idaho to observe birds of prey. Although the Florida team didn’t get any field trips, they did keep a few mice in their studio, which became their resident pets. A big plus in the film is that the non-speaking animal characters do not look ‘gendered’ – Marahute and Joanna are female, but they look like animals, rather than trying to make them look stereotypically female by giving them big eyelashes, lipstick or eyeshadow.
It is the only film from the Renaissance era that is not a musical, and the second non-musical in the canon. Even The Rescuers had incidental ‘voice from the heavens’ music telling the characters that ‘tomorrow is another day’ or ‘to be brave’, or the inner dilemma of a bottle’s psyche. As well as a delightfully awful song that only Eva Gabor could made sound passable.
I’m fahhhbulous dahling
Bruce Broughton was initially signed to score Home Alone; technically he did the score and his name was even listed in some early adverts but he left the project to score The Rescuers Down Under.
(Special Note from Melissa: Funnily enough, when we were listening to the soundtrack, David remarked that it sounded like a Christmas film at times … I’d say this is not a coincidence)
The score has truly great moments in its swells, evoking the sense of drama and tension and beauty in the right places. But at this point, animation needed to be taken seriously, and this score is taking animation seriously, particularly in marvellous moments like ‘Cody’s Flight’. Bernard and Bianca’s theme that runs through the film is lovely. In fact anything that thematically connects musically to the Cody/Marahute pairing and the Bernard/Bianca pairing is when the score is its best – when there is an emotional anchor. When the underscore became quintessentially Australian, our ears pricked up as it really had its own character, particularly in the use of characteristically Australian instruments.
So what’s the problem? It is a grand and atmospheric score that truly would not be out of place in a big Hollywood movie – but there’s the rub – it is the score’s virtue and also its flaw. In the effort to treat it like a big Hollywood action adventure score, which is brilliant, it also runs the risk of becoming generic and losing the film’s identity. At times, it does feel generic, like it could belong in any film. If we consider recent scores from Disney, like Alan Menken’s score in The Little Mermaid, and Henry Mancini’s score in Basil the Great Mouse Detective, they felt purpose built for the film. The score varies from moments of brilliance to being good, fine, just ok or … odd. The score is very jumpy, erratic and sometimes jarring; when listening to the soundtrack, we frequently had to adjust the volume because it would, out of the blue, suddenly be super loud. Our opinion is that because the film cannot make its mind up about what it wants to be, the score can’t either.
It is not uncommon for a sequel to take on a different tone to its predecessor, and in some cases a sequel may be a completely different genre altogether. While The Rescuers was more of a mystery, The Rescuers Down Under is an adventure movie. Perhaps this stark transition goes some way to explaining why there is some slightly inconsistent character development for the two leads.
While the film’s action set-pieces are visually striking, the plot itself is much weaker this time around. In the original, the villain’s plot was already in motion when the film began, and it drove the narrative right from the first frame, whereas this time a significant amount of the running time is spent on trying to decide exactly what the plot is.
‘I did it thirty-five minutes ago’
The film is also guilty of a lot of time-wasting, as there are numerous sub-plots which add little to the overall narrative, and don’t really end up going anywhere. Examples of this would be Cody getting locked in with the C-squad, Wilbur’s torture scenes and (to be completely honest) any scene involving Wilbur. The inclusion of these scenes is particularly frustrating when the main storylines lack a proper pay-off at the film’s conclusion: Cody doesn’t get reunited with his mother, and Marahute doesn’t get reunited with her eggs.
(Special Note from Both: The last time we can remember feeling cheated out of a satisfying mother/son reunion was in Dumbo which skipped their reunion, but at least showed them together again at the end)
Also, as we’ve previously mentioned, Bernard and Bianca’s ‘proposal’ sub-plot feels more like a stalling tactic, than an effective narrative device – it’s a sitcom plot, and while it works at sitcom-length, in a full-length film it drags on and on, as Bernard takes ages to pop the question, only to eventually be interrupted anyway – copy and paste, rinse and repeat.
‘Uh Miss Bianca, uh I would be honoured if uh-‘
‘Spit it out Bernard!’
Again, rather than it being Bernard and Bianca’s story, it is Bernard’s story and his journey, but even then, they take a back seat and Cody and McLeach are more in the spotlight … and Wilbur’s unnecessary plotlines.
Any time the talk turns to eggs, brace yourself for filler:
Ok that is not in The Rescuers Down Under … but it may as well be:
We’ve also somewhat avoided / side-stepped this throughout this review, but really … what … was … THIS?
The pacing of the film is rather inconsistent, which is a shame because there are times when the film excels. The opening fifteen minutes involving the flight sequence and Cody’s kidnapping are paced very well, and the final fifteen minutes also play out very effectively.
(Special Note from David: The absolute damp squib of an ending notwithstanding)
Logic also goes out the window in terms of story – how is it possible that Bernard can bear the weight of a grown human boy … in a fast flowing current? Bernard is unrealistically too heroic to the extent of implausibility:
A wizard did it
The Rescuers Down Under feels much more like what we now know as a Pixar film today, rather than Disney, which, we realised afterwards, makes sense as Joe Ranft was the Story Supervisor, and it was the most that Pixar had been involved in up to that point. The plot and narrative structure reminded us particularly of Up. The first fifteen minutes of both The Rescuers Down Under and Up stand out as marvellous moments in animation, but the story and structure become progressively more clunky further into the film – they peak too soon.
An important point that we must reiterate is that the context of film, storytelling and what audiences want, has changed between 1977 and 1990. The top films of 1977 were Star Wars, Annie Hall, Rocky, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, Julia and The Goodbye Girl, while the top films of 1990 were Home Alone, Ghost, Dances With Wolves, Pretty Woman, Rocky V and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Tastes have changed and The Rescuers Down Under has technically changed with it – and yet at the same time, due to the 13-year gap, it never quite fulfils either – it feels far from its predecessor tonally and stylistically, but because it’s a sequel, it could not have its own individual identity – it’s stuck in the middle between wanting to be a sequel and changing to another genre of film.
(Special Note from Melissa: Between 1977 and 1990, Rocky crammed in four sequels … we are not by any means praising that, but it goes to show how much time has passed)
The two Rescuers films tend to be very divisive in the eyes of fans, generally people will prefer one over the other. This is understandable since the two are so different tonally and aesthetically. We feel that we prefer The Rescuers’ story over The Rescuers Down Under because it is more cohesively put together, and more sure of what it’s trying to tell. However, we can completely understand how some people would prefer The Rescuers Down Under because it’s a more action-packed movie, and although it is still a dark film, the atmosphere is lighter than its predecessor.
Or we could look at it this way:
‘We can agree to differ’
‘No we won’t agree to differ because you’re very, very wrong’
I had not seen either Rescuers films before starting the Disney Odyssey, so I was able to approach each film with a fresh perspective. People either prefer one or the other, and I personally feel that The Rescuers is the superior film. It was not a masterpiece by any means, but it had better pacing, told a better story and was nicely centred around its two leads. My opinion is not swayed by nostalgia for either film, although I think another influential factor is which film you watched first. Because I watched the original first, I couldn’t help but make comparisons whilst watching The Rescuers Down Under and this is where many of my negative opinions on the film come from. As a separate entity the film is fine, but as a sequel I think it’s quite poor. I don’t feel that this is entirely fair, but because it is the only sequel in the canon at this point I can’t overlook it (I don’t consider The Three Caballerosto be a sequel to Saludos Amigos as neither are proper films per se).
Something that the film does have going for it are the scenes involving Marahute in flight, which are a great showcase for Glen Keane’s artwork as well as the new animation techniques which are now more readily at the studios disposal. It was also nice to have both Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart return to reprise their roles from the first film – but as soon as Bernard and Bianca made their first appearance I groaned because I could see the ‘attempted proposal’ sub-plot coming a mile away.
I don’t really have much else to say about the film. Perhaps if I had seen this film as a child – or if we’d watched this one first I might be less hard on it, but then again maybe not. I can understand why some people prefer this film over the original, but I feel that the plot is very uneven in its pacing, there is too much time-wasting, the dialogue isn’t memorable and the humour falls flat most of the time (although Jake’s “Nice bluff Miss B” line was genuinely funny – probably my favourite line from the film). I’m glad I’ve seen it, but I won’t be in a hurry to put it on again.
While I owned The Rescuers on VHS as a child, I didn’t own The Rescuers Down Under, but I definitely watched it a few times (and was most definitely so afraid of Cody’s scary faces and falling off a cliff that it gave me nightmares) and my strong memory of it came from this old trailer from my The Little Mermaid VHS copy, which promoted The Rescuers Down Under alongside The Prince and the Pauper. I also remember a kid from school saying that he had the film (when at that point I hadn’t seen it in ages), and he said that he would lend it to me … he never did … I think this same kid was convinced that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator was made into a film, and also said that he would lend it to me … it wasn’t and he never did. You can see this pattern.
So! I did feel excited to see this film again. Unfortunately I was disappointed. But I’ll start with the good stuff. The film has striking visuals throughout in terms of backdrops and the flying sequences are fantastic. Any scene with Marahute is memorable and wonderfully animated, and I do love the scenes between her and Cody – it feels like the heart of the film, and again the make-up of Cody’s flight works brilliantly – the animation, the meaning and the score are perfectly balanced to create a stand-out scene. Whenever Bernard and Bianca get a sweet moment together (the little that they do get together), I enjoyed those scenes too, and having an already established relationship is a good move for Disney – they don’t do that often at all and I’m glad that Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor returned to voice the characters again. I also appreciated a few moments of slapstick, primarily in Joanna’s amusing expressions and movements. I was genuinely moved by Cody’s mother, even though we never saw her face, primarily due to the scene in which she receives his destroyed backpack. I was genuinely sad that I didn’t get to see them reunite.
However, there really are a lot of problems with this film. Aside from being impressed by a few dark moments, I wasn’t entertained by the villain. The character felt very homogenous and by-the-numbers, and perhaps in an attempt to be more realistic, akin to Oliver and Company’s Sykes, it lost that sense of pizazz and razzle dazzle that I associate with many of my favourite Disney villains. I think it’s a real shame that Bernard and Bianca have had to take a back seat in this film, considering what a strong presence they were in the original film. I really loved their growing relationship and co-dependent partnership as a pair of underdogs, and it is a pity that it had to become a ‘Bernard finding his manhood’ story, and consequently shift Bianca to the side. The score is hit and miss, the characters’ screen time are not fairly distributed at all (due to too many characters with little substance like the C Squad), and the narrative structure is a mess, on account of indulging too many ‘time-wasting’ filler scenes. John Candy was such a loveable actor, but I really don’t like the material that he has in this film. Nearly all of Wilbur’s scenes felt pointless and expendable, and in the case of the medical torture scenes … I just don’t know what they were thinking at Disney.
I agree with David that I’m glad I’ve seen it, but if I had to choose between The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under, it would be the former hands down. I just prefer the quieter nature of the original, its melancholic, dark tone, its emotional voice, its allusions to mystery and film noir, and the intimate, nuanced relationships between characters, especially between Bernard and Bianca. That film has issues too – neither film is perfect, but it is still my favourite of the two. Overall The Rescuers Down Under has striking animation and a touching (brief) relationship between a boy and his eagle, but it misses the mark in narrative structure with its too many superfluous characters, certain characters being given way too much screen time (including the villain and comic relief), and in its attempt to be too much like a live action Hollywood film, it loses that sense of Disney magic.
On its initial release, The Rescuers Down Under was preceded by The Prince and the Pauper, a Mickey Mouse short – the second Mickey Mouse short since the 1950s (Mickey’s Christmas Carol accompanied the 1983 re-release of The Rescuers)
The Rescuers Down Under won every award that it was nominated for, including a Genesis Award for ‘Feature Film – Family’; a Golden Screen Award, the Animation Award at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards; Best Sound Editing for an Animated Feature at the Motion Picture Sound Editors Awards; and ‘Most Entertaining Family Youth Motion Picture – Animation’ at the Young Artist Awards.
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars: ‘After a few uncertain years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Disney animators (assisted now by computers) are back in top form’. Although, Ebert made a comment that surprised us because of how random it seemed – ‘There’s one reservation I have about the movie. Why does the villain have to be so noticeably dark-complexioned compared to all of the other characters? Is Disney aware of the racially coded message it is sending? When I made that point to another critic, he argued that McLeach wasn’t dark-skinned – he was simply always seen in shadow. Those are shadows are cast by insensitivity to negative racial stereotyping’. Variety called it a ‘sort-of-sequel’ that ‘boasts reasonably solid production values and fine character voices. Too bad they’re set against such a mediocre story that adults may duck’. Gene Siskel referred to it as ‘A bold, rousing but sometimes needlessly intense Disney animated feature’
Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised the film for its ‘first-rate’ animation, ‘spectacularly inventive’ direction and that it has ‘distinct debts to the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones films, not to mention “Crocodile Dundee’. However she called the plot ‘a trifle dark and un involving for very small children [leading the film] into a strange melange of styles … The mice themselves are enjoyably dowdy, comfortable throwbacks to a time before earth-shattering conquests were the sine qua non of children’s entertainment. The film’s action sequences, on the other hand, provide the dizzying heights and spectacular exploits to which live-action audiences are by now well accustomed, and they seem derivative despite the ingenuity of the animators’. It seems like musical numbers were missed: ‘This film’s slightly more grown-up, adventurous approach may be the reason it does not include the expected musical interludes, but they would have been welcome’.
However read what Maslin wrote here: ‘Wilbur gets into one of the story’s more lighthearted scrapes when he is imprisoned by tiny mice dressed in hospital uniforms, attempting to work on him with an “epidermal tissue disrupter,” which turns out to be a chain saw’. Maslin put ‘lighthearted’, ‘imprisoned’ and ‘chainsaw’ in the same sentence.
The financial failure of The Rescuers Down Under put Disney off releasing animated sequels to canon films in cinemas, and in terms of box office, it was the least successful of all of the films from the Renaissance era films. However, the box office ‘failure’ was influenced strongly by major film competition the weekend that it opened – Home Alone was released that same weekend. Home Alone grossed more than 10 times what The Rescuers Down Under made. Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered that all marketing for the film be pulled.
Although we prefer the original film, it is unfair that marketing for The Rescuers Down Under was pulled – it really didn’t deserve that. It’s as if Katzenberg realised after the success of The Little Mermaid, that making an animated film with a live action adventure movie sensibility (and no songs) did not seem so appealing (profitable), and wanted everyone at Disney to stay on the animated musical path … essentially to not allow The Rescuers Down Under to succeed, as it may pull the animators off that goldmine path. Was it a greater good moment? A canon sequel would not be made again until Fantasia 2000 (1999) and Winnie the Pooh (2011) – they certainly leave mighty gaps between canon sequels.
(Special Note from Melissa: But that didn’t stop them making a hideous range of direct-to-video/DVD monstrosities known as ‘Disney sequels’)
However, the film leaves another form of legacy. The 1990s in cinema is strongly associated with the rise in films with a strong environmentalist or conservation-based message. With The Rescuers Down Under being right at the beginning in 1990 – the first environmentalist Disney animated film since Bambi, we can say that it formed part of that trend and perhaps even inspired more to come.