A dauntingly beautiful landscape, memorable performances, a socially redeeming theme — does this sound like any cartoon that you’ve seen lately? And does it sound likely that the Disney team responsible for The Rescuers Down Under would turn for inspiration to Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, or, most improbable of all, the etchings of 19th-century French illustrator Paul Gustave Dore?
If truth be told, I was a little skeptical myself. But the movie won me over. The Rescuers Down Under, directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel, carries its ambitions with an easy grace, expanding the art of animation to fresh ground without losing sight of the silly fun we love cartoons for. This movie, above all, looks different. A departure from Disney classics like Cinderella, whose characters emerge from the pages of a leather-bound storybook, The Rescuers Down Under begins with its references firmly grounded in the real world: The first shot plunges us into the immense, unspoiled panorama of the Australian outback with its unmistakable Ayers Rock.
But real can turn to surreal in the twinkling of an eye — the magnificent flight of an eagle a few minutes later looks like a Magritte painting come alive.
An 8-year-old boy named Cody has set the eagle free from a trap laid by the dastardly Percival McLeach, poacher of endangered wildlife. When Cody himself falls into the villain’s hands shortly thereafter, the mouse network (a charming ”alternative system”) sends out an alarm around the world and the silly fun begins.
The rodent ”Rescuers” of the title — Miss Bianca and Bernard, who first appeared in the 1977 movie The Rescuers — charter a flight from New York on Albatross Airlines. Once arrived in Mugwomp Flats, Australia, the two mice, helped by a kangaroo-mouse guide named Jake, careen through a series of cliff- hanging, rip-roaring, sometimes hilarious adventures that culminate in the rescue of Cody, the eagle, and a host of other poached animals destined for wallets, purses, and belts.
Eva Gabor gives a delicious performance as Bianca, who imitates the mannerisms of the actress herself. Bob Newhart likewise gives both voice and gestures to Bernard. John Candy’s ebullient Wilbur, the albatross of Albatross Airlines, is a scream. The character I liked best of all, though, was the mean, raunchy McLeach, played by — and embodying the very spirit of — George C. Scott. A