The Rescuers Down Under marks a lot of Disney firsts for a second crack at the same main characters. Everyone’s favourite Rescue Aid Society rodents are back for the company’s only sequel in the official canon. With film production ramped right up to meet the target of one animated feature release per year, hours were long, talent was stretched and ambitions (and expectations) were high. After the massive success of The Little Mermaid one could hardly blame the company for wanting to spit out hit after hit.
The story follows Bernard and Miss Bianca to Australia where local boy Cody has been kidnapped by the evil poacher McLeach. McLeach is after an endangered golden eagle Marahute and he believes Cody can take him to the bird’s location. The supporting cast of characters are among some of the most charming the Mouse House has created. McLeach’s goanna lizard sidekick Joanna is a spunky character with an agenda of her own — the scene where she steals McLeach’s breakfast eggs one by one from right under his nose is quite comical. There’s also Jake, the smooth-talking, Outback kangaroo rat who throws a little wrench into Bernard’s plan to propose to Miss Bianca.
And then, of course, there’s Wilbur, voiced by the late, great John Candy. While the studio was able to get its principle voice talent to reprise their roles from The Rescuers, Jim Jordan, who voiced original airline albatross Orville, had passed away. Rather than recast the bird, Disney opted to introduce his brother Wilbur. The character provided great comic relief amidst all the abduction and adventure.
This film also holds the unique achievement of being the first entirely digitally animated film.
CAPS, the first digital ink and paint system, was originally a Pixar invention while Steve Jobs was running that company in the late 1980s. As early as 1988, Disney was Pixar’s biggest client and it cemented a relationship that would eventually make Toy Story possible in 1995. But as Walter Isaacson writes in Jobs’s biography:
One of [Roy Disney’s] first initatives was to look at ways to computerize the process, and Pixar won the contract. It created a package of customized hardware and software known as CAPS, Computer Animation Production System. It was first used in 1988 for the final scene of The Little Mermaid, in which King Triton waves goodbye to Ariel. Disney bought dozens of Pixar Image Computers as CAPS became an integral part of its production.
CAPS allowed computers to manage the hard and repetitive work of animation while artists worked on character designs and the small details of facial movements that gave a character their style and flare. In the opening sequence of The Rescuers Down Under the computer-generated fields are obvious and their design as simple as you would expect for a first-time outing as the camera flies across the Australian Outback, including formations reminiscent of Ayers Rock, as the film’s title approaches. Where CAPS succeeds, though, is in giving the film a polished and more detailed feel as background imagery came to life. The flight sequences where Cody flies on the back of Marahute are stunning. The technology would net its creators a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award — one of the technical Oscars.
Despite all of this ambition and delight working in its favour, the film would not enjoy the same box office success that Mermaid had the year before. After a lower-than-expected opening weekend gross of $3.5-million, film division head Jeffrey Katzenberg yanked all the television advertising for the film. It’s total domestic lifetime gross of just under $28-million makes it the lowest earner out of the Renaissance-era films. The New York Times called the animation “first-rate, but the story and settings are sometimes incongruously threatening,” which is a pretty apt summary.
While fun — and the story of Cody’s abduction makes for a more interesting plot than Penny the diamond-hunter in the first film — when compared to the other films Disney was producing during this time, one can’t help but conclude The Rescuers Down Under is just not of the same calibre.