25 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: IN A JAM, IN A SCRAPE

The unprecedented financial success of The Little Mermaid, the highest-grossing animated film of all time at its first release, meant inevitably that it was going to be copied, heavily, by the films that followed it; for the Walt Disney Company certainly was not averse to making money hand-over-fist, and they also subscribed to the conventional wisdom common to all eras of Hollywood, that the best way to follow a hit is with another film that is exactly the same. Thus we see a great many musical love stories in which a (virtually always female) protagonist who yearns for a better life falls in love with someone from a tremendously different social sphere, and thereby comes to understand something new about the world and themselves. It is altogether fair, I think, to define the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s not (as is usually done) as the run of critical successes that also did big box office, but as The Little Mermaid and the films directly based upon its formula.

But thanks to the one-a-year plan, in which multiple films were being juggled in production at once, the immediate follow-up to The Little Mermaid didn't have the luxury of aping its form or structure. At the time The Rescuers Down Under went into production, The Little Mermaid was nothing more than the next movie to come out after Oliver & Company. And even if someone here or there within the animation studio got it in their heads that the mermaid picture was something special, I can't imagine that anyone was so optimistic as to assume it would be such a massive success, commercially and artistically. Certainly, nobody would have been so bold as to argue that it was going to massively redefine the identity and popular conception of Disney animation, which maybe explains why The Rescuers Down Under feels like something of an experiment, as though in those early days when money was somewhat loose for the first time in decades, and corporate support was secure like it had not been since Walt's death, the studio was trying out a great many different styles, trying to find the one that would fit it in the uncertain future. Except that The Little Mermaid was a massive blockbuster, and The Rescuers Down Under was at best a very minor success, the last Disney feature to gross less than $30 million; thus the former was fêted copied, while the latter looks, in retrospect, like a very peculiar outlier, something that would not have been the case in 1990, when the Disney Renaissance was one film old and had not yet even been thought of as a "renaissance".

As the film was such a box-office washout, sandwiched in between the infinitely sexier The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, it is not given very much attention in the standard histories: which means unfortunately that there is much that I do not know about its development. In particular, the question hangs like a cloud: why, at this time, did Disney elect to produce its first-ever sequel to one of its features, in this case 1977's The Rescuers? I am not slighting the choice of that particular film, I should quickly point out: there might indeed not be another Disney feature so readily tailored to sequelisation, or even a full-on franchise. Indeed, this latter point very nearly came about when Disney's young television animation division, created by the new executives in 1985, sought to create a cartoon series spin-off of The Rescuers with predominately new characters in 1988; that plan was derailed by the production of this very feature, and the cartoon saw life as Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers. Not to mention that the little girl Jenny from Oliver & Company was for the briefest time going to be Penny, the girl from The Rescuers, a bit grown up and living with her new parents. Must have just been something in the air in the late '80s.

But the question remains: why a sequel? I ask this only rhetorically. I cannot imagine why a sequel, not in 1990 or ever. It simply was not the way things were done over there. That said, if a sequel positively had to be made, to The Rescuers or anything else, at least The Rescuers Down Under is a relatively classy sequel; it doesn't slavishly re-create its predecessor nor does it actively dishonor its memory, and plays the same characters in a different enough vein that it functions as its own story while also expanding on the original narrative in a logical, reasonable manner. It's sufficiently entertaining that no small number of people (mostly those young enough to have first discovered The Rescuers Down Under on home video) seem ready to declare it the better of the two Rescuers films -a conclusion that I don't agree with, although I must admit that it's not such an easy claim to dismiss.

Our story opens in Australia, as we can tell from the giant red sandstone formation off in the the distance, which we start zooming to with all undue speed. This happens only after a short opening shot involving some weird-looking Oz bugs milling about, and indeed the great zoom into the rocks is part of the same shot. In all honesty, I actually rather respect this for an opener, because it introduces us to two things that will come to dominate the experience of watching the film: the pounding, adventuresome score by Bruce Broughton, a clichéd bundle of '80s action movie motifs tricked up with Australian instrumentation, and which I like a great deal more than that preceding clause makes it seem; and the contrast between hand drawn character animation and CGI - but I would rather delay that conversation.

The long fast zoom ends at a little house back of beyond, where we find that our hero is a little boy named Cody (Adam Ryen), whose hobby, as quickly becomes apparent, is clambering through the Outback forests and deserts, saving animals from poachers' traps and speaking to them, it being an apparent motif of the series that little children can talk to animals, and neither they nor the animals seem to think it at all peculiar. It is, however, bound to be a good skill to cultivate on a continent noted for the predominance of deadly fauna. So, Cody is being called up to rescue a giant golden eagle naming herself Marahute (she never speaks except in a series of birdlike shrieks provided by the incredibly prolific and elastic voice actor Frank Welker), and when he cuts her free from a net at the top of a bluff, the bird in her anxiety knocks him off the edge, before promptly swooping down to save him. Bird and boy then embark on a soaring tour of the skies above Australia, in an essentially pointless but visually entrancing montage that ends with Cody tromping off home, only to end up caught in a pit dug by a poacher. Hardly has Cody taken stock of the situation before he is found by the poacher, a nasty and gangly thing named McLeach (George C. Scott), who is prepared to let the boy go - until he sees Marahute's feather. Instantly recognising the telltale trace of one of the world's rarest avians, McLeach imprisons Cody until the boy will tell him where the eagle's nest lies.

We are now nearly one-fifth of the way through the movie, and though there has been much Down Under, there have been no Rescuers to speak of. This is about to change, for Cody's abduction was observed by a white mouse who instantly runs off to the local telegraph station and sends out an emergency message to the Rescue Aid Society (the RAS theme song from the first movie puts in a nice little cameo in the score here. A really nicely assembled sequence takes the message across the Pacific, until eventually it ends up in New York City, where a late-night emergency session of the international society of do-gooding mice is called - it pleases me that nearly all of the mice we see are clearly the same designs from the earlier film. The RAS chairmouse (Bernard Fox, the first of three actors reprising his role from The Rescuers) suggests to universal acclaim that Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor, the second) and Bernard (Bob Newhart, the third) are the only team that can handle this difficult task, except that the two heroic mice aren't in the room!

As it turns out, they're at dinner-

All right, I'm stopping here. There is only one problem I have with The Rescuers Down Under. I mean there are a lot of things that it doesn't do right, but there's only the one thing it does flat-out wrong: this otherwise delightful adventure-comedy has a completely meandering, aimless story. Here we are, something close to a quarter through a 74-minute feature, and the alleged plot (Bernard and Bianca brave the Australian wilderness to save Cody) hasn't even remotely started up yet. Instead, we get us a genial "reintroduction to the characters" scene: Bernard wants to propose to Bianca, but he drops the ring and has to chase it, and by the time he gets back, she knows about the Australia mission and thinks that he does too, so when she says "I think it's a wonderful idea", he thinks she means getting married, and they have a lot of comic banter for a while before he finally figures out what's going on. Given that the joke here is something like 400 years old, the scene actually is quite amusing and playful; but my God, the movie is wasting away, do we really need to put three minutes of comedy of errors shenanigans into a movie that is so far refusing to be about the rescuers down under, title be damned?

More or less, that's pretty much the whole movie: one scene after another of charming or adventurous character business, sometimes featuring Bernard, Bianca, and their kangaroo rat guide Jake (Tristan Rogers)... what, kangaroo rats aren't found in Australia? But "kangaroo" is right in their name! Ahem, so sometimes the bits involve the three rodents, and sometimes Cody's attempts to escape McLeach's clutches, and sometimes the comic misadventures of Wilbur (John Candy), the albatross who helped fly Bernard and Bianca to Australia, and has since ended up in hospital with a bad back (Wilbur was put in as the brother of the first film's Orville, in an attempt to work around the death of Jim Jordan, Orville's performer). A lot of these sequences are decently funny or decently exciting, or both; but the film never gets any chance to build up a narrative head of steam, as a result of the hopscotching between subplots and of the refusal of any of those subplots to tie into the others until virtually the end of the movie, which has the terrible effect of making our theoretical protagonists, the mice, completely useless players in the unfolding of the drama until the very end.

A comparison to The Rescuers is enlightening. Like its sequel, that film told us a great deal about the kidnapping that it keeps back from Bernard and Bianca, but it doesn't do so arbitrarily. After the very vague opening scene, we follow the two rescuers exclusively as they uncover clues in what amounts to a mystery plot rather than an adventure for the first act. After they meet Madame Medusa, things switch up abruptly, and the film becomes more of an adventure quest: get to the bayou, find help, concoct a plan, save the girl. All of this, however, is driven by Bernard and Bianca, and the whole movie tells the story of their rescue efforts. In The Rescuers Down Under, there is so much extraneous matter that if Bernard and Bianca were crushed by a bus in the first scene, we'd still have a whole lot of the movie left untouched.

I bring this up not to damn the film with it, but to explain why all things considered, I will never like the sequel over the original; it's extremely episodic, and there's just something about episodic plots that raises my hackles. Letting that be what it is, The Rescuers Down Under is still a perfectly enjoyable movie whose biggest sin in the judgment of a history largely content to ignore its existence is that it's not The Little Mermaid. It still has appealing characters, in the main, whose lightly comic escapades are perfectly entertaining and easy to watch. Bernard's proposal woes are sitcom-level comedy, but even sitcoms can be well-done; Cody is a marked improvement over Penny, plucky and smart without also being incwedibwy pwecious.

As is often the case, the film is dominated by its villain, McLeach: voiced by perhaps the single most distinguished actor to ever provide vocal work for a Disney animated feature (George Sanders in The Jungle Book is the only reasonable competition I can think of), and if I am not much mistaken, the first (only?) Disney character who was drawn as a reasonable approximation of the actor playing him. McLeach (supervised and designed by Duncan Marjoribanks, a man of talent whose name is not often voiced in conversations of the great Disney animators in the 1990s) is a pretty potent bad guy, drawn as a series of tight, strained lines that imply a perpetual explosion of violence at any moment; he is one of the very few Disney villains that you can actually imagine up and slaughtering a little boy just for the fun of it. Herein lies the problem. Tonally, The Rescuers Down Under is basically the same kind of film as The Rescuers: playful, G-rated action, with lots of slapsticky gags, and a slightly more adult vein of humor mined by Bob Newhart in full neuroticism. Appropriately, The Rescuers had one of the most down-rent villains of them all: a frowsy clown, armed with a wicked temper but a complete inability to work genuine harm. But McLeach, well, he keeps threatening to take the movie someplace else, someplace that it really would just as soon not go; rather than generating drama, this tension makes The Rescuers Down Under a touch incoherent.

Man, I ran out of saying nice things way faster than I wanted to. I really do enjoy this movie, I promise, even if that enjoyment is in the "there's nothing difficult about this pleasant comic romp" mode. So let me bail on the story and head for the animation: because in this respect The Rescuers Down Under is surprisingly one of the most important projects in the history of the medium, a film that represents a greater leap in technique than any Disney feature since One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

I am speaking of CAPS: the Computer Animation Production System, introduced very briefly at the end of The Little Mermaid, but given its big coming out party right here; the technology was developed by Disney along with an Apple subsidiary called Pixar (a tech house well-known for the particularly good humor of the short films it produced as demos for its software). In a nutshell, CAPS was a process of painting frames of animation on a computer, eliminating the need for cels, although the drafting of each image was still done by hand on paper. At its simplest, this was just a labor and cost-saving device: it streamlined the lengthy, costly ink & paint process. But - and I really don't want to get into too much technical discussion of a system that I only understand in layman's terms - CAPS also allowed for the integration of hand-drawn and computer-generated images in a much readier fashion than the laborious process of tracing computer printouts that was used in The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and The Little Mermaid. You have perhaps noticed, if you are an avid viewer of Disney films from the years 1985-1996, how very different the CGI looks before 1990 compared to after. The big CG effects and backgrounds in the later films look a lot like fully-rendered 3-D animation, a style that sometimes jars with the flat characters moving in front of them. That jump became plausible only because of CAPS. And even in The Rescuers Down Under, that awkward disconnect between the characters and the computer settings is already quite noticeable (the big flight through a New York snowstorm that ends the first act is a terrifically clear example of what I'm referring to), although since this technology permits the depiction of things never before possible, I am inclined to cut it slack, to acknowledge that the disconnect exists, but that it is a technical failure, not an artistic one. Besides the stark contrast between relative simple character cels and relatively detailed backgrounds has been with American animation since the '30s.

The other, and maybe more important advance that CAPS permits is the use of more subtle color shading on characters, far more dynamic lighting effects, transparencies, and so forth. It is a technology that does not perhaps fully compensate for the loss of the hand-hewn quality to some of the best classic animation (tell me that Dumbo would be half as charming were it colored on a computer, and I shall call you a damnéd liar), but the huge, abrupt jump in the colorists' vocabulary had immediate and definitive results: the characters in The Rescuers Down Under look beautiful, in an absolute sense; not because they are well-designed for the needs of the story (they are; that is incidental to my present meaning), but because they are so much richer and more detailed even than the lovingly-crafted figures in The Little Mermaid. Though certain elements of improved character coloring, like dynamic lighting effects, had become more prominent in the studio's output starting with The Fox and the Hound I cannot readily recall the last film to have characters as textured as the ones in this film: maybe Bambi, maybe even Pinocchio.

I suppose that I am giving The Rescuers Down Under credit simply for pride of place: because it was the first 100% CAPS feature (and also the first 100% digital feature, incidentally), it is the film that gets to look so very amazing compared to all the films preceding it. Ay, well, it has pride of place; so let me not deny it that right, even if the next several features would trump it time and again in their extraordinary uses of the system. It still can't be denied that the film looks awfully pretty, though the animation itself isn't especially distinctive.

Anyway, the film is quite decently entertaining, and I think it unfair that it has been lost in time while more inane "classics" have a stronger presence in Disney's marketing schemes: special edition DVDs of Robin Hood and The Fox and the Hound, I'm talking to you. Not that I can complain - for more than a decade, I was right along there with the camp ready to consign this one to the dustbin, and I must stop here with the strange observation that of all the 29 films I've watched as part of this Disney retrospective, the two Rescuers features are the only ones that I have liked significantly more than I remember.

5 comments:

Tom said...

I'm glad that Disney had the sense not to consider advertising this as a "Disney Masterpiece" in the subsequent video releases.

Tim said...

Yes, but they still abused the hell out of the M-word, didn't they?

javi75 said...

I loved this movie when released in theaters, because it looked so good and it was an action-adventure and the CGI provided exciting scenes.
Later I realized what you explain perfectly, too many subplots don't let the movie build up a narrative spine with any momentum.
But I do like it better than the first one.

Tim, in the late 80's there was an animated feature with Scrooge McDuck and his nephews that was released in theaters (at least in Europe). Why isn't this considered canon?

Tom said...

I have the same question as javi. Wasn't this called "Ducktales the Movie"? Why would this not be considered Canon? Also, what about "A Goofy Movie"? Thanks, Tom.

Tim said...

The DuckTales movie and Goofy Movie weren't actually animated by Walt Disney Feature Animation - they were both made by DisneyToon Studios, the same outfit that puts together all of the direct to video sequels. The Jungle Book 2 and Return to Neverland were also by DisneyToon, and received theatrical releases; there may be others that I am presently forgetting.