With 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective we’re inching ever closer to the Disney Renaissance that would go on into the beginning of the 1990s. It’s not commonly known, but this film is attributed as the originator of the Renaissance, although the most commonly cited movie is 1989’s The Little Mermaid. It’s a shame we never saw further adventures of Basil of Baker Street, despite an erroneous title citing “The Adventures Of…” but The Great Mouse Detective was the first Disney movie that made me love the studio from its witty British sensibility, engaging mystery, and a bravura performance from Vincent Price as Professor Ratigan.
When little Olivia Flaversham’s (voiced by Susanne Pollatschek) toy-maker father is kidnapped, she enlists the help of the arrogant Basil of Baker Street (voiced by Barrie Ingham). When Basil discovers that the missing father is bound up in a plot led by the nefarious Professor Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price), Basil and his assistant Dr. Dawson (voiced by Val Bettin) are on the case.
After the utter failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney was fortunate to nab a successful hit with The Great Mouse Detective, both critically and commercially. But it’s saddening that nothing further came out of this potential franchise. The movie saw a title shift after the 1992 re-release, becoming The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective, after it was decided that nothing further would be done with the series. From what I’ve read, this was meant to be the lead-in to a slew of stories involving Basil of Baker Street that, for one reason or another, never came to fruition. With the influx of love for Sherlock Holmes today, I’d love to see what could be done with this series, but I doubt that’s going to happen. The narrative device of Dr. Dawson narrating, and the mystery being revealed right before the opening credits, could have been familiar tropes of any future films.
As a stand-alone movie, The Great Mouse Detective is an underrated favorite. I’m not sure what it is with mice, but Disney’s always been able to create a fully realized world with their mouse protagonists. Much like The Rescuers, we see a carbon copy of the human world built underneath human feet. Basil and his friends are shrunken people given mouse features, and it works. To enhance the connection between Basil and our famous deerstalker-wearing detective, there’s a brief sequence where we see that Basil lives in the famous Baker Street house of Holmes, himself, complete with silhouetted views of Holmes and Watson. The world-building isn’t as pervasive as in The Rescuers, mainly because the modern day contrivances are removed. Since the plot is mystery based, there’s no real need to create as many mouse-sized locations and sets, outside of one riverfront bar. The majority of the action involves the mice climbing and jumping.
The finale, set inside the machinations of Big Ben, marked the first wide-spread use of CGI in an animated sequence, and it holds up today. We’ve come a long way from the usage of Big Ben in Peter Pan. There, we only saw the outside as the Darling children and Peter looked for the “second star to the right.” Here, Basil and Ratigan have a brawl within the cogs of the clock marking a Disney shift from internal to external, hand-drawn to CGI. The music is not as show-stopping as past and future films, and has less songs, but they’re all catchy and fun. “World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” and “Let Me Be Good to You” are early views of what Disney would come up with in the 1990s.
For me, the characters are the perfect blend of camp and British mystery, especially Ratigan. The animators found themselves sketching Vincent Price while he was performing, so the Shakespearean gestures and facial expressions on-screen were Price’s! Ratigan is the high camp of villainy that I believe inspired later characters like Ursula and Governor Ratcliffe, the latter is so obvious it’s in the name. The flamboyance with the character, the ability to laugh at him, makes him more dangerous when he does something you don’t expect. Has anyone actually heard the lyrics to his theme song? They’re pretty cruel, revealing that he’s drowned widows and orphans. He presents a false front because he’s so damn grandiose, but of course it’s all to hide the fact he’s a rat masquerading as a mouse.
The other characters are equally fun. Barrie Ingham as the voice of Basil and Val Bettin as Dr. Dawson are practically perfect for their characters. I’ll say this as we get further into recent Disney works, but I miss not having A-list vocal talent because you can enjoy the performance and not worry about spotting which actor is which. Basil isn’t far removed from the Sherlock we know and love; he’s egotistical, and highly perceptive, and of course he understands “it’s elementary, my dear Dawson!” Instead of a love interest for the detective, which could seriously bog down a story that’s only an hour and fourteen minutes, the victim is a little girl, which allows Basil to show how much he dislikes children. Olivia’s sole purpose is to be the damsel, though, and doesn’t add anything other than being a bargaining chip throughout, although she is nabbed in a toy store that’s reminiscent of Pinocchio.
The Great Mouse Detective isn’t an epic story with show-stopping songs, but it makes up for all that in a fun caper story with flamboyant characters and an old-timey mystery. It’s the diamond in the rough for Disney that could have blossomed into a small, but fun franchise if given a chance. Disney found themselves adapting books over the next few movies, but I think their strongest effort to start was Basil of Baker Street!
NEXT WEEK: Disney goes Dickens with Oliver and Company.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.