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MOVIE REVIEW : Fantasy, Animation Soar in 'Rescuers Down Under'

November 16, 1990|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With its exhilarating action sequences, Walt Disney Pictures' "The Rescuers Down Under" challenges the adventure films of Spielberg and Lucas and confirms the special power of animation to present extravagant fantasies on screen.

The first sequel in the studio's history and its 29th feature-length cartoon, "Rescuers Down Under" (citywide and suitable for all ages) suggests a new direction for Disney animation. With the exception of the forgotten wartime propaganda piece "Victory Through Air Power," all the previous Disney cartoon features have been musicals; a fast-paced, straightforward adventure story with no songs, "Rescuers" is closer in tone to the sci-fi epics of Japanese animation than to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Bernard and Miss Bianca (voices by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor), the plucky mice from the Rescue Aid Society who charmed audiences in Disney's 1977 hit, "The Rescuers," are back on a new mission. Cody (Adam Ryen), a young Australian boy, has been kidnaped while trying to protect Marahute, a giant golden eagle, from the villainous poacher Percival McLeach (George C. Scott).

The human rangers think Cody fell into a crocodile-infested river and have given up the search. Only Bernard and Bianca can save him--which they do with the help of a variety of animal allies, including Jake, a dashing, Paul Hogan-esque kangaroo mouse (Tristan Rogers), and Wilbur, a befuddled albatross (John Candy, overplaying wonderfully).

First-time directors Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel faced the unenviable task of competing with recent live-action adventure films and trying to match the polished work of "The Rescuers." The pair successfully meets both challenges, an impressive achievement.

Miss Bianca is still the adventurous gamin who blithely dazzles every male she encounters. Bernard remains the worrisome adventurer in spite of himself, and the sequence in which he summons up his courage and subdues a huge razorback hog represents a delightful blend of animation and voice acting. Wilbur the albatross looks like Orville from the first film (they're supposed to be brothers), but moves in ways that expresses his very different personality.

Human characters have always presented a special challenge for animators, because the audience can easily recognize any mistakes in the way they move. McLeach is an extraordinarily vivid character. The animation and Scott's vocal performance convey a very real sense of menace.

When Cody is thrown into an abandoned opal mine with the animals McLeach has illegally trapped, he meets a hysterical frilled lizard who cries, "We'll never leave this place!" A sardonic koala reveals the extent of McLeach's villainy in his reply, "Oh no, you'll leave--as a purse, a nice lady's purse."

Instead of offering a pallid copy of the Spielberg/Lucas live-action adventures, as the recent "Ducktales: The Movie: The Secret of the Lost Lamp" did, Butoy, Gabriel and their story crew went back to the childhood dreams that inspired those fantasies.

Computer-generated backgrounds enable Butoy and Gabriel to heighten the sense of fantasy in ways that were previously impossible in animation, like having the camera follow Wilbur's breakneck flights amid the skyscrapers of New York and Sydney. But the real magic occurs when Marahute stretches her vast wings and carries Cody through the skies. The scenes of them gliding over massive banks of clouds, diving off a waterfall and soaring into the starry Australian night embody the fantasy of every child who dreamed of having a special animal friend/protector. It's a bravura piece of animation.

On the down side, Cody emerges as a brave and resourceful boy, but he's rather one-dimensional. He never has to deal with the conflicting emotions that make Pinocchio seem so human, even when he's a puppet. Nor is it clear if the animals McLeach had imprisoned are ever rescued, although it's assumed Cody would go back for them after the villain has met his richly deserved end. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise exceptional film.

Preceding "The Rescuers Down Under," on a sort of double bill, is "The Prince and the Pauper," a film in the traditional Disney musical comedy format. Mark Twain's classic tale of exchanging identities has been turned into a 22-minute comic vehicle for Mickey Mouse (in the double title role), Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, Horace Horsecollar, Black Pete and the Weasels from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Mickey's appearance has changed many times over the years, and the artists chose the appealing Mickey of the late '30s--the era of "Brave Little Tailor" and "Fantasia"--as their model for "Prince and Pauper." The polished animation, especially in the mime sequences, reminds audiences why the character became so popular: Mickey hasn't looked this good or moved this well in decades.

"The Prince and the Pauper" is certainly entertaining, but it goes by awfully fast. It's really just the beginning and end of a story, with the middle compressed into a few quick scenes. Expanding the film into a feature would have given the artists more of a chance to explore the reactions of the Prince and the Pauper to their new identities. As it stands, neither character has much time to realize he's better off being who he really is.

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