First Theatrical Release: November 16, 1990
First Home Viewing Release: September 20, 1991
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: The library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Miss Bianca, Cody’s (unnamed) mother, Joanna the lizard, a handful of (mice) army nurses, and Marahute the golden eagle. None of them talk to each other except the gaggle of army nurses, who are talking more at Wilbur and the (male) doctor than each other, anyway. And if they were talking to each other, it was about Wilbur.
And the next movie is … not Beauty & the Beast.
Surprised? I’m still following the canon list, which has brought me stumbling to the most-forgotten Disney movie of the Renaissance years. I had a vague sense that The Rescuers Down Under came out sometime around The Little Mermaid, and also found myself wondering how I saw The Little Mermaid in third grade and Beauty & the Beast in fifth. What happened to that year in between? Now I know: The Rescuers Down Under happened.
When I first saw this movie, I remember having only the vaguest recollection of the original Rescuers. The original was released on video a year after this one — a very odd choice — and I remember being surprised that I didn’t like the first one as much as I liked this one. I thought the girl protagonist (Penny) would elevate it; indeed, in my rewatch I did rate it higher. But as a child and again as an adult, I was struck by how much more beautiful this movie is, visually, than the first one. I never did forget the glint of the golden eagle’s feathers, and the panoramic views of the Australian outback rival the African vistas of The Lion King. Regardless of what you think of the rest of the movie, there is no denying that in places it is stunning, and that is where it earns its place among the other Renaissance films.
The Good Stuff
Besides its beauty, this movie has some other good stuff going on, too. I remember reading an article praising Frozen for encouraging girls to go after the “beta” guy (it used a more trendy word like “schmaltzy”) as opposed to the more suave “alpha.” Well, turns out Frozen wasn’t the first Disney movie to carry that message: The Rescuers Down Under was. I had totally forgotten about the Miss Bianca – Jake – Bernard love triangle, but I like the message it sent nonetheless. Jake is handsome (for a mouse), athletic, confident, and charming. While Bianca is appreciative of his help, her attachment to Bernard never wavers. It’s clear that Jake thinks she’ll be an easy sell, but she is not — at one point when Jake, Bianca, and Cody are captured, Bianca tells Cody Bernard will save them. Jake whispers, “Nice bluff,” and Miss Bianca says, “I wasn’t bluffing. You don’t know Bernard like I do.”
And that is just the way it is with a beta man — he may not be the first guy you notice, but he will be the one you can depend on in the end. Up against a long line of love-at-first-sight and larger-than-life declarations of love after very short courtships and limited exposure to the beloved, Bernard’s and Bianca’s quieter love that has developed over time and been tested by experience offers a nice contrast. Of all the Disney relationships I’ve seen in the first 29 movies, this is probably the one I’d want my child to emulate.
Jake’s still basically a good guy — he takes Bianca’s acceptance of Bernard’s proposal very well for a rival — but the better mouse still won out in the end.
This movie also brings us one of the most realistic villains we’ve seen from Disney thus far. Percival McLeach is a poacher with a third-grade education. Now, I’ve never met a poacher (that I know of), but I have met crass, abusive men who are none-too-keen on the law, and everything from the way McLeach kicks his sidekick to the way he mocks his child captive rings true. Not only that, but while kids can rest assured that they are safe from deranged sorceresses, power hungry sea witches and dark kings, poachers and the damage they do are very real. The movie hearkens back to Bambi with its conservationist message, except this time we see the killer’s face. (It’s also less controversial than Bambi, since poachers or more-or-less universally seen as “bad,” while hunters are just regular folk.) And although Marahute is mostly fictional, she plays her part in inspiring the next generation to protect the many wonders the natural world has to offer. (There’s an interesting article about the birds she may have been based on here.)
The Weird Stuff
Of course, the main thing that makes watching Disney movies as an adult different from watching them as a child is that you can’t help but notice all the weird stuff (oh, and they make me cry way more as an adult, too.) The strangest thing in this movie was the inconsistency with which the animals did or did not talk. The first Rescuers movie already established that this is a universe in which humans and animals speak freely to one another, not
one where the animals speak to each other but not the humans, as in Lady & the Tramp or Oliver & Company. We don’t see an adult speak with animals in either film, but it’s easy for me to accept that children can cross that boundary more easily. What’s odd is that some of the animals, seemingly arbitrarily, don’t talk. Marahute doesn’t talk, but Wilbur does. Joanna doesn’t talk, but Frank does. It’s almost as if Disney forgot that they were making a “talking animal” movie when dealing with some of the characters.
I actually like that Marahute and Joanna don’t talk — it adds to Marajute’s sense of mystery, and Joanna makes both a funnier and more sympathetic sidekick without language. Still, it does irk me that there’s no “in-world” reasons why some animals are loquacious and some just squawk. (By the way, I found myself growing rather attached to Joanna in this movie — I was happy that she survived after McLeach met his bitter end.)
And while we’re talking about talking animals, can I just say that the scene where a bunch of talking animals are all totally chill about the fact that they’re going to be killed for their parts is incredibly odd? The laid-back Koala is all like, “You’ll leave here as a belt, you’ll leave here as a lady’s purse …” as if they’re shootin’ the breeze about what they’ll do this weekend over beers in a bar.
Also, I’m not quite sure why the medical torture chamber with the world’s creepiest mouse doctor was necessary to the movie. While I don’t remember these scenes bothering me when I was a kid, they hit me harder now that I’m a reporter for a legal news organization and have read far too many gruesome medical malpractice lawsuits (Wilbur totally would have had a case, by the way.) Did Disney not realize that Australia is a first-world country? Then why the use of dirty needles and a chainsaw in the operating room? Just to make it even harder for parents to take their kids to the doctor?
I was also somewhat disturbed that we never found out what happened to Orville from the first movie. I think Disney wanted to update him to a “hipper” bird, but it’s strange that the ever-solicitous Miss Bianca doesn’t inquire about him even once. Methinks there was some foul play over at Disney studios. This is the same movie franchise that brought us the naked woman in the window, after all.
The Disappointing Stuff
Once again, mothers get total short-shrift in this movie. Marajute doesn’t get to see her chicks hatch before the movie is over (why did Disney pass up this opportunity for baby animal cuteness?!?), nor does Cody’s mom learn that he was NOT killed by crocodiles. We do get to see the rangers deliver her son’s shredded backpack to her. God, that poor woman — her son is blissfully riding on an eagle while she’s planning his funeral. It’s hard to enjoy the end of the movie when a voice inside my head is screaming, SOMEONE HAS GOT TO TALK TO THAT BOY’S MOTHER.
The Rescuers really have to work on their post-rescue protocol. You can’t always assume you’re rescuing orphans, after all.