'The Rescuers Down Under' Remains The Weird Speed Bump Between Two Disney Masterpieces

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, Spiegel takes a look at the oft-forgotten sequel The Rescuers Down Under.)

The 1990s were an exceptionally successful period for the Walt Disney Company. They expanded their footprint on TV with the acquisition of ABC, they built out an environmentally friendly theme park in Disney's Animal Kingdom and began building more theme parks around the world, they started a fruitful relationship with Pixar Animation Studios, and their own hand-drawn animated films were a force to be reckoned with.

It took only a couple of years for Disney Animation's prospects to flip from doom and gloom to success. In 1986, the first entry in the Renaissance, The Great Mouse Detective, showed promise but was still an underdog at the box office to the competition, Don Bluth's An American Tail. Yet by 1990, they'd gotten Oscar love and a worldwide embrace with The Little Mermaid, and the competition had to chase them.

While Disney did satisfy the executive commitment to release one animated film per year throughout the decade, they had to get over a boomerang of an obstacle first.

The First of Its Kind

The Rescuers Down Under is the hiccup of the Disney Renaissance. Even in the 10-year, slightly truncated version of the Renaissance era, Down Under is listed right between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Released around the Thanksgiving holiday, the film remains one of the oddest entities of the entire Disney feature-animation canon. For a company that is now known for milking intellectual property until it's as dry as a stone, Disney had not made a sequel to its animated fare before The Rescuers Down Under. It arrived four years before the advent of direct-to-video Disney sequels, and is only one of four theatrical sequels to a Disney animated film. (Two of those four are Ralph Breaks the Internet and this November's Frozen II.)

When Down Under was released, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg also highlighted the film's genre trappings, unique for the studio at the time. He said to the Chicago Sun-Times, "I wanted to do an action-adventure movie, which Disney's never done." Katzenberg, at least in the 1990 article, suggests that he wanted to make a film that could prove Disney didn't need to always do the same thing twice. Where The Little Mermaid represented a return to the basics that made the studio the hallmark for animation, The Rescuers Down Under was meant to shake things up. The film would have action, it would not have songs, and it would return us to a world with characters we'd met before.

In 2019, it may seem strange that the first sequel to a Disney animated film was connected to The Rescuers. The film has no serious presence at the Disney theme parks, and hasn't inspired any further sequels or follow-ups. The books on which it's based, by the late author Margery Sharp, were popular at the time, but have not had a major resurgence in the last three decades. However, The Rescuers was a big hit for Disney in the mid-1970s, when they were much in want of success. During a period when Disney's live-action fare was low-budget and low-return, The Rescuers was a rare animated hit, grossing $29 million in 1977 (the equivalent of $117 million now). Even its re-releases were successful, grossing around $50 million each (when adjusted for inflation) in 1983 and 1989.

Moreover, The Rescuers was a rarity among the Disney feature-animation canon because it arguably could lend itself to a follow-up. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland felt closed-ended. Those and many other Disney animated classics end literally or figuratively with the notion of its characters living happily ever after. The Rescuers does end happily for its main characters, the intrepid mice Bernard and Miss Bianca, but the premise could be refreshed: mice from an organization called the Rescue Aid Society are tasked with rescuing children in dire straits around the world. It was as close to a procedural premise as Disney animation had.

A Jumping-Off Place

Katzenberg confirmed as much in the Sun-Times article, stating that the original film was "a great jumping-off place". He also went out of his way to say that the "film is as different from the original Rescuers as night is from day." Telling audiences that a sequel would be a divergence from its predecessor is a daring, bold choice; what is the promise of a sequel if not the promise of getting more of the same, just potentially at a bigger, grander scale? Yet Katzenberg wasn't just indulging in executive-speak. Down Under differs from the 1977 film in some notable ways, though unintentionally to its detriment.

The Rescuers turns its kidnapped child into a true damsel in distress. Young Penny is an orphan who's been abducted by the greedy, insane Madame Medusa in the hopes that Penny is small enough to fit into a cave in which the world's largest diamond resides. Penny is a pitiful creature, her plight heightened by the film's moody, downbeat tone. Your mileage may vary, but The Rescuers also seems awfully depressing, because it's always clear that Penny isn't just going to be rescued by two mice, but that they are her only hope. In short, this little girl needs to be rescued by two mice.

And No Singing

The Rescuers Down Under utilizes the same basic premise — Bernard and Miss Bianca have to rescue a human kid — but true to Katzenberg's promise, it's radically different from its predecessor. The settings are obviously distinctive: where The Rescuers primarily takes place in the swampy bayous of the Deep South, The Rescuers Down Under is set in Australia outside of the brief scenes where Bernard and Miss Bianca are in New York, preparing to travel. Though The Rescuers doesn't feature any big on-screen musical performances, it does have a few melodramatic songs on its soundtrack. The Rescuers Down Under has a rousing Bruce Broughton score, but no songs aside from brief snippets of previously recorded songs like "Waltzing Matilda".

Coming on the tail of The Little Mermaid, you might have figured Disney would double down with songs. However, as mentioned in 1990, co-director Hendel Butoy noted that when they tried to add in songs, "they slowed down the pace." Katzenberg, in that same Sun-Times article, cut to the quick, stating "It would have brought the movie to a grinding, boring halt. It's not a musical. Just because it's a Disney animated movie, doesn't mean it has to have a song in it."

On one hand, Katzenberg's bluntness is almost perversely funny to read in hindsight. It's a bit odd, too, to read the executive trying to steer the studio away from a formula that clearly paid off with The Little Mermaid, a film that was Disney Animation's biggest box-office hit in years. But, with the caveat that we don't know what the songs would have been or sounded like, Katzenberg's not exactly wrong. The Rescuers Down Under would feel wrong with songs, even if musicals are the bread-and-butter of modern Disney animation.

A Miniaturized Action Hero

The other big shift between The Rescuers and Down Under is in the personality and identity of the child who needs to be saved. Where the original film has the helpless Penny, Down Under has a blond-haired American transplant named Cody. According to the Disney-released book Two Guys Named Joe, focusing on longtime animator and story artist Joe Grant and his protege, Joe Ranft—the late artist who served as story head and co-writer on The Rescuers Down Under before shifting over to Pixar—Cody wasn't intended to be "a little white blond kid", but an Aboriginal boy. The final version of the character is very much a white kid, to the point where he appears to be American. (The character's unnamed mother clearly has an Australian accent, where Cody, voiced by Adam Ryen, clearly does not.)

Penny's helplessness in the first Rescuers is arguably a feature, not a bug. The same is true of Cody's drastically different, active personality. We never learn how old Cody is, but the actor playing him turned 10 in 1990. With that in mind, here are a few things that young, possibly 10-year old Cody gets up to in The Rescuers Down Under: he rides atop a kangaroo, he climbs a massive cliff face, he frees a rare golden eagle, he nearly plummets to his death, he flies on the back of said golden eagle, he stumbles inadvertently into a poacher's trap, and he's kidnapped at gunpoint. All of this happens in the first 15 minutes of the film.

The problem with Penny is that she is too passive, but even within that passivity, there's never any doubt that she needs to be rescued. The problem with Cody is that he is a miniature version of an action hero of the early 1990s, a Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis figure, just at age 9 or 10. In short, the problem with Cody is the exact inverse of the problem with Penny. Why on Earth would this kid need to be rescued by anyone, let alone two mice? A kid who climbs a cliff and flies with an eagle doesn't need any help.

An Ignominious Return

The second problem with Cody isn't just that he's an action hero in tiny form; it's that he is arguably a lot more interesting than the title characters. Bernard doesn't look physically like legendary comedian Bob Newhart, but the stand-up's signature stuttering style informs his personality, just as it did in the 1977 original. Bernard, as introduced in that film, isn't so much an obvious choice for daring hero, as he is a nervous but goodhearted mouse who lets his heart lead him into adventure.

The same goes for the sequel, and the primary storyline in which Bernard is placed: he wants to propose marriage to his Hungarian socialite girlfriend (mousefriend?) Miss Bianca, but he keeps getting foiled by one thing or another, akin to the wacky misunderstandings in an episode of an old-school sitcom. Though the script, credited to Jim Cox (formerly of Oliver & Company), Ranft, Karey Kirkpatrick and Byron Simpson, wasn't written by old hands at sitcoms, it often feels suited to the stars' past work.

Both Newhart and Eva Gabor, in what would be her final film appearance, had roots in sitcoms like Newhart and Green Acres. So they sell the banter-y confusion that Bernard and Miss Bianca share as well as can be expected. That said, the subplot fails to justify why The Rescuers Down Under should balance between being a fairly intense (for kids) action film and being a feature-length sitcom.

A Mousy Ménage a Trois

The frustration is compounded because it's not just that Bernard tries and fails to propose to Miss Bianca; it's that the film introduces a weird love triangle between the two of them and their overly helpful Australian guide/kangaroo mouse Jake (Tristen Rogers). Jake's horndog (hornmouse?) tendencies are about as explicit as you can get in a Disney movie without him turning into a Tex Avery-style wolf, howling at the moon at how gorgeous he finds Miss Bianca.

The setup necessary to get Bernard and Miss Bianca from their home in New York to the far reaches of the Australian outback is fairly rough and a drag on the film's brief runtime. (Including credits, The Rescuers Down Under is just 77 minutes long.) After the ridiculous but thrilling opening 15 minutes, Cody is offscreen for a while as we watch Bernard and Miss Bianca answer the call from the Rescue Aid Society to save the child from the greedy, violent poacher Percival C. McLeach (George C. Scott, whose middle initial may or may not be coincidentally reflected in the character).

It's not that Bernard and Miss Bianca are inherently uninteresting — the ways in which mice are able to travel and communicate in the world of humans is intriguing enough. But that opening stretch is hard to replicate with mice. The toughest that Bernard, Miss Bianca, or even Jake get is in fiercely ordering both a razorback and a snake to take them from one place to another. The benefit to these scenes is in the animation of the Australian outback, not what's happening within the Australian outback.

A Shrimp on the Barbie

The choice of location is telling, too. Where The Little Mermaid chose to avoid modern references or attempting to graft itself onto a passing fad, the same cannot be said for The Rescuers Down Under. It makes enough sense to change the location from the bayous to somewhere else for this sequel, but Australia was less a coincidence and more a response to a rise of Aussie culture in America. The Rescuers Down Under was greenlit into production in 1986, the same year that a massive Australian export first made waves in the States: "Crocodile" Dundee.

It's hard to overstate how big of a success the 1986 comedy Crocodile Dundee was, introducing writer/actor Paul Hogan to American audiences. The fish-out-of-water tale was the second-highest-grossing film of the year, selling roughly 46 million tickets in the States. Hogan, who played the title character, became such an instant success that he not only received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but he co-hosted that year's Oscars ceremony. Crocodile Dundee, released by Paramount Pictures (where Disney execs Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had previously worked), was one example of Aussie culture coming to the States. This was the era of Mad Max, of Mel Gibson's burgeoning fame, of Nicole Kidman's entrée to America, and of phrases like "shrimp on the barbie" becoming commonplace.

But by 1990, the Australian trend had largely died down despite American movie studios attempting to revive it. Crocodile Dundee II was a hit at the box office, but Hogan himself failed to take off. The same year as The Rescuers Down Under, just a month after the animated film's release, Hogan wrote and starred in Almost An Angel, a fantasy comedy that made just over $7 million at the box office. Australian culture did not vanish, but it no longer represented a cash cow.

Starting a New Chapter of Animation

Despite the fairly shameless attempt at cashing in on the location-driven fad (which unfortunately dates this film more than other Disney Renaissance pictures), the visual design and animation of the Australian outback and its characters is one of The Rescuers Down Under's most impressive qualities. Directors Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel aimed fairly high with their references, looking at epic-scope dramas like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia for visual cues. Though there's nothing quite as amazing to look at here as in the 1962 classic, various shots — such as a wide overhead shot of Cody atop the golden eagle Marahute as they fly above the clouds —imply that the Disney animators didn't take their setting for granted.

And The Rescuers Down Under pushed boundaries for Disney's animators. While the previous three entries in the Disney feature-animation canon had incorporated computer technology, the 1990 film was the first to use the CAPS, or Computer Animation Production System, process. CAPS essentially made the process of hand-painting each animation cel obsolete; animators' drawings would be processed via computer and then digitally enhanced to allow for a more fluid camera movement as opposed to the old-fashioned multiplane camera. There's a bit more CGI in the film, such as in the thunderous opening sequence through a massive field in the Outback, but CAPS represented a major step forward. Appropriately, it came from a studio that would eventually shake things up at Disney for good: Pixar Animation. (More on them in a future column.)

Aside from the visual strengths of The Rescuers Down Under, the basic premise inherently harkens to an earlier era of Disney animation. Like The Great Mouse Detective, The Rescuers Down Under too often squarely focuses its gaze on older characters, not the younger generation. Outside of the opening stretch, Cody is treated as a supporting character in favor of the talking mice Bernard and Miss Bianca, or Jake, or the albatross Wilbur (voiced by the late John Candy). Even when we cut back to Cody in a makeshift prison of McLeach's creation, he's thrown amidst a group of chatty, kidnapped animals who border on being so grating and obnoxious that you wish you were back in the Bernard/Bianca/Jake love triangle.

Heading to the Source

Where The Rescuers Down Under works, and enough parts of it do work, it does so because of both the Disney animators and the Bruce Broughton score. Though the Australian Outback isn't a locale with as much opportunity for rich, vibrant color, the film's design reflects the various trips that art director Maurice "Pixote" Hunt and a handful of animators took to the continent to view local flora and fauna. These kinds of field trips are reminiscent of how, to accurately capture the movement and gait of forest animals in Bambi, Disney's animators were presented with actual deer in a special studio to draw and essentially mimic.

The various animals in The Rescuers Down Under are drawn and brought to life in such a way as to suggest human as well as non-human movement; during a montage of various Rescue Aid Society mice seeing a message to relay to New York about Cody's condition, many of the animated mice wriggle their whiskers like real mice would, instead of standing upright and acting human-like. Also, it's to the credit of Glen Keane, supervising animator for Marahute, that the golden eagle looks as majestic as the characters see her. The early scene in which Cody rides Marahute to freedom is unquestionably insane — again, a 10-year old (or thereabouts) climbs a cliff like he's Tom Cruise and saves a golden eagle before taking a victory lap — but the marriage of Broughton's soaring score and the animation is legitimately thrilling.

Where The Rescuers Down Under stumbles is in its story. Cody arguably doesn't need the help of Bernard and Miss Bianca — were it not for McLeach's slithery hench-reptile Joanna, he would have escaped from his prison in about five minutes. And though he's brought to life with oily charm by George C. Scott (who really dives into lines like "I didn't graduate the third grade for nothing!" with relish), McLeach is about as mustache-twirling a villain as you can get. He's not too far from the villainous Sykes in Oliver & Company, a physically imposing bad guy whose undoing is his greed.

One Actor, Two Movies

Within the story, the biggest bright spot is, unsurprisingly, John Candy. Candy takes over for Jim Jordan, who voiced the albatross Orville in the first film and passed away in the interim. Though Orville is briefly mentioned, it's his brother Wilbur who takes the reins and gets a lot more to do to boot. When Wilbur lands in Australia with Bernard and Bianca, his back suffers, leading to an extended, oddly grim slapstick sequence in which a venomous mouse doctor tries to use a chainsaw to aid in Wilbur's recovery. Candy's exuberant performance is charming enough, even as the setups in which Wilbur finds himself are baffling. For example, the film ends as Wilbur is forced to sit atop Marahute's precious eggs. When they hatch, Wilbur's taken aback; we should be too, since the film abruptly ends without Marahute reuniting with her baby chicks, or with Cody seeing his terrified, heartbroken mother again.

Candy's performance, though, was not enough for The Rescuers Down Under when it arrived in theaters in the fall of 1990. Disney's star was on the rise in the late 1980s, yet they were unable to translate that momentum into success at the box office with this sequel. Part of the problem is that the kids of the 90s weren't as interested in the exploits of Bernard and Miss Bianca. But the big problem was simple: The Rescuers Down Under, as coincidence would have it, opened the same day as another family film featuring John Candy. Its main competition was a live-action comedy from John Hughes and Chris Columbus: Home Alone.

The Rescuers Down Under didn't stand a chance against the film that wound up as the highest-grossing comedy of all time for nearly two decades. After its fourth-place opening weekend, Jeffrey Katzenberg removed the bulk of advertising for The Rescuers Down Under. In the end, it was fortunate to amass over $27 million domestically. (By literally a million dollars, it outgrossed the 2011 Winnie the Pooh; otherwise, it would be the lowest-performing Disney animated film in 30 years.) Though the film's animation and music are rousing enough, it was a sign of something simple: whether Jeffrey Katzenberg liked it or not, audiences did want Disney movies with songs. They wanted more animated musicals.

And they were about to get a beast of a musical.

Next Time: Disney weaves a tale as old as time.