Even if Disney animators had consciously set out to produce a pair of works showing the before-and-after effects of digital technology on animation, they hardly could have produced more of a perfect diptych than 1977’s The Rescuers and 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. The two films, made just 13 years apart, and centering on the same two protagonists responding to a pair of similar situations, are nonetheless radically different in practically every aspect of visual design and approach. And the shifts extend past the construction methods: Seen side-by-side in the new Blu-ray/DVD double release, timed to The Rescuers’ 35th anniversary, they’re a clear-cut portrait of Traditional Disney vs. the Disney Renaissance.
Both films are loosely based on Margery Sharp’s Rescuers books, and both star Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as a pair of mice whose international aid group helps people in need—a sort of mouse-specific shadow United Nations, based in the UN headquarters itself. In the first film, Hungarian diplomat Miss Bianca (Gabor) and clumsy American janitor Bernard (Newhart) accept a mission to track down and assist an orphan girl named Penny, who was kidnapped by half-mad, all-evil pawnbroker Madame Medusa and is being used to explore a dangerous cave system in search of a gigantic diamond. In the second film, Miss Bianca and Bernard head to Australia to rescue a boy named Cody (Adam Ryen) who was kidnapped by surly poacher McLeach (George C. Scott) after catching McLeach in the act. Along the way, the mice join forces with a local kangaroo mouse (Tristan Rogers) and help rescue an immense golden eagle.
Rescuers was one of the last gasps of Disney’s traditional cel-animation department. When it was made, three of the studio’s longtime core animators—the “nine old men,” as Walt Disney himself called them—had already retired or died. The three who worked as key animators on Rescuers—Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnson—all retired after the film wrapped. The film served as a training ground for up-and-comers, including Don Bluth and Glen Keane, and as a testing ground for a new xerographic process that let animators transfer colored lines to animated cels, instead of the black lines that were previously standard. But the new process doesn’t always work well; the thick, fuzzy grey lines around the animated characters often make them stand out starkly from the painted backgrounds. Some of the animation is noticeably recycled throughout the film, or brought in from past Disney features. While The Rescuers is at times a showcase for marvelously expressive art—especially in Kahl’s design for Madame Medusa, a sloppy, flailing disaster of a woman with a shapeless bust hanging to her waist and a face like a half-empty bag—the seams show throughout, and it’s all too easy to see the patchwork process that created it from foregrounds and backgrounds, and from animators of varying experience and talent.
Contrast this with Rescuers Down Under, Disney’s first wholly digital film. While The Little Mermaid was the first animated feature to use Disney’s proprietary CAPS (computer animation production system) software in a limited capacity, Rescuers Down Under used it throughout, with animators building entirely digital backgrounds, then drawing, painting, and assembling images entirely via computer. The technique allowed for finer lines, more gradated shading, richer shadows, sharper contrast, and an integration between planes that The Rescuers lacked. It’s a gorgeous, visually ambitious film, full of show-offy setpieces reportedly inspired by the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
Both movies have their rewards. Rescuers has more personal charm than its sequel, particularly in the quirky, prickly characters. The film has a real sense of menace and malice, particularly in Madame Medusa’s casually sadistic treatment of Penny, and the authentically frightening scene where the girl is trapped in a flooding cavern with Medusa threatening her from above. Rescuers Down Under, meanwhile, has a vast sense of space and a rich field of color; it flopped at the box office, with reviewers grumbling that Disney had abandoned its musical heritage by dropping any pretense of songs, and that the story was generic and bland. But the film remains an animator’s showcase, visually impressive even today. And both movies have memorable villains, with McLeach’s muttering dark humor and Medusa’s thrilling Cruella De Vil wildness both looking particularly frightening when placed next to a vulnerable child. (One early script treatment for the first Rescuers called for Medusa to be Cruella De Vil; the idea was ultimately scrapped, but it’s easy to see the influence in her big gestures and expressive talk—and in the fact that they drive the same garish roadster in the same barely controlled fashion.)
Both movies have their failings as well. Rescuers is mighty treacly in spots, relying heavily on a gap-toothed, lisping, frequently crying wide-eyed orphan to deliver pathos by the bucketload. The periodic songs are an awkward mixture, with a Disney sing-along showtune, a sad ballad, and a wispy ’70s easy-listening number all jostling for space. The film makes heavy use of grainy painted backgrounds, opening with a series of impressionistic still-frames in which the texture of the painted surfaces stands out more than the color. And it spends a surprising amount of time on hick jokes and dead-end bits of narrative business, as when Miss Bianca and Bernard try to take a shortcut through a rainy zoo and get scared off by lion noises. Down Under, meanwhile, swaps Rescuers’ surly albatross pilot, Orville (voiced by old-time radio star Jim Jordan), for a louder, jokier version named Wilbur, voiced by John Candy and designed as the butt of endless aggressive physical gags. Down Under also builds an entire storyline around Cody meeting and befriending a group of animals imprisoned in McLeach’s lair—and then the film forgets them entirely, whisking the protagonists off to adventure and thoughtlessly leaving a group of highly individualized, compelling characters alone in the dark to die.
But outside the individual experience, the two films are most fascinating as a look at a company in the process of reinventing itself. In just 13 years, Disney went from showcasing sentiment and heartstring-plucking emotion to pushing high-flying adventure. It dropped the songs and the wistfulness, polished up the color, and poured on the spectacle and the big, broad gags. To some degree, it stopped aiming so obviously at the heart, and aimed more directly at the adrenal glands. And in the process, it became a company more directly prepared for the 21st century of film. Both Rescuers movies stand as historical pieces, but they have the most to say when viewed in direct comparison.
Key features: A 10-minute Down Under making-of featurette that’s almost all fluff and hype; various unrelated bonuses, like the “Three Blind Musketeers” Silly Symphony short and a Disney True-Life Adventure episode on waterbirds.