It fits roughly in the Great Mouse Detective area of Disney's output, not ranking among its best while still providing some solid action/adventure entertainment. Co-director Hendel Butoy, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky, set out to create his own adventure movie, and draws copious inspiration when it comes to the flight scenes and the liberal use of creative mechanical devices. Unfortunately, Butoy didn't incorporate the things that made Laputa a great film, such as its compelling relationships and themes of Nietzschian tyranny, and The Rescuers Down Under remains hindered by its superficiality. As pure adventure, however, it's great eyecandy and quite thrilling.
Plotwise, this outing opts to focus more on the subject rather than the rescuers themselves. God knows Cody's not a complex protagonist, and can best be described as the young version of the lost Australian Planeteer (even though he doesn't have an Australian accent...nor for that matter does the villain...weird). His naive boyscoutness is kind of charming, but it's a bit ironic that the sequel that did what the original film should have has less compelling material to do it with. Once more, though, the villain comes to save the day. George C. Scott plays one of the most sadistic and manic of all Disney's villains, sometimes being played up for laughs but mostly letting us now just how credible it is that he could murder this kid for the sheer fun of it. He's a bit like what Captain Hook should've been. Bernard and Miss Bianca mostly pull off the same old schtick, but they're side characters this time out, and I'd be hard pressed to name why Bernard's troubles with proposing are relevant to the story. It's as if the filmmakers wanted to just make an adventure movie in the outback and had to tack them on and make this a sequel to get the film made.
Really, that's all there is to it, and one's tolerance for the story depends on how much one is willing to set aside the weaknesses of the whole product in favor of the small bits, which are quite wonderful. The real asset of this film is its setting. Right from the opening scene in the deep underbrush and its sweeping long take across the outback, the filmmakers fetishize the hell out of their setting. Little animals and insects all over the place (some of them look a bit like Stitch...no surprise since Chris Sanders was a character designer here), detailed background work, and survival gadgets and machinations galore (which they use for set pieces whenever they can), the passion that went into the craftsmanship is apparent. It's a major leap forward from The Little Mermaid in terms of animation.
Character animation is very solid all around, but the showstopper is probably the early flight sequence with Marahute, handled by Glen Keane, which still impresses mightily on a technical level and remains visually beautiful and inventive (probably the best of the film's "bits"). The other standout is Kathy Zielinsky's work on McLeach. An early lead role for her, she pulls off some very Bill Tytla-ish animation and gives a unique sense of shape and presence to the character. Her inexperience shows through a bit, but it's still very good work from one of the most underrated character animators around. Again, major improvement from the last Disney film, but not quite golden age quality.
I can't really fault people for overlooking this one, since it isn't really great storytelling, but there's enough good character and ambient stuff here for me to recommend animation buffs at least check it out if they haven't already. It certainly didn't deserve to bomb like it did, and it's very important in Disney's evolution (as their next film would be arguably the best of the whole renaissance). I loved it as a kid and it hasn't quite worn off.