UNDERRATED: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The Rescuers Down Under (USA, 1990)
Directed by Hendel Butoy & Mike Gabriel
Starring Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, George C. Scott, John Candy

The words 'Disney sequel' are usually accompanied by 'straight-to-video', 'sub-par' or other such pejorative terms. Disney has done itself no favours in this regard, churning out sequels to most of its best-loved offerings, the vast majority of which either tarnish the original or bring nothing new to the table. But there is one sequel whose reputation continues to grow; in fact, it is the only sequel considered an official member of the Disney canon. That sequel is The Rescuers Down Under, and even after 22 years, it is severely underrated.
There are several reasons why The Rescuers Down Under is relatively little-known. The Rescuers was hardly a work of great prestige, epitomising the company's decline and increasingly conservative attitude towards film-making. Certainly it's not the kind of film that instinctively demanded a sequel, even considering its reasonable box office. For this reason, the film commercially underperformed on opening weekend, after which all its advertising was quickly pulled. It eventually found an audience on VHS and subsequently DVD; if it were any less conventional in its storytelling, you might call it a cult classic.
Living in a time where Hollywood is more reliant on franchises and reboots than ever before, it is very easy to be cynical about any kind of sequel or prequel. As with most things in film, we have to take things on a case-by-case basis, resisting the urge to brand the makers as mercenaries until we have judged their work creatively. If we can justify a remake on the basis of fixing problems with the original or bringing something new to the story, then a sequel with more money and better animation behind it may result in the film that the original always should have been. And on this occasion, that is exactly what we get.
For starters, The Rescuers Down Under has beautiful animation. It's a vast improvement on the pale, Xerox look of the original, but it also lacks the off-putting, plastic quality of The Little Mermaid. Not only is the animation better, but the film is more ambitious as to what it used for. While the original had a title sequence made up of matte paintings, this has a fast-moving track shot through millions of flowers. The flying sequences are more elaborate, and moments of the opening sequence are downright breath-taking.
The opening section helps to shed light on the changing ethos of Disney. Both The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under are steeped in Disney convention; they do not attempt any ground-breaking departures in terms of story, characters or tone. The difference between them, and the key to the latter's success, is an underlying sense of purpose. The Rescuers feels tired and forgettable because it was made to get by; the company was drawing on its past as an admission that it could no longer innovate.
The Rescuers Down Under finds the same company actively celebrating its past, so that while we may not be seeing anything radically new, it is delivered with such endearing energy that we probably won't care. When Cody is skating along the river with the birds flying all around him, it is like we are seeing the scenes of animals and humans interacting from Snow White, but kicked up a notch and given a modern sheen. There is still the odd moment of blatant recycling (Frank is a dead ringer for Bill the lizard from Alice in Wonderland), but this happens so infrequently that it is easy enough to overlook.
Some critics commented that the Australian setting for the film is quite superfluous, on the grounds that the story could have been set anywhere else and still made about as much sense. They have a point, insofar as the actual plot of The Rescuers Down Under is pretty standard adventure fare. We have a young boy as our damsel-in-distress, the mice as the unlikely protagonists or underdogs, and a poacher as our dragon, big bad wolf, evil witch or whatever takes your fancy. But the pacing of the film is so much better, so if we do see something coming, then we're looking forward to it rather than dreading the arrival of a cliché.
Aside from better pacing and animation, the film improves on the original in a number of other ways. Firstly, it sets out the boundaries for interaction between humans and animals very early, so that we don't spend any time scratching our heads when Cody and the mice finally meet. The film also sets up the mouse world in greater detail with the message relay and scene in the restaurant near the beginning. We have a much stronger picture of a parallel world, and there are enough familiar features to make it easy to suspend our disbelief.
Secondly, the villain is a lot scarier. Even in her best scenes, Madame Medusa was essentially a second-rate version of Cruella de Vil, being every bit at pantomime but nowhere near as intimidating. McLeach's motivation and modus operandi are almost exactly the same - using children to find riches that are out of reach - but he's a lot more threatening and playfully cruel. George C. Scott is in its element, using his unique voice to build unease even in the moments of light relief. At times he's having so much fun, you'd swear that General Buck Turgidson had turned up on set.
The other performances in the film are just as good. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor both reprise their roles, with the former being more lovably downtrodden and the latter (in her final role) being glamorous but not distant. The running gag about Bernard trying to propose to Bianca is played out very well, with sufficient pauses being left each time so that the gag doesn't run out of steam before the punch-line. Elsewhere John Candy is well-cast as Wilbur, Tristan Rogers does very nicely as Jake, and Adam Ryen is capable enough as Cody.
Thirdly, the set-pieces in The Rescuers Down Under are very well-executed. Even if the film doesn't entirely justify its Australian setting on a plot level, it does use the wild variety of animals on offer for a few pretty good action scenes. The animals' attempts to break out of their cages, Jake facing down a snake, or Bernard and Bianca surviving the caterpillar tracks all stick to Alfred Hitchcock's maxim of making the best possible use of the props and settings you have. The medical scenes where Wilbur is treated for a bad back are also pretty funny, though very young viewers may be freaked out once the chainsaw appears.
There are a couple of problems with the film which prevent it from reaching the heights subsequently achieved by Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. The story is incredibly conventional, with the lines between good and evil being very clear-cut and the film not devoting an awful lot of time to the villain's motivation. And like many later efforts in the renaissance, the film has too many sidekicks. Joanna justifies her place by actually advancing the plot, but Frank can be annoying and the other caged animals don't leave enough of an impression to warrant their extended presence. The film isn't as bad as Pocahontas in this regard, but it's still an annoying little detail.
The Rescuers Down Under improves upon the original film in every conceivable way. The animation is brighter and more engaging, the storytelling is brisker, the characters are more involving and the whole project has an underlying sense of energy and passion almost completely absent in the first film. Its highly conventional story and little niggles prevent it from being truly first-rate Disney, but is still comes with the highest recommendation as a truly good Disney sequel.