The Black Cauldron was one of Disney’s biggest flops ever and the mid-eighties were looking more and more like the studio’s absolute low point. Still, the new management (led by Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney) was determined to continue in the animated movie business. They argued that was, after all, Walt’s biggest legacy. They might have taken a blow with The Black Cauldron, but the new kids were in town and they were going to turn this thing around. Disney fans know this resulted in the very famous Disney Renaissance I think I’ve mentioned a million times in these articles, the moment in which Disney animated musicals became cool again. But the road there was rough. 1986 saw the release of The Great Mouse Detective, one of the lesser known movies in the Disney Canon, but one that has a very enthusiastic group of fans (fueled largely by eighties nostalgia) and has been described by some people as the unofficial start tot he Disney Renaissance.
If you ask me, then I’d say there is no question that the Renaissance starts with The Little Mermaid. Still, I’d be willing to call The Great Mouse Detective part of a proto-Renaissance. The studio was certainly going in that direction, but undoubtedly wasn’t quite there yet. Also, there’s a special connection in the fact that directors Ron Clements and John Musker would go on to direct The Little Mermaid. They weren’t, however, working alone in The Great Mouse Detective; directing credits also go to Burny Matthison and Dave Michener. I had never seen The Great Mouse Detective, except for a couple scenes here and there, until preparing for this post; but I had heard enough of its fans to be very intrigued by the film. It’s not that I was expecting an underrated masterpiece or something, but while it’s sad and unfair that the film has been mostly forgotten, it is also not a particularly memorable movie.
The Great Mouse Detective is based on Eve Titus’s Basil of Baker Street book series (the change into the more literal movie title midway through the production is something that pissed the animators and resulted on this prank). The books are in turn inspired on Sherlock Holmes and focus on Basil, a mouse living underneath Sherlock’s floor who just happens to be the best detective in all “Mousedom”. When young Olivia Flaversham and Dr. Dawson appear at his doorstep after the girl’s father has been kidnapped, Basil must engage in battle of wits against the evil Professor Ratigan. By all means, this is a version of Sherlock Holmes recast with mice. Basil plays Sherlock, Dawson plays Watson, Ratigan is Moriarty and the characterizations are pretty much the same. I think Sherlock’s mysteries and his relationship with Watson and Moriarty work better as long-term storytelling. That’s why the best Sherlock Holmes adaptations tend to be composed of many installments in a movie or television series. That’s particularly interesting because despite all indications that The Great Mouse Detective was always intended as a stand-alone movie, it feels very much like the initial installment in a series. I can easily see it being paired up with Ducktales, for example.
After the financial disaster that was The Black Cauldron, Disney was trying to scale back on cost, and so, the production values in The Great Mouse Detective are far more limited than those in the previous film. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the animation of the supporting players. Characters appearing in the background, or for just a couple of scenes are horribly wooden and limited in their movement. Examples of this are Ratigan’s supporting minions and especially supporting females like Basil’s housekeeper Mrs. Judson and Queen Mousetoria, who feels nearly as wooden as the clockwork version of herself Flaversham builds for Ratigan.
There is no denying this movie is aiming for a much lower bar than The Black Cauldron. At times, I might argue, a little too low. Like I said before, there is scaling back in the visuals, but there also seems to have been limited interest in telling a story that remained coherent the whole time. The movie’s only an hour and fifteen minutes, so it’s weird that instead of devoting as much time as possible to Basil working through the clues left behind by Professor Ratigan (as most Sherlock Holmes adaptations do), he puts things together fairly quickly and we spend most time in a couple set-pieces. I get a vibe of the animators trying to do a movie for kids with this one, so I guess that might be why they favor action to script. But there are things that can not be excused, like a terrible moment in which Basil and Dr. Dawson dress up as pirates and go to a bar where they think they’ll find Ratigan’s lair. There’s a show at the bar where a sexy mouse sings a song and has all the ruffians drooling for her. This extended musical sequence (one of two in the movie) serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. That sexy mouse character doesn’t appear at any other moment during the movie and the fact that everyone is smitten by her doesn’t affect Basil or Dr. Dawson in any way that has to do with the plot.
That’s the ultimate example of what keeps the movie from being as effective as it could be. The attitude from the makers of The Great Mouse Detective seems to be to make a good-enough movie that would entertain children. That puts some major road-blocks in trying to retroactively enjoy the film, especially for someone who never saw it before, but at the same time, I have to say that the movie does overall accomplish its goal. The Great Mouse Detective is not a boring movie. Watching it is like watching a good saturday morning cartoon. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but the movie really seems to be embracing the qualities of such a show. The story is as deep as something you’d watch on saturday morning during the late 80s or 90s and the characters are animated very much like cartoons, too. Cartoonish animation doesn’t require as much detail and time as trying to do something more realistic, and thus, that was the appropriate way for a studio in hard times to approach this project. That is actually big part of what makes this feel less cinematic than it should. I don’t begrudge the cartoony animation. I rather enjoy the way Basil is animated at his most exciting moments. And, also, it provides for what is far and away the very best thing about the movie…
Voiced by horror movie legend Vincent Price, Professor Ratigan is one of the very best Disney villains. Price played a number of campy villains throughout his career, so he was the perfect fit for Ratigan’s huge personality. One of the advantages of the not-so-serious or realistic approach given to the film is that it gives an enormous amount freedom in the type of comedy the actors can work with and no one seems to be more delighted with that possibility than Price. He is so cartoonishly over-the-top that he must have encouraged the animators to try to be as grand as his performance. The way Ratigan moves around, his operatic facial expressions and Price’s line readings work together perfectly. By this point most Disney villains had been women and from the few males only Captain Hook and Prince John showed traces of diva-like personalities. Ratigan seems to be the answer to what a male Cruel De Vil would be like, only even bigger. The levels of showmanship displayed in Ratigan are so excessive and provide so much life to an otherwise unremarkable film that it stands out as the most memorable -and interesting- part of the film. This wouldn’t be the last time Disney would play with this type of male-diva villain (the apex of the type would be Scar in The Lion King), but it would never again be as deliciously cartoony as Ratigan.
Ultimately, what can I say about The Great Mouse Detective except that it’s ok? It’s a movie that didn’t aim very high and consequently achieved most of what it was trying to do. There are certain pieces that stand in its way (the rough animation) and some that seem bigger than the whole (Ratigan), but the truth is that beyond being a good or bad movie, The Great Mouse Detective is a sign of where things are going, a step in the right direction. As much as fan as I am of Robin Hood, there is no denying that The Great Mouse Detective is the most “alive” movie made since Walt passed. There is a sense of motion, of adventure, of wanting to move forward. And that’s what the studio would do in the next few years. Their next golden age was on the horizon, and they were going there.
Next Time: Cats and dogs are cast in a New York-based modern retelling of Charles Dickens’s work in Oliver & Company.