The Rescuers Down Under is the second adventure with Bernard and Miss Bianca, the finest mice in the Rescue Aid Society and the heroes of Wolfgang Reitherman’s fantastic 1977 film The Rescuers. Here, their travels take them to Australia, where they have to rescue a young boy in the outback who has been captured by a poacher. The boy is particularly valuable to the collector of rare animals, as he knows the location of Marahute, the legendary giant eagle. Bernard and Miss Bianca have to navigate dangerous jungles, rescue the boy, protect the eagle and its eggs amd thwart the poacher, all while Bernard is trying to propose to his glamourous companion. It’s not always seen in the same light as the films of the Second Golden Age, but is loved by a dedicated few who even prefer it (erroneously) to the original.
After the tremendous success of The Little Mermaid, studio bosses Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to strike again while the iron was hot, and make more films, more quickly. As a result, they poured in significant amounts of money into a new Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) which meant that they could do all their animation digitally. The Rescuers Down Under was the result of this system – the first film ever to be made entirely on digital. That’s an impressive claim to fame as, although it was initially dismissed due to weak box office, digital has now taken over cinema. The Rescuers Down Under was there at the very forefront of the digital movement, and that is perhaps the most remarkable thing about an otherwise straightforward film. The name of the company that created the CAPS for Disney? Pixar.
The use of CAPS when producing the film meant three things: firstly, it could be made quickly; secondly, they could be more daring with their action sequences; thirdly, at the time it looked spectacular whilst now it looks very dated. The speed and flexibility of working with CAPS lend the big moments an energy that feels like a precursor to Pixar at their best. The opening shot zooming over a field full of flowers is making a statement: this film is going to be fast, impressive and will show you things you haven’t seen in animation before. Unfortunately, the film’s action peaks right at the start, as the young boy frees Marahute from a poacher’s trap in a dramatic cliff top rescue. A sheer rock face stand defiantly against the blue sky, jutting hundreds of feet into the sky. The boy climbs this precarious precipice and uses his pocket knife to cut the ropes that hold the giant eagle. In his moment of triumph, however, he is knocked off then stack by the newly liberated bird, and plummets, in a breath taking shot, towards the hard, swiftly approaching ground. It’s a tense, exciting opening to the film, and the incredible animation in his subsequent rescue is the high point of the film.
However, the action does not stop there, even if it never gets as good as that again, and the narrative quickly jumps from one set piece to the next. In one moment, the mice are flying off a New York skyscraper, in the next they are travelling by flying squirrel. Even the comedy moments – largely involving the not terribly funny Wilber – involve hugely OTT slapstick including runways that are too short and shotgun surgery. If the first film had the tones of a Hitchcockian adventure, the outrageous, unbelievable action here is more in the vein of Indiana Jones – there is even a scene which involves that Indy staple, jumping onto a moving vehicle. It does feel a little as though they are more interested in showing off the capabilities of their new technology instead of telling a really great story, however, and this at times feels like a series of contrivances to get to the next exciting moment.
As well as being the first digital film ever, The Rescuers Down Under is alo the only sequel in the official Disney canon. Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh are both kinda sequels, but this follows on from the events of The Rescuers by joining that film’s two beloved characters after they have been established as heroes for quite a long time. In the first film, rescuing people and getting to know each other was entirely new for the two mice. Here the challenge for them is to maintain a close relationship even in the face of constant adventure. While that isn’t as inherently interesting as the exciting first film, an inbuilt love of Bernard and Bianca ensures audience investment in the film. Bernard is no longer the unexpected hero, but he still has to prove himself to their Australian guide, who is a good deal more obviously impressive than the humble ex-janitor. His determination and pluck in the face of danger is as endearing a quality as it was in the Rescuers. Eva Gabor, in her last ever role, is once more glamorous and adventurous, making Miss Bianca one of the great heroines of the studio. Talk of a third Rescuers film was understandably silenced after Gabor’s death in 1995 – these films would not be the same without her.
To Disney, The Rescuers Down Under was a flop. A poor opening week saw Katzenberg withdraw all advertising from the film, essentially writing it off. CAPS was seen as a huge waste of money and a lot less focus was put in computer animation by Disney. The company known as Pixar continued to work with the medium, and you may have heard of some of the films they went on to make. It’s difficult to know why Down Under flopped; the action sequences are exciting and kinetic, and it has enough comedy to keep children happy. Perhaps, however, The Little Mermaid is to blame. After audiences got a taste, once more, for just how good Disney could be, they wouldn’t accept anything less than spectacular. Thank goodness, then, that their next film was Beauty and the Beast.