The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

"Non-stop flight to Australia"

To watch the first fifteen minutes of The Rescuers Down Under is to wonder if you’ve stumbled upon some lost Disney masterpiece: The animators, using their new “CAPS” technology that would define the look and feel of 1990s Disney animation, bring us soaring through the Australian outback. The nuanced color and lighting bring a simultaneous crispness and softness to the visuals that is the polar opposite of 1977’s The Rescuers, to which this is a sequel.

The blending of CGI and hand-drawn (but digitally-inked) animation gives the sets a real sense of physical space, which the film uses to capture an open Australian wilderness. The opening minutes, in particular, show a vast landscape, outsized to reflect a child’s perspective, popping with vibrant natural colors. In this opening stretch, Cody rescues a giant eagle, and the animal is a truly magnificent design, full of wild energy and danger.

Alas, the opening is the movie’s peak. Cody gets kidnapped by a poacher and the movie takes a narrative faceplant it never recovers from. The next 45 minutes or so are spent hopping from one story thread to another, each with a leisurely pace that deflates the movie’s stakes and momentum. That leaves barely 15 minutes for the story to accelerate towards its half-hearted climax. By the end of the brisk runtime, the movie feels so damn slight that it’s more like a 75-minute CAPS proof-of-concept than a proper narrative feature. It’s a nice visual exercise; and, indeed, that’s often enough. But it still feels like it could be more.

Of all the plot threads, an extended bit surrounding back surgery on John Candy’s extremely 90’s albatross is the most inessential, followed perhaps by Bernard’s jealousy of Jake, a Crocodile Dundee-style kangaroo rat. They feel like threads from an episode of a TV show (and, indeed, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers was initially pitched as a Rescuers spinoff show, though it ultimately had no connection to this film).

The Rescuers Down Under never verges into badness, but it also never quite swerves back towards “good” after that opening stretch, either. It’s mainly an exercise in aesthetics and technical execution — and it strikes a massive contrast to the xerography, sketch-like original Rescuers. The CAPS execution is overall excellent, with some fabulous sequences showing off its capabilities (e.g. a glorious flying scene) though there are definitely some noticeable seams between the hand-drawn and CGI bits from time to time (similar, e.g., to the way the ballroom in Beauty and the Beast sticks out from the rest of the film).

Other parts of the film’s presentation fit nicely together, but the real special ingredient is George C Scott’s menacing vocal performance as McLeach. He’s more terrifying than the movie really needed, but it absolutely works.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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