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"The Rescuers/The Rescuers Down Under": Half Good, Half Eh

This release has been a long time coming. The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under have been sorely in need of a re-release, having been out on DVD as long ago as 2003 and 2000, respectively. And with a new video format, it seemed like there was no better time to bring these back into circulation. But how do the two films fare?

Let’s start with the 1977 original. It’s almost impossible to review The Rescuers without inevitably comparing it to the superior 1990 sequel. Both offer similar premises, but the sequel just executes it so much better. The first film involves an orphan, Penny, being kidnapped by a duo after a valuable jewel is hidden somewhere in a remote swamp. The duo consist of nasty, greedy, British-accented Madame Medusa, and her bumbling, portly, glasses-donned sidekick, Mr. Snoops. Neither are developed all that much outside of their archetypes, but both offer great character animation, so at least they’re not boring to watch. Thanks to a message in a bottle from Penny, her cry for help is received by an organization called the Rescue Aid Society, a group of mice from various nations devoted mostly to rescuing children in peril. For this particular mission, Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) is elected, and for some reason chooses the janitor Bernard (Bob Newhart) as her partner. So off the two go to the swamp to rescue Penny.

One thing that these two movies sadly have in common is that the two leading mice aren’t really that well developed. The most we get is that Bianca likes adventure, while Bernard is more timid and, in the first film, at least, is very superstitious. That’s about it. Some would say this isn’t an inherent negative, because the focus is on the adventure, but it would be nice to glean more about them; it could make the experience richer. That said, the first film does have some memorable set pieces, like Bernard and Bianca hiding in a pipe organ from two crocodiles (and constantly being hurlted out of the pipes when one of the crocs mashes the keys), or the finale where Penny is ordered to retrieve the rare diamond from a claustrophobic cavern that has recurring high tides inside.

One big downside to the first film is that it just looks unpleasant. Yes, there is something to appreciate about the attention to detail in the rustic environments, and the swamp locales are appropriately grimy and dingy (what else would you expect?). But still, swamps aren’t generally appealing settings. And even outside the swamp, much of the film seems darkly lit and has a more muted color palette. Furthermore, at times, there are noticeable shortcuts in the animation, uncharacteristic for Disney; a brief scene where Medusa is driving around the swamp in her swampmobile is a good example; they more or less kept her stationary inside the vehicle. There’s also some rather obvious rotoscoping throughout. Another issue: The two leading mice, don’t have differently colored eyes than their fur; it’s all the same color. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and was a common design trait in ’70s animation for some reason. Finally, while this film was supposedly the first film in over fifteen years to improve the Xerox coloring process, you wouldn’t know it from some of the scenes; there’s still the sketchy look to the animation, not the crisp, clean look we associate with Disney. In some scenes (mostly close-ups), the sketchiness is so blatant that it literally made me say “Yikes.” I don’t necessarily mind a little roughness; that shows actual humans drew it and the film wasn’t spit out by a computer. But there has to be a happy medium. I think this film, as well as the previous films starting in 1961, didn’t always strike that balance.

So how does the 1990 sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, improve on things? For starters, it’s a much more vibrant, varied film from a visual standpoint. The Outback never looked more breathtaking; there are countless environments in this film that are pure eye candy. And the advances in computer graphics aided to the sense of depth and scope throughout the picture. This is particularly true in the opening scenes where our hero, a boy named Cody, rides a golden eagle through the mountain landscapes. Combined with the wonderful score by Bruce Broughton, these scenes (and more) have a sense of excitement and rousing spirit that the first film lacked. Bernard and Miss Bianca now have the traditional “white eyeballs”, which allows them to look more expressive. It’s also a much cleaner film, thanks to the CAPS digital coloring system. No rough outlines here.

I also like how Bernard keeps trying to propose to Miss Bianca throughout the film, but keeps getting interrupted. There’s also some tension when their tour guide, an Australian kangaroo mouse named Red (Tristan Rogers), buddies up with Bianca, offering some romantic competition. There’s a bit more going on this time; admittedly, it’s not the most original material (no surprise that Bernard can’t find the right time to pop the question until the very end), but it’s done well enough that I don’t mind.

The villain, a sinister animal poacher named McLeach, is also a lot more fun, but that just may be because of my admiration of his voice actor, George C. Scott. He’s after the golden eagle that Cody rode early in the film, as well as her eggs. What I like about McLeach is that he’s a bit more sneaky than Medusa from the first film; she was a bit one-note, but McLeach tries to trick Cody on numerous occasions (such as pretending he’s not a poacher when they first meet). He also has a great plan to find the eagle eggs by lying that the eagle was shot dead; Cody wants to re-visit the nest to pay his respects, and McLeach tails him from afar. I also love his lizard sidekick, Joanna, who has an infectious nervous energy, and whose body twists and contorts. Because of this, Joanna is a lot of fun to watch.

The second film also has a bit more comic relief, such as Wilbur (John Candy), the albatross that helped Bernard and Bianca get to Australia. While some may argue that some of his scenes don’t really progress the plot (such as being held captive in a “hospital” run by mice who want to treat his back pain with tons of injections and a chainsaw!), they’re amusing so I can’t complain too much. And thanks to Wilbur, we get one of the funniest endings in Disney animated film history. I won’t spoil it for the few who haven’t seen the film.

Finally, this is a small thing, but I much preferred the voice actor for Cody than the actress for Penny. The latter simply isn’t that good, except for sounding cute, whereas I didn’t have any problems with Cody’s voice.

For a set containing three discs (two DVDs, one Blu-ray), you’d think there would be a lot of special features. You’d be mistaken. The Rescuers disc contains the 1936 short “Three Blind Mouseketeers”, which is cute but nothing special. It also contains the 1952 documentary “Water Birds”, which runs 30 minutes and is live action footage of birds set to narration and music. Think a ’50s Winged Migration and you get the idea. Neither of these two have much to do with The Rescuers, other than being about mice and birds, so they’re strange choices. The disc also contains a sing-along of a song from the film, “Someone’s Waiting For You”, Disney previews, and Timon and Pumbaa describing Disney 3D. As for the Rescuers Down Under disc, all we get is a ten minute “Making Of” video from 1990, which at times feels more like a promotional piece. It does have some gleams of info, but why not a brand new retrospective? All this does is solidify that Disney doesn’t consider this film to be as important as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which both got more substantial material. The Blu-ray disc contains an additional feature not present on the DVDs, a deleted song called “Peoplitis”.

I’m glad to finally have a quality copy of The Rescuers Down Under, which, while not a masterpiece, is quite an underrated Disney film regardless, and one which I enjoy watching. Even though the second film wouldn’t have existed without the first, I can take or leave the original. Still, I’d say this double pack is worth owning just for the sequel. It’s a lot of fun.


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