The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Remember that hot second in the 90s when Australia was the coolest thing ever? It was a strange moment in pop culture -- all of a sudden, Paul Hogan was awesome again, and boomerangs were a fad, and Yahoo Serious was unleashed on the world. I'm still not sure why Aussie fever overtook the States for a few glorious years, but I am pretty sure that it was a major formative experience for me.
Part of the Australian wave was The Rescuers Down Under, the very first sequel ever produced as part of the animated Disney canon. Made 13 years after the first installment, it continues the adventures of mice Bernard and Bianca -- two of the best members of the Rescue Aid Society. It's sort of a United Nations of rodents dedicated to helping children and animals whenever they're in need. This is such an amazing idea, and just typing it makes me fervently wish for a third Rescuers movie.
Cody is a young Australian boy who has the ability to talk to animals; he spends most of his days in the Outback befriending the local wildlife and saving them from dangers they face. He saves an enormous eagle named Marahute, which doesn't sit well with a poacher named Percival McLeach (a seriously underrated villain in the Disney canon if you ask me). McLeach kidnaps Cody in order to force the location of the eagle out of him, and that's when the Rescue Aid Society gets involved.
Bernard really wants to propose to Bianca, but it never seems to be the right time. When they meet dashing Australian kangaroo rat Jake, Bernard has to basically prove his worth against this rough and tumble tour guide. Because this is a Disney movie, of course he does -- he saves the day, proposes to Bianca and Jake approves with no hard feelings. It's a breezy little film that has a few really breathtaking action sequences, and even though the stakes feel relatively light in comparison to other Disney films you never feel bored or resentful of the investment the movie asks to make of you. The movie is populated with adorable, well-designed characters and Marahute is a stand-out; an eagle the size of a roc, with that sort of alien and almost goofy look that almost -- almost -- makes you forget how dangerous such an immense creature would be.
The world of the Rescuers is the true joy of the movie, though. I couldn't handle the montage of Cody's distress signal being transmitted by a team of dedicated mice, and the thoroughly sadistic doctor mouse and his team of eager nun nurses were wonderful interludes between action set-pieces. Jake is definitely one character who deserves more attention, and both Bernard and Bianca feel like old friends.
The Rescuers Down Under was the least-successful of the films of the Disney Renaissance; it was released on the same weekend as Home Alone, came in fourth for the domestic box office during its debut and had all of its advertising pulled soon afterward. It's also the only Renaissance movie that doesn't feature musical sequences, so there aren't any instant classic songs to keep it fresh in our memories. All of this makes it a bit of an odd duck in the Disney animated canon, but it's not any less enjoyable for it. In fact, if you're an Australophile it might just be one of your surprise favorites.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The 30th film in the Disney animated canon is a landmark for the studio; it was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and four Golden Globes (winning Best Picture - Musical or Comedy), the third-highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and man, did it inspire a whole generation of furries who were sorely disappointed by the "happy ending". It was the film that restored Disney to greatness after its stock had diminished through the 70s and 80s and proved The Little Mermaid was no fluke. The cultural impact of this film is staggering.
Belle is the beauty, a lovely girl who would rather read books than be more "traditional"; she takes after her father, Maurice, a crackpot inventor who moved to this provincial town in France only recently. She's pursued by the handsome but arrogant Gaston but would rather have someone (or do something) more interesting; her suitor's constant wooing is rejected as she hopes that she can live a more exciting life.
Enter the Beast, a prince cursed to be a monster for refusing hospitality to an old witch. If he can find someone who will love him despite his fearsome appearance by his 21st year, the curse will be broken; if not, he'll have to live as a beast forever. When Maurice seeks shelter after being attacked by wolves, the Beast takes him prisoner until Belle offers to remain within his castle instead. And we pretty much know where it goes from here.
When you aren't dazzled by the truly amazing songs and score, the wonderful environments and the distracting, er, qualities of the Beast, you start to notice how truly insane this story is. An enchantress goes around disguised as an old beggar woman for...what purpose, exactly? And she punishes a prince who is pretty much at the worst age possible for a test of compassion and hospitality instead of his parents? And every single servant in the castle is also cursed to be furniture, silverware and various tools because their lives weren't hard enough? And the nearby town has completely forgotten that there used to be a king in a castle before his son was cursed just ten years ago? And….
I know it sounds like I'm ragging on the story, and I'm not. (Well, only a little.) Despite the very questionable details within the story, Beauty and the Beast holds up as well as it ever has. The songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken are outstanding; the musical sequences are amazingly animated, and the character design is Disney at its most creative. Gaston is a villain for the ages, all bluster and noise, and Belle is a well-drawn heroine in her own right. The Beast is a unique and awesome creation, and the way both he and Belle are changed through their deepening relationship is wonderful to see.
Despite the strangeness of the underlying story, there's almost nothing that doesn't work well here. There are a few minor quibbles with how the Beast and his servants move from frame to frame, but their designs are so unusual it's hard to fault the animators for not having the character models totally consistent. Belle, Beast and Gaston are all-time great characters, and the supporting cast is populated with wonderful, colorful personalities. There's so much here to like, and there is nothing that makes you question the good will the movie earns.
So yes, Beauty and the Beast is a top-five all-time great in the Disney animated canon, no question. I'm really pleased that it's aged as well as it has. It's an easy movie to love, warts and all.
I hate to speak ill of the dead, especially when the person in question succumbed to an illness that personally affects me. But I was quite surprised by how little I enjoyed Aladdin, and most of that comes down to Robin Williams' manic performance of the Genie. When I thought back on the movie, he was the biggest deal in it -- and I think that's true for almost everyone. But the Genie's schtick simply hasn't aged well and sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There's not much energy left for the rest of the story to breathe.
Jasmine is a princess subject to that time-honored tradition of movie royals; she must marry a prince within a certain time frame or consequences will happen. Jafar, the Sultan's trusted advisor, has been searching for a treasure hidden within the Cave of Wonders in order to simply take over the Sultanate of Agrabah, but can't seem to find the right rube -- the diamond in the rough -- to be allowed entrance and snatch it up. That's where street rat with a heart of gold Aladdin steps in; he's manipulated into stealing the treasure for Jafar (in disguise as an old man), but ends up getting it instead.
It turns out to be a genie's lamp, and the Genie fulfills his wish to become a prince so he can have a shot with Jasmine -- the mysterious princess he met before when she attempted to escape the castle. Aladdin's courtship is rocky at best, mostly because he tries to keep up the charade far longer than he should, and eventually his deceit yields disastrous consequences.
What's interesting is the main characters -- Aladdin, Jasmine and the villain Jafar -- are all engaging, well-drawn and relatable. The fantastic elements of the story elevate the movie's themes (the danger of pretending to be something/one you're not) really well, and hyper-extends the consequences of the conflict while still making it understandable. I really like the writing in the story; the plot is tight and well-paced, the dialogue (especially between Aladdin and Jasmine) is brisk and natural, and the animation is fluid, smooth and imaginative.
And that's why it's such a surprise to me that Aladdin is my least-favorite film so far in the Disney Renaissance. But the Genie is a real problem; his constant barrage of hyper-kinetic joking and impressions is so distracting you're left wondering what on Earth he's talking about half the time. Maybe it's that his joking is so topical that it's this glaring time-stamp on what would otherwise be a timeless tale, or maybe it's a sign that my sensibilities are aging enough that I'm just not into what comes off as aggressive, almost desperate whimsy. (I know how that sounds, considering the life-long struggle Williams had with depression; maybe that knowledge is even shading my perspective of his performance.) But the Genie tends to work best when he serves as the oversized conscience of Aladdin, his shape-shifting served to illustrate or punctuate a point. Less is certainly more in this case, and Genie's presence feels so out of place with the rest of the movie's tone it's legitimately jarring.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but Genie takes this movie down a peg or two, and I wish it weren't so. Disney's strength in storytelling is its ability to walk a tightrope with tones, themes and ideas so that everything is executed carefully and with balance. One of the few times it allows itself to give in to excess earned it way more short-term gain at the cost of long-term enjoyment.