Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Rescuers Down Under

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Rescuers Down Under

Year: 1990 1

Source materials: based on characters created by Margery Sharp

Budget: $30 million (estimated)

Box office: $47.4 million

Plot: In the Australian Outback, a young boy named Cody rescues and befriends a rare golden eagle called Marahuté, who shows him her nest and eggs. Later on, the boy falls in an animal trap set by Percival C. McLeach, a local poacher wanted by the Australian Rangers.

When McLeach finds one of the eagle’s feathers on the boy’s backpack, he knows that catching an eagle that size would make him rich because he had caught one before (Marahuté’s mate). McLeach throws Cody’s backpack to a pack of crocodiles in order to trick the Rangers into thinking that Cody was eaten, and kidnaps him in an attempt to force him to reveal the whereabouts of Marahuté.


A mouse, the bait in the trap, runs off to a secret outpost. From there, a telegram is sent to the Rescue Aid Society headquarters in New York City, and Bernard and Miss Bianca are assigned to the mission, interrupting Bernard’s attempt to propose marriage to Bianca. They go to find Orville the albatross who aided them previously, but instead find his brother Wilbur. Bernard and Bianca convince Wilbur to fly them to Australia to save Cody.

In Australia, they meet Jake, a hopping mouse who is the RAS’ local regional operative. Jake becomes infatuated with Bianca and starts flirting with her, much to Bernard’s dismay. He serves as their “tour guide” and protector in search of the boy. At the same time, Wilbur is immobilized when his spinal column is bent out of its natural shape, convincing Jake to send him to the hospital (an old abandoned ambulance). As Wilbur refuses to undergo surgery and escapes his captors, his back is unintentionally straightened in the struggle with the mouse medical staff. Cured, Wilbur departs in search of his friends.

At McLeach’s ranch, Cody has been thrown into a cage with several of McLeach’s captured animals after refusing to give up Marahuté’s whereabouts.

Cody tries to free himself and the animals, but is thwarted by Joanna, McLeach’s pet goanna. Realizing that Marahuté’s eggs are Cody’s weak spot, McLeach tricks Cody into thinking that someone else has shot Marahuté, making Cody lead him to Marahuté’s nest.

Bernard, Bianca and Jake, knowing that Cody is in great danger, jump onto McLeach’s Halftrack to follow him. At Marahuté’s nest, the three mice try to warn Cody that he has been followed. McLeach arrives and captures Marahuté, along with Cody, Jake and Bianca.  Joanna tries to eat Marahuté’s eggs, only to discover that they are just egg-shaped stones. Fearing that McLeach might be angry with her, Joanna drops the stones over the cliff. When she leaves, Bernard crawls out of the nest with the hidden eggs, grateful that Joanna fell for the trick. Wilbur arrives at the nest, whereupon Bernard convinces him to sit on the eagle’s eggs, so that Bernard can go after McLeach.

McLeach takes his captives to Crocodile Falls, where he ties Cody up and hangs him over a group of crocodiles in attempts to feed him to them. But Bernard (riding a wild razorback pig, which he had tamed using a horse whispering technique used by Jake on a snake earlier) follows and disables McLeach’s vehicle. McLeach then tries to shoot the rope holding Cody above the water.


To save Cody, Bernard tricks Joanna into crashing into McLeach, sending both of them into the water. The crocodiles then turn their attention from Cody to McLeach and Joanna, while behind them the damaged rope holding Cody breaks apart. McLeach fights and fends off the crocodiles, but when Joanna reaches the shoreline, McLeach is swept over the waterfall to his death. Bernard dives into the water to save Cody, but fails. His actions, however, buy Jake and Bianca enough time to free Marahuté for her to save both Cody and Bernard.

Bernard, desperate to prevent any further incidents, proposes to Bianca, who eagerly and happily accepts while Jake salutes him with a new-found respect. All of them depart for Cody’s home. Meanwhile, Marahuté’s eggs finally hatch, much to Wilbur’s chagrin.

Background: After Oliver & Company, Peter Schneider, vice president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, asked supervising animator Mike Gabriel if he would consider directing. Gabriel declined, saying “Well, after watching George [Scribner], it doesn’t look like it would be much fun.” Later, Schneider offered Gabriel to direct Rescuers Down Under, which he accepted. Hendel Butoy was added as co-director.


With Schumacher as producer, he selected storyboard artist Joe Ranft to serve as story supervisor because of his “ability to change and transform through excellence of idea.” Ranft disagreed with studio management and marketing executives, as he wanted to cast an Aboriginal Australian child actor to voice Cody, but he was overridden with the decision to cast “a little white blonde kid.”

Although Newhart and Gabor reprised their roles, Jim Jordan, who had voiced Orville in the original film had died. Roy E. Disney suggested the character of Wilbur, written as Orville’s brother, to serve as his replacement. Intentionally, the names were in reference to the Wright brothers.

Animation: Members of the production team including art director Maurice Hunt and six of his animators spent several days in Australia to study settings and animals found in the Australian Outback. There, they went to the Ayers Rock, Katherine Gorge, and the Kakadu National Park.

Serving as the supervising animator on the eagle character Marahute, Glen Keane studied eagles, as well as a stuffed American eagle on loan from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. Keane, made the bird bigger, shrunk its head, elongated its neck and wings, and puffed out its chest. He also had to slow the bird’s wing movements to about 25 to 30 percent of an eagle’s flight speed in order for it to be clearly seen. Due to the excessive details on Marahute, the bird only had seven minutes of screen time.

Mark Henn animated several scenes of Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Percival C. McLeach. For the mice characters, Henn studied the mannerisms made by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor during voice recording sessions, and looked to George C. Scott’s performance in Dr. Strangelove for inspiration while animating McLeach.

Animators traveled to the San Diego Zoo to observe kangaroos, kookaburras, and snakes. An iguana was brought in by the staff at Walt Disney World’s Discovery Island for the animators drawing Joanna.

Although the CAPS process was used in some parts of other films, The Rescuers Down Under is the first traditionally animated film which the entire final film elements were assembled and completed within a digital environment. The film also has CGI shots like the field of flowers in the opening sequence, McLeach’s truck, and Wilbur flying above Sydney Opera House and New York City. The CAPS project was the first of Disney’s collaborations with Pixar. (More on them later)

Music: The score for the film was composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton. Unlike the vast majority of Disney animated features, the film had no songs written for it (however, “Message Montage” includes a quotation from “Rescue Aid Society” by Sammy Fain, Carol Connors, and Ayn Robbins, the only musical reference to the first film). This was the second film not to include any songs in it, the first one being The Black Cauldron.

Voice Cast: Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, 2 and Bernard Fox reprise their roles from the first film. Frank Welker returns as Marahuté.

John Candy as Wilbur. 3 He is best known for comedy films as Stripes, Splash, Cool Runnings, Summer Rental, Home Alone, The Great Outdoors, Spaceballs, Planes Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck, as well as more dramatic roles in Only the Lonely and JFK. George C. Scott as Percival C. McLeach. He was best known for his portrayal of General George S. Patton in the film Patton, 4 as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

Tristan Rogers as Jake. He is best known for playing Robert Scorpio on General Hospital. He is currently starring as Colin Atkinson on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless. Peter Firth as Red. He is best known for his role in the show Spooks and as Alan Strang in Equus. 5

Wayne Robson as Frank, known for the sitcom The Red Green Show and as the escape artist character Rennes from Cube. Douglas Seale as Krebbs. He will voice the Sultan in Aladdin. He also appeared in several films including Amadeus and Ernest Saves Christmas.

Child actor Adam Ryen as Cody. He appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Child’s Play 2. Russi Taylor as Nurse Mouse. She has played the role of Minnie Mouse since 1986. In addition to voicing several animated characters including Martin, and the twins Sherri and Terri on The Simpsons.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Animation can give us the glory of sights and experiences that are impossible in the real world, and one of those sights, in ‘The Rescuers Down Under,’ is of a little boy clinging to the back of a soaring eagle. The flight sequence and many of the other action scenes in this new Disney animated feature create an exhilaration and freedom that are liberating. And the rest of the story is fun, too.” Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune summarized the film as a “bold, rousing but sometimes needlessly intense Disney animated feauture [sic]” where “good fun is provided by a goofy albatross (voiced by John Candy), one in a long line of silly Disney birds.”

Legacy: The film proved the merits of computer animation, leading the company to rely less and less on hand drawn processes. Every once in a while Bernard and Bianca appear in the parks.

My take:

There’s a little bit of nostalgia involved. There’s a ton of good will for Bianca and Bernard from the original film.

The computer graphics are great. It’s like they have a new toy and they can’t wait to show it off right away. The first sequence of the flowers as the camera races to the mountain sets the tone, leading into the flying eagle sequence. It’s interesting to see the change in animation in the thirteen years between films. It’s cleaner due to the CAPS process.

This is a straight up action movie, and I wish they had made a few more shorts or something with these characters before Gabor passed away, as another sequel without her would be just plain wrong.

Next Week: One of the best animated films ever made: Beauty and the Beast