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Disney Sundays: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

          When I reviewed The Rescuers, I talked about how I think it’s one of the most underrated Disney movies and a personal favourite of mine. But despite that I am aware of its problems and I do know it’s not one of Disney’s best. The Rescuers Down Under however, is! Of all the Disney movies we owned on home video when I was growing up this was the one I must have seen the most times after The Lion King. It was a weird one to own too because the film itself wasn’t a big success and my parents never bothered to show me the first, but it didn’t matter because this was one of the most awesome movies you could watch as a kid! It’s got incredible action, an exciting adventure with engaging characters, and stunning animation. It’s such a shame everyone forgets it when recounting the classic Disney Renaissance films, because I think it surpasses almost all of them!
          Sequels were never something Disney had done before, but the fact that The Rescuers had been the studio’s biggest success after Disney’s death led to them breaking tradition for a second adventure with Bernard and Bianca. And what an adventure it is! In the Australian outback living remarkably close to Ayers Rock, a boy called Cody likes to free trapped animals, and after befriending a rare golden eagle he names Marahute, he’s kidnapped by a ruthless poacher Percival C. McLeach who’s determined to catch the eagle after having previously caught its mate. Through an international network of mice, word reaches the Rescue Aid Society who send their two best emissaries Bernard and Bianca down under. With the help of the albatross Wilbur and a Crocodile Dundee inspired mouse called Jake, they embark on the rescue mission, all the while Bernard is working up the courage to propose to Bianca.
          While this film is a Disney sequel it’s unlike all those crap direct-to-video sequels, in that it’s part of the animated features canon and it’s actually good quality. They expand on the first film in as grand a way as possible. Instead of rescuing one child, they’re rescuing a child as well as an endangered bird. Instead of a dank and depressing bayou, it’s set in the scenic grandeur of the Australian outback. Instead of songs by Shelby Flint, we get an epic score that fits the film’s adventurous and wondrous tone perfectly -I’m surprised Bruce Broughton doesn’t have a lot of other major credits, it’s really an incredible score! Not that I don’t like any of those things from the first film, but this one just focussed so much on doing something different, and I think their decisions worked out for the better. But it keeps all the right ideas. There’s that same sense of inventiveness to the mouse world: we see a number of new ways the mice can get around (again mostly on other animals) from snakes to flying squirrels. The mouse restaurant in the chandelier above a human restaurant is a clever detail I’ve always loved; and that whole sequence of the mice transmitting the distress call across the world, their unique bases of operation and ingenuity is absolutely brilliant. The rescue mission and story itself is very clever and entertaining, and hell even the comic relief detours are for the most part really fun. Wilbur’s distress in the hospital is gloriously exaggerated (I love how they have a “Patient Escaping” sign) and the animal prison scenes have some colourful characters. There’s a great message about the importance of animal protection that’s related well through an engaging story and impressive visuals.
          The Rescuers Down Under compliments all of this with an amazing voice cast. Not only do we see the return of Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, but they’re joined by a couple of my favourite actors, John Candy and George C. Scott! Candy is more than an adequate replacement for the late Jim Jordan, playing Orville’s brother Wilbur (get it!) and is fittingly given a lot more prominent of a role. His dialogue is full of really funny lines, in addition to the great physical design, and Candy’s natural charm, making for a delightful character. There’s even a scene early on where he’s rocking out to radio music  that I’m sure is a tribute to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. Bernard and Bianca are even more likable than in the first film and still a couple of my favourite Disney characters. Newhart is just as much the relatable every-man and Gabor’s voice is still just as beautiful to listen to. Bianca is still as capable and determined, volunteering for missions with little more than a second thought. And Bernard though still a little awkward and clumsy, isn’t as hapless as he was in the first film. He clearly has more missions under his belt by now and so is a little more confident and courageous. Where in the first film he was mostly being dragged along for the ride, he actually plays a much more important part here, and even gets to be a hero. But he’s also just the right amount of unfortunate and anxious. He needs to be for us to root for him, especially now he has competition for Bianca’s affections. Jake is an enjoyable enough character, voiced by Tristan Rogers and funny, but at times is just a little one-note. However by adding him to the previously established duo it creates a different dynamic that I really like. If we’d seen more Rescuer adventures after this, I’d have liked to have seen him play a part. The boy Cody though not quite as sympathetic as Penny (considering he’s much less a random victim of circumstance) has a compelling driving force. He feels obligated to help animals and though it gets him into this mess, it also gives his character a solid identity and a reason to care about his rescue. He’s also the ideal wide-eyed awe-indulging kid we can all identify with. But I do wish they’d have cast an actual Australian in the part. As for other characters, Bernard Fox reprises his Chairmouse role and also plays the Doctor mouse. Peter Firth voices the captive kangaroo Red with Douglas Seale (who would go on to voice the Sultan of Aladdin) as the koala Krebbs. And though he’s a little annoying, it’s nice to see Canadian Wayne Robson (better known as Mike from Red Green) as the eccentric frill-necked lizard Frank. It’s too bad we don’t get to see these characters freed.
          Their captor McCleach is one of the best Disney villains in my opinion. A lot of it comes from George C. Scott’s powerful intimidating voice, but also an imposing design that seems based on Scott himself. He’s maniacal, obsessive, and cruel, while also deviously cunning. At one point he actually lets Cody go as part of a master plan to capture Marahute. And as if the fact he already poached Marahute’s mate and now wants her as well wasn’t enough, he’s willing to go to any lengths necessary. I’m not going to spoil it but as dark as the first Rescuers could get, I never thought Madame Medusa had it in her to kill Penny. McCleach on the other hand... He’s just an incredibly sinister villain. As a kid I was glued to the screen whenever he showed up and now though for different reasons, he has the same affect. His pet goanna Joanna (get it!) is also fairly creepy and a very original addition.
          Another reason I wish this movie got more attention is because it’s visuals are utterly captivating! This was Disney’s first film to be rendered completely on computer and it pays off! There are a couple moments of CGI, and I won’t lie that the flight over the Sydney Opera House is dated; but the opening sequence is epic, literally thrusting you full speed into the adventurous environment! The updated style of animation benefits the film considerably, and it’s also impressive in the comedy sequences like Wilbur’s landing, being fast and superbly detailed. And the climax though intense, is a joy to watch. Marahute especially looks terrific, with sharp graceful movement and emotion conveyed without being able to speak (once again it’s strange that only select animals can talk). It may be fifteen minutes in before we see our main characters, but it’s well worth the wait, as we’re treated to a tremendous flying sequence where Cody rides Marahute high above the outback. It’s wondrous, extraordinary in scope, engrossing, emotional, and sensational! To be honest it’s one of my favourite sequences in animation!
          I understand to some degree why The Rescuers Down Under didn’t do so well on its initial release. I think it was mostly bad timing. It certainly didn’t have the mass appeal The Little Mermaid and later films would have, and I think if it had come out first it would have been better received (maybe even warranting another sequel). But The Little Mermaid had now ushered in a new era and standard that The Rescuers Down Under didn’t comply with. But anyone who’s seen it knows that wasn’t a bad thing, in fact it was a great thing! The Rescuers Down Under is in my opinion the single most underappreciated Disney movie! I love it for its humour, it’s great characters -my favourite Disney duo, its original story, it’s exciting music, and its stellar visuals; and I love it for moments, like when Jake shows Bernard and Bianca what it’s like in the outback (“Suicide Trail, good choice -more snakes, less quicksand”), or when Bianca defends Bernard to Jake, and of course that flying sequence! It’s as perfect a Disney adventure movie can be and deserves a place among all the other greats of animation!

Next Week: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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