The Rescuers Down Under is the oft forgotten film of the historical Disney Renaissance era. A sequel to 1977’s The Rescuers, the film was released to theaters in 1990, and followed 1989’s The Little Mermaid as the second film in the Disney Renaissance, and is the 29th film produced by Walt Disney Animation overall.
The Rescuers Down Under is one of the few Disney theatrical sequels. While many famous Disney films have received sequels and spin-offs on television and home media, the majority of these were produced by Disney’s smaller production houses like DisneyToon Studios.
Before Pixar became the animation juggernaut that they are today, they actually had a huge role to play in the production of The Rescuers Down Under. Most of the film’s post processing was done using Pixar’s Computer Animation Production System, or CAPS.
This makes The Rescuers Down Under the first film, animated or otherwise, to be pieced together primarily in a digital space. Pixar’s CAPS technology would also be used in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast for the ballroom dancing scene.
The original The Rescuers film was a sweet, heartwarming adventure about two heroic mice and a kidnapped orphan girl. In contrast, the film’s sequel is full blown action-adventure/comedy, and is devoid of even a single musical number.
The Rescuers Down Under may be tonally different than its predecessor, but the narrative actually follows many of the same beats. Bernard and Miss Bianca, two of the most esteemed members of the Rescue Aid Society, are tasked with rescuing a child who has been kidnapped by a greedy adult.
The original film’s villain was Miss Medusa, and she took sweet little Penny to a dark and swampy bayou to look for a fabled pirate treasure, the Devil’s Eye. This time around, the villain and message are much more politically driven, and they display themes not shown by Disney since Bambi back in the company’s Golden Age.
Percival C. McLeach is our antagonist for The Rescuers Down Under, and his favorite hobby is hunting down rare animals for financial gain, and just to have a good old time. Much like Medusa before him, he has a scaly pet with a knack for catching little kids.
Our kid character for the film is a plucky and adventurous boy named Cody, and he spends his days making friends with the local wildlife of Australia. On one particular day, Cody discovers a large golden eagle named Marahute, who is ensnared in a poacher’s trap.
Cody doesn’t hesitate to free Marahute from her bindings, and the present he receives from her puts him on McLeach’s radar. The young boy is promptly kidnapped, and McLeach’s goal is to coerce him to reveal Marahute’s whereabouts. Naturally, Bernard and Miss Bianca don’t waste very much time before they hop on the first albatross flight to the land down under.
For The Rescuers Down Under, the humble and helpful Bernard has one more thing on his mind besides rescuing Cody, and that’s popping the question to Miss Bianca. But everytime he attempts to do so, at least a few inconvenient things get in his way, and one of those things is newcomer Jake, a cool and confident kangaroo mouse.
Although the story hits a lot of the same notes as The Rescuers before it, the comedy and characters do a great job of filling in what may otherwise be a by the numbers plot. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor reprise their roles as Bernard and Miss Bianca respectively, and both actors do a phenomenal job.
The duo’s albatross friend, Orville, is unfortunately absent from this adventure. Jim Jordan, his voice actor, passed away before the film’s production. So instead of finding a new person to replace him, Disney instead opted to retire his character in the film’s story, and introduce his brother, Wilbur (a pretty deliberate reference to the famous flying Wright Brothers).
McLeach isn’t one of the strongest or most memorable villains that Disney has ever written, but he’s by no means bad. George C. Scott does a great job of making the character sound like he loves every minute of his job (bonus points for the southern drawl), and he perfectly fulfills his role in the story.
While I personally found Penny to be a more enjoyable character than Cody, he actually has a more prominent role in his film’s story. Penny could’ve been any other small child to accomplish Medusa’s task, but Cody actually has an established connection to the goal that his villain is seeking.
The creation of Cody’s character was actually the source of creative differences between the film’s storyboard artist, Joe Ranft, and other members of the team. Ranft wanted Cody to be a native, Aboriginal Australian, as opposed to the blonde haired white kid that he ended up as in the film’s final version.
One major thing that sets this film apart from its predecessor is the animation. Compared to the 1977 film’s simple, but nice animation, The Rescuers Down Under is much grander in scale. The beginning of the film features a totally enthralling flight sequence with Cody and Marahute, and seeing the pair soar above the clouds and skate over the water was truly incredible.
Marahute was one of the trickier parts of the film’s animation process. In addition to being larger than life, the bird has more than 200 unique feathers, and this staggering amount of detail is the reason that she only appears for about seven minutes of the film.
As is customary for Disney, the company put quite a bit of work into presenting an authentic version of Australian landscapes and wildlife. In addition to studying the animals of the San Diego Zoo for reference, the animation team also went on a research trip to Australia to get a better grasp environment. Fun fact, the animation team also enlisted the help of Disney MGM Studios in order to finish the film.
The Rescuers Down Under has quite a bit going for it besides being apart of one of Disney’s most successful eras. Having said that, why is the film not as fondly remembered as its contemporaries?
Well for starters, the film wasn’t nearly as financially successful as any of the other Disney Renaissance films, and didn’t have any songs for audiences to latch onto. It was also sandwiched between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, two of the era’s most beloved films.
In spite of all this, The Rescuers Down Under is still a great adventure film. I think I prefer the story of the original film just a tiny bit more, but I had so much fun exploring the outback with Bernard and Miss Bianca, and it was great getting to spend more time with such lovable characters.