After a bit of a reprieve, we're hopping right back on the Disney wagon with another entry in Our Feature Presentation. Today's film is another of my childhood staples: 1986's The Great Mouse Detective. Unlike The Lion King, this movie hasn’t aged quite as gracefully as it could have, and isn’t as transcendent of age as, say, Up or Beauty and the Beast. That said, The Great Mouse Detective is still pretty good and never tries to be more than what it is (a fun animated movie for audiences who enjoy fun animated movies), and if it doesn’t hit the heights of the best of Disney and Pixar, it’s only because its aspirations were never there in the first place.
This movie is unique in that plays on my affection for Sherlock Holmes and characters inspired by him (I’ve enjoyed the few episodes of “Psyche” that I’ve seen, and the only reason I haven’t dived into “House” yet is because I know that I’d be compelled to watch all six seasons back-to-back, something I simply don’t have time to do). The Great Mouse Detective is a decent movie for any audience, but its appeal greatly increases proportional to your understanding of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous sleuth.
The Great Mouse Detective takes places in England in 1897, when Oscar Wilde was churning out “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and Jack the Ripper was making life difficult for Victorian hookers. The story opens outside of Flaversham’s Toy Shop, where toymaker Mr. Flaversham (voiced by Alan Young in full Uncle Scrooge effect) is presenting his daughter Olivia with a doll for her birthday. All of a sudden, a mysterious figure breaks into the toy shop and kidnaps Mr. Flaversham, leaving Olivia alone and fatherless (presentless too, poor girl).
Child characters are pretty easy to bollocks-up, but Olivia's not so bad.
We then cut to our Watson-type, Dr. David Q. Dawson (voiced by Val Bettin, who you may remember as The Sultan from Aladdin), who hears Olivia crying inside an old boot. Olivia is trying to find Basil of Baker Street, and though he don’t know nothing’ ‘bout findin’ no Basil, Dawson takes her to Baker Street. They find Basil’s living quarters and are met by Mrs. Judson (our Mrs. Hudson-type), who ushers them in and tells them to wait for Basil to return.
Basil (voiced by Barrie Ingham, and undoubtedly named after Holmes-actor Basil Rathbone) eventually turns up, and is initially disinterested in Olivia’s problem until she mentions her father’s kidnapper: a peg-legged bat with a crippled wing. Basil is familiar with this bat, named Fidget, and knows that he is under the payroll of his rival, the evil Professor Ratigan (our Moriarty-type—Basil even describes him as “The Napoleon of crime,” something Holmes referred to Moriarty as).
From there, the movie focuses on Basil’s efforts to track down Ratigan and Fidget (our Jar Jar-type), and stop his fiendish plot. The story follows a nice, well-worn Holmes-esque structure, with several scenes of Basil making deductions based on clues, and an exciting third act.
As far as Holmes-inspired material goes, it's not a bad execution at all.
One thing The Great Mouse Detective has going for is a cast of excellent characters. Basil is a great Holmes-type, hitting most the requisite checkboxes (moody, brilliant, a total douche to Mrs. Hudson), and Dawson follows in the Nigel Bruce mold of bumbling, loyal Watsons that have been around since the 40’s. Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price in allegedly one of his favorite roles) is a fantastic villain, oozing with personality and absolutely chewing the scenery during every instance he’s onstage. Olivia, in a change from the child hero norm, is not only slightly annoying (though the running gag of no one being able to pronounce her last name gets a bit old). The only weak spot is Fidget, whose slapstick antics and unintelligible speech pattern makes him endearing for all of five seconds, until you realize that he will have almost as much screentime as Ratigan himself.
The animation definitely looks like something from the xerography period of Disney animation, an epoch where, in the name of cutting corners and saving money, drawings were transferred to filmable cels by a Xerox machine instead of by hand. It is definitely one of the prettier xerography films (if you want an example of how cheap this process can look, check out Robin Hood), but still appears a bit rough in places. The exception comes in the climactic sequence inside of Big Ben, with shadows, lighting, and character movement that suggest most of the budget went into this part of the film. There’s also a wee bit of flouncing in some of the more low-key sequences (the sensation that the characters are moving underwater), but these moments are few and far between.
The movie's clock tower ending is an outstanding display of light, shadow, and some seriously sweet camera movements.
For music, The Great Mouse Detective has perfectly serviceable score (by Harry Mancini, of all people), becoming exciting, dramatic, and triumphant where it needs to be, but not leaving much of an impression. There are also a few songs thrown in for good measure, though this movie isn’t quite a musical. Like the score, they’re good enough, but nothing terribly amazing; “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” is a decent villain song, “Let Me Be Good to You” is one of the more titillating songs to be found in a children’s movie (and certainly the most Burlesque that I can think of), and “Goodbye So Soon” is… well, it’s incidental music.
The Great Mouse Detective isn’t the greatest entry in the Disney canon, but it’s fairly entertaining, especially for fans of Sherlock Holmes. While by no means an essential addition to anyone’s movie library, it’s a fun way to spend 81 minutes, and sometimes that’s all a movie needs to be.
Top Three Songs:
- “Let Me be Good to You”
- “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”
- “Goodbye So Soon”
- The ending with Big Ben
How I Watched It
After five entries, we’ve finally run into it: the conundrum of multiple releases. I received this movie as a birthday present from my friend Abi about two years ago, and since then there’s been a new version that’s been released (dubbed “Mystery in the Mist” edition). The colors in my version are a bit muted and washed out, and look rather strange compared to memories of my old VHS copy. MitM edition receives a new transfer, and is supposed to have better and more saturated colors according to UltimateDisney.com.
Extras are not plentiful, but there are a few things of note. First is a small making-of featurette that acts mostly as a cheerleading section for the movie (it was created back during the film’s original production, so it was more than likely made to sell the movie, rather than really get into the creative process). Still, it goes into detail about the use of computers in the movie, and there’s a fair bit of time spent on the voice cast, which is always good for my money. There are also two classic Disney shorts: “Clock Cleaners,” a Mickey Mouse short from 1937 about Mickey and Donald having trouble with a large bird roosting in a clock, and “Donald’s Crime” from 1945, a Donald short about him stealing from his nephew’s piggy bank. As someone who used to watch this junk all the time on the Disney Channel, I was rather satisfied with their inclusion.
MitM edition, while containing the making-of featurette, is bereft of the shorts (it’s also lacking a photo gallery, but I could usually give two bits about those). Seeing as how the old one is out of print now (and the shorts in question are on YouTube), I would go with MitM edition; the important extras are on the new one, and I’d much rather have the bump in picture quality.