Before starting this review I should explain something about my family. We are Sherlock Holmes obsessed. You see my parents have almost no interest in media. They will watch an occasional movie but basically no television. Aside from religious programming and an occasional sporting event (I would coral my family into watching the Olympics every 4 years), I have basically no memory of my parents watching television regularly.
…with one exception.
Every year from 1984-1994 PBS, as part of their Masterpiece Mystery programs. would air Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. My Dad even videotaped the episodes, which was even more rare for him to do. The only other time I remember him recording something was Ken Burns, The Civil War, which is another great PBS program of that era.
If you haven’t seen his portrayal it is fabulous with all the mannerisms and cases we have come to know and love from Sherlock Holmes.
From that show we all read the original stories and saw all the versions we could including Great Mouse Detective by Walt Disney. I think I even read the mouse series Basil of Baker Street books the film was based upon.
Even now we will spend hours talking about how the Robert Downey Jr versions get it all wrong and Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect…You think I’m exaggerating but I’m not. Ask one of my sisters. Anna, who may be the greatest Sherlock fangirl of all of us, one year threw up her hands and said “can we talk about something else!”
So with that intro let’s talk about Disney’s 26th animated adventure- The Great Mouse Detective!
How Great Mouse Detective came into fruition is very interesting both for itself and how it influenced future Disney films. As the studio was hard at work with the Black Cauldron 2 animators, Ron Clements and John Musker, broke away and developed concept art for an adaptation of the Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone and were based on the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories but with mice in the leads. Clements went on to direct the movie and be actively involved in the Disney renaissance including directing Little Mermaid, Aladdin and even later The Princess and the Frog. Clements had also done a Basil of Baker Street short before he joined Disney, so that is no doubt where he got the idea.
Originally Disney gave the project a large budget but before production started Michael Eisner was hired as CEO and the budget was slashed from 24 to 10 million. This proved to be a good thing as it forced them to embrace computers in a new way that had only been dabbled in for Black Cauldron. Especially the finale in the clock was groundbreaking in its use of computer graphics and films like Little Mermaid would follow suit. Just shows a cut budget isn’t always a disaster for a project!
In so many ways selecting Sherlock Holmes was an inspired choice. It’s something that has had near universal appeal since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned the stories in 1887. Especially once the Black Cauldron faced production and then box office problems, having a stake in a franchise that has always scored money in publishing and at the box office in nearly every recreation and retelling was a stroke of brilliance. Having Brett’s version on PBS, also no doubt, helped create an atmosphere where kids wanted their own version of their parents favorite show!
This was another moment where Disney higher-ups threatened to close the animation department, especially after the colossal disaster of Black Cauldron (remember BC stands as one of the biggest monetary losses in not just Disney but Hollywood history. Right up there with Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate). Fortunately for all of us Disney fans, Great Mouse Detective scored making 25 million in theaters on what ended up being a 14 million budget (good thing they cut the budget from the original 24 million). These profits were then taken and invested into a little movie about a little mermaid, so all of us that idolized Ariel have Basil to thank for it! 🙂
The whole picture has an artistry which is impressive for this type of urban based Disney picture . Every shot feels foggy and full of mystery- even inside. The characters are drawn with a sketchy style but there is enough ambiance and they are so much fun I didn’t mind it.
The soundtrack is wonderful and like Black Cauldron they hired a top name film and television composer Henry Mancini for the project. There’s a real broadway feel to the songs and I don’t know if that had been done before with Disney. You had all the jazzy music in Lady and the Tramp, Jungle Book and Aristocats but a broadway show in animation hadn’t really been done to my knowledge. It is also the first solo sung by a villain in a Disney film. The Siamese cats sing a duet and many other films have songs sung about the villains (such as in Peter Pan) but this was the first virtuoso villain number. For the next 15 years a villain solo is a hallmark of not only Disney but all animated stories and Ratigan’s ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ still holds up very well.
Aside from Jeremy Brett there was certainly no shortage of inspiration for animators to go off of with Sherlock Holmes. But as far as character design goes, the animators were clearly paying homage to Basil Rathborne and Nigel Bruce’s famous performances as Holmes and Watson. In fact, in one brief scene we hear the human Holmes talking and that voice is Basil Rathborne (who had worked with Disney back in Mr Toad).
But it was not an outright copy of Rathborne and Bruce. Director Ron Clements said:
“We didn’t want to make them simply miniature versions of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce,” Clements affirmed. “Dawson’s not a buffoon. He’s a foil for Basil but also a warm and caring person.”
This is no doubt why the story begins with Dawson uncovering the case and presenting it to Holmes in a very loving and nurturing way. As with any Holmes story, Dawson is naturally the narrator and maternal presence to balance out Basil’s brusque and aloof nature.
One other funny part of production is usually in Disney there is an animal world and human world coexisting but this is the first one I can think of where the two are direct duplications. There is a human and mouse Sherlock, Watson, Queen Victoria etc. I find this to be a funny concept- makes me think about the duplicate Rachel mouse hanging out in her tiny townhouse, balancing books and blogging… 😉
So let’s talk about the case. As I said, the film starts off with a lot of foggy, eerie atmosphere and we dive right into the scene at a toy store. It is scary but most of the violence is heard and not seen, and with an adult getting kidnapped it is slightly less traumatic than when it happens to a child. (Most of the voice cast is unknown but Mr Flavisham is voiced by Alan Young who would later voice Scrooge McDuck in Ducktales). For young children this may be too intense but it could easily be skipped over with a parent explaining what has happened.
Next we get introduced to Dawson and they hold remarkably true to the original Conan Doyle details even down to serving in Afghanistan in the army. Dawson then meets the little girl from the previous scene named Olivia, and this introduction shows the heart they were trying to achieve with Dawson:
Just a quick aside, I have been critical of Disney female characters in a few posts, so I will say I love Olivia. She’s sweet, tough and smart (without her Basil would never have even been involved). She is not a puppet, meant just as a love interest for a character (although at first she was supposed to be older and be Basil’s love interest. Thank goodness they didn’t go in that direction. Holmes a love interest? The very idea!) and there is NO instant love in Great Mouse Detective!!! I haven’t seen Oliver and Company in years so I’m not sure on that, but the rest of Disney animation will take a break from the girl batting her eyes across the stream and boy falling instantly in love with her trope I detest for many films! Hurray!
Off to Baker Street they go and they meet Basil in a terrifically Holmes-like way.
Eventually Basil hears the case and off they go on his dog Toby to face Professor Ratigan (based on Professor Moriarty in original books) who we then meet through the villainous number I mentioned above. Ratigan is voiced by the incomparable Vincent Price. With probably the most distinctive voice of the 80s from the Thriller music video, Price is perfect as Ratigan. You can feel the fun he is having. The only performance I can think to relate it to is Robin Williams in Aladdin. It is that good.
The writers are also very clever because they give a character named Ratigan a violent repulsion to being called a rat. That’s just funny however you slice it! We also learn of Ratigan’s dastardly plan to create a robot queen and make himself ‘king of all mousedom’! Now that is a great villainous plot!
The next scenes are at a toy store trying to figure out why Ratigan has abducted Olivia’s father, a toy maker. The design of the toys and robots are great, almost steampunkish (an art movement also obsessed with robots and Conan Doyle).
Thinking it will motivate Flavisham, Ratigan has his bat crony abduct Olivia in the toy store and Basil at first reams Dawson for not watching the girl. His response is one of the most dejected in any Disney film. Again, another example of Dawson being the heart of the film.
Basil realizes he has crossed a line and he seeks to reassure Dawson they will find Olivia and to not worry. I like that interplay between the two.
Any blog reader will remember how critical I was of the abduction of Penny in The Rescuers. However, there are differences in Great Mouse Detective that make Olivia’s abduction more palatable. First of all she is a mouse not a little girl. It is also not in a modernish time period or dwelt upon much like in The Rescuers. I said in that review if you like Medusa you will like the movie. I didn’t. In this movie I like Ratigan because he is so over-the-top and funny. I mean he wants to take over the world not just find a diamond. Plus, he’s a rat not a woman (much to his dismay)…
Fidget, the bat, leaves the 2 a clue and through his clever detecting Basil realizes Rattigan must be at a pub near the ocean. However, Rattigan also realizes Basil is going to the pub and sets up a trap to capture his foe.
Unfortunately, before that fun can happen we get the one scene in this movie I do not care for. They arrive at the ‘seediest bar in London’ and a female mouse starts singing with a dress on, and as she sings a pretty lyrically suggestive song she gets less and less clothes until she is wearing a bar girl type uniform. I know it is just mice but I don’t want my daughter seeing a burlesque inspired number in my Disney film. That kind of annoyed me.
The song is sung very well by Melissa Manchester and it could be in Chicago or any other broadway show. It’s very well written but just not my favorite example to be showing children, even like I said with mice.
It’s funny I asked my Mother about this because I have no memory of the scene and lo and behold she would fast forward through the song when we would watch the movie (see I have a good Mom). Problem solved. If you find it offensive then skip ahead, no harm done. 🙂
To Basil’s dismay, Ratigan’s trap appears to work and he and Dawson are captured and strapped to a mouse trap affixed to an elaborate rube goldberg device to kill them both. Basil is dejected. Oddly enough not because of his imminent death but by having been outsmarted by Ratigan!
Like his plan to take over the crown using a robot, Ratigan’s scheme to kill Basil is so over-the-top it can’t help but make you laugh. It reminds me of some of the early Bond villains who could never just shoot Bond. No, he had to kill him in the most complicated way possible, which is a lot of fun.
With Basil seemingly wrapped up, Ratigan begins to execute his plan and abducts the Queen and has the robot announce his approval as King. He then brings out a hilariously evil list of all the changes he is going to make in power including taxing the ‘elderly, infirm and little children’. Ha. That’s again very funny writing!
Sadly for Ratigan, Basil breaks free from the trap and stops him and his robot, but the movie is not over. Ratigan and Basil take to the air and end up on the Big Ben clock. As I said before, this sequence used computer animation for the first extended period and it’s remarkable how well it holds up. The sound effects are also fabulous with the tick, tock and the gears creating tension.
So, of course Ratigan’s plans are foiled, Olivia and her father are reunited. Dawson is about to leave and a new case comes in so Dawson and Basil become partners for life!
So what does this Sherlock obsessed girl think of The Great Mouse Detective? I think it is great! It is funny with just enough scary to entertain kids. It has a terrific villain with one of Disney’s best vocal performances by Vincent Price. The case is over-the-top but drawn with visual interest and appeal. Even the backdrops are great at creating ambiance and mystery.
I love when Disney can introduce children to new mediums like Lady and the Tramp did for Jazz (or Jungle Book) or Fantasia for classical music. Great Mouse Detective not only introduces kids to the greatness of Sherlock Holmes but to detective stories as a genre. It also has the message Sword in the Stone was trying to teach about education and using your brain, but with Basil it is demonstrated not merely expressed. Kids can see a keen intellect is important because it helps Basil put the clues together and solve the case.
That is why it is a bit of a downer to have a song in the middle which is about appearances and is basically a stripper song for mice (she literally looses half her clothing by end of number). But like I said, you all can be like my mother and skip over that scene. Nothing wrong with that. There is also some imitative behavior that may be of concern to parents- drinking, smoking cigars etc.
For young children (kindergarten and below) there are scenes of peril. Mainly the abduction, and particularly the bat may be too scary. It depends on the child. It is kind of like 101 Dalmatians in tone and feel. There is so much humor and it is all so over-the-top that it tempers the scenes pretty well but some kids are sensitive to anything scary. It does not have a gloomy feel like some of the films which scared me- Rescuers, Pinocchio and Return to Oz being the big examples.
Overall Grade- A-
Also, got a shoutout today from a favorite youtuber of mine The Lawn Gnome who has a great Disney vlog series called ‘Out of the Vault’. If you are on youtube please subscribe to his channel. Here is his Great Mouse Detective review.
PPS- I am now half way through my reviews of Classic Disney! What do you guys think of The Great Mouse Detective.?