Monday, May 26, 2014

Various thoughts on The Rescuers Down Under

In the year 1990 Disney and Pixar teamed up for the very first time to produce the film The Rescuers Down Under, a rare sequel that surpassed the original in more or less every possible way.  It was a blending of traditional animation and computer techniques that sometimes worked (the way a seemingly traditionally animated scene simulated a radial dolly shot was awesome, for example) and sometimes failed (the New York skyline sucked, for example.)

While I am inclined to gush with praise of the movie, that praise comes with caveats.  It has been said that Frozen is the most feminist, and most progressive, movie Disney has ever made.  Frozen is not a particularly feminist or progressive movie.  It's just that other Disney movies are less so.  Keep in mind that Frozen came out in 2013, and The Rescuers Down Under came out in 1990.  So, with Frozen in mind, imagine something 23 years less progressive and 23 years less feminist.

I'm not going to make a defense of where it falls flat.  It's a Disney movie from 1990.  That should give you a good idea of where its problems lie, and one can either enjoy the work in spite of them, or not.

I have a suspicion that one of the reasons it is so much better than the original is because of sexism.  The Rescuers passes the Bechdel test.  The Rescuers Down Under does not.  The reason is quite simple.  Both involve a kidnapped human child.  In the first movie the child and the kidnapper are both female.  In the second movie the child and the kidnapper are both male.

In theory this should mean nothing.  The same stories could certainly be told if we gender-flipped the villains and children.  In practice, though, I think there reason that Cody from the second film is a much more interesting character than Penny from the first is that, as a boy, the filmmakers allowed Cody do things.

Cody is kidnapped because, basically, he's a rescuer himself.  He is not a mouse who is part of an international society based in the UN Building, called the Rescue Aid Society, dedicated to never letting a call for help go unanswered.  But he is someone who rescues.  The movie begins with him hearing a signal that means someone needs help.  It turns out that he's got a whole team of his own.  Three birds, three wombats, a short beaked echidna named "Nelson", and a kangaroo named "Faloo".

Cody asks Faloo who's been trapped and she tells him it's someone he doesn't know, a giant (as in 40 foot wing span this exists in dreams but sadly not in reality) Eagle named "Marahute".

As a result the film starts with Cody scaling a cliff to get to the spot where she's been trapped and cutting her free before the poacher who set up the trap can catch her.

He ends up getting kidnapped because Marahute gave him a feather (and an awe inspiring flight) in thanks and when he saved a mouse that was being used as bait he fell into a poacher's trap himself.  When the poacher saw the feather he took Cody in order to make Cody tell him were Marahute was.

The first Rescuers starts with Penny dropping a message in a bottle into a bayou in hopes it will get her help.  Why is she there?  Because she's the only one small enough to fit into the hole and reach the pirate treasure.  If you just called bullshit thrice over, you're not alone.*  But the point isn't how much sense it makes, the point is that the first movie starts with a young girl making a desperation move that involves minimal effort and the second movie involves a small boy doing an epic feat of awesome altruism.

It's possible that the reason one child was mostly passive (though points to her in that she did try to escape on her own, failed though that attempt was) and the other was very active had nothing to do with gender.  It's possible.  But I'm guessing it's not true.


What I said before about the difference between Bechdel pass and Bechdel fail being a result of the kidnappee and the kidnapper one gender or the other shows how male skewed the casts are.  Ignoring the kidnapped and the kidnapper, I count two females with speaking parts in the first movie (the female lead, a mouse, and a native housewife, a muskrat, who lives near where the kidnapped girl is being held) and three in the second (same female lead, Cody's mother, who speaks in one scene, and Faloo, who speaks in one scene.)

That's ... not good.


The movie doesn't have all that much going on in it.  It's only 78 minutes long, and if it were up to me about 14 of those minutes would be tossed because in my opinion they don't contribute much, and if anything they detract from the movie.  The credits take four minutes, so we're talking about just about an hour flat of content I think is useful.

But that's not why it doesn't have much going on in it.

Yes, an hour long movie can only fit half as much content as a two hour movie, but in this case I think the more important point is how the content is handled.

The movie tells a story, of course, and it's a decent story, but it's more about showing you a different world.  You see things through the eyes of mice who ride fireflies (don't think about physics too much here) and the eyes of a boy who is given a chance to ride above the clouds on the back of a giant majestic eagle.

It's about taking you to a new world, and looking at the world you know from a different perspective.  The sequence where mice transmit a message from Australia to the RAS headquarters in New York is just plain fun (and involves a mouse transmitting station built out of an abandoned plane.)  One even gets the sense that if they'd shown more stops along the way** each would have shown the the local mice ingeniously, and uniquely, MacGyvering their own communications system from human refuse and whatnot.

And there are just neat details, like the clocks on the wall showing what time it is in various locations being wrist watches because they're mice so a wrist watch is clock sized for them.

What it amounts to is something that's very, very fun.


That's the big thing.  24 years later it's still fun.


So, changes.  I basically always talk about things I'd do differently; I see no reason now should be an exception.

The voice cast was great.  George C. Scott was perfect as the villain, for example.  Thus if I were doing it there would have to be a time machine involved because I want the original cast.

A movie made today would be longer which means room for more depth, more characters, more everything.

Before I get to that, I've already mentioned that there were things I'd like to see less of.  The big one was Wilbur in the hospital.  It basically went for the idea that hospitals are torture chambers.  Wilbur wasn't released, he escaped.  His bad back being knocked back into alignment in the process.

Wilbur being incapacitated for a while worked well with the plot (if he weren't the mice would just fly to the bad guy's place and we wouldn't be able to see their journey) but it doesn't come off as BECAUSE PLOT.  In fact, it doesn't come off as that remotely.  If all I could do was cut then I'd just cut most of it so that what we saw would basically be his entrance and when he finally left.

If I were doing things my way then I'd just handle it differently.  Wilbur could still be terrified of the mice at the hospital (set up in an abandoned military hospital truck, if you're wondering) but he'd be wrong to be terrified.  He'd find out that the doctor really did have his best interests at heart and be healed by medicine not random slapstick.

Ms. Bianca is handled badly in general.  Not the character herself, for the most part, rather how everyone reacts to her.  The reaction is basically thus: "OH MY GOD PRETTY FACE!" followed by trying to please her or trying to court her.  This is something that carried over from the original.

Something that, thankfully, didn't carry over from the original was the nature of her relationship with Bernard.  In the original the two fell in love because ... well because.  There was no reason other than the fact she was the female lead and he was the male one.  Apparently simply being in close proximity equals love.

This movie, on the other hand, seems to realize that you can't marry a man mouse you just met.  Time has passed since the first movie.  The first movie was Bianca's first mission and she took Bernard, then a janitor, along when people didn't think she should go off on her own.  In the time between the two movies the two have risen to be the top agents of the RAS and Bernard is the USA's delegate to the society.  Even if it happened off camera, they had a long getting to know you period.

Bernard is ready to propose, and Bianca is ready to accept.  And then starts him attempting to propose.  This part I don't like.

First the ring falls out through a hole in his pocket and he's left crawling around a high class mouse restaurant chasing after it.  Then the mission gets in the way of him saying anything.  Then, when Jake (their self-appointed local guide) finds out the two are not yet married, Jake always has them transported such that Jake is next to Bianca and Bernard is in the back.  The one time they're alone Bernard (having realized the traditional ring in a box format is less likely to fall through pocket holes than a bare ring) tries to propose but is interrupted by Jake's return which, since it involves a snake that might like to eat them, leaves Bernard in soaking wet.  It's only when everything is over that he finally manages to propose.

Not a fan of that kind of thing.  Definitely not a fan of Jake using a rescue mission to try and hook up with the cute girl he just met.

When you look at what's really contributing to the movie, there's no reason Jake needs to be attracted to Bianca.  Also, there's no reason Jake needs to be male.  I'm largely in favor of keeping the original characters and just augmenting the cast with more female characters, but there is something tempting about a female Jake.

Regardless, if Jake the kangaroo mouse has to treat Bernard badly there are reasons beyond, "Hey, romantic rival, I must shun him," and the other reasons are better.  Jake has serious doubts about Bernard's competence, and for good reason.  First off, Bernard knows nothing about Australia.  That doesn't bode well for someone trying to conduct a rescue mission in Australia.  Second, Bernard has confidence problems.  Bernard operates best in high stress situations.  As in, "Oh, God, oh, God, we're all gonna die."  When he doesn't have imminent catastrophe forcing him to do things, his lack of self confidence leaves him bumbling and apparently useless.

While Bernard does do some pretty useful things before the climax, Jake doesn't actually see Bernard do anything useful until the climax.  Thus until the climax Jake sees Bernard as dead weight.  If Jake has to be a jerk to Bernard, thinking Bernard doesn't belong there because it actually looks like that's true is a much better reason than Bernard being a rival for Bianca's affection.

Which brings me to how Bianca acts the whole time.  When Jake is leaving Bernard at the back while he stays right next to Bianca, she doesn't seem to notice.  She should notice.  She should notice and react.  This is the mouse she loves enough to marry.  She should totally notice when he's being left out.  (Also, from a believability perspective, one has to assume that she's used to speaking on Bernard's behalf because, while he may be capable of being a top agent, there's no way he could convince anyone he was a top agent.)

So... yeah.

Other than that I'd want there to be more female characters showing up (why, for example, are the animals the poacher has in cages exclusively male?) and a resolution for said characters the poacher has in cages.  One assumes that at the end of the movie, with the poacher gone and Cody free, someone (Cody, or Rangers sent by Cody) frees the animals, but there's nothing in the movie itself about their fates.


I was going to stick this in here, but I've decided to give it its own post at some later date, but short version is I'd kind of like to see a TV series about Cody and his team (now including 100% more Marahute) as they go about their business of rescuing trapped animals from poachers.

By the way, that team Cody has (Faloo the kangaroo, three smallish birds, three wombats, and Nelson the echidna)?  It never shows up after the very beginning of the movie.  Seems like they should at least be looking for him.


* Why couldn't they:
1 Find a small child who liked the idea of climbing in a hole to get pirate treasure thus saving them the trouble of kidnapping one?
2 Find a small adult (they do exist, you know) who was willing to do it for a cut of the profits?
3 Enlarge the hole?
And there are so many more reasons that makes no sense.

** They show four:
1 Signal sent from Australia
2 Picked up in the Marshal Islands and forwarded to Hawaii
3 Picked up on human military communications in Hawaii where the mice distract the person monitoring such communications, decode the message, and relay it to New York [via unseen stations in LA, Denver, St. Louis, Chicago, and Washington D.C.]
4 The signal is picked up in New York


  1. "why, for example, are the animals the poacher has in cages exclusively male?"

    The female animals were too clever to catch?

    "One assumes that at the end of the movie, with the poacher gone and Cody free, someone (Cody, or Rangers sent by Cody) frees the animals"

    Maybe that's the third movie of the trilogy: 'The Rescuers: Filling Plotholes'

    1. The female animals were too clever to catch?

      I actually think I was wrong about the lack of female captured animals. One (only one) of the animals may have been female (the platypus) based on the name but I didn't notice this while watching because she, if the animal is indeed female, does not speak at all and is mentioned only once. (She, again caveat, does appear on screen slightly more than that.)

      Bad Disney, bad.

  2. One other difference between the children being rescued: Penny is much younger than Cody. She's about five years old. He's got to be at least nine or ten, and that's a big difference in age.

    What would you expect a five-year-old trapped in a swamp to do, when every escape attempt results in being tracked down by killer crocodiles?

    In the first movie, I was under the impression that Bernard had a crush on Bianca from the beginning!

    My main peeve with the second movie is the ending, where they sacrifice their soul for a cheap laugh. The entire plot for the movie has revolved around rescuing Cody, so that he could rescue Marahute, so that he could reunite her with her eggs. Do they show us this joyous reunion? No, they show Wilbur stuck at the nest as the eggs begin to hatch, terrified as he is being attacked by the new eaglets, with no sign of their mother in sight. It makes a pretty sour ending for me.

  3. I think the first movie is both better and more feminist than the second, and not just because it passes the Bechdel test. First, Penny may be a vulnerable child, but she is brave and spunky and resourceful in a realistic way. Not only does she try to escape several times, she is also an active participant in the final battle with Medusa. For example, it's her idea to trap the gators in the elevator I believe. In the sequel, the boy is a totally unrealistic mini-Rambo. I preferred the realistic bravery exhibited by Penny. Second, in the first movie, Bernard and Bianca are true partners in rescuing Penny. Bianca is actually braver than Bernard. In the second, Bernard performs all the heroic feats and Bianca cheers him on from the sidelines, actually from a cage where she is trapped. Finally, Medusa is a powerful, scary, weirdly sexy villainess who dominates her insipid, quivering sidekick mercilessly. The voice actress who plays her is fantastic! I prefer the first movie because it's got better female roles and it's a better, gentler children's movie (though the flight scenes in the second ARE pretty cool, and it does get points for how fun and cool the eagle--a MOM, no less--is!)