The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
The concept of a “slight” film can be traced all the way back to the silent era. While D.W. Griffith’s racist and problematic worldviews have forever changed the way one views his work, the fact remains that The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) were giant productions made on a never-before-seen scale. Even smaller films like Broken Blossoms (1919) and Orphans of the Storm (1921) were of some cultural importance. And yet, does anyone ever discuss Judith of Bethulia (1914) or The Sorrows of Satan (1926)? These were competently made films which gained release, but left very little impression on the moviegoing public. Jumping to Steven Spielberg, a filmmaker whose work practically guaranteed a massive cultural event with every release, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan; all enormous films that felt important, while smaller pictures like The Post, The Terminal, even Amistad feel far less significant compared to the other entries in his filmography. Successful filmmakers like Richard Donner and Milos Forman directed the Lethal Weapon Franchise, Superman, The Omen, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon, respectively. Who even remembers Valmont, Ragtime, Goya’s Ghosts, Inside Moves, or Maverick? Some of these films are better than others and some are disappointments, but the fact remains: major filmmakers don’t always make a classic every time out of the gate.
A “slight” film, rather than a “blip” on a director’s filmography, can also be made by a major studio. The Disney Renaissance was a ten-year period from 1989 to 1999 where some of the most iconic and successful animated film were created; a watershed moment for a studio that had been floundering for over a decade. Taking a gander at the list of ten movies made during this period, Disney was truly on a roll. Some stand above the rest, like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Others follow closely behind, as in the case of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. The rest are a relative mish-mash, with fine films like Hercules and Mulan mixing with the ‘meh’ Tarzan, the imperfect Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the enjoyable but very scarily inaccurate Pocahontas. All of these films received Oscar nominations, save for one, which was interestingly the follow-up to The Little Mermaid. Granted, the film isn’t a musical while the rest are, so most of these nominations were in the music category, save for Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture. I can’t fault the filmmakers behind The Rescuers Down Under (1990) for deciding against sticking a song or two in there, but it practically always guaranteed an Oscar nod if you did.
The sequel to the lovely and melancholy The Rescuers (1977) took nearly thirteen years to reach fruition, and for what it is, the story could be a lot stronger. This is what’s meant as a “slight” film. Sure, it happens to have been released during the time of the Renaissance, but I guarantee no one thinks of it in that hallowed group. The original film followed the elegant Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor, Gigi, The Aristocats, Green Acres) and the superstitious Bernard (Bob Newhart, Elf, The Bob Newhart Show), two mice who represent the R.A.S., also known as the Rescue Aid Society. Along with a catchy anthem, the R.A.S. often lend their services to the retrieval of kidnapped children. The original film, which had moments of genuine terror and a dark, shadowy palette, potrayed Bianca and Bernard rescuing a young orphan named Penny from the clutches of a greedy witch of a woman known as Madame Medusa. Scenes involving the small child being nearly drowned while searching for a giant diamond are quite suspenseful and moments where the child is verbally abused for not being good enough to be adopted are heartbreaking. Oddly enough, for a film which was a decent financial success, Disney had yet to begin pounding out sequels (this is pre-Return of Jafar days) the way they do now, so The Rescuers Down Under was, in fact, the first animated sequel Disney ever made. This is surprising considering the multitude of possibilities such a rich concept could’ve delivered. I could see Down Under being the third or maybe fourth sequel in a series of Rescuers films, not a long-delayed, belated sequel that’s merely another kidnapped kid movie. The original could easily have led to a franchise, with the duo going off on one mission after the other. Instead, we have an oddly-structured story involving poaching, animal preservation, and Bernard’s frustrating attempts to ask for Miss Bianca’s hand in marriage. As far as the preservation aspect goes, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ dueling films Lambada and The Forbidden Dance were both released the same year, and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, was only two short years away. Obviously, conservation was a hot item at the time.
In an impressive opening credits sequence, which shows off the razzle dazzle of the digitally shot animated film (the first of its kind), the camera blasts through the Australian outback, 3D-style, before settling on a small house in the middle of a field. We’re introduced to the very blonde, very American Cody (Norwegian Adam Ryen, Child’s Play 2), whose lack of an accent is inexplicable as his mother is very much an Aussie. Screenwriter Joe Ranft had huge arguments with executives, who vetoed his suggestions of using an appropriate Aboriginal Australian child actor in favor of “a little white blonde kid.” This example of white-washing isn’t nearly as egregious as other examples found in Disney’s oeuvre, but it’s still distractingly dumb. Cody hears a sound from far off and heads into the jungle, where we get an Australian wildlife roll call.
Cody is an animal protector and he’s informed by a kindly kangaroo (what else?) that the golden eagle, Marahute, has been caught in a poacher’s trap. By the way, I wish Steve Carell had referred to himself as ‘Marahute’ in Foxcatcher. After all, it does refer to a “golden eagle.” Cody free solo’s a huge rock face like it ain’t no thing and although his knife freaks Marahute out, he’s able to free her. She returns the favor by smacking him off the mountain and his eyes water, in a nice touch, as he falls to his doom.
Fortunately, Marahute swoops down at that last second and takes him for one helluva ride. It’s beautifully animated and finally visualizes what Steve Miller was singing about all those years ago. While the reason for Cody’s father's absence is never explained, Marahute indicates that her mate was killed, leaving her to care for her unhatched eggs. The culprit behind the male eagle’s death was infamous poacher and monitor lizard enthusiast Percival C. McLeach, who may not have graduated past the third grade, but he sure knows how to kill things but good. George C. Scott memorably provides the mean and nasty hunter’s voice, while his appearance resembles that of Jack Palance, who was also considered for the role. Scott was one of our finest actors, bringing life to roles in Anatomy of a Murder, The Changeling, and Dr. Strangelove, a performance which owes something to his similarly over-the-top turn here.
Cody tries to continue his hot streak by rescuing a little mouse, but he’s dropped into a pit which alerts McLeach, whose pet monitor lizard Goanna (voiced by Frank Welker, as most animated creatures are) lunges at the boy, bearing its fangs. While McLeach tries to shrug the obvious trap off as a hole his lizard dug, Cody knows McLeach is a poacher and vows to rat him out to the rangers. The malicious animal hunter spies one of Marahute’s feathers and tosses Cody in his animal cage, determined to get the eagle’s location out of the young boy. This abduction leads into a clever and rousing sequence that I wish the entire movie resembled. The tiny mouse rushes to an R.A.S. outpost and through variously amusing devices, like an old war plane or a naval base in Hawaii, dozens of mice relay the urgent message back to the R.A.S. headquarters in New York City.
It’s always enjoyable when a sequel organically connects to the previous film, so the re-appearance of the esteemed Charman of the R.A.S., once again voiced by Bernard Fox (Munster Go Home!, Titanic) is most welcome. Unfortunately, the most accomplished members of the society are nowhere to be found. In an ultra-fancy high-rise restaurant, a snooty waiter drops a single pea, which a tuxedoed cricket snatches up, providing the cricket head chef with ample ingredients to make split pea soup. An equally fancy restaurant for tiny creatures is conveniently located inside the chandelier, where Bernard nervously tries to buck up his courage to propose to Miss Bianca. No time for that, as they’re called to action and head off to Australia.
Orville, the humorous albatross who provided the transportation for the duo, has apparently retired, so they’ll be utilizing the services of his younger and much more ribald brother. In reality, Jim Jordan, the original voice actor, had passed away during production, so it was decided that if there’s an Orville who flies, there must be a Wilbur, in a nod to the Wright Brothers. The late, great John Candy is very funny with his obviously improvised performance. Although it’s no Genie in Aladdin, it’s a very witty performance that allows the master improviser to indulge in various asides and extremely specific comic bits. His greeting to Miss Bianca: “Enchante, senorita” is followed by the offer of a delicious “mango Maui cooler” as well as a “coconut guava nectar,” which comes with a little umbrella. With no time to waste, Bernard and Bianca climb into a sardine can strapped to Wilbur’s back and fly off into the snowy night.
We’re introduced to Jake (Tristan Rogers, a major soap actor), as he checks out a cool chart of birds when he’s alerted to Wilbur’s impending landing. “It’s a jumbo!” exclaims Jake, who has to quickly extend the runway to accommodate for the giant bird. Jake’s a real smoothie and Bernard is constantly getting the short end of the stick as the rugged Aussie mouse makes his move on Miss Bianca. Meanwhile, Wilbur’s back is killing him, so he’s taken to a hospital, which is in fact an overturned ambulance in the middle of the desert. These sequences with Wilbur are technically pointless, but they provide the film with a lot of laughs and some darkly fun images, like mice nurses loading syringes full of green liquid into a double barrel shotgun. They’re forced to operate, so they bust out the “epidurmal tissue disruptor,” also known as a chainsaw.
Rescuers Down Under at least has one other claim to fame. I don’t recall another Disney villain lobbing hunting knives at a small child. McLeach is a huge asshole, with ruthlessness only matched by his greed. In a clever single take-style scene, he tries to work out a way to trick the boy into leading him to the eagle while Goanna continues to sneak off with her favorite treat: eggs. Cody meets a variety of imprisoned animals, while he himself is thrown into a makeshift cage made from an old water heater. His roommate, a wacko green-frilled lizard named Frank (Wayne Robson, Cube, Stuck), can’t stand the idea of ending up as a purse, so he attempts to pick the cage lock with his tail. This is all fun, but it ends up being merely filler since McLeach bursts in and throws the boy out, claiming the eagle was shot down. Of course, Cody is worried about Marahute’s eggs, but he should perhaps take an hour or two and head back home since his mother believes he’s been eaten by crocodiles. Freaking hippie. Gotta go check on the eggs. Unbeknownst to him, but knownst to us, McLeach is on his trail.
The Rescuers literally don’t get to do any “rescuing” until well into the third act, with their first interaction with Cody occurring nearly an hour into the movie. Up until then, they’ve simply been journeying to McLeach’s hideout via flying squirrel and a cowardly snake. Could the flying squirrel have been inspired by Icarus, Nemo’s best pal from the previous year’s Little Nemo (1989)? No, probably not. Still flying squirrels are cool.
Cody finds the eggs and Marahute, which gives McLeach the chance to fire a massive net missile which captures her. In another extremely dark touch, Cody grabs hold of the net and McLeach attempts to shake the child loose. This wouldn’t be so freaky if they weren’t suspended hundreds of miles up in the air. It’s not even a question in this film. He absolutely intends to murder this kid for being a witness to his crimes. Wilbur gets roped into watching the eggs while Bernard finds his courage to rescue everyone else, who’ve ended up in the back of McLeach’s truck.
The finale can’t compare to the original’s waterlogged pirate cave but the idea of McLeach “fishing for crocs” by dangling Cody over croc-infested waters smacks of outright sadism. Goanna chases Bernard and ends up knocking her master into the river, where he avoids being eaten by crocodiles but presumably perishes over a waterfall. Marahute is freed and saves Cody and Bernard. He presents Miss Bianca with the ring he’s somehow kept on him the whole time, despite the absence of pants, and she accepts. A tiny sequence that could easily have been a post-credits scene comes up where the eggs begin to hatch while Wilbur commands them not to.
The Rescuers Down Under is fun, but suffers from a very simple problem. The plot is nothing particularly special and it’s quite flimsy as well. Though beautifully animated through the drawn-to-digital process, it lacks a strong narrative and instead opts for individual scenes that emphasize side characters rather than the relationship between Bernard and Miss Bianca. The original already worked well at showing their love for each other develop, but they practically take a back seat to the more theatrical performances of Candy and Scott. Slight though the film may be, I and my daughter, still find a great deal to love about the film, and as far as I’m concerned, I’d choose this one over a few of the lesser Disney renaissance films any day.