During the Disney Renaissance, it seemed the studio couldn’t stop churning out classic after classic. One would be hard pressed to find any film in this era that wasn’t a sucess with critics and audiences. In fact, there was only one film in the Disney Renaissance that didn’t turn in a profit. That film was the 1990 adventure film The Rescuers Down Under. A sequel to The Rescuers from 1977, The Rescuers Down Under is an often overlooked entry in the Disney cannon, and when viewed today, it’s one of the studio’s most unique, daring and entertaining films.
The Rescuers Down Under tells the story of Cody, a young American/Australian who protects the animals of the Outback from poachers. After befriending a massive golden eagle named Marahute, the two develop a close bond. That bond is put to the test when Percival C. McLeach, a dangerous poacher, kidnaps Cody in order to learn the location of Marahute’s nest. Fortunately for Cody, help is on the way. After his kidnapping catches the attention of the Rescue Aid Society, two brave mice named Miss Bianca and Bernard travel to Australia to save him.
The Rescuers Down Under is not the first Disney sequel, nor is it the first theatrical sequel. Both of those titles are held by Son of Flubber. It is however the first time a Disney animated got a sequel and one of the few to be released theatrically. That it wasn’t a success may explain why all subsequent animated sequels went straight to video. Down Under is one of Disney’s most experimental films, and showcases some of the studio’s greatest advancements in animation during the early 90s.
For one, Down Under boasts some impressive experiments with CGI. One of the first Disney animated films to make use of computers was The Great Mouse Detective, during the climactic battle inside Big Ben. Following that, Disney sought to expand on this new technology, using The Rescuers Down Under to showcase it. Right from the opening credits, the film shows off some impressive visuals with a sweeping flight across a field of flowers that take the audience through a massive rock formation and into the windows of a distant house. CGI was also used to enhance McLeach’s giant bushwhacker, and give the flight sequences a greater sense of realism. Miss Bianca and Bernard’s departure from New York is especially impressive.
The Rescuers Down Under is praiseworthy not just for what it does, but also for what it doesn’t do. Rare among Disney animated films, The Rescuers Down Under is actually not a musical. The film moves at breakneck speed, giving the characters little time to pause for song. It’s also one of the few films in the Disney Renaissance to not center around a princess. The studio was still riding high off the success of The Little Mermaid when The Rescuers was made, but the Disney Princess formula hadn’t quite been revitalized yet. After The Rescuers failed to attract an audience, the studio returned to safer territory for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the rest was history. One has to wonder if the film was more successful, if it might have altered the trajectory of the Disney cannon.
It may have been lost in the shuffle, but The Rescuers Down Under excels in many ways. One of the best things about the film is its cast. Reprising their roles from the original film are comedian Bob Newhart as Bernard and Eva Gabour as Miss Bianca in her final film role. Also in the film is John Candy, who delivers a lively performance as the albatross Wilbur who flies the pair to Australia. Veteran voice actor Frank Welker also has a dual role as the devious lizard Joanna, and the vocals for the eagle Marahute.
In an already stellar cast, George C. Scott deserves special mention as the villainous Percival C. McLeach. Scott always delivers an intense performance, and he hardly sleepwalks through this film. McLeach may not posess any sorcery or magic abilities, but he remains one of the Disney cannon’s most frightening villains. One scene in particular has Percival trying to frighten Marahute’s location out of Cody by threatening him with throwing knives. It’s a surprisingly gritty for a Disney film. In spite of this, Scott is also able to inject some humor into the character, especially when McLeach grows annoyed with his pet goanna Joanna over a carton of eggs.
The Rescuers Down Under improves on the original in many ways, including with its two pint sized leads. Bernard in particular has a far more defined character arc. In the film’s early scenes, Bernard attempts to propose to Miss Bianca, but is constantly sidetracked throughout the film. To make matters worse, when they arrive in Australia, their guide, a kangaroo mouse named Jake, immediately begins flirting with her. The far more adventurous and capable mouse pushes Bernard to the sidelines, leaving him feeling inadequate and wondering if he blew his chance.
Bernard is transformed by this adventure. After being constantly overshadowed, Bernard slowly regains his confidence, and goes through a heroic turn that’s even enough to make Jake blush. He proves the most important role in the group’s eventual rescue of Cody, showing that despite his nervous demeanor, there’s more to him than meets the eye. The original film has no such emotional stakes or change for the characters, making this an overall more satisfying adventure.
Though Bernard and Bianca are always welcome, it’s Cody and Marahute who steal the movie. The first ten minutes feature Cody scaling a high cliff to rescue the eagle, which leads to a prolonged flight sequence and a visit to Marahute’s nest. This opening is the highlight of the film, and remains one of the most breathtaking sequences the studio has ever produced.
The friendship between these two makes Cody’s plight all the more relatable. Since we joined him for the ride, we, like him, feel the eagle is someone worth saving. This leads to an unexpectedly sad sequence when Cody is tricked into believing Marahute is dead. Though we as the audience know she’s alive, Cody doesn’t, and when he subsequently visits her nest, the sense of loss feels real. It makes the eventual reunion of the pair that much more rewarding.
So reading this one might get the impression that The Rescuers Down Under is a lost masterpiece, but there are a few things about it that don’t quite work. The film’s second act is highly problematic, full of a lot of dead space that doesn’t move the plot forward in any meaningful way. Cody spends most of the film trying to escape a cage while Bernard and Bianca meander through the outback with Jake. The film uses many plot contrivances to delay the the heroes. Wilbur, played by John Candy, could simply fly the mice to Cody’s rescue, but a back injury lands him in a hospital straight out of Misery, and effectively keeps the character from making any real contribution for the rest of the movie. The scenes are funny, but without the character doing a lot, it feels like a waste of John Candy’s talent.
The biggest issue is the story of Miss Bianca and Bernard doesn’t quite fit with that of Cody and Marahute. The pair don’t meet Cody until the third act, meaning we never get to see Cody bond with his pint sized protectors. This is one advantage the original film has over its sequel. Penny and the two mice feel like they’re part of the same movie. In this case, it feels like Cody’s story has been invaded by another film. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if it turned out Cody’s story was conceived as its own film before the RAS characters were injected into it, as the scenes with Cody and Marahute show a much greater craftsmanship and passion than the ones with Bianca and Bernard. Though the two stories don’t quite mesh, Bernard working up his courage is still a joy to watch, and Cody’s quest to protect Marahute remains a powerful adventure. It may have been invaded by another movie, but since that other movie also happens to be pretty good, the audience never suffers.
Though the flaws to The Rescuers Down Under are undeniable, there’s still something so endearingly likable and exciting about this forgotten Disney adventure. Even when the movie doesn’t quite work, it’s never not fun. At its best, is mesmerizing and beautiful enough to gives some of the studio’s most iconic films a run for their money. The Rescuers Down Under deserves a second look, because it’s not just Disney’s most underrated animated film. It deserves to be counted among their best.
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