In conversations about Disney Animation’s spell-binding run of films from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King and beyond, there’s rarely enough lip-service given to the overlooked milestone that came out in 1990.
Sandwiched between the transformational The Little Mermaid, the studio’s biggest box office success in decades, and Beauty and the Beast, which became the first ever animated Best Picture nominee at the 1992 Oscars and is still considered by many to be Disney’s best, The Rescuers Down Under is somewhat lost in the mix.
Nevertheless, it was a groundbreaking film for the studio’s steadily regrouping feature animation department and marked a number of notable firsts for them and the medium in general. The circumstances of its production and its release would make it the least financially and critically successful film of the period, but in the context of its innovations, it’s interesting to look back and see how this forgotten film changed the studio and animation itself.
The First Disney Sequel
As detailed in Don Hahn’s terrific Disney documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, feature animation was both imperiled by a proposed corporate takeover and then revitalized by a changing of the guard at the top of the studio during the 1980s. New executives Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells formed an uneasy working relationship with each other, with Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, and with their staff. The newcomers aimed to modernize the department and update practices that had long been held at the family-run studio, which led to a tense working environment.
They moved the animation department off the Disney lot, held unsociably early department meetings on the weekend and fostered a competitive atmosphere by holding a regular gong show for feature ideas, in which anyone from animators to custodians could come in and pitch movies. The gong show was a technique that Eisner and Katzenberg had used at Paramount and although the hit rate wasn’t high, the Disney equivalent was the breeding ground for the earliest forms of Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, and Treasure Planet. Surprisingly, “a sequel to The Rescuers set in Australia” was another of the successful pitches and the film was greenlit in 1986.
On the surface, this seems somewhat at odds with the aim to make the studio’s output a big box office draw once again. Based on Margery Sharp’s books about a rodent Rescue Aid Society that helps the children of the world, the original Rescuers had been released 12 years earlier and fans of the original would certainly have grown out of the target audience by the time the film was released. But the studio had never made a sequel before and along with the first home video releases of films like Pinocchio, this was one way in which the new bosses could make the back catalogue pay.
Aside from nostalgia, 1986 had seen Crocodile Dundee become one of the biggest films in the world, which may have suggested the setting of the belated sequel in the Australian Outback. Production began that year, with animators travelling to Australia to make location and character sketches from the sweeping vistas and their animal population.
Voice actors Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor reprised their roles as Rescue Aid Society agents Bernard and Bianca, with John Candy providing the voice of Wilbur, brother of albatross Orville (voiced by the late Jim Jordan) from the original film. But in a departure from the procedural elements of The Rescuers, the sequel was mounted as a full-blown action-adventure film.
The First Disney Action-Adventure
Although The Little Mermaid would mark the return of Disney musicals in a big, beautiful way, the decision was made to take songs out of the equation, so as to avoid slowing down the plot. The first film did have a couple of songs by the characters, but this was only the second film, after 1985’s The Black Cauldron, to forego the musical element.
Whereas the first Rescuers has a very brief and mysterious cold open, in which the kidnapped Penny drops a message in a bottle, and then largely takes place from the point-of-view of Bernard and Bianca after they’ve been assigned by the Rescue Aid Society to help her, the sequel presents a more thrilling opening to its central case. The first 15 minutes of the film are based around Cody befriending a rare, giant golden eagle called Marahute, before he falls into an animal trap set by poacher Percival C. McLeach.
The opening feels like a forerunner to How to Train Your Dragon, particularly in the breathtaking scenes where Cody rides on the eagle’s back, but more importantly, it’s immediately more action-packed than the first film and signifies what will essentially be a 50/50 split in screen time between Cody and the Rescuers through the rest of the film.
Moreover, it looks different to just about any other Disney film of the time, with more modern animation than what had gone before and a unique aesthetic next to other films of the so-called Renaissance. Directors Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel took inspiration not from the studio’s canon but from the likes of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean.
“’We were inspired by great films, not great animation or great comics or great cartoons,’” co-director Gabriel told the Orlando Sentinel upon the film’s release. “We try to incorporate great film techniques to tell a cinematic story.’”
This also shows in the villain McLeach, who was voiced by George C. Scott—the character animators based him on Scott’s performance in Dr. Strangelove, and the script makes plenty of allowance for him to be utterly despicable.
You know his type, all entitled masculinity and domineering disregard for nature. We’d see the likes again in Gaston, Ratcliffe, and Clayton throughout the 1990s, but McLeach is especially nasty and more than willing to hurt Cody in order to capture his bird. Some critics didn’t like the relative level of violence and threat upon release, but it’s unique as a Disney film with a little edge.
The lack of the traditional songs is also distinctive from other Disney output, giving way to the exhilarating action-adventure score by Bruce Broughton, with a main title theme that was equal parts Crocodile Dundee and Indiana Jones. Like Oliver & Company and the first Rescuers, it has a distinctly contemporary setting, and it makes strong use of the Outback setting.
Alas, when story supervisor Joe Ranft floated the option of making Cody an Aboriginal Australian, he was overruled by Katzenberg in favor of the “little blonde white kid” we see in the film. So, for better or worse, it’s an altogether more commercial Disney film than most of the films that had been released in the decade before. As the top brass viewed it, it was time for the studio’s animated output to be financially successful as well as critically acclaimed.
The First Digitally Animated Movie
The pressure was only intensified by the implementation of a whole new computer system, being used on this film for the very first time. The Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) cost the studio $10 million and was one of the studio’s very first collaborations with Pixar, then a struggling start-up company.
The CAPS process, which allowed for multi-plane animated shots using computers, was first used for a short sequence at the end of The Little Mermaid, but was simultaneously being used to bring The Rescuers Down Under to life. It was an ambitious step forward, but not one for which the process was necessarily ready.
As producer Thomas Schumacher said in Waking Sleeping Beauty: “What I remember most of that period was feeling so broken hearted that we had attempted to make a feature film using [the CAPS process] before anyone had even made a short with it. We had never tested the system before we committed to a release date.”
The film fell behind schedule as a result and production duties had to be shared between the main Glendale feature animation headquarters in California and the Florida animation staff at Disney-MGM, who were primarily dedicated to shorts and were untested on features. Funnily enough, they were simultaneously working on the Mickey Mouse short The Prince and the Pauper, which wound up playing with Down Under in U.S. theaters before the feature presentation.
Drawings and videotapes were couriered between the two studios daily, and Florida ultimately pitched in on 10 minutes out of the 77-minute feature before the deadline. The CAPS process would become an integral part of more successful subsequent films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, but while this one still looks impressive, it feels like it was a little compromised by the accelerated production process.
Aftermath and Legacy
The Rescuers Down Under is a serviceable sequel and a perfectly solid addition to the Disney canon. The main attraction are the visuals and the perfectly charming double act of Bernard and Bianca, but there’s a decent menagerie of new characters once they arrive in Australia and Scott gives an enjoyable vocal turn as the deranged villain. In the main, the film was warmly received by critics when it was released, but after all the work that went into it, it was also seemingly set up to fail.
Released on Nov. 16, 1990, the film came in fourth place at the U.S. box office in its opening weekend, behind Child’s Play 2, Rocky V, and a little new release called Home Alone. Competing for the same family audience, the live-action Chris Columbus movie went onto become a juggernaut success and the biggest movie of the year.
But it was the immediate aftermath of the opening weekend that really hurt the film. On Monday morning, Katzenberg pulled all television advertising for the film, essentially hobbling its chances of picking up any steam, and told Schumacher and the crew to move onto the next project. Domestically, the sequel didn’t even perform as well as Disney’s TV spin-off DuckTales: Treasure of The Lost Lamp or a rerelease of The Jungle Book, both released earlier that year and overall, it was Disney’s least successful animated film of the 1990s.
What’s alarming about this is that Home Alone could hardly have been a complete surprise. As Mousterpiece Cinema’s Josh Spiegel remarked on his blog about the film, “Katzenberg likely had enough tracking information to tip him off that Home Alone would be a monster laying waste to everything in its path. The Rescuers Down Under was forced to take the hit, then and afterwards.”
We don’t think that Katzenberg would deliberately throw the film under the bus, especially given how much was apparently riding on it, but it’s interesting how it wound up falling between two of the studio’s biggest ever successes in the end. Around the time of Oliver & Company, the studio stated their intent to make a movie per year and with the CAPS process fully implemented after Down Under, they would have five animated features in development at once in the years that followed.
Despite the disappointing performance of the second film, a third Rescuers film was planned later in the 1990s, but after the death of John Candy in 1994 and then Eva Gabor in 1995 (Down Under was her final film), the project was permanently shelved. Had that sequel come to fruition, then the franchise would undoubtedly have lived on beyond it.
This was the era of numerous animated spinoff television series on the Disney Channel, including Aladdin, Hercules, and The Adventures of Timon & Pumbaa. Along similar lines, The Rescuers seems tailor-made for the episodic format. The formula of the two mice going on missions to help children in need would still lend itself quite nicely to a procedural mystery drama for a young audience and still might, depending on whether Disney have held onto the rights.
The Rescuers Down Under doesn’t stand up to the likes of the films released on either side of it, but as a landmark in digital animation, neither does it deserve to be so completely forgotten as it apparently has been. The medium moved on, but this has some stunning visuals and a more urgent and dangerous tone than either its predecessor or most other Disney animated features, and at worst, it’s a lost curiosity that’s worth another look.