A Study in Disney: ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ (1990)

| January 8, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Remembering 'The Rescuers Down Under' – ScreenHub Entertainment – ScreenHub  Entertainment

In the grand panoply of the Disney Renaissance, The Rescuers Down Under the beautiful loser, the forgotten step-child dropped at a moment of great artistic upswing for a studio that had been struggling.  When it was released in November of 1990, it received positive reviews and respectable (if not spectacular) box office and then dropped almost completely out of public knowledge.

In large part, The Rescuers Down Under is remembered for two things; one, it was part of the company’s determination to put out one animated feature every year, and two, it would be used as a test-case for Disney’s venture into computer animation.  According to Peter Schneider, then President of Disney’s feature animation, he had encouraged the company’s top brass to take the new-found resources that were coming in from the success of The Little Mermaid and put them back into the company.  This is where the Computer Animation Post-Production System (CAPS) came into play; and its first major test was on The Rescuers sequel.  Computer animation for Disney was nothing new.  It started in the mid-80s with the “Cauldron-Born” sequence of The Black Cauldron, then the Clock Tower sequence in the third act of The Great Mouse Detective and in a few scenes of Oliver & Company.  And it was used in The Little Mermaid, most notably the rainbow at the film’s conclusion; but, The Rescuers Down Under would be the system’s first full test. 

Critics immediately hailed The Rescuers Down Under for its brilliant look even if they had problems with the film elsewhere.  The depths and crispness and color of the animation were a new stage of evolution for the medium, and the animators eagerly showed off their work in the film’s opening scene as Cody, the film’s plucky protagonist, rescues a giant golden eagle which has been caught in a poacher’s trap and then takes the kid on a whirlwind flying tour of the Australian outback.  The depth and speed and feel of this scene alone shows off so much of what the CAPS system could do.  This scene alone could have been used as commercials for the film.

Even today, looking back on it, The Rescuers Down Under is hailed for its sparkling look, it is designs and it is use of color and movement, but the rest of the film seems to have been buried by history.  It is not a completely original idea, but it is not worthless either.  It is Disney’s first animated sequel (within five years, nearly every Disney classic would have one) and it works in large part because it is less a connective sequel as an episodic one – meaning that it contains the same characters in a new adventure, much like Indiana Jones.

The plot is not all that different.  The first film had Bernard and Miss Bianca rescuing a girl from a pawn shop owner in The Bayou who is forcing her to find a diamond.  This one has Bernard and Miss Bianca rescuing a boy from a poacher in the Australian outback who is forcing him to find a rare golden eagle.  The stories are similar but they don’t seem like carbon copies of each other.  For one, the villain Percival McLeach (voiced by George C. Scott) is crazy over poaching animals but the approach to the character is much more scheming then the mentally unhinged Madame Medusa.  Actually, he’s a little more fun, and so is his demon tractor, another benefit of the computer animation.

The tone is where The Rescuers Down Under gets into trouble.  After the majesty of the opening five minutes, the film largely becomes concerned with wacky shenanigans and comedy set pieces than with showing off the wide expanses of the outback.  There’s a long and unfunny set-piece involving the albatross Wilbur (voiced by John Candy) who has a bad back and is left to the mercy of a group of chiropractor mice.  There’s no real structure to the gag and it ends up just being an excuse for slapstick and screaming.  Less of that and more of the subplot involving Bernard’s clumsy attempts to propose to Miss Bianca might have given the film a little more emotional weight.

Plus, on a practical level, there’s the question of Marahuté the golden eagle who looks and acts like a real eagle while Wilbur is an anthropomorphic bird who wears a hat and speaks English.  Do they come from the same universe?  Why does one have human qualities and another does not?  Is there an evolutionary missing link among the foul of the air?  That might have made a great running gag.

Also, there’s a question about the boy Cody.  He is seen in the opening leaving his house and later is captured by McLeach but does anyone in the human world ever go looking for him?  McLeach kidnaps him with the intent on forcing him to help hunt down the golden eagle and he’s gone for what seems like days.  Is there a search party?  Do his parents ask questions?  Does anyone miss him?  Also, what does McLeach plan to do with the kid once he finds the eagle?  That’s a persistent question because in the first movie I was asking what Madame Medusa was planning to do with Penny when she found the diamond.

But these questions are not what works for The Rescuers Down Under.  It is all the visual look and the character designs.  For their work with the CAPS system, software engineer Lemuel Davis and his team would receive a technical award at the Academy Awards in 1991.  Unfortunately, the public didn’t rush to see their work.

The Rescuers Down Under would get lost in the holiday box office shuffle.  It opened at #4 on November 16th, 1990 behind the second week of Child’s Play 2, and the opening of Rocky V and Home Alone.  Dismayed by The Rescuers’ opening box office of $3.5 million, Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to pull the advertising.  The film fell at the box office little by little and was flushed almost completely out of the public consciousness.  It would finish the year (according to Box Office Mojo) at $27 million just behind, once again, Child’s Play 2.

Yet, the legacy of The Rescuers Down Under was its craft.  Had it not been for the great leaps and bounds that it took in the craft of animation and the induction of computer animation, the artistic heights that the studio would reach over the next few years might never have happened.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.