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“We knew that Bernard and Bianca would come back in this movie. Because it’s a film about them.”
Thomas Schumacher, producer of The Rescuers Down Under, 1990
“Wow. Thanks for that stunning revelation into the creative process.”
Unshaved Mouse, Watching the Making Of, 2013
Question. Have you ever shown up to the office Christmas party in your gimp suit only to be told that, no, we decided fancy dress was just too much hassle and yes I did send you an email, I did, I’m sorry but I distinctly remember, well check your inbox, wait, do you have a period in your email address? You do? Oh, well, okay, that explains it. Hah. I can totally see your package through the latex by the way?
That’s kind of Rescuers Down Under. It was just a little late to the party and now everyone can see its balls and is pretending to ignore it. If this movie had come out a few years earlier, preferably when the Crocodile Dundee craze was still in full force, it could have killed. This movie could have been HUGE. But instead it arrived in the wake of The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid, in case I need remind you, was just a little bit of a game changer.
So the movie going public now had certain expectations about Disney.
Yeah, this movie is not what people were looking for. And if you’re looking for a culprit as to why the Disney movies of the Renaissance Era are
utterly totally bound with steel hoops and unbreakable adamantium chains to slightly reliant on formula, this is your reason. On its release, The Rescuers Down Under was a flop, although it may have been a self-inflicted one. Jeffrey Katzenberg famously pulled all the advertising after it had a less successful than expected opening weekend. Might it have become a hit if they’d waited and let word of mouth spread? I dunno. Maybe? It got decent enough reviews, and I think it’s probably safe to say that it’s more well-regarded now than its prequel, which was one of the most successful animated movies of all time. But Disney have always seemed to smell red-headed stepchild on this one. It’s certainly not like they disavow its existence like The Black Cauldron or Song of the South. But you get the feeling that if you mentioned this movie to someone in Disney they’d be like “Oh yeah. That one.” and ask you coldly not to raise the matter again. But make no mistake, this is an influential movie. Firstly, there’s the fact that its failure pretty much ended the talking animal-centric Disney movie until Dinosaur a decade later, and paved the way for the total dominance of the Disney princess movies. People often forget this, but the princess movies are very much a minority in the canon. In the sixty odd years prior to Little Mermaid, there were a grand total of three princess movies, compared to fifteen that focused on talking animals. But in the twenty-five years since Little Mermaid there have been seven princess movies. The success of Little Mermaid caused that, sure, but so did the failure of Rescuers Down Under.
Secondly, this was the first narrative sequel in the Disney canon, and the last until Winnie the Pooh in 2011. Because of this, the business of making sequels was then farmed out to other animation studios. These studios, despite not having the resources and experience of the original creators, nevertheless managed to create new and wonderful expansions of the existing works, creating sequels that could stand up and sometimes even surpaaaaahaaahahahahahahaha!
So we can thank Rescuers Down Under for that too.
Jesus, this thing has a darker legacy than the book of Leviticus.
And it’s really not fair for this movie to be lumped in with the rest of the sequels. For starters, it’s not a naked and unwanted cash grab with no narrative justification. This is genuinely a story that had a few chapters left to be told. Unlike the rest of the canon, Rescuers was pretty much made for a sequel. The reason Cinderella 2 is such a non-starter is that at the end of Cinderella, all the loose ends are tied up. To continue the story, you have to unpick a perfectly good happy ending only to restore it at the end in a way that’s never going to be as satisfying as it was the first time. But the Rescuers, although it did have a happy ending for Penny, ended with the promise that the adventures of Bernard and Bianca were just beginning. The team had just been assembled. We had gotten all the tedious getting-to-know-you business out-of-the-way and now it’s full steam ahead. This, I think, is another reason why so many of you in the comments pine for that Basil the Great Mouse Detective sequel that never was. It was a concept that still had plenty of places to go, unlike Cinderella, who, once she gets the glass slipper, that really should be the last we hear of her.
But Rescuers Down Under does have one other, very important legacy. Like most YouTube comments, Rescuers Down Under was done all in CAPS, a new process that allowed ink and paint drawings to be digitized so that scenes could be arranged by computer. CAPS would continue to be used pretty much until the end of the traditional animation era and was as big a revolution in animation as the use of xerography was in the sixties.
Of course, the Disney animators knew next to nothing about computers, so they enlisted the help of a small computer hardware company. This company, when not selling computers to government and medical agencies, moonlit as an animation studio doing little animated CGI commercials for Listerine.
They were called Pixar.
The movie opens on the smallest of levels, down amongst blades of grass as various crickets and beetles skitter by. Slowly we follow a ladybird as it clambours up a twig and then flies off, revealing Uluru resplendent on the horizon.
With Bruce Broughton’s epic score stampeding in the background we get a single awesome take zooming through the vastness of the outback, just to drive home the sheer scale and openness of the setting. It’s pretty breathtaking, and one of the reasons I think this movie would really benefit from a 3D re-release. Failing that, you can just do what me and my brothers always did: watch this scene while running furiously on the spot.
The opening scene establishes a recurring visual motif of the movie, contrasting the tininess of the characters with the vastness of their surroundings. If I have on criticism of this sequence though, it’s that the animators are apparently under the impression that the outback is covered in flowers for miles and miles around.
Anyway, we finally zoom in on the house of our rescuee, Cody. Cody wakes up to hear a didgeridoo in the distance and runs off into the outback. Now, you’d probably expect that Disney wouldn’t bother casting an Australian voice actor and just get an American kid who couldn’t do the accent. But you’d be dead wrong. They got a Norwegian kid who couldn’t do the accent. Adam Ryen, who plays Cody, even did the Norwegian dubbing for his own part when it was released over there. Apart from the accent (and really, if an actor doesn’t want to do an accent it’s probably in everyone’s best interest that they don’t) he’s pretty good, and certainly not a Nice Young Gentleman Who’s Doing the Best He Can.
Cody runs into the forest, followed by various marsupials (or as I like to call them, evolution’s B students) until he comes to a clearing where a kangaroo is playing a log like a didgeridoo.
Faloo the Kangaroo tells Cody that Marahute the great golden eagle has been caught in a poacher’s trap up a cliff and that he’s the only one who can reach her.
Well, the kookaburras must be on break or something so Cody has to free solo the pant-wettingly high cliff and free Marahute.
Marahute is a thing of beauty. Animated by Glen Keane (who animated Ariel), she looks and moves like a real living bird. But Keane and his team managed to still invest her with enough personality to make her appealing as a character. She’s voiced by Frank Welker, one of two character’s he plays in this movie, the other being Joanna. You’ve probably heard of Frank Welker, almost certainly the most prolific voice actor ever, which would put him well in the running to having played more characters than any other actor in human history.
Anyway, Cody finds Marahute tied up…somehow….on the top of the cliff. She starts freaking out when she sees him but he calms her down. Then he pulls out his penknife and she starts freaking out again. Cody gets to work cutting the ropes, but as she breaks free Marahute knocks him off the cliff with one blow from her wings.
But right before he gets scattered across half of Australasia, Marahute swoops down and takes him on flying tour of the outback and holy crap but this sequence is gorgeous. This is a stunningly beautiful film.
Marahute brings him back to her place to
eat him and regurgitate him to her young show him her eggs. We learn that Marahute’s mate is dead, and Cody says that his Dad is gone too. She gives him a gift of one of her feathers and leaves him back on the ground. Cody goes running through the jungle happily making eagle noises and fails to see the spectacularly unhelpful wanted poster nailed to a tree.
He comes across a mouse caught in a trap, who he then frees, which then gets him caught in a trap. Somehow. I swear to God, the traps make as much sense in this movie as those of a silver age DC villain.
Triggering the trap draws the attention of McLeach, an evil poacher voiced by George C. Scott, one of the greatest and most lied to actors of the twentieth century. Seriously, everyone lied to George C. Scott. When they were making Doctor Strangelove, Kubrick only got such a funny performance out of Scott by telling him it was only for the gag reel and wouldn’t actually be used in the movie. It was used in the movie. In Patton, Scott was worried that the famous flag scene would overshadow the rest of the movie if it was used at the start so Franklin Schaffer promised him that they’d move it to the end of the film. I don’t know if you’ve seen Patton lately, but it starts with the flag scene. And when he did Hardcore with Paul Schrader, he told Schrader he’d only finish the movie if Schrader promised never to direct again. Scrader has directed sixteen films since Hardcore. Poor George. They probably told him that this was a movie about ninja dolphins or something. He must have just gone through life unable to trust any word uttered by another human being.
Oh, he’s phenomenal in this by the way. Seriously, he takes that most clichéd of characters, the nineties evil poacher, and turns him into a truly terrifying villain. Actually, maybe a little too terrifying. Since most of his scenes are with a small child it actually gets quite disturbing how awfully he treats Cody. I’m not entirely sure you could make a movie like this today. We also meet Joanna, who always used to scare the crap out of me when she first appears in the movie.
Being a poacher, McLeach of course drives something quiet and non-descript…no, my mistake, he favours a gigantic motorised death machine that looks like the bastard offspring of Optimus Prime and Truckosaurus. When he realises that he’s inadvertently captured the deadliest animal of all (Man. It’s MAN!), McLeach tries to pretend like it ain’t no thing and that Joanna was simply digging holes to bury dead squirrels. Cody, unfortunately, is just smart enough to see that this is bullshit, but not smart enough to realise that saying things like “This is a poacher’s trap! And you’re a poacher! And poaching is against the law! Poachy poachy poachy!” in front of a poacher with a gun and a ready made grave is not conducive to long-term survival. McLeach though is still willing to let the kid go until he sees the feather that Marahute gave him and suddenly he’s reeeeeeal interested in where he got it. Cody simply says that it was a present, and that he can’t tell where he got it because it’s a secret.
McLeach reveals that he’s the one who killed Marahute’s mate and tries to get Cody to tell him where the mother and eggs are. Cody runs off with Joanna and McLeach in hot pursuit but has to stop when he reaches Crocodile Falls.
Cody warns McLeach that if he goes missing his mother will call the rangers. McLeach then gives one of the most epically sarcastic disses I have ever hear heard: “Oh not the rangers! What’ll I do?! What’ll I do?! DON’T LET YOUR MOM CALL THE RANGERS, PLEASE!”
McLeach flings Cody’s backpack into the crocodile infested waters to throw the rangers off the scent, and drags Cody off in his Mega Death Truck. However, the mouse that Cody saved gets a message to the Rescue Aid Society in New York. The message gets relayed from mouse to mouse using radio, morse code and even computers.
In New York, a meeting of the RAS is called by the Chairman, returning from the first film, still voiced by Bernard Fox and still sporting a magnificent moustache.
What the fuck was that? Walt, did you really plant a subconscious memory in my mind years ago just so you could Rickroll me in the present?
Well anyway, the Chairmouse tells the other delegates that there’s been a kidnapping in Australia (what, no singing of the Rescue Aid Society anthem? The Rules of Order exist for a reason people!). He then says that this case obviously calls for the RAS’s very finest.
Oh yeah, you know who they’re talking about.
No, unfortunately, Cleopatra Mouse is busy (gee, I wonder why, is it because they put her in charge of an ENTIRE CONTINENT?) so the mission falls to Bernard and Bianca. Our heroes, voiced once again by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, dahling, are enjoying a romantic meal together when Bernard tries to propose. Unfortunately, before he gets a chance the message arrives and before he knows it he’s standing chin high in snow at the airport trying to charter a flight to Australia. A task he approaches with his usual drive and determination.
Jim Jordan, who voiced Orville the albatross in the original movie, had passed on by this stage, so instead we get Orville’s younger brother Wilbur, voiced by John Candy. Wilbur, it turns out, is a huge Bianca fanboy and he’s absolutely thrilled with the idea of flying her to Australia…in a few months time. In the middle of Snowmageddon? Not so much. But Bianca explains the situation, that a boy has been kidnapped. Wilbur responds with the following:
“That’s awful! Lockin’ up a little kid…Kids should be free! Free to run wild through the house on Saturday mornings. Free to have cookies and milk! And get those little white moustaches!”
He agrees to take them and there’s a thrilling take off scene in the snow that thankfully doesn’t have any clips of porn smuggled into it. I say “thankfully”, because after that pixellated penis in the last review I’m probably already on WordPress’ blacklist.
After stowing away on a jumbo jet, they arrive in Sydney, capital of Australia.
In fact this movie has so much to teach us about Australian geography. There’s Sydney, which is an opera house with a few buildings nearby to provide amenities for said opera house, and the Rest of Australia, which is all within a five mile radius of Uluru.
They attempt a landing, but because Wilbur is an albatross and albatrosses are the biggest living things in the air short of fat people with access to trampolines…
…the runway is too small. Fortunately Jake, the kangaroo mouse who runs the airport, is on hand to extend the runway with a kick ass action scene and Wilbur manages to land, but not without injuring his back. Jake, Bernard and Bianca check Wilbur into a hospital (a crashed ambulance) and leave him there while they go and search for Cody.
Wilbur quickly finds that he has fallen through a gap in the fictional dimensional barrier and is no longer in his nice, comfortable Disney movie but is instead now in the Saw franchise. I’m not even kidding. His time in the hospital is just him being shot with tranquilizers from a shot-gun and threatened with various hideous tortures. For no reason. At one point they actually threaten to perform surgery on him with a freakin’ chainsaw! THAT FUCKING HAPPENS!
Meanwhile, unaware that they have abandoned their friend to the tender mercies of the rodent Manson family, Bernard and Bianca make their way through the out back guided by Jake. Because, it’s not like he has an important job or anything. Air traffic controllers, waste of space the lot of them.
Jake is voiced by Australian voiced actor Tristan Rogers and he’s a very likeable character. Maybe a little too likeable. You see, Jake has fallen for Bianca and is pretty obviously trying to shoehorn himself in between her and Bernard. Now, normally I will root for the nebbishy underdog against the handsome jock any day of the week, but Bernard is such a defeatist, miserable sack of shit that I gotta say…yeah, Bianca can totally do better.
At McLeach’s lair, the old bastard is trying to figure out a way to make Cody tell him where the eagle and her eggs are. He reasons that the boy has to have a weak spot, something that he can exploit to get him to show where the eagle is. He decides to cook himself some eggs because he can’t think on an empty stomach and this leads to a very, very funny scene where Joanna keeps distracting McLeach and stealing his eggs like she’s Batman, picking off delicious hoodlums one by one until only one egg is left, cowering in a corner and screaming “JUST DO IT!”
Oh, a moment to sing the praises of Joanna, one of the all time great villainous sidekicks in the Disney canon. She is an absolute riot, brilliantly animated and Frank Welker’s Gollum-esque voicework is insanely good.
Anyway, when McLeach sees that Joanna has scoffed all his eggs, things go very dark and he’s about to bash her head in with his lunchbox when he realises the one thing that will get Cody to talk: Waterboarding!
No? Oh right, the eagle’s eggs!
Okay, one criticism I have of this movie? Padded to fuck. There are two scenes with Cody trapped in McLeach’s basement with all his captured animals that literally adds nothing to the plot. I only bring it up because “Damn, that is one gay koala bear.” is not a sentence you expect to say when reviewing a Disney movie. Or, indeed, ever.
We also get introduced to Frank, the frilled lizard. I…should hate Frank. I really should. He’s annoying and shrill and stupid but…dammit, I’m sorry. This was the second Disney movie I ever owned on VHS and there’s a nostalgia shield around eight inches thick around this thing and every character in it (except Bernard). Sorry, I got nothing.
The scenes with Cody and the captured animals take up around ten minutes of the film and really, they go nowhere. Cody and the animals try to escape, Joanna stops them, then McLeach comes and throws Cody out. “Say goodbye to your little friends” he snarls “It’s the last you’ll ever see of them.”
He ain’t kidding. We never see any of them again.
Bernard, Bianca and Jake arrive at McLeach’s hideout just in time to witness McLeach letting Cody go. Which is probably not going to go down in the annals of the RAS’s most heroic rescues. McLeach tells Cody that Marahute is dead, so there’s no point keeping him around. As Cody runs off, McLeach casually mentions to Joanna how the eggs will never survive without their mother and Cody buys it hook, line and sinker. McLeach then follows Cody from a distance, knowing that he’ll lead him straight to the eggs. Obviously, this calls for stealth.
The three mice stowaway of the Mega Death Truck while McLeach carefully follows Cody at a distance, observing him through a pair of binoculars.
Cody arrives at Marahute’s canyon and holy resplendent balls of the Great Monkey…
Have I mentioned this movie is beautiful? Okay, well Cody climbs down to the nest and sees the eggs are still safe. The mice arrive and warn him that McLeach is waiting on the cliff for Marahute, who by the way is still alive. Marahute returns to the nest and sees Cody who tries to warn her away. Too late, McLeach fires his trusty…tarpaulin gun…thing (just don’t think about any of the traps in this move) and capture both Cody and Marahute. Bianca and Jake manage to get back up the top of the cliff but Bernard is left behind with the eggs.
McLeach then sends Joanna down to eat the eggs to make sure that Marahute “stays rare”. Because one priceless and ultra rare golden eagle is worth more than four. Apparently.
Joanna tries to eat the eggs, but only succeeds in chipping her teeth because they’re too hard. So instead, she knocks them over the cliff and calls it a day. But it turns out the eggs are still safe, because Bernard was able to hide them and replace them with rocks the exact same size, shape and colour as the eggs. That, y’know, jut happened to be lying around.
Gentlemen, I must return to the summit of Bullshit Mountain!
While the movie is still stabbing plausibility in a darkened alleyway and rifling through its pockets, Wilbur just happens to arrive at this one nest in all of Australia. Bernard manages to guilt-trip Wilbur into minding the eggs while he goes after Bianca.
Meanwhile, in the truck Bianca comforts Cody by telling him that Bernard will find them and rescue them. Jake thinks that she’s just trying to keep the kid’s spirits up, but Bianca tells him “You don’t know Bernard like I do. He’ll never give up.”
Yeah, persistence of a bulldog, that one.
Okay, that’s not fair. Bernard does actually rise to the occasion. He manages to strong-arm a wild boar into giving him a ride to Croc Falls, where McLeach is preparing to feed Cody to the crocodiles so he can’t narc.
McLeach says that “They like it when you use live bait” which suggests to me that Cody is not the first person that this poacher has fed alive to crocodiles.
Just before he can lower Cody into the water, the power cuts out. McLeach checks the cockpit to find that the keys have gone missing, and we see that Bernard has managed to hide them behind the accelerator pedal. Bernard sneaks the keys out of the truck and manages to throw them to Bianca and Jake before Joanna sees him and starts chasing after him. McLeach, meanwhile, says that there’s more than one way to skin a cat (and he would know from professional experience.) so he just gets his rifle and starts shooting at the rope holding Cody over the crocodiles. Think about that. Instead of just shooting the kid, he attempts the much trickier shot of hitting the rope, just so he can have the satisfaction of watching him be torn limb from limb by a pack of prehistoric reptiles. See what I mean about this being a dark movie?
But in the nick of time, Bernard manages to lure Joanna into chasing him and leaping onto McLeach, sending him toppling over the canyon into the crocodile infested waters.
The crocodiles swim after McLeach, leaving Cody alone. But the rope is still too frayed to keep him up and he goes plunging into the water with Bernard leaping after him.
Okay everybody. It’s a Disney cartoon. A character has fallen into a river. According to the rules of this universe what must now, absolutely, positively, without fail appear?
McLeach goes over the waterfall, after battling a swarm of ravenous crocodiles with his bare hands and I don’t know about you, but that’s how I want to go out.
Cody and Bernard go over too, but Bianca and Jake manage to free Marahute just in the nick of time and the eagle flies them all to safety.
Bernard is a hero, and finally manages to propose to Bianca, who joyfully accepts because otherwise the movie would end on kind of a downer. Cody calls out to Marahute “Let’s all go home!” and they fly away into the moonlight, with a happy ending for all our heroes.
I went back and forward on this. It’s certainly cleaner, and has much finer backdrops than The Little Mermaid. But the character animation (while often very good) doesn’t have quite the same charm and finesse so I’m going to call it a draw and score them equally.
The Leads: 14/20
Same characters, same score.
The Villains: 17/20
George C. Scott makes for a fantastic, scary and often very funny villain.
Supporting Characters: 13/20
Marahute and Joanna are absolute triumphs, Jake and Wilbur are great and the rest…eh.
The Music: 16/20
Yeah, that’s right! A high score on music for a movie with no songs! ‘COS I’M A GODDAMN RENEGADE!
FINAL SCORE: 77%
NEXT TIME: Formal wear will be required as we review the only Disney movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast is next.
PLUS! Revealed at last! The untold origin of the Unshaved Mouse!
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!