The great renaissance of Disney animation took off in 1989 thanks to “The Little Mermaid” and, two years later, “Beauty and the Beast.”
After years of forgettable, ambitious-but-failed animated offerings, the studio had finally returned to the glory days when Uncle Walt called the shots. Nestled in between Ariel the mermaid and Belle the beauty is 1990’s “The Rescuers Down Under.”
It’s an unheralded Disney classic you should know about. It’s also a landmark film, not only for its considerable surface-level achievements but also as a technical and artistic breakthrough.
We meet Cody (Adam Ryen), a boy who living in Australia who befriends and sets free a captured eagle named Marahute. While Marahute expresses her gratitude, Cody is immediately in danger, as the eagle is being relentlessly pursued by a poacher named McLeash, who abducts Cody and uses him as bait.
Luckily, a mouse witnesses the abduction and notifies the heroic Bernard and Miss Bianca, the very tiny and brilliant mice whose specialize in rescuing children in harm. Aided by Jake, an Aussie mouse with a crush on Miss Bianca, the mice set off to save both the boy and the eagle from McLeach’s control.
“The Rescuers Down Under” explodes out of the starting gate, with a rich blend of hand drawn and computer animation. The detail is astonishing, as is the clarity of the image (note the vividness of the chandelier where Ms. Bianca and Bernard are introduced and the snow falling outside). Unlike the muted palette and watercolor splashes of the 1977 original, this is a visual feast.
Cody, our young protagonist, has a faint Aussie accent in his first scene but otherwise sounds like a U.S. citizen for the majority of the film. The ability of Cody to communicate audibly with animals makes this a fantasy, though the inclusion of a poacher as the antagonist is an interesting contrast- as the voice of McLeach, George C. Scott creates a repellent villain that isn’t lovable but quite loathsome.
Another indication this is a fantasy – Cody’s worried Mom is heard but never seen and, after two brief bits, is dropped altogether.
FAST FACT: “The Rescuers Down Under” was the first animated sequel from Team Disney’s theatrical division.
Bernard and Miss Bianca are once again vocalized by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, whose personalities nicely compliment their animated counterparts. Listen closely to the mouse that McLeash uses to lure victims into a trap – it’s the late Billy Barty. Jake is a Crocodile Dundee stand-in and, while Tristan Rogers ably plays him, the character isn’t all that interesting.
Much better is the late John Candy, positively charming as the Albatross who flies the mice to Australia (he’s playing Wilbur, the brother of Orville, voiced by the late Jim Jordan in the original and yes, the names are a clever nod to the Wright brothers).
Candy has some inspired throwaway lines, including a nod to “Mary Poppins.” Candy single-handedly sells the movie’s bizarre, darkly funny sequence of Wilbur being under the care of psychotic medical mice; it’s an out of left field subplot and the actor’s willingness to embrace the weirdness of it makes it work.
Another winning, offbeat touch is McLeach’s confidant, Joanna the Salamander. She’s a cleverly animated, villainous sidekick with no lines and behavior ranging from ferocious devotion to puppy-like fear.
Presumably, the Australia setting was chosen because of the Down Under craze that hit stateside in the late 1980s, with both “Crocodile Dundee” films sparking this trend and “Young Einstein” killing it.
The opening, which briskly sets the story in motion and features an astonishing flying scene (the first of several) is a spellbinder. The first ten minutes are all this needs to draw in an audience (composer Bruce Broughton’s score is another knockout).
The stirring prologue gives way to our re-acquaintance with our heroes and their Rescue Aid Society goes down smoother the second time (here, the stereotypes of the other delegates at this UN for mice are downplayed and only fleetingly glanced).
There’s too much downtime in the villain’s lair during the bottom half of the second act. While the movie has a flurry of “shrimp on the barbie” Aussie cliches, there’s also a total absence of aboriginal people in the Outback (even the “Crocodile Dundee” movies got this right).
The humor is mild and there’s that old story standby of the male lead struggling the entire film to make a belated wedding proposal (“Frozen 2” recently recycled this tired bit). There’s also the use of a bra for a cheap laugh (oddly, even “Wall-E” is guilty of this).
In addition to appearing uncannily detailed and glossy, the animation adds great texture to the characters. Note the moment early on where Cody falls off a cliff in slow motion – we see tears well in his eyes, as the animators boldly didn’t hesitate to portray the tremendous fear the character is feeling at that moment.
This portrait of very-real emotions in the midst of a talking animals cartoon extends to McLeach – you can hear how much fun Scott is having, but he doesn’t play cute, either. This is one of the cruelest villains in any Disney movie (from the classic hand-drawn era or Pixar).
“The Rescuers Down Under” is unique for being a Disney animated feature that isn’t a musical and incorporates computer generated images, a first for the company. It was digitally constructed from hand-drawn and computer-provided work, without an actual camera. It was the first animated film from Disney to utilize their new CAPS program (Computer Animation Production System) and an early project that involved the participation of Pixar.
While this may have come and gone from theaters and is considered a minor film when compared to the works that bookended it, the second adventure of Miss Bianca and Bernard actually holds up better than “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” both of which are now notably dated and singled out for “problematic” touches.
At the very least, this is a massive improvement over the other animated movie Disney dropped into theaters in 1990: the TV-ready, lively but mostly unexceptional “Ducktales: The Movie – Treasure of the Lost Lamp.”
There are so many great sequences here, like the montage of mice spreading Cody’s rescue message worldwide (Morris Code plays a big part), a flight off a New York skyscraper into a snowstorm, the site of mice flying around a swamp by unconventional means and a thrilling rescue beneath McLeach’s monstrous, “Mad Max”-ready vehicle. This is as close as Disney has ever come to using animation to make an all-out action movie.
Today, “The Rescuers Down Under” is on Disney+ and, unlike streaming blockbusters like “The Mandalorian” and “Hamilton,” it just sits there, waiting to be rediscovered. Here is a work that never received the rediscovery, let alone the cult following, it completely deserves.
The Mouse House has made funnier animated features but few as swift and thrilling as this one.