THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER
Better than you could possibly have expected from a sequel to The Rescuers, Down Under was and remains the most unsung—ha ha—masterpiece of the Disney Renaissance, and one of the most uniquely great films the studio ever made.
Directed by Hendel Butoy and Michael Gabriel
Written by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson, and Joe Ranft
With Eva Gabor (Bianca), Bob Newhart (Bernard), Tristan Rogers (Jake), John Candy (Wilbur), Adam Ryen (Cody), Frank Welker (Marahute and Joanna), and George C. Scott (McLeach)
Spoiler alert: high
Once upon a time, Disney didn't do sequels. It seems hard to believe that now. Hell, it would've seemed hard to believe that ten years ago, after a decade plus of pimping God alone knows how many direct-to-video B-picture cash-in sequels, ranging from the crass to the understandable to the economically and artistically inexplicable, from your Bambi IIs to your Returns of Jafar all the way down to your Kronk's New Grooves. And yet it's true: Disney, a machine made for making money and (increasingly, it seems) controlling the artistic expression of an entire civilization with an iron fist and a lazy bone, did not sequelize even one of their animated films until the year 1990, when they followed up their studio-reviving, pseudo-throwback, coming-of-age musical masterpiece The Little Mermaid with an action-adventure cartoon with no songs and no existential yearning and definitely no princesses, that deigned instead to continue the adventures of Bianca and Bernard the mice, the protagonists of 1977's The Rescuers, a movie I doubt anyone outside of Disney had thought twice about in thirteen years.
It was kind of an accident (nobody told Disney they were about to undergo a Renaissance, and therefore had a formula they needed to follow), and it did not go well. The Rescuers Down Under underperformed so hard its first weekend, partly thanks to being pitted against the box-office juggernaut of Home Alone, that bossman Jeffrey Katzenberg literally abandoned it, pulling all promotion in a last-ditch effort to save a few million pennies after already spending a few ten million dollars, not to mention roughly half a decade of his studio's time. (Frankly, I even somewhat respect the executive's unsentimental ruthlessness in the situation.) And so by the time the decade of successes it ushered in was done, and all the totals were tallied, Down Under was marked as the least successful film of the Disney Renaissance by a terrible margin, and, caught between Mermaid and the block-busting, Oscar-grasping Beauty and the Beast, it was swept aside even more quickly than that. Branded a misstep by Disney, and treated as a footnote by everybody else, even that was mostly by historians of animation technology who weren't necessarily interested in the film itself.
And this is fucking bullshit.
On the plus side, it's plausible that Down Under's commercial failure and critical—I think I'll go with "misapprehension," because it's produced some pretty bad criticism, or at least criticism I can't even come close to understanding the point of—is what put Disney off theatrical sequels for so long. It's a streak only to be ended this winter once Ralph Breaks the Internet arrives, with Frozen 2 evidently not too far behind. (As it was more in keeping with Walt's original intention of a rotating animation anthology showcase, I'm not one to count Fantasia 2000 as "a sequel," nor, for other reasons, 2011's Winnie the Pooh or 1945's Three Caballeros. However, I'm not against adding them to Disney's Sequel List on principle—as long as you also add them to the much shorter Good Sequel List. That also leaves out the theatrical-but-not-canonical Return to Neverland, but who gives a crap? I'm making a rhetorical point here!) Anyway, this does not speak to this film.
So: The Rescuers Down Under is—I am comfortable saying even without having seen so much as a bare majority of the things, for it is known they are mostly bad—the best Disney sequel. Yes, that's sort of a default position, especially since the vast majority of the "Disney sequels" weren't produced by WDFA/WDAS. Still, I'd be comfortable saying it anyway, because Down Under may be literally the best sequel—that is, the best sequel to anything—at least in the sense that I can't actually name any other sequel that improves so completely on its original. Meanwhile, it is historically important from a technological standpoint—the first full feature made in Disney and Pixar's CAPS scan-and-paint system (and the first fully digital film, period), it was arguably the single biggest leap forward in animation technology ever made. And that certainly doesn't hurt it, either, because few technologies have arrived so fully-formed.
Does this cool shot make use of CAPS in a way only CAPS could be used? Yes. It's not all about showing off, but...
The minds behind the film clearly knew what they had, and Down Under opens with one of the most confident fuck-you gestures you'll ever see in a cartoon (if hardly as mechanically complex as its closest comparison in the Disney line, that being the ambitious, swooping multiplane shot of Pinocchio's waking moments): it's a dolly shot that begins in the grass amidst a bunch of chirping bugs right before blasting off at somewhere close to the speed of sound across a field of flowers and towards the house belonging to the kid-in-need-of-rescue-this-time-around, showing off some of what CAPS could already do extremely well, which is integrate layers of background into seamless, easy, cheap multiplane, as well as what it could already do extremely well, but was limited by the other tools on hand, which is integrate layers of CGI into "traditionally-animated" artwork, previously only seen (for example, in The Great Mouse Detective) by way of laborious hand-tracing.
The result is a gobsmacking opening move, boosted further by the first grand moments of Bruce Boughton's thunderously adventuresome score (which includes less Australiana than you'd think, though it is gratifyingly present in small doses), and it sets the tone for a hell of a good-looking movie, that typically uses CG elements even better than the (admittedly easy-to-notice) repeated patterns of flowers we're sweeping past, and it only occasionally uses CGI less well than that, depending on whether they bothered painting over it or not (notably in the New York-to-Australia bits that use naked CGI for the New York and Sydney skylines and streets, though even this is a massive step up from, e.g., The Rescuers, which, in its analogous scene, used an ugly, sloppy background painting of a street full of cars that we get to stare at for what seems like full minutes while they adamantly refuse to move—so much the nadir of that film's animation and willingness/ability to make even the slightest effort that I'm surprised I forgot to mention it in the last review). And anyway, those skylines are still better-accomplished than the four-years-later Cave of Wonders escape in Aladdin.
But the composition of CGI isn't even the best thing CAPS allowed. That's the newfound ability to control and manipulate color, both in the scanned penciled lines and in the digital "paint," which meant figures were no longer bound by default to black lines, and lighting effects were easier and blending gradients were possible without painstaking handicraft; this is probably most easily seen on Bianca's mouse makeup (which sounds stupid, but it looks amazing).
There could be no more striking a contrast between two animated films, or at least two Disney films, than the Xerography Era Rescuers and its CAPS Era sequel, and Down Under has more in common aesthetically with Disney movies then thirty years old than its series progenitor. Of course, it has even more in common with every Disney movie to come afterward.
My biggest complaint about the whole affair is that they apparently decided that Bianca doesn't have whiskers now, which is slightly jarring when you watch the series' two films back to back.
I'm not saying it's better than The Little Mermaid (so much the greatest triumph of the Xerography Era that you forget how it was made), or that it even looks better, but it certainly demonstrates more toys for its animators to play with.
The Rescuers Down Under also has a story. No, really. It begins as we find our kid, Cody, on an aimless hike through an unrealistically ecologically and geologically diverse vision of the Australian Outback, accompanied by an unrealistically biologically diverse pack of animal friends with whom he happily converses. (So Down Under's doing two things right off that are interesting: first, it corrects The Rescuers' disagreeable decision to forget to mention that, in this universe, children can talk to animals, before almost half the movie's elapsed; second, I think it's the only time in the Disney canon that a male is presented with a menagerie of fawning fauna, in the Snow White/Cinderella/Aurora vein, and it's nice.)
Cody, apprised of a crisis only opposable thumbs and tool-use can solve, braves a tall ridge, atop of which he finds the colossal golden eagle Marahute caught in a trap. He sets about freeing her, and, in the eagle's fear and fury, is knocked off the cliff, hurtling downward for a nauseous moment before the eagle overtakes his descent and catches him, and it's worth stopping again to praise one of the single most wonderful things in any Disney movie, ever, as Marahute takes Cody on a ride that exists to explain the bond Cody feels for the animal, but even more obviously exists to be absolutely stunning and tear-sheddingly gorgeous, as the eagle and child soar through the definition of the term "flight" across the multifaceted landscape of Australia.
Supervised and animated by Glen Keane (albeit drawn, in her exhausting feathered detail, by dozens), Marahute represents the greatest success of the greatest modern Disney animator's main skillset: though most famous for supervising Ariel alongside Mark Henn, and thereby helping establish the basic template of Disney protagonists even into the modern, full-CG era (Keane also helped design Rapunzel, and it shows), Keane first achieved prominence within Disney for his great beasts, starting with The Fox and the Hound's bear. Marahute, in a way, represents the best of both Keane's worlds: imposing, superhuman power now matched with otherworldly grace and beauty. Not for nothing is Marahute, uniquely amongst the animals here, animated with significant if selective realism (she even has veiny nictitating eyelids), and, almost uniquely, not given a human voice (and though she had a voice actor, I think it is a compliment to Frank Welker that I thought for years that she was performed by recorded eagle sounds). It sets her decisively apart, turning her subtly into something like a god, which makes Cody's flight all the more transcendent, the villainy that revolves around her all the more heinous, and the rescuers' quest, in its way, holy.
With its all-CAPS opening statement and that transformative prologue, Down Under has set itself up as a full-on masterpiece already, and that status is the movie's to lose; remarkably, it doesn't, and even if it never quite hits those heights again, there is an awful lot of good stuff left. So Cody, upon his return to Earth, is gifted with a feather, and Cody promptly gets himself caught in a poacher's trap on his way home, whereupon this feather catches the eye of a one McLeach, the nastiest and almost certainly the best-equipped hunter in all the Outback, as well as his pet carnivorous dinosaur Joanna (supposedly an iguana, but Jesus). McLeach, obsessed with finding the golden eagle, imprisons Cody and demands to know where Marahute is; Cody doesn't break, yet, but things are starting to look grim for the boy and eagle alike. That's where our heroes get into the picture, as the underground network of mice that forms the Rescue Aid Society gets the word to New York in a radio montage that is another pretty-damn-high point for Down Under. We check in again with the RAS, finding it to be more in accord with human geopolitical boundaries this time around...
And possibly too in accord with what Disney animators thought of human phenotypical differences. Good grief.
...and once again Bianca and Bernard are tapped for a dangerous mission to save a child. By way of albatross (previously Orville, now Wilbur, and that's cute) and, in a nod to how dumb it would be for an albatross to try crossing the Pacific, a transcoceanic jet, the mice make their way to Australia, and, with the help of Jake the kangaroo rat, set off to find the boy and rescue him. It has been pointed out that kangaroo rats, despite the name, are not native to Australia, but then again, neither are the colonialist adventurers Jake's modeled after, so it works better than they could have possibly intended. (Incidentally, one of Down Under's clearest connections to the original is in its seizing upon a transitory trend: just like The Rescuers made a lot of hay out of 70s hicksploitation, Down Under urgently desires to capitalize on the fad of Ozploitation that ran throughout the 80s. The difference, besides Ozploitation being more palatable, is that Down Under arrived too late to make money off it, though it remains a monumental capstone to Hollywood's most meridional moment.)
It makes some sense that it was The Rescuers that got the sequel nod; with its globetrotting and story-of-the-week structure, there is no other film in the Disney canon that more plainly makes itself available to episodic storytelling. Indeed, it almost did become a TV show—it could've exploited every trend five years too late!—and this only failed to happen because Disney pursued a feature instead. Thus did chipmunk Indiana Jones and chipmunk Magnum P.I. get their show with Chip 'n' Dale's Rescue Rangers, showcasing its distinct but equally-influential vision of Mouse Sexiness in the form of Gadget Hackwrench.
This is why Millennials are all messed up.
But since I raised the issue, one of the most refreshing and lovely things about Down Under is that it is, also, a romantic comedy, and in all the annals of Disney, it's possibly the one single time they've ever managed a mature take on any relationship—Mermaid arguably having a pretty mature allegorical take on sex, but not on relationships—so while it's probably too much to suspect that Down Under takes place literally thirteen years after The Rescuers, insofar as Bianca and Bernard are still alive, it's clearly been a good, healthy while, and so it's the only Disney feature that depicts anything even remotely similar to normal coupling in the 20th or 21st centuries. Threaded elegantly through the film is a whole subplot about Bernard's humorously failed attempts to propose to Bianca after a long and eventful courtship, interrupted (from Bernard's perspective) by the humorously aggressive posturing of the Australian man's mouse and sex fiend, Jake, and all leavened with Bianca's obvious-to-everybody-but-Bernard complete disinterest in Jake's flirtations as anything but a way to 1)make use of his skills and 2)(and even more importantly) tease her partner of many, many years.
If one wanted to be complimentary about it, and I do, it's like a Lubitsch film with cartoon mice. If one wanted to be insulting, it's sitcommy. But sitcommy can still be really good, and returning VAs Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor were certainly no strangers to such good-natured romantic farce. They make it absolutely sing here, with Newhart's jealous neuroticism honed to such a razor point that he makes it extremely clear in this Disney movie that Bernard's a bundle of sexual insecurities convinced he's dating above his station, while Gabor is nothing but delightful in her polite, polished, winking sluttiness, leading to a situation where Bernard is pushed to go above and beyond to save the kid, but where he pretty plainly won the girl ages ago and is just too dumb to know it.
On more-or-less the same note, Down Under has some of the most effective comic relief, generally, in any Disney film, to the point it almost-but-not-quite represents a tonal problem, though much, much less so than usual; and I wouldn't trade John Candy's Wilbur, "the epidermal tissue disruptor," and the most Looney Tunes-esque antics ever seen in a Disney feature until The Emperor's New Groove for a more merely-coherent cartoon, anyway. Nor would I trade Joanna. Also played by Frank Welker, she's the mirror image of Marahute: too subhumanly stupid to talk, in the same way the eagle is too divine, but still possessed of some great interactions with McLeach in which she makes her funny animal cunning known.
Which brings us to the best Disney villain nobody talks about. McLeach doesn't reach the very top ranks of the Ursulas and Jafars, but he's doing something very different anyway, being a cartoonish expression of a very prosaic evil (his clearest precursors are Bambi's unseen hunter and Fox and the Hound's redneck furtrapper) and he beats Cruella de Vil/Madame Medusa with the butt of a rifle.
Played by an expertly-cast and scenery-devouring George C. Scott as so-dumb-he's-dangerous and yet with a fair amount of animal cunning himself (McLeach's ultimate gambit to get Cody to reveal Marahute's aerie is actually really smart)—and designed and drawn with aggressively sharp and pointy edges and a potbellied, triangular shape that nevertheless always feels threatening rather than slack—McLeach is scary in a way few Disney villains are, because you could find him in real life. And so you feel it when he explains that he plans to get away with it because kids get eaten by crocodiles all the time. Oddly—like, dumbfoundingly—many folks have walked away from Down Under thinking the darkness represented by McLeach is a weakness of the film, rather than an enormous strength. I take the opposite view, and also find myself very amused that McLeach never knows he's being foiled by secret agent mice. Plus, Down Under features a "Disney death" where a protagonist actively helps the villain fall to their demise, and who wouldn't dig that?
Bianca might have seniority, but Bernard's the mouse the RAS calls in when there's wetwork to be done. Can you believe this guy isn't secure in his masculinity?
So let's throw in, too, the spectacular, mythic Australian backgrounds that feel even more spectacular and mythic when seen from a mouse-eye view, plus a lot of well-paced, well-choregraphed animated action and suspense—I haven't even mentioned Cody's attempted jailbreak with the help of McLeach's tragicomic animal captives. The film only falls down the once, in a weird scene that takes good advantage of mouse scale to help our heroes survive the treads of McLeach's halftrack, but with a curious inability to represent movement that belies its conceptual coolness. That's a minor complaint, of course, and taken altogether with what is otherwise great, groundbreaking animation, some excellent adult relationship comedy, and a uniquely strong villain, what we've got is one of the most incomprehensibly ignored films Disney ever made.