THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Rescuers Down Under’

The one that marked the new dawn of animation.

When Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over the reins of the Disney animation department in the early 1980s, Katzenberg proposed the idea of an annual “Gong Show” pitch meeting to allow the animators to present potential future animated feature film projects. After the first gathering in 1985 produced two approved projects now currently in development in Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid, Katzenberg was hopeful 1986’s meeting would prove just as fruitful.

While the 1986 “Gong Show” may not have been as bountiful as the previous year, it did provide Disney with its next animated project and the chance to try something the studio had strangely resisted for over 50 years; a sequel. At the suggestion of Peter Schneider, the Vice President of Feature Animation, Katzenberg earmarked 1991 as the release date for a follow-up to 1977’s surprise box office smash The Rescuers.

In today’s franchise-heavy marketplace, sequels are practically assured from any film which sees even mild success at the box office, particularly animated titles. But it was a practice Disney had avoided throughout its five-decade-long history, namely due to its focus on regular theatrical re-releases of its existing animated films to reinvigorate their popularity and, perhaps more importantly, its merchandise sales.

When The Rescuers opened in 1977, its unexpected success took everyone at Disney by surprise. On a budget of just $7.5 million, the film took over $48 million at the worldwide box office, making it one of the most profitable animated films in Disney’s history. Its popularity in Europe was staggering, boosted further by its successful re-release in 1983. While we may look back now and scratch our heads as to why The Rescuers was chosen as the first Disney animated film to receive a sequel, at the time, it made perfect sense.

As an action-adventure in the same vein as James Bond, the narrative of The Rescuers perfectly fit the mould for a follow-up. Most Disney animated features told one complete story, often concluding with a clear and definitive climax. While The Rescuers concluded cohesively, the world of its narrative lent itself to further adventures of its pair of intrepid humanitarian mice who fly to the rescue of children all over the world. The possibilities for a sequel were essentially endless, but the producers only had one location in mind.

In 1986, a little Australian film called Crocodile Dundee took the world by storm. On a budget of just $8 million, the film took over $328 million at the worldwide box office. In the U.S. alone, the film earned $174 million and sold an estimated 46 million tickets. Crocodile Dundee quickly became the highest-grossing Australian film ever made and ended the year as the second highest-grossing film worldwide. The film even landed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Is it any wonder Disney looked to send The Rescuers to the land of Oz?

Schneider assigned supervising animators Mike Gabriel and Hendel Butoy to the task of directing The Rescuers Down Under, a fast-paced adventure centring on Bernard and Bianca venturing to the Australian Outback to rescue a young boy held captive by an evil poacher in pursuit of an endangered golden eagle. Gabriel enlisted storyboard artist Joe Ranft to serve as a story supervisor, who immediately suggested the young boy should be designed and voiced by an Aboriginal Australian local. After a heated discussion with Katzenberg, Ranft was overruled, and the character was instead designed as a white blonde child.

Despite the emerging musical sensibilities The Little Mermaid and Oliver & Company, Katzenberg felt it was best to echo The Rescuers by not featuring any songs in its sequel and only include an instrumental score to compliment the action sequences. He felt musical numbers would affect the pace of the film, later noting, “Just because it’s a Disney animated movie doesn’t mean it has to have a song in it.” In retrospect, this statement would prove to be rather moot, given every Disney film for the next decade would indeed feature numerous songs.

To assist with the design of Australia’s iconic outback landscapes, animators spent several days in the Northern Territory to observe, take photos, and draw rough sketches of areas including Uluru (then known as Ayers Rock), Nitmiluk National Park (then known as Katherine Gorge), and the Kakadu National Park. On their return, the animators visited the San Diego Zoo to observe Australian animals including kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras, and snakes, while an iguana was brought into the studio to assist with designs of Joanna, the villainous goanna.

Animator Glen Keane was assigned the task of designing the golden eagle character Marahuté, which he crafted by studying eagles at the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho, and a stuffed American eagle loaned to the studio by the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. The resulting character featured over 200 feathers and Keane purposely enlarged the bird and shrunk its head to appear more dramatic. Marahuté was ultimately so intricately detailed, her screen time had to be reduced to just seven minutes to save on production costs.

In late 1988, original cast members Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart were cast to reprise their roles as Bianca and Bernard respectively, with Bernard Fox also returning to reprise his brief role as the chairman of the Rescue Aid Society. For the film’s treacherous antagonist Percival C. McLeach, Katzenberg convinced Academy Award winner George C. Scott to bring the villain to life. Sadly, Jim Jordan, the voice of albatross Orville in the original film, had past away in 1977. As such, Roy E. Disney suggested the role be written as Orville’s brother to be voiced by comedian John Candy. Orville was named in reference to aviation pioneer Orville Wright, so it was only natural to name the new character Wilbur, in honour of the other member of the Wright brothers.

After previous productions had dabbled with crafting select sequences using computer-generated imagery designed with the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), Katzenberg decided the time was right to fully embrace the new technology. As such, The Rescuers Down Under would stand as the first Disney animated feature film to be created exclusively through computers, with the total elimination of hand inking and colouring. And they would turn to a little unknown company called Pixar for assistance.

Founded in 1986 by Edwin Catmull and boosted by an investment from former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Pixar was making game-changing breakthroughs in animation through the use of computer technology. With an animation team that included former Disney animator John Lasseter, Pixar were producing 3D animated shorts exclusively through the use of CAPS, with plans to one day turn their attention to crafting feature-length animation films. For now, the company paired with Disney for the very first time to collaborate on The Rescuers Down Under.

While the animators would still craft the initial designs by hand, their drawings and background paintings were scanned into the computer system to allow for digital artists to ink and paint the final designs. By utilising the CAPS system, the animators were able to craft sequences that simply weren’t feasible through the use of traditional hand-drawn animation, namely sweeping camera movements, multiplane effects, and three-dimensional buildings. The move to fully digital animation saved the studio hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of production time.

The Rescuers Down Under was released on November 16, 1990, to relatively mixed reviews. The Chicago Tribune called the film a “bold, rousing but sometimes needlessly intense Disney animated feature,” while Roger Ebert praised the film for offering “sights and experiences that are impossible in the real world.” Most critics seem captivated by the film’s visuals but disappointed by its narrative.

The reaction from the general public was even worse. The film opened with a $3.5 million opening weekend, languishing at fourth place and completely trounced by Home Alone, which opened the same weekend to five times that figure. Katzenberg consequently pulled all television advertising for the film and it quietly faded into obscurity. While it would eventually gross $47 million worldwide, this was seen as well below expectations, particularly after the unprecedented success of The Little Mermaid.

Over the years, The Rescuers Down Under has undoubtedly suffered by comparison to the two films wedged either side of it. One year earlier, The Little Mermaid had captivated audiences and launched the revival of the Disney animated musical. One year later, Beauty and the Beast would become the first animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture. You have to feel for the poor film sitting in the middle of those two masterpieces. It was abundantly clear audiences were clamouring for Disney musicals, leaving The Rescuers Down Under to look completely out of place in Disney’s Renaissance period filled with lavish music-heavy extravaganzas.

On its surface, The Rescuers Down Under ultimately looks like little more than a test case for the CAPS technology. Perhaps Katzenberg intentionally approved this project as little more than an experiment to allow his animators the chance to adapt, learn, and deploy the new system. It allowed them to play with the new technology and understand its capabilities and limits. However, the inherent problem with the final product became a clear case of style and little substance.

It’s clear the animators wanted to show off the CAPS technology and take full advantage of the endless possibilities the new technology provided. Whether it’s a fly-over sequence of Sydney Harbour, a sweeping opening shot of a plain of flowers, or the breath-taking scenes involving Cody riding on the back of Marahuté, the animators offered visual wonders audiences simply hadn’t seen before. The recreations of Australia’s outback are spectacular, offering viewers the chance to visit the Top End without leaving the comfort of home.

However, while the animators offered dazzling sequences never before seen in animated feature films, they seemingly were too distracted to craft an engaging narrative and captivating characters to compliment the remarkable visuals. The plot is a rather incohesive mess, as it constantly jumps from one plot point to another before a rushed finale, which haphazardly attempts to bring it all together. Outside of the visuals, The Rescuers Down Under remains an entirely forgettable piece of cinema.

And now for a personal note – as an Australian consistently irritated by representations of Australia in American cinema, The Rescuers Down Under is a travesty in its depiction of my home country. Sure, the visuals get everything right and it’s wonderful to hear the use of a didgeridoo in the film’s score, but the characterisations are downright laughable. For a film set in Australia, it’s genuinely unfathomable to find a cast of characters with inexplicably unexplained American accents. We get a shocking attempt at an Australian accent from two animal characters who ultimately sound British, but everyone else sounds like they just arrived from California.

Look, I get it. The Australian accent can be difficult for American audiences to understand. Several Australian films over the years have either been edited, dubbed, or subtitled to be more palatable for American ears. And Katzenberg probably feared the same would occur if The Rescuers Down Under was voiced by a cast of local Aussie actors. But would it have killed them to at least explain why a young boy and a poacher, living in the middle of the Australian Outback, talk with American accents? And don’t even get me started on the fact golden eagles are not native to Australia, nor any other country in the Southern Hemisphere.

By the time the film was released in 1990, the Crocodile Dundee phenomenon was well and truly over. It’s partly why The Rescuers Down Under was such a disappointing failure. Audiences weren’t crying out for an animated film set in Australia. They wanted another Disney animated musical. It’s little wonder they essentially rejected this action-adventure while they waited for Disney to return to the golden formula they had finally uncovered just one year earlier.

By comparison to other films in the Disney Renaissance period, The Rescuers Down Under simply cannot compete. It’s this very comparison which would see it completely fall off the radar over the last 30 years. Regardless, it still stands as a key turning point in Disney’s history and a landmark moment for the advent of computer animation. While it’s easy to dismiss this film as little more than a showcase of digital imagery, the visual wonders the animators created set the benchmark for the splendours they were about to offer.

Is The Rescuers Down Under a Disney Classic? A film forgotten over time by virtue of the film’s which bookmarked it, The Rescuers Down Under is a visual treat, but very little else. It opened the door to the future of animation, but it’s hardly a true Disney Classic.

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