The Forgotten Piece of the Disney Renaissance
Originally Released: 1990
As the story goes, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg pulled the plug on opening weekend. Disney’s 29th animated feature film debuted at #4, earning less than $4 million at the U.S. box office. So the decision was made to immediately stop all marketing and advertising activities for The Rescuers Down Under, and Disney would start over and focus its energy on the next release.
When I first learned about this, it explained somewhat how The Rescuers Down Under could have possibly fallen so far into obscurity, especially considering that it is book-ended chronologically by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Not having any marketing will definitely decrease the amount of people watching it. But I wondered why Katzenberg was so quick to give up on the film. Surely it could still be profitable with a little more work, right? This and other incidents (removing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid is a prime example) caused me to begin to question his decision-making skills.
However, I decided to dig a little deeper into the issue. I looked at the data to see which films bested The Rescuers Down Under that fateful weekend in November 1990. The Rescuers did manage beat out Ghost, which had been in the top five for 19 consecutive weeks by this time in 1990. However, Disney’s film was out-grossed by Child’s Play 2, which in its second weekend claimed the #3 spot; and at #2 was Rocky V, making its theatrical debut.
Already, this was quite a bit of competition to deal with (ok, maybe not in hindsight. But at the time both were popular franchises). But what was the #1 movie that defeated all these popular contenders? The champion, in its debut weekend, was none other than…Home Alone. Home Alone was a big deal, folks. Not only was it the biggest smash hit of 1990, the movie was so big that it became a pop-culture phenomenon (most of us should remember putting our hands on our cheeks and screaming “AAAHHHH!”). It was so popular, it stayed at #1 in the box office for 12 weeks in a row, from November all the way into February of 1991. By the time Home Alone finally ran out of steam, it had raked in over $285 million domestically and $470 million worldwide! That could explain Disney’s decision. Maybe Katzenberg knew what he was doing, after all. Quite simply, there was no challenging the juggernaut that was Home Alone.
It is somewhat unfortunate, though, because in reality The Rescuers Down Under is a significant film for Disney. It was Disney’s first sequel (although this may be a bad thing, considering the stream of crappy sequels Disney produced after this). More significantly, though, it was the first of Disney’s animated films to fully utilize computers to produce the film. No longer did Disney have to rely on hand inking and painting of cells. Rather, the artists would scan the animation drawing into a computer and digitally fill in the colors and shading. In fact, it would be the first 100% digital film ever to be released.
The technology was called the CAPS process, or Computer Animation Production System. This technology represents the early stages of Disney’s partnership with PIXAR, who helped developed much of the system. The results are actually quite astounding, and it was a great leap in animation. The shading, color, and environments enabled by CAPS is far above what was previously imaginable by the old processes.
The only problem was that the artists at Disney didn’t know how to use the darn system. This led to many long hours and much fretting about whether the film could be finished on time. But even though this was the source of much stress to the filmmakers, we don’t really notice because the end result is still very impressive. The Rescuers Down Under is beautiful, even to this day.
Along with the leap in looks, another part I am extremely impressed with is the animation of the golden eagle, Marahute. Animator Glen Keane really did his research on birds, and it shows. The jerky movements of her head and body, her soaring through the air, and the flapping of her wings are all rather remarkable to see in motion throughout this film.
These things help make up for the less noteworthy story. While it is the first true sequel Disney would release to theaters, to me it seemed like the main characters Bernard and Bianca are relegated to supporting character roles. Neither Bernard nor Bianca have much of an impact in this story, except at the very end of the film.
Apparently Disney really wanted to make a sequel to The Rescuers. Oliver & Company was originally intended to be a sequel to The Rescuers, but they ended up scrapping the idea because the connection wasn’t really there after some progress into that film. After that happened, I suppose the team must have thought that they could capitalize on America’s infatuation with the Land Down Under during the late 80’s and work The Rescuers into a Crocodile Dundee-type setting. But it seems to me like the connection to the first Rescuers film doesn’t work as well as it could have. Its true that it involves the same characters and a rescue of sorts, but to me it feels like something is still missing to cement that connection to the first film.
That’s not to say that The Rescuers Down Under isn’t worth watching. I liked it, despite its issues. It has some amazing flying scenes involving the eagle, Wilbur the Albatross, and even fireflies. Also, the film is just plain good-looking. For the most part, I do like the Australian setting and characters. Oh, and the lizard Joanna is a pretty funny evil sidekick. Even if it can’t match up to the greatness of its Disney Renaissance brethren or couldn’t beat this at the time of its release, The Rescuers Down Under remains a worthwhile entry in the Disney Canon.