Nowadays the term “sequel to a Disney animated classic” is essentially synonymous with “cheap direct-to-DVD knockoff” or, well, flat-out stupid (see the second Cinderella sequel for case in point).  Oddly enough, the first-ever sequel to one of Disney’s theatrically-released cartoons, the 1990 pic The Rescuers Down Under, was anything but a slapped together attempt to cash in on an earlier, successful film.  Instead, it was a fast-paced, action-packed, kid-friendly tale that showcased some (at the time) innovative, groundbreaking animation techniques.

The film starts off at a rollicking pace with a terrific (animated, obviously) tracking shot that swoops over the endless fields of cattails and past some of the towering rocky cliffs of the Australian frontier as the opening credits roll.  We’re quickly introduced to a young boy, Cody (Adam Ryen), who is able to communicate with animals (it’s a kid thing) and thus- off the word of a kangaroo comrade of his- sets off and rescues the rare, giant golden eagle Marahute from a hunter’s trap.  He is soon thereafter kidnapped by a vicious poacher named McLeach (George C. Scott) who is both aware of Marahute’s existence and determined to capture her himself.  This spurns the RAS (Rescue Aid Society, an organization composed of mice from around the world) into action so that they send their best members- the stars of the first Rescuers film, Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor)- to rescue Cody.  Meanwhile, Bernard struggles to find the right moment to propose to his longtime companion amidst the chaos of their latest adventure.

Perhaps one of the most admirable accomplishments of The Rescuers Down Under is the fact that it is not only the rare sequel that’s an improvement on the original (the still decent 1977 flick The Rescuers) but it also feels like a complete story in itself.  It provides all the needed background information, character structure, and plot elements to keep the film going at an exhilarating yet steady pace without leaving audience members who never saw the first Rescuers in the lurch.  Fortunately, the pic also avoids excessive exposition and instead trusts moviegoers to keep pace with everything occurring on-screen.

Admittedly, the film does lack the depth of other Disney films of the early 1990s (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King in particular).  The characters are all fairly one-dimensional, the narrative itself is pretty basic and straightforward, and in the end it’s just a fun adventure story with simple morals and a surprisingly subtle pro-environmental message.  Of course, that’s all the film aims to be and in that regard it’s exceptionally satisfying.

On top of all that, The Rescuers Down Under does a lovely job of recreating the exotic Australian terrain via old-school animation and was the first Disney feature to integrate full-rendered CG backgrounds into a classic cartoon environment.  That said, the result is kind of uneven here as the computer elements (aerial shots of the New York Skyline, the UN building, and the Sydney Opera House) are not yet well-integrated with the hand-drawn surroundings and characters.  While the mix of 2D and 3D animated components would be done much better in later Disney films (this past year’s The Princess & the Frog managed the task exceptionally well), one has to give the Rescuers sequel credit for being the first to attempt such a combination of animation techniques.

So, in the end, The Rescuers Down Under is truly a well-done classic Disney animated feature, one which I revisited with fond personal memories of from my childhood.  Thankfully, those memories turned out to be more than mere nostalgia in this case.

The Rescuers Down Under is Rated G and has a running time of 77 minutes.