23 August 2012

Disney Daze: Week 29: The Rescuers Down Under

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The mere existence of The Rescuers Down Under is extremely curious. Why, out of all of the Disney studio's animated features, was the bland and rather unloved The Rescuers the first film the company deigned worthy of a sequel? Was there a groundswell of support for the re-teaming of the timeless cinematic power couple Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor? Did the first film leave tantalizing plot threads open for further development? Did the studio think that it could improve upon the original? Perhaps the filmmakers too felt the malaise engendered by the 1977 film and sought to rectify the perception of the film and its characters. 

Like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (as well as his Spider-Man 2 for that matter), The Rescuers Down Under is more of a remake of the first film than anything else. The basic plot is almost identical to The Rescuers. A child is kidnapped by an evildoer who needs the kid to obtain a rare and expensive commodity. News of the kidnapping reaches the Rescue Aid Society and a mismatched pair of mice, the exotic Bianca and timid Bernard, are enlisted to save the child. They travel from New York via albatross to a wild landscape where a chase ensues and altruism eventually triumphs over greed. There are three insignificant differences in this plot synopsis to distinguish the two films. In the sequel the child is a boy, the MacGuffin is an endangered eagle, and the setting is the Australian Outback. 

There are a couple of additions and one major subtraction included in the sequel, which when taken together make The Rescuers Down Under a superior film. This time around the narrative uses Bernard's inherent meekness as a plot point by introducing a wild and adventurous kangaroo mouse named Jake, who acts as the rescuers' guide, as well as a rugged and dashing counterpoint, whose attentions to Bianca make a smitten Bernard jealous. It would have in fact been nicer to see more development of this potential love triangle, as well as a further fleshing out of Jake's character. There are intriguing moments sprinkled throughout the film indicating that most of his derring-do and hubris are inadvertent byproducts of simple dumb luck. Being exposed as a fraud would have been quite interesting. Instead he just watches as Bernard saves the day, then gives him and Bianca his blessing after Bernard's marriage proposal.

The film also includes a heavy dose of computer generated imagery (in the studio's first collaboration with a small technology company called Pixar). There are several instances of CGI in the picture, most of them beautifully rendered. The opening title sequence which rushes through a field of flowers is gorgeous, as are later shots flying through canyons. The best visual in the entire film shows the news of the kidnapping being transmitted across a tactile, three-dimensional globe. Meanwhile a shot of the Sydney Opera House falls flat, as it looks like it was two or three passes away from being fully rendered, and cityscapes like that of Manhattan look a little too sleek and boxy, but on the whole the imagery is fantastic. The majority of the film is hand-drawn and every frame looks like a marked improvement over the ugly cinema scape realized in its predecessor. Here we get beautiful pink sunrises and lush greens. The studio must have exhausted their brown paint reserves on the first film. The one truly flawed design is that of the kidnapped child Cody who is overly soft with great, big saucerful eyes. The kid has no spunk or personality. It looks like he was created cute by committee.

The one production component The Rescuers Down Under excises from the template of the previous film is songs. It is only the second film in the studio's canon to be song-free after The Black Cauldron. The instrumental score here by Bruce Broughton is boring enough as it is. Throwing songs in the mix would only cause further trouble. The single shining musical moment in the feature is a tantalizing bit of surf guitar music heard during Wilbur the albatross's take-offs. The infectious reverb jangle and pounding floor toms are heard for a brief second before the generic swelling strings swoop back in. 

A less obvious similarity between the two films is that they both generate a large number of logistical questions in this viewer. For example, how come the majestic eagle and the villainous goanna are the only creatures in the film without the ability to speak English? We get koalas chatting with kangaroos, an imprisoned lizard wailing about his fate, and literally a United Nations full of mice pontificating, and yet these two individuals are denied the gift of speech? How come an avian like Wilbur the albatross can speak while the grand eagle cannot? Also, how come only one major character in the film has an Australian accent? By the sounds of it Jake the mouse is the only Aussie in the bunch. The child Cody, whom one assumes was born and bred in the Outback, speaks like Generic American Child #24X6, while the evil poacher McLeach possesses the voice of George C. Scott, which is all well and badass, but hardly Australian. Did the studio think that the same movie-going audience that embraced the fine works of Paul Hogan and Yahoo Serious would find the Australian accent impenetrable? Preposterous!

The Rescuers Down Under is far from a great film. The main narrative is a carbon copy of the original, which itself was incredibly generic. The dramatic potential available between the three rescuers is left frustratingly undeveloped. There is a C-plot following the antics and exploits of John Candy's Wilbur that generates little laughter and exhausts one's patience. Besides the often top notch animation there is very little here to get excited about. However, as a second try on a failed feature it is a distinct improvement. But ultimately the realization that The Rescuers Down Under was released in between two critical and commercial milestones makes its personal strides evermore insignificant.

1 comment:

  1. There was a rerelease of the first one sometime in the 80s, as I recall (that's when I saw it). Perhaps it was a big enough hit that the studio greenlit a sequel during the pre-Mermaid doldrums?