The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener
Dr. David Dawson, a British mouse military surgeon coming home to London after a tour in Afghanistan, discovers a child whose father had been kidnapped. They seek out the help of Basil of Baker Street, the world’s greatest mouse detective. Basil is originally unwilling to take the case, until he learns that the girl’s father was abducted by a bat with a peg leg – the henchman of Basil’s sworn nemesis, Professor Rattigan.
While attempting to locate Rattigan’s lair, the bat manages to successfully grab the girl as well. Basil and Dawson use the clues left by the bat to find Rattigan, but are captured and placed in a deathtrap. Before he leaves, Rattigan reveals his plan to kidnap the Queen and replace her with a robot built by the girl’s father, a toymaker. Basil and Dawson successfully escape Rattigan’s trap, and pursue him to Buckingham Palace. There, they narrowly foil his plan, and pursue Rattigan’s airship to Big Ben. Basil and Rattigan have a fight on the gears of the tower, and Rattigan falls to his death. The girl and her father are reunited, and Basil and Dawson become an official detective team.
The idea to make an animal version of Sherlock Holmes came during the production of The Rescuers. Eve Titus’s Basil of Baker Street stories were perfect for it, but executives thought that it was too similar of a concept to The Rescuers, and shelved the project for a while. During the protracted making of The Black Cauldron, director Ron Clements, frustrated with the progress on that movie, pitched what would become The Great Mouse Detective as an alternate project, in case The Black Cauldron crashed and burned. Fortunately, the brass greenlit it, and he and his production partner John Musker switched over to the new project.
When Jeffrey Katzenberg came in as new director of Disney Animation, the movie had only just started animation. Knowing that the studio would need something to wash the bad taste of The Black Cauldron out of audience’s memories, he moved up the movie’s release date to 1986, giving them only a year and change to finish the entire movie. Since The Black Cauldron had gone so far over budget, he also slashed The Great Mouse Detective’s budget in half. They still managed to complete the film in time, however, and were even able to add in Disney’s first computer graphics: the gears of Big Ben were created as wire-frame graphics on a computer, then transferred to animation cels for inking and coloring (The Black Cauldron also had some computer graphics, but those were completed after the ones for The Great Mouse Detective).
The movie was received significantly better than The Black Cauldron was. It got some of the best reviews that the animation division had received for 20 years, and it made $50 million at the box off on a $14 million budget. More importantly, it proved to Katzenberg and Eisner that feature animation was still viable after the debacle that was The Black Cauldron.
After two movies that I was lukewarm about, it’s refreshing to finally get back to something I can really enjoy. And I definitely enjoyed The Great Mouse Detective. In fact, it’s probably my favorite out of everything that the studio released between Disney’s death and the Renaissance.
I said during my Rescuers review that it was Disney’s first attempt at a real mystery plot. This being a Sherlock Holmes movie (okay, okay, a Basil of Baker Street movie), it is also a mystery, albeit one with a different take on the subject. Whereas in The Rescuers the audience discovered what had happened to Penny at the same time that the titular characters did, here it’s pretty clear almost from the beginning who had abducted Olivia’s father. Instead, the mystery is in what Rattigan’s plan is, and in how Basil is going to foil it. Like an episode of Columbo, the fun isn’t in figuring out whodunnit yourself, but in watching a master of the detective craft ply his trade.
As is tradition with Sherlock Holmes adaptations, we see him work through the eyes of an outsider. In this case, Dr. Dawson as our Dr. Watson expy. While most portrayals of Watson make him a competent detective, if not nearly as good as Holmes, this movie’s Dr. Dawson is…less so.
Of course, this IS his first case. But the character is portrayed as particularly bumbling, even for a Disney film. He’s not Jar Jar Binks, but I can’t really remember a single moment in the film where he contributed to solving the case in a material way. There was a moment where he told Basil off for giving up while they were in the death trap, but that’s less about him than it is Basil.
Speaking of death traps, I have to talk about the movie’s villain, Professor Rattigan. Rattigan is played by horror film legend Vincent Price, and he’s probably the most gleefully, deliciously evil villain that Disney has put on screen since Maleficent. His villain song (which is actually sung about him by his henchmen) mentions him drowning widows and orphans, and he casually murders one of his own men for calling him a rat in his presence. In fact, he’s the first Disney villain to actually get a villain song in the modern sense. Price’s performance does a lot of the heavy lifting in making the movie work, and is the most memorable thing about it. The Disney Renaissance is typically considered to have begun with The Little Mermaid, but in terms of villains I think it started two movies earlier.
Now, it wouldn’t be a 1980s Disney film without some, let’s say questionable decisions made along the way. In this movie’s case, the main culprit is a sequence about halfway through the movie where Basil and Dawson attempt to infiltrate a bad guy bar disguised as sailors. The bar has live entertainment, and both our heroes and the audience are treated to a raucous musical number sung by a burlesque performer. Now, I don’t know what you were expecting from this Disney movie, but a furry striptease sequence certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.
Overall, I think that The Great Mouse Detective is an underrated, overlooked gem in the Disney canon. It often gets lumped in with the other pre-Renaissance failures, but it’s far better than anything else that the studio put out in the 1970s or 80s. It’s a clear harbinger for the successes that would start coming in just a few more years. In fact, this film’s directing duo of Musker and Clements would go on to helm quite a few of the Renaissance films, and this is where they got their start as directors. We’re not quite there yet, however. We’ve got one more pre-Renaissance film to cover. Next week, Oliver & Company.
Animation: A- (The movie looks great, and even gets in some early CG during the Big Ben sequence at the end)
Main Characters: B (Basil might compare favorably to Robert Downey Jr’s recent portrayals, but Dawson’s total ineffectualness drags things down)
Supporting Characters: B+ (Some memorable henchmen, and the cute mouse girl is adorable)
Villains: A (In my opinion, one of the most underrated villains in the Disney canon)
Music: B (A couple of good songs, but not great ones, and the burlesque sequence is ripped right out of Blazing Saddles)