I’ve returned with a new decade in the Disney Vault. The nineties saw Disney churning out film upon film, so it’ll take almost all summer for me to get through this decade. The Rescuers Down Under was the first Disney sequel (and one of the few, for several years, to see a theatrical release). Unfortunately, Disney’s sequel to the 1977 The Rescuers is a misfire that doesn’t benefit, nor does it do anything for, the characters established in the first Rescuers film. The movie capitalizes on the nineties love for Australia and environmentalism, and slaps “the Rescuers” on the box; a work of art for the Disney CAPS system (and the flying sequences are lovely), but don’t go into this expecting to see further adventures from Bernard and Bianca.
When a young boy is kidnapped, Rescue Aid Society members Bernard and Bianca (voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor) must travel to the land down under in order to save him from the villainous McLeach (voiced by George C. Scott).
As mentioned above, The Rescuers Down Under was a first for the Disney Company; the first animated film and the first all-digital feature (past films had used the CAPS system for a handful of scenes). A third Rescuers feature was planned, but actress Eva Gabor passed away in 1996, scrapping all future plans for the series. Who knows if any of that would have gone through had Gabor lived because this was such a commercial disappointment – making $47 million on a $37 million budget (Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg was so disappointed by the box office that he pulled all advertisements for it after the first week).
For some reason, audiences loved Australia and saving the environment, particularly in children’s film. For every Ferngully there was a Once Upon a Forest, all with the intention of teaching children that they had to do their part to save the little animals – or fairies in the case of Ferngully – from the evil villain known as “MAN.” What better way to capitalize on all the things we love about the 90s than take two characters from a dour Disney movie, and inject them into a story that wraps up everything? Unfortunately, you get The Rescuers Down Under. I’m being a little harsh; it’s not a bad film by any means, simply unrealized. The flying sequences, capitalizing on Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki who was making a name for himself on US shores, are beautifully rendered via the CAPS system; and you still get to see the always amazing Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart return to voice Bernard and Bianca. The problem is the script has little interest in Bernard and Bianca themselves.
What worked for the first film was the Rescue Aid Society, an international coalition of mice who take on the cases that humans don’t. Here, the mice are no different from the countless other animals in the world. Hell, the first thirty seconds have a talking kangaroo talking to the boy, Cody (Adam Ryen) who stands in for Penny. There’s no real-world connections here, or grander stakes. The absolute lack of context is unsettling, especially because the first film set up the world to a “T.” They were underestimated throughout – “two little mice. What can you do?” – and the ingenuity came in watching them craft a duplicate world that was so similar to ours. It could be since audiences should have watched the first movie there was no need to waste time on filler, but there is absolutely nothing done to set-up this supposedly new and original story. The opening credits are a generic sequence showing bugs on the ground before rapidly racing the camera towards a location. An orchestral score – which is beautiful – ramps up the tension despite the lack of a discernible theme song, and lasts less than thirty seconds. From there we meet Cody, who runs away from his house for reasons unknown, to go into the woods. He’s apparently hearing a signal and wakes up all the animals, commanding them to follow. What is his relationship to the animals? Why does he feel the need to run away without telling his mom and wander aimlessly in the Australian outback (I’ll get to the use of location in a second)? Furthermore, how can he talk to animals? Penny was able to talk to the mice and Rufus the cat because she was so lonely. In this, every animal talks because they want to! It’s jarring to have animals open up their mouths and speak perfect English without any build-up; And why can only certain animals talk? The eagle that Cody is determined to save, and McLeach’s monitor lizard, Joanna, don’t speak.
Oh, Cody; the kid we’re supposed to care about. Penny was a perfect victim because she was kidnapped and forced to put her life in peril. The fact that she was an orphan worked to the Rescue Aid Society’s advantage because she had no family to report her missing, and thus the cops never became integrated into events. The Rescuers Down Under desperately wants to court little boys, and thus the movie makes Cody a mini-adventurer who almost dies within the first two minutes. He recklessly puts his life in danger, for no other reason than he’s the lone animal activist of the Australian outback, and McLeach simply explains away anyone finding him by throwing the boy’s backpack in crocodile infested waters. A few times throughout, news footage is interspersed of the “search” for Cody, but since we never see Cody reunited with his mother I guess it’s assumed he got home whenever he damn well felt like it; maybe next time he’ll leave his mother a note!
McLeach is a villain on par with Shere Khan, where the voice is the distinctive part of the villain. No man does frightening quite like George C. Scott! However, McLeach isn’t utilized to full effect. He’s got some terrifying sequences, such as his macabre performance of “Home on the Range,” but he generally just abuses his pet and drags Cody around. In the first film, you believed Medusa was willing to kill Penny to get what she wanted; while McLeach threatens Cody with violence, and at the end decides to tie up loose ends by killing him, he keeps the kid confined as another simple solution to the plot. The script sets itself up and then goes back over events by quickly having a character say something to cover up the flaws while hoping to enlarge the story. By “enlarging” the story, it’s all surface level things, such as moving from the US city to the vast locale of Australia. I apologize to those reading this from Australia because The Rescuers Down Under does nothing but stereotype your country. McLeach and Cody are American (although Cody has an Australian mother) and the only character who lives in Australia and has an accent is the mouse, Jake (voiced by Tristan Rogers). The movie could have taken place anywhere else since the only connections to the land are kangaroos and koalas – apparently the only representatives of the country (and don’t forget the fact that cities have nondescript names like “Satan’s Gulch” and “Nightmare Alley…” or something to that effect). How is it that audiences loved the country so much, yet screenwriters never took the time to accurately portray the place.
So I mentioned a new mouse, but there’s a vast panoply of characters in this. There’s at least a dozen additional animal characters, and three running plots all within a 77-minute movie. We have Jake, who’s the fly in the ointment between Bernard and Bianca as a quasi-rival for Bianca’s affections although the plot goes nowhere. You also have a cadre of animal friends who are stuck in McLeach’s lair with Cody, including a lizard character named Frank (voiced by Wayne Robson) who’s another Gurgi, although less annoying, and you have Wilbur (voiced by John Candy) whose plot is that he’s hurt and being operated on by crazed mice. And where do Bernard and Bianca fit in, you ask? The script doesn’t bother to introduce them till 15 solid minutes into events! Of a 77 minute movie! With the sheer abundance of needless characters, Bernard and Bianca do little besides get in trouble. In the original, the mice were able to work with what they had to achieve their goals and had agency. You’d think that all the trees and open space would help, but Bernard and Bianca are forced to rely on other animals, or simply end up captured. Ultimately, The Rescuers Down Under proves it doesn’t need the rescuers at all.
When the film is about Bernard and Bianca it’s good; when it’s about McLeach it’s good. Overall, though, The Rescuers Down Under is not good. Too many characters, too much story, and a thin script taxes the film and cuts down the good elements to a sliver. A faltering step in the Disney Renaissance.
NEXT WEEK: Disney talks about inner beauty with Beauty and the Beast
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.