Extended Thoughts on ‘The Rescuers Down Under’
Directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel
Written by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson, Joe Ranft
Starring Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, George C. Scott
The level of faith the Walt Disney Company places in its own products never ceases to be amazing if inexplicable. Each era at this massive corporation is so categorically different from what came before, well back into when Disney was still a struggling film studio desperately trying to pay the bills with its shorts or, at the time, a handful of massively ambitious feature-length animated films. Thus, the faith placed in the product has always shifted. However, the Mouse House’s modern era, beginning in 1984, when Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the late Frank Wells began their tenure in various high-level positions, has been concurrently maddening and glorious to behold. Whether we like it or not, Disney fans are something of spectators at the sport of this cutthroat entertainment business. Every so often, we take part, driving each gladiatorial decision, but the warriors will act as they please when their backs are to the wall. The trouble is, the fighters aren’t always treating each sign of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses accurately. Thus, sometimes the choices Disney executives make or have made seem logical. And sometimes, they’re head-scratching, as in the case of The Rescuers Down Under.
Children seeing this film in 1990 likely didn’t pay any mind to the major leap this film represented. The Rescuers Down Under was the first official sequel in the Disney animated canon, one of only a handful as of this writing, as well as the first film to utilize the CAPS system that allowed computers to be involved in the animation process. You could argue that The Three Caballeros is a sequel of sorts to Saludos Amigos, although it’s not as definitive a follow-up as Fantasia 2000, Winnie the Pooh, or The Rescuers Down Under, nor is it qualified as a sequel in the canon officially. And this 1990 return of Bernard and Bianca is the most commonplace continuation in Disney’s theatrical canon. Fantasia 2000 is a sequel on the surface, in that it echoes similar themes and concepts demonstrated in Fantasia, attempting to let various pieces of classical music inspire animators to weave a tale to correlate with each crescendo. Outside of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence, however, Fantasia 2000 has all-new segments, which we can connect to those in Fantasia, though only with implicit connections posited by the filmmakers. Winnie the Pooh, of course, brings back all the characters in the cherished and beloved Hundred Acre Wood. Yet because of A.A. Milne’s naturally episodic storytelling and writing style, the film feels less like a follow-up than a simple check-in on these adorable stuffed animals. If The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh tells stories that comprise three chapters of a novel, Winnie the Pooh tells another chapter or two of the same book.
The Rescuers Down Under, though, is a straight sequel, as direct as they get. As in the first film, we follow a pair of heroic mice from the world-renowned (on a miniature level) Rescue Aid Society as they attempt to save a child who’s been kidnapped by a loathsome villain accompanied by an equally foul animal sidekick. The locale, as evidenced by the title, is new as is the child in danger. However, many of the beats from the original film are repeated here, down to the overly chatty albatross who flies them from New York City to the destination of the rescue. Oh, sure, Orville’s not around anymore, due to the passing of Jim Jordan, who voiced that character. (Maybe if Jordan lived to 1990, he’d be back, but he was 91 at the time of his passing, so it’s doubtful.) So Bernard and Bianca interact with Orville’s brother, Wilbur, played by John Candy. Unsurprisingly, Wilbur gets a hefty subplot, spurring from the fact that his spine is thrown out of whack in the crash landing in Australia. One wonders if the subplot exists solely because wasting John Candy at the height of his stardom while placing him in a Disney movie is exceptionally foolish. Still, it seems likely that the writers would’ve boosted the albatross character, whether it was Orville or Wilbur, because they felt the urge to add something new to his character, some way for him to be more useful than a literal mode of transportation. Like many live-action sequels, though, The Rescuers Down Under copies its predecessor and, at the same time, tries to give us more of everything.
Unfortunately, the years have been unkind to The Rescuers Down Under. The 1990s were the salad days for Walt Disney Feature Animation, arguably the most creatively fertile in its history. Disney’s first five films are appropriately held in high regard by audiences, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Bambi. However, that 5-year period, as excellent as it was, has only been perceived as such in hindsight. Dumbo and Bambi, notably, didn’t do nearly as well critically or financially upon their initial release as they have since. These films have become high watermarks in ways they weren’t in the 1940s, partly because Disney wisely chose to re-release many of their animated films all the way up to the early 1990s, about which much more later. We haven’t yet begun to truly re-evaluate the films from the 1990s in depth. In some way, we need distance from them to separate ourselves more fully from built-in childhood nostalgia. For the most part, the initial reactions people had haven’t changed much. Beauty and the Beast? Classic then, classic now. The Lion King? Colorful, tragic, and slightly imperfect, yet highly entertaining all the same. The Rescuers Down Under? Well…
The problem of comparing The Rescuers Down Under to these films, as kneejerk a reaction it may be, is obvious. The Disney Renaissance, a second Golden Age comprised of excitement, innovative animation, and confident storytelling, if on a chronological sliding scale, was the wrong time for The Rescuers Down Under to be released. Some may, in hindsight, marvel at the notion that executives and filmmakers chose The Rescuers for the sequel treatment over The Jungle Book, Lady and the Tramp, or one of the company’s other revered classics. (It should be noted here that making sequels to Disney movies is an inherently bad idea. Our society has grown begrudgingly accepting of cinematic franchises in ways that didn’t exist in the first half of the 20th century—yes, even among The Thin Man series or Dr. Kildare, slighter series that weren’t accompanied by high levels of anticipation—but animation exists as a kind of stigma to this mentality. We are so terribly wistful for such youthful benchmarks that any follow-up’s very existence besmirches this important time in our lives. Animated sequels are judged more harshly than live-action sequels; fairly or unfairly, it’s hard not to recoil at the idea of making a second Dumbo or Peter Pan. Movies like Toy Story 2 are an exception to this subconscious rule.) What, perhaps, may be most surprising is that the business decision wasn’t totally nonsensical. The Rescuers was, upon its initial release, extremely successful at the box office, excluding multiple re-releases. Whatever distaste or basic lack of adoration some people may have for Disney’s xerographic output in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s worth remembering that these were some of their most financially popular films. The prevailing critical consensus about these films may assume the films are unremarkable now, but the numbers don’t lie: many people paid to see The Rescuers. Unlike many of Disney’s classics, too, the formula at the heart of The Rescuers could be repeated easily enough so as not to offend the true believers.
Maybe The Rescuers Down Under did so poorly at the box office because the children of 1990 were bored or repelled by a more old-school film, one that felt rooted in the past unlike the Disney movie it followed. The year before brought a new statement of purpose from the Walt Disney Company: The Little Mermaid. Here was a film at once so familiar and well-worn yet thrillingly modern that it singlehandedly made the studio and, in some ways, animation relevant again. Here was a film that reminded the world why they fell in love with Mickey Mouse, with Snow White, with Peter Pan, why their childhood memories weren’t tarnished by Disney’s new attempts to ingratiate their way into our collective heart. What did Disney follow The Little Mermaid up with, to continue riding this wave of mass goodwill? The Rescuers Down Under. What was the other slice of bread in this bad-timing sandwich? Beauty and the Beast, the first-ever animated film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Other films Disney made in the 1990s included Aladdin, The Lion King, and Hercules. None in the Renaissance are as perfect or close to it as Mermaid and Beauty, yet they all have their defenders. Hell, every Renaissance picture got at least one Oscar nomination. Except The Rescuers Down Under. Few even remember this second adventure of Bernard and Bianca.
It’s a shame, because although The Rescuers Down Under isn’t worthy of being placed alongside Disney’s most iconic classics, it’s not without its charms. The biggest improvement from The Rescuers to The Rescuers Down Under is most aggressively obvious on the Blu-ray, but even those children who first saw the film in theaters likely knew the difference innately: the animation’s tightness and cleanliness makes it a more pleasing viewing experience. Both films offered the Disney animators a new location to enliven with their ink and paint, and though the Outback is, as presented here, a more desolate, solitary, and unending desert vista, the dust is crisply brought to life, the horizons bleak yet well rendered. Whatever sloppiness is apparent in The Rescuers vanished in the sequel, thanks in no small part to the CAPS system, which has been as revolutionary to feature-length animation as the multi-plane camera was back in the 1930s and 1940s. (Who else remembers the strange, ineffable, yet vibrant opening credits sequence, done entirely by computer? Who else has that booming Bruce Broughton score tucked away in their subconscious? The film that follows this sequence slowly becomes less and less energetic, yet that opening is an arresting moment.) Some elements of the story, specifically the hackneyed love triangle between Bernard, Bianca, and their Aussie guide Jake, are troubling because they feel like a bone tossed to adults in the audience who may not be as engaged by the juvenile antics on screen. However, the propulsive pacing and a stellar opening sequence are enough, along with the brighter, more exciting animation, to vault this film over The Rescuers.
If only because Disney has systematically slid the film under a metaphorical carpet, The Rescuers Down Under needs to be given a second chance. During the Disney Renaissance especially, a new Disney movie was an Event. In the last decade or so, every Hollywood blockbuster has been overhyped to the point where the concept of a big movie has been sapped of any life, but the true event status in the world of animation is now given to Pixar films, not Disney films. The 1990s began with Disney sprinting ahead of the competition in a metaphorical relay race only to see the upstart Pixar take the baton at the midpoint of the decade, as everyone else suddenly straggled behind, desperate to gain ground. For children born in the early 1980s, a Disney film was a momentous occasion, something as feverishly anticipated as Jurassic Park or Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Katzenberg and Eisner, in particular, knew how to fuel the marketing machine so people of all ages were pumped. One of the great behind-the-scenes stories from this decade details the standing ovation people gave at the New York Film Festival to the work-in-progress print of Beauty and the Beast that premiered before the film opened worldwide. This was not an audience predominantly populated of children. These were adults, wholeheartedly embracing animation because it transcended the juvenile stigma attached to it both by audiences as well as by some filmmakers and studios. This multigenerational response was similar to when Walt Disney was a cause célèbre among academics and critics upon the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. As much as he was a populist figure, he was equally distinguished among the elite. For a few shining moments in the 1990s, the Walt Disney Company recaptured that glory, the heady possibility of appealing to everyone, condescending to no one.
Thus, The Rescuers Down Under could be seen as a sharp decline in quality between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which is unfortunate but not totally the reason for its long-term low profile; the Event status was never extended to this film. Compare it with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, possibly the two most ambitious films of this Renaissance, yet both unsuccessful in fully achieving their lofty goals. Do we award failed ambition over smaller-scale entertainment? What power do we place in films that aren’t trying to be works of art as opposed to a confident, low-stakes charmer? Jeffrey Katzenberg clearly placed no power in the latter; The Rescuers Down Under is something of a miserable flop in the grand scheme of things. If you look at the box-office returns for every other Disney Renaissance film, you’ll see that The Rescuers Down Under is the only film to not gross at least $200 million worldwide, or even $100 million. All told, it grossed under $50 million worldwide, doing so poorly that a re-release of The Jungle Book that same year performed better domestically, making nearly as much as The Rescuers Down Under did around the globe. But why?
Like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, The Rescuers Down Under opened at a prime time of year: smack in the middle of the Thanksgiving season. With families on vacation and the Christmas holiday coming down the pike, it makes perfect sense for animated films to open right then. (Also, it’s worth pointing out that The Jungle Book was re-released in July of 1990, right in the sweet spot of summer. Somehow, it didn’t totally sink, making roughly $45 million. And the year after, 101 Dalmatians opened the week after Independence Day and made over $60 million. Remember those baffling-yet-true numbers.) However, the week after The Rescuers Down Under tanked with barely $3.5 million in its opening-weekend take, Katzenberg removed all television advertisements for the film. By itself, that’s not the worst possible fate, but it proves that he had zero confidence in its ability to perform at a seemingly ideal time of year. Here’s the thing: the more demoralizing fact isn’t that Katzenberg yanked the marketing. It’s that Disney set The Rescuers Down Under up to fail, opening it on the same weekend as a little film called Home Alone, otherwise known as the highest-grossing film of 1990. He may not have been able to predict its long-lasting impact on popular culture, but Katzenberg likely had enough tracking information to tip him off that Home Alone would be a monster laying waste to everything in its path. The Rescuers Down Under was forced to take the hit, then and afterwards.
The Rescuers Down Under is not the great undiscovered Disney movie, mind you. The film was done in by bad contextual timing and poor scheduling and marketing, and fans of animation would likely enjoy it for its somewhat large scope and setpieces. However, this is just a decent movie, one that feels as tiny as its leads. Bernard and Bianca are courageous, the former becoming more so over the course of the story, certainly. Because the story is so miniscule, though, The Rescuers Down Under feels like the precursor to the glut of direct-to-video and DVD releases Disney unleashed in the marketplace starting in 1994. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the directors shot half of their budget on the first act of the film and had to scrimp and save for the next hour. The first 15 minutes promises an outrageous yet truly enthralling adventure, the likes of which were unrivaled within Disney’s feature animation to that point. First, one of the big improvements of this film over The Rescuers is not making the kidnapped child an orphan. Cody has only one parent, his mother, though we never really spend any time with her. Her worry is common, natural, and almost boring in its simplicity; when she speaks, she might as well sound like a parent from Peanuts, all foghorn noise, no actual dialogue. Though making Cody’s mom such a non-entity is questionable, Cody’s life before his adventure in the film is presented as less misery-filled, if not particularly normal. We can loathe Cody’s kidnapper, the sneering poacher Percival C. McLeach, but at least when Cody escapes his clutches, he has a home to return to.
Granted, Cody’s trouble begins because he’s unhappy staying put. After the rousing opening credits, Cody wakes up in his small home, heads further into the wild unknown of the Outback, and within the next five minutes, is climbing an impossibly tall rocky ledge to rescue a massive and rare golden eagle that he’ll cut loose from her bindings and will then let him ride her back to her home. Y’know, a typical Monday. Children watching this aren’t likely laughing at the sheer silliness of this sequence. Instead, they may have seen themselves in Cody, or wished they could be that adventurous, to talk to kangaroos and ascend cliff faces without breaking a sweat. Cody’s journey with the placid yet strikingly animated golden eagle Marahute leads to him being ensnared in McLeach’s trap and becoming the older man’s nemesis. All McLeach wants is Marahute—he’s already killed Marahute’s male mate and wants the mother so he can become excessively rich. When Cody’s captured, it’s up to the animals in the surrounding area to sound the call and bring the Rescue Aid Society in to stop this nasty situation from escalating.
The Rescuers Down Under builds up a promising head of steam in the first 15 minutes, yet dissipates so quickly when we rejoin Bernard and Bianca, voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. Bernard and Bianca have a likable enough repartee, but theirs is as drippy a romance as Disney has ever concocted. The romantic emphasis is especially galling here, because the (relatively speaking) slam-bang action sequence that comprises the first act is then tempered by Bernard hemming and hawing over when and how he should propose marriage to Bianca, who he fears will automatically turn him down because she is a worldly woman, and he is a homely wuss. That may be a reductive reading of Bernard’s perception, yet the screenwriters are extraordinarily reductive in displaying the love story. When Bernard and Bianca arrive Down Under, they’re guided by a kangaroo mouse named Jake, who’s everything Bernard isn’t and is thus seen as a romantic rival. Jake’s younger, more attractive (in the world of mice), rugged, daring, spontaneous, and you’re probably already beginning to nod off at the thought of caring about a love triangle with mice, none of whom are named Mickey or Minnie.
A lack of suspense is what truly makes the storyline fall flatter than most Disney romances. When you watch Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, it isn’t uniquely surprising to find that a charming prince will sweep the beautiful heroine off her feet to live happily ever after. Such is the stuff of fairy tales. The suspense, then, is not if, but how. If we’re invested enough in how a character will finally find love, it doesn’t matter that we know the eventual outcome. Respect to Newhart for doing a solid job with his naturally shaky, dry voice as Bernard, but there’s nearly nothing to grab onto when watching Bernard flounder and attempt to assert his masculinity to prove he’s worth his salt. (A quick note: the big moment where Bernard proves he’s a REAL MAN, whatever the hell that means, comes when he faces off against a razorback and talks firmly to convince it to take him to save Bianca and Jake, mirroring a moment when the Aussie guide is similarly forceful to a snake. This should work, except no one else is around to see this happen. And since Bernard’s in no danger of being cuckolded, what’s the point of watching him have this triumphant moment when his innate heroism and courage is proven by saving Jake and Bianca? The method of his arrival is unimportant in the grand scheme of things.)
Unfortunately, the lack of suspense in this plotline plays out over the entirety of The Rescuers Down Under. The first act works because it’s surprising. We may expect it to include an introduction to whatever child will need to be rescued, as well as a presentation of how and why some adult decides to kidnap said youngster. But the way that the directors and writers breathlessly open the story is unexpectedly exciting. The relentless pacing is truly thrilling, as is the bright, enveloping animated landscape. But as soon as Bernard and Bianca come along to rescue Cody, we know exactly where the film will take us, beat for beat. Something truly troubling to consider is that the opening act’s structure as well as the way Cody is characterized, as fantastic as it may be, flies in the face of the titular rescuers. Cody is presented to us as a foolhardy boy, who maybe isn’t the most logical thinker, but can think his way out of a tough situation. Cody clambering up the ledge is awe-inspiring if ridiculous; it also raises a simple question: this kid needs to be rescued? He can’t break out himself? Seeing as he nearly does, in a sequence that’s immensely troubling once you think about it, the idea that he needs mice to help him is outlandish and laughable.
One of the reasons Cody’s failed self-rescue stands out is because of that lack of suspense. We get a feel early on for exactly how predictable the story will be, so anything out of the ordinary will stand out. Perhaps the more perceptive children in the audience would’ve asked this question, but some adults revisiting the film may be struck by a simple query: what happens to the other animals McLeach has captured? Creating an explanation for what happens to Frank the frill-necked lizard and the others in the makeshift cages in McLeach’s primitive dungeon isn’t too hard. After Bernard, Bianca, and Jake rescue Cody, and Wilbur is stuck playing mother hen to Marahute’s eggs, Cody could alert his little friends to the others McLeach—now dead from tumbling off a massive waterfall—was holding prisoner, so they can be freed. If only there was even a hint of that in the actual film. It is sometimes difficult in our media-saturated society to separate what’s in a film and what’s outside of a film, but the logical assumption of how these animals, as intensely obnoxious as they may be, are rescued themselves is outside of The Rescuers Down Under. Maybe there’s a deleted scene or line of dialogue that would salve this wound. Maybe a section of the film was tossed out during the storyboard process. Maybe we can surmise that the creatures will get saved. The only definitive thing we can gather is that once Cody is yanked away by McLeach after failing to rescue these other animals, we never hear from or about them again, nor do we see them. They’re ghosts; their absence is disturbing, because everyone else gets a happy ending. Where’s their shining moment?
The Rescuers Down Under also had no shining moment, a disappointment in spite of the film’s various plot-based missteps. It was swallowed up by the tail end of the re-release period at the Walt Disney Company and its competition. But to close this out, a bit about those re-releases. That The Rescuers Down Under performed poorly at the box office over the 1990 holiday season is, at least in hindsight, unsurprising. That it managed to be a lower-grossing animated release that year than a re-release of a film that was over 20 years old is somewhat shocking. Even though modern audiences aren’t subconsciously trained to expect film studios to re-release their older films on a set schedule of every few years, it’s truly amazing that something new wouldn’t always make more than something old, especially when both films are from Disney. Sure, everyone may have loved The Jungle Book or 101 Dalmatians, but seriously, they loved it that much? (Worth noting: the last re-releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio did roughly as well as The Rescuers Down Under did, at roughly the same time in Disney’s history, meaning they were left in the dust by the 1960s re-releases. Kids were willing to see something old, but not something incredibly old, apparently.)
As the Disney Renaissance morphed into something that extended to the Disney theme parks and Broadway, the people at the top either actively decided they no longer wanted to be in the business of re-releasing their older films or they just let the side project languish into obscurity. As such, it became a big deal when Disney announced that, in the fall of 2011, to coincide with its release on Blu-ray, they’d bring back The Lion King to theaters in 3D. (Both The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast were re-released closer to the turn of the century in IMAX theaters after Fantasia 2000 performed so well on such large-format screens.) The result, discussed here previously, was a box-office gross close to $100 million domestically. Disney presumed, inaccurately, that what people responded to was not a beloved animated film available on the big screen for the first time in nearly a decade—and seeing as the IMAX release of The Lion King only grossed $15 million, many hadn’t seen the film on the big screen in nearly two decades—but a cool new format. The notion of something awesome being the sole draw at the movies is, has always been, and will likely always be a hollow fad. 3D filmmaking can be an immersive, one-of-a-kind viewing experience; all too often, however, studios slap it onto every possible movie just so they can make more money from higher ticket prices. Audiences may well have preferred it if Disney re-released The Lion King in 2D, not 3D, because it would cost less for the whole family to make a trip to the local multiplex, or even multiple trips.
But Disney made a killing with The Lion King and assumed they could do the same with Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and Beauty and the Beast over the next 15 months. (To Disney’s credit, Beauty and the Beast only making about $47 million is something of a mystery. Like The Lion King, it was re-released at a time of year with typically very few new releases, and even opened on a holiday weekend. Nostalgia wasn’t low, but interest was strangely not high.) When these films offered diminishing returns, culminating in the recent embarrassing box-office gross for Monsters, Inc., Disney decided to stop the experiment prematurely, leaving behind one film they’d announced for 3D upconversion: The Little Mermaid. The statement of purpose that Walt Disney Pictures made in 1989, the film that kickstarted the Disney Renaissance, the movie at the heart of this Golden Age, a whole new era of magic-making to audiences worldwide, wouldn’t get a re-release. Nostalgia may not deserve a place at the table of criticism when evaluating films decades after their release, even (and especially) Disney films, but that nostalgia would’ve fueled the box-office returns. Instead, Disney got impatient and rejected a sure bet.
All this ties into the initial point: how and what Disney places its faith in is constantly perplexing, because it rarely makes sense anymore. Their original choice to re-release movies like The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and The Little Mermaid was a masterstroke of marketing, a way to make money by feeding off of and encouraging nostalgia, while gaining a new generation of fans of their older films. To upconvert these movies to 3D was a churlish, greedy move from a company that is already positioned as being one of the most venal in the business. (Whether or not this stereotype is rooted in truth is, this time, unimportant.) Any re-release, though, would be welcome. Disney, had they done their homework, would’ve understood that The Lion King’s success was an anomaly, not the norm. Comparing it to The Rescuers Down Under, if the executives of that era prepared, they would realize that opening a low-stakes sequel opposite a presumably mammoth family film—hell, realizing any family movie, old or new, opposite another one at the holidays—was a terrible idea, unless they weren’t concerned about a movie that should be treated like an event.
Disney’s re-release strategy, something that was a yearly standard until the mid-1990s, was formed with a key awareness of keeping the current base of fans and adding to it exponentially. This strategy could’ve paid off massively if they’d stuck to their guns and actually released The Little Mermaid for the first time in 16 years. (People may not remember, but in November of 1997, the film was back in theaters for a limited time; the level of nostalgia for Ariel’s adventures then versus the fever pitch at which it’s located now can partially explain the mild box-office returns.) If Disney was willing to be shrewder and more patient in its choices, in the way it treated its own product, immediately and in the long-term, they would be a vastly improved conglomerate. Too often, the people who produce and distribute these films don’t seem to understand why audiences flock to them. The Rescuers Down Under is a film whose legacy amounts to little more than a blip on the radar, left as half of a Blu-ray combo pack, something you may not have known you were buying when you ordered The Rescuers on Amazon. Those who love this film do so in spite of how Disney treated it. Just as Disney should advertise each of its animated features as a can’t-miss cinematic event upon their initial release, they should continue to hold them in the highest possible regard long after the initial release. The first people to deify these films shouldn’t be fans; they should be the filmmakers and executives responsible for their creation. One hopes the Disney braintrust will one day learn the correct lessons from The Rescuers Down Under.