After The Black Cauldron turned out to be a financial disaster for Disney’s animation studio, the company was in trouble. They closed their original animation building, restructured the company and seriously considered shutting down their animation department entirely. However, they wanted to give it at least one last shot, especially since their next movie was already in production.
That movie turned out to be The Great Mouse Detective, which released in 1986. During the final production stages of The Rescuers, they already considered making movie based on Sherlock Holmes, starring a mouse. One of the veteran artists suggested adapting the children’s book series, Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus. Because some of the animators were disappointed with the direction that The Black Cauldron was heading (mainly a lot of cut footage that the animators worked hard on), the Disney president at the time approved this alternative project.
The Great Mouse Detective would end up being the directorial debut for Ron Clements and John Musker, who later kick started the Disney Rennisance with The Little Mermaid, as well as directing other famous Disney features. Their most recent feature and their first venture into pure CGI, Moana, released just last year. The Great Mouse Detective ended up being successful enough to save Disney’s animation studio from closure.
This movie stars Basil, a brilliant yet eccentric private eye mouse. He is obsessed with catching his arch rival, Professor Ratigan, a crime boss rat voiced by none other by horror movie legend Vincent Price. Basil works along with his new partner, Major Dawson, to find Olivia Flaversham’s kidnapped father. At first he kind of ignores Olivia, obsessed with a clue he hopes to lead him to Ratigan. When all evidence that Olivia provides points to Mr. Flaversham’s captor as Ratigan’s main assistant, Basil jumps on the case.
This is a pure adventure movie, with a touch of mystery and a pure Bond style villain. It makes full use of its London setting, from mice stowing away on human carriages to pubs hidden in barrels and sewers. The interactions between Basil and Dawson are great, with Basil being very driven but easily distracted by his ambitions and thoughts, while Dawson is much better at dealing with people. Olivia serves as a good emotional center for the movie. She’s sad and scared for her father, but she remains strong and determined. At times she even helps Basil a bit with spotting clues. While Basil is at first annoyed by her, they eventually become friends. I also appreciate that this movie doesn’t really use comedic sidekicks, something that Disney movies tend to overdo.
Ratigan is a delightful villain. He’s evil and he loves it. He tries to come across as a sophisticated gentleman and hates being called a rat, but when he’s pushed far enough, his true, monstrous colours show. You can tell Price is having a lot of fun in the role and it’s pretty much impossible to separate his performance from the animation. He even sung Ratigan’s two songs himself, and he’s not bad. You don’t see Ratigan and Basil on screen together very much, but their rivalry and hatred for each other is made perfectly clear from the start. They play off each other well, constantly trying to outthink each other. Ratigan even sets up a completely over the top death trap at one point. He’s great.
At only 74 minutes long, The Great Mouse Detective doesn’t have much room for a deep story, but it works well in its simplicity. The action is a lot of fun and it makes great use of its settings. One particular scene takes place in a human toy shop, and when Ratigan’s assistant starts turning on all the noisy, moving toys, it tenses up the scene’s atmosphere. The climax takes place in the clock tower housing Big Ben itself (a lot of people mistakenly call the tower Big Ben, but Big Ben is actually the bell inside).
The animation is great all-round. As I said before, the movie makes great use of the London setting, and the animation takes full advantage of that as well. The mice live parallel to their human counterparts, like Basil living in the Sherlock Holmes’s home. The mouse queen lives within the walls of Buckingham palace. The general pace is quick, yet the animation is smooth. The final fight between Ratigan and Basil is actually kind of brutal. You could easily add blood and make this a PG-13.
The Black Cauldron became the first Disney Animated movie to use CGI, but it mostly consisted of a floating light, bubbles and a few other minor effects. The Great Mouse Detective created the entire environment of the clock tower in computers, making it a lot easier to draw the turning cogs and moving chains. It also allowed the animation team to make the fight scene a lot more dynamic, using moving camera angles and chase shots to make everything feel more intense. By today’s standards its low on detail, but it still looks perfectly fine and meshes with the hand drawn animation style well. It enhances what is already the most exciting climax in Disney animated movies up to that point.
The music is also good in this movie. The soundtrack is just fun, enhancing the movie’s overall mood. There are moments when it emphasizes the dark, creepy atmosphere of the sewers and Ratigan’s hideout, but not to the point where it’ll make the movie scary for kids. The main theme is memorable – I’m still humming it in my head as I edit this post, the day after I watched it. The songs aren’t necessarily anything special, but they’re fun lounge numbers and there are only a couple of them. They’ve also aged fairly well.
As a kid I really liked this movie, and I still do now. It’s an enjoyable adventure movie with likeable characters, fun action and great voice performances. It kind of feels more like a kid friendly James Bond than a detective flick at times, but that’s not a problem. I highly recommend this one to anyone interested in a family friendly adventure flick.
Next up is Oliver and Company, but first I’ve got a Rescuers vs Great Mouse Detective post ready to go. After that it’s The Little Mermaid, followed by the first ever theatrical sequel in Disney’s animation studio history, The Rescuers Down Under.