Disney 53: The Rescuers Down Under

We at THN love our Disney movies. And with FROZEN, the 53rd animated feature film, looming ever closer, THN takes a look back at its forebears, from 1937’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, through the wilderness years of the 1970s to the Disney Renaissance of the ’90s.
This week, THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel
1990/ 77 minutes

A sequel to 1977’s THE RESCUERS- The first Disney sequel to get a theatrical release, in fact, DOWN UNDER was also the first “proper” Disney movie that wasn’t based on an existing book, story or fable. THE RESCUERS had been based upon the novels of Margery Sharp, but DOWN UNDER wasn’t based on any of them.

It’s also notable for being the second Disney 53 movie (after THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985) not to have any musical numbers. There is a bit of singing, but we’ll get to that later.

THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER marked a turning point for Disney; it was the first traditionally-animated film to use the new Computer Animation Production System developed by Pixar, the beginning of a beautiful, if tumultuous partnership. CAPS allowed the artist’s hand-drawn artwork to be scanned into a computer and digitally coloured with an infinite palate and edited with scanned backgrounds allowing more innovative and in-depth camera positioning, tracking shots and other techniques unheard of in animation.  It also shows off some (for the time) state of the art Computer Generated Imagery, showcased in the opening shot, a mad dash across a field of flowers, as well as a tourism shot of Sidney Opera House.

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A team of over four hundred artists and technicians worked on production; a team of them travelled to the Outback for research, a practise held by Pixar to this day.

Using CAPS, Disney gave the world the first fully digital feature film. Alas, it underperformed in the eyes of the Disney head honchos, pulling only (!) $47.5 million, the least successful box-office performance of the era. Studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg then decided to pull all TV advertising, effectively writing the film off, despite positive response from critics.

SYNOPSIS: The Australian Outback. A young lad named Cody sneaks out of his house and meets with the local animals, with whom he can somehow communicate. He learns that a rare golden eagle names Marahute has been snared by a poacher. Saving the bird, and almost dying in the process, Marahute shows her appreciation with a gesture of absolute trust; taking him to her nest, where three eggs lay waiting to hatch.

Later on, Cody comes to the aid of a mouse caught in a trap, and realises too late that the rodent is the bait for a larger trap, set by wanted poacher McLeach. When McLeach learns that Cody has been in contact with Marahute, his eyes almost light up with dollar signs; he’s already caught and killed one eagle, and another would earn him plenty. McLeach throws Cody’s backpack into a crocodile-infested river, leaving a false trail for the Rangers, and takes the boy to his lair, planning to interrogate him for Marahute’s location. Having seen everything, the mouse alerts the Rescue Aid Society, and in a montage sequence worthy of Indiana Jones, the message is relayed across the globe to New York, where our hero Bernard is trying to pluck up the courage to propose to his field partner, Miss Bianca. The mission immediately takes priority, and as the RAS’ elite field agents, Bernard and Bianca head for Albatross Airlines. Charting a flight with Wilbur (brother of THE RESCUER’s Orville), the pair reach Australia and meet their regional contact, Jake. A kangaroo mouse and screaming Aussie hard-man stereotype, Jake immediately falls for Bianca, much to Bernard’s annoyance.

While the three RAS agents begin their search for Cody, Wilbur is admitted to a field hospital, having bent his spine out of shape with a bum landing. Wilbur’s attempts to escape his “treatment”, inadvertently fix his back and he escapes to assist his friends.

At his lair, McLeach throws Cody into a cage after the boy refuses to cooperate. Surrounded by captured animals, Cody and his new allies make an attempt for freedom, which is scuppered by Joanna, McLeach’s pet Goanna.

After a brilliant comedy scene which has Joanna stealing McLeach’s lunch, McLeach realises that Marahute’s eggs are Cody’s weak spot, and tricks the lad into thinking someone else has bagged the eagle; with no one to guard or incubate the eggs, they’ll surely perish. With no further need of Cody, McLeach throws him out, following him in his monstrous half-track truck as he runs to Marahute’s nest.

By this point, Bernard, Bianca and Jake have found the ranch; learning of McLeach’s plan, they stow about his truck. Finding Cody at Marahute’s nest, the mice are too late to warn him. Marahute returns to her nest, and the four of them are captured by McLeach. On her master’s order, Joanna slinks down the cliff to the nest and tries to eat the eggs, but her teeth and nails shatter on their rock-hard shells. Indignantly, she kicks them off the edge and into the ravine below, skulking back to McLeach empty-stomached. His ruse successful, Bernard breaks from his cover, and checks on the eggs, safe and round. Quite how he was able to move three eggs about five times his size and replace them with perfectly egg-shaped rocks without anyone noticing is beyond me, but top marks to the little guy. Just then, Wilbur arrives to help, and under some duress, he’s convinced to stay with the nest and incubate the eggs while Bernard rises to the rescue on a Razorback pig he’s able to “tame”, a trick learned from Jake.

Rather than just kill the boy quietly as any real-life Evil Bastard would have done, McLeach ties Cody up and dangles him over that same croc-infested creek. Bernard makes it to the truck and yanks out its keys, killing the  truck’s winch and leaving Cody high, dry and for the most part safe. Jake, Bianca and Marahute look on, and are handed the keys by Bernard.

As Joanna chases Bernard, McLeach tries to shoot the rope out from above Cody, but a quick trick from Bernard sends both Joanna and McLeach into the water. As the crocs turn their attention to McLeach, the rope holding Cody begins to break. McLeach manages to fend off the crocodiles, and sees Joanna reaching the shore. She sadly waves goodbye, and McLeach is swept away over a waterfall, plummeting to his demise.

Meanwhile, Cody and Bernard end up in the drink themselves, and Bernard is able to pull Cody to the surface and tries to tow him to shore (who is this guy, Mighty Mouse?!) Bianca and Jake manage to free Marahute in the nick of time, and the five of them escape into the sky. Bianca and Bernard are reunited, and before anything else can happen, he proposes. Of course, she accepts, as Jake looks on with respect.

Fade cut to Wilbur, still sat on the eggs, and one by one they begin to hatch.

LESSONS LEARNED:

1. Hold onto your ideals.

2. Don’t underestimate the little guy.

3. Never give up hope.

 

THE HEROES
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Bob Newhart returns as Bernard, and while he seems to have lost his Triskaidekaphobia, he really does go through the ringer on this one. Upstaged for most of the film by Jake and a million miles away from his comfort zone, he suddenly turns into a superhero in the final act. Seriously, this guy must be from NIMH or something, pulling off some incredible feats of strength, while at the same time retaining that stoic, “why me?” attitude. He’s a true hero in that regard, swallowing his fears and getting on with the mission, saving everyone’s lives in the process.

Norwegian child actor Adam Ryen voices Cody, a precocious and brave little Outback lad. While being little more than a plot generator, Cody is an endearing if bland hero with little backstory Using his gift to speak to animals (a gift apparently shared by Penny) and doing his best to keep them safe from his fellow human, Cody doesn’t have the emotional centre that Penny did. Maybe it’s the lack of a decent song to sum things up, but you find yourself caring less for Cody and more for Marahute and the other animals he comes to help. Then again, that’s probably the point.

THE HEROINES
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Marahute, voiced by Frank Welker (yep, really) is arguably the heroine here, saving Cody’s life twice by selflessly diving to his rescue. A gentle giant, Marahute is shown to be intelligent, sentient and even emotional, visibly mourning the loss of her mate. It’s clear she has a lot of trust in Cody; otherwise, there’s no way she would have shown him to her nest.

INTERESTING INTERLUDE: Marahute is implied to be a Haast’s Eagle, an extinct species of eagle known to have lived on the South Island of New Zealand. While it became extinct around the year 1400, it’s not impossible (especially for a Disney movie) for some to have made it to Australia and survived to the present day.

Of course, Marahute and her chicks may be the only ones of their kind left in the world, which kinda brings a certain melancholy; despite their best efforts, the Rescuers may be too late to save Marahute’s species. It’s an environmental/conservationist angle that isn’t really explored in the film.

Bianca, however, has very little to do here but fawn and flirt with almost every other character she comes across, despite her obvious love for Bernard. She plays her part in the final act and retains her grace under fire, but it’s Bernard’s show.

 

THE VILLAIN
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Percival C. McLeach, voiced by George C Scott and Frank Welker (I’ll explain later), is much like OLIVER AND COMPANY’S FAGIN, in that he has no disillusionment in his actions; he knows he’s evil and he’s in it for the money. And he’s one of the shining stars of the film. Despite only reaching the third grade (by his own admission), McLeach is an intelligent, articulate and cunning individual, and good at what he does. He’s also shown to be pretty strong himself, facing off against a whole float of crocodiles- though they likely gave him up when they realised how close he was to the edge.

McLeach also gets some of the best gags, and one sequence is a highlight of the film.

While he may go ignored by some, McLeach is right up there with Gaston and Clayton in my book; the right balance of malice, menace and mirth with some fantastic voice acting and a strong storyline.

HIS FATE? Plummets to his apparent doom, swept off the edge of an insanely high waterfall. Your classic Disney Villain Death.

 

SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
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Bernard and Bianca are joined by Jake, voiced by Tristan Rogers, and Wilbur, voice of John Candy. Wilber was written in to replace Orville, after Jim Jordan’s passing in 1988, and plays pretty similar. Bestowed with Candy’s fast-talking attitude, his hospital comedy subplot is pretty redundant, and only serves to keep him out of the main narrative for a while and let Jake get some more screentime.

Jake is, to be honest, a bit of a dick. A cocksure tough guy who’s seen it all and is more than willing to tell you about it, he’s nonetheless the guy you want on your side. While he looks down on Bernard to begin with, he softens up to him by the end- having witnessed Bernard’s superodent feats for himself.

Backing up McLeach is Joanna the Goanna, voiced by Frank Welker (As well as being famous for voicing two versions of Megatron and pretty much every version of Fred in SCOOBY-DOO, Welker does vocalisations for countless other animals in movies; honestly, the dude crops up everywhere.) Joanna is less of a pet and more of an abused lackey. It’s implied that McLeach has mistreated her in the past, and he makes several threats to her life in the film. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but Joanna doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to escape. Maybe it’s all the free eggs.

Following in the footsteps of Brutus and Nero from THE RESCUERS, Joanna is a lot smarter than she first appears, whilst still being a feral beast. She’s shown to outwit McLeach at least once (see above), but to be honest, that doesn’t seem too hard.

PLOT
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No real surprises and everything is laid out pretty straight. Despite the colossal size of Australia, the Rescuers are able to find and rescue Cody in a matter of days, and a lot of things are left unresolved. While it’s presumed that Cody is reunited with his mother and Marahute with her hatchlings (and assuming they haven’t eaten or imprinted on Wilbur in the meantime) none of this is shown on-screen. We just see our heroes flying into the moonlit night with the assumption everything turns out okay.
LAUGHS
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Plenty, and a surprising amount from the Bad Guy camp; McLeach and Joanna make a good double-act, and McLeach himself is a surprisingly funny character with several monologues, the best of which comes just before that egg-snatching scene.

Wilbur is basically there for laughs, but a lot of his stuff is old hat; the kind of slapstick, bumbling nice-guy stuff that Candy did so well. He gets the last laugh of the film, sitting on his lonesome as Marahute’s eggs begin hatching.

And an honourable mention to both Frank the Frilled Lizard (voice of Wayne Robson), an insane, hyperactive little coward, and Krebbs the Koala, voiced by Douglas Seale, a curmudgeonly pessimist who gets some really great lines. Between the two of them we get some great comedy moments. It’s almost a shame we didn’t see more of them in the film; I’d watch these two over Timon and Pumbaa any day.

 

SCARES
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McLeach and Goanna are both pretty scary at times, and both of them show no remorse or regard for the lives they’re destroying. The final act is pretty darn thrilling, even though we can all see where it’s headed, and there are a few tense moments; Bernard and Bianca menaced by a snake, the prison break sequence in McLeach’s lair, though that’s lightened by Frank’s antics.

 

MUSIC AND SONGS
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Some really nice scoring here, suitably stirring and soaring when required, while not overpowering the action. We get some really nice beach rock when Wilbur takes to the air (complete with a “cowabunga” to further date the movie) and some nice, bassy tribalesque drums all through the picture.

We only get one song, and for a nice change, it’s sung by McLeach. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just post it.


The funny thing is, that’s Frank Welker singing. Yup, I told you the guy gets everywhere.

 

MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
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Cody isn’t the best role model for kids; he tries to sneak out of his house without his mother knowing, and doesn’t bother to tell her where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing. Despite this he is a selfless, brave and heroic lad who doesn’t back down to McLeach.

Much like their first outing, the Rescuers themselves show that even the smallest person can do anything if they’re committed to it,  and Bernard shows true grit and resolve.

 

LEGACY
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With the death of Eva Gabor in 1995, plans for a third RESCUERS movie were quietly shelved and the characters quietly faded to the back benches, making the odd cameo in HOUSE OF MOUSE.
Marahute, Frank and others would go on to cameo in FANTASIA 2000’s Pomp and Circumstance segment, which had cameos from more animal characters than I care to mention right now.

While THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER may stand in the shadow of its Renaissance brethren, it should be looked at by its own merits. It’s a worthy sequel to the original and an effective closure to that era of Disney movie. From here on in, things would go in a much grander direction.

 

FINAL SCORE: 35/53

Next Time: Beauty and the Beast

 

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