CARTOONS are more popular than ever, and - surprise, surprise - the Walt Disney studio is at the head of the parade. Two years ago, Disney released ``Oliver & Company,'' and set a box-office record for an animated film. Last year it released ``The Little Mermaid,'' which set a new record, becoming the highest-earning cartoon in history - except for classics that return to the screen many times (``Fantasia,'' which was reissued again recently, is a current example).
Despite competition from such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth, who have ``An American Tail'' and other high-grade animations to their credit, Disney continues to thrive. To meet the demand, the studio's animation department has increased its staff from 200 to 600 people in the past five years, which means lots more cartooning coming our way.
The current example of Disney artistry is ``The Rescuers Down Under,'' a sequel to ``The Rescuers,'' which came out in 1977. Like all ambitious feature-length cartoons, ``The Rescuers Down Under'' has plenty of awesome statistics behind it: More than 400 technicians and artists worked on it, painting more than 170,000 frames based on more than a million sketches of various types, drawn over a period of almost three years.
Still, what matters isn't behind-the-scenes activity but how much fun and adventure all this has brought to the screen. The answer is plenty, at least for young moviegoers and for adults who are willing to forego comparisons with genuine Disney masterpieces like ``Pinocchio'' and ``Dumbo.''
If you remember the original ``Rescuers,'' you know about the Rescue Aid Society, devoted to helping people in need. Its most lovable agents are Bernard and Miss Bianca, a pair of friendly mice. In their new adventure they get a call for help from a boy in Australia, who's been kidnaped by a wicked hunter - the sort of creep who'd think environmentalism is a dirty word.
The hunter is out to trap a rare eagle, and he's convinced the boy can lead him to the bird's nest, where it's waiting for its new eggs to hatch. Other characters include a very nasty lizard, a very funny albatross, and a kangaroo mouse whose personal knowledge of Australia helps save the day.
Disney is promoting ``The Rescuers Down Under'' as something new, claiming that it focuses on adventure in ways usually reserved for live-action films. ``The Rescuers Down Under'' is more earthbound than many cartoons, taking full advantage of Australian landscapes and creatures.
But there's still a hearty dose of fantasy in the story, though - the heroes are mice, after all - and the movie has the richly painted look that graces all the best Disney cartoons. If you yawned through ``Jetsons: The Movie'' a few months ago, you'll be gratified by the full-animation style that Disney refuses to abandon.
The picture is also strong in the sound-track department - an important area for any cartoon since music, voices, and sound effects are what prevent animated images from coming across like the flat drawings they are. ``The Rescuers Down Under'' has a terrific voice-only cast including Bob Newhart as Bernard, Eva Gabor as Miss Bianca, George C. Scott as the hunter, and John Candy as that peculiar albatross.
There are times when ``The Rescuers Down Under'' seems silly, repetitious, or just childish, but there are also times when the screen comes alive with old-fashioned Disney fun.
As a bonus, the movie is paired with a new animated version of Mark Twain's classic ``The Prince and the Pauper,'' starring that versatile performer Mickey Mouse as both title characters. Although it's not a major achievement, it's colorful and nostalgic. And when was the last time you saw a ``featurette'' at your neighborhood theater?