The Rescuers Down Under Revisited

(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.

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