A Study in Disney: ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ (1986)

| January 2, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The Walt Disney Company was founded in 1923 by a starry-eyed dreamer who would spend the rest of his life with a mouse in his coat pocket.  Sixty-Three years later, when the company was in dire financial straits, another mouse would come along to save it.  

The journey of The Great Mouse Detective really begins on July 24th, 1985, the day that Walt Disney Pictures hit rock bottom with the release of The Black Cauldron, a film that spent 15 years in production and had a budget overrun of $44 million, making it the most expensive animated movie made up to that time and then floundered so badly that it finished at the box office behind The Care Bears Movie.  The failure of the movie was so humiliating to the studio that, for many years, Disney essentially buried it.  It never received a second theatrical run and wasn’t released on home video until 1998.  The good news is that the rock bottom status of The Black Cauldron would become the launch pad for a road to recovery, and ultimately renaissance.

The first step was The Great Mouse Detective, not a monumental epic in the canon of animated features but at least a step in the right direction.  The film was an adaptation of Eve Titus’ “Basil of Baker Street,” a series of children’s books produced from 1964 to 1982 and centered on an adjacent Victorian London in which all the characters from Sherlock Holmes were played by mice.  The major difference between The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective is that the latter is smaller, much more adaptable and doesn’t seem to reach as high.  It seems more modest in its intentions.

The story takes place in a small mouse-world adjacent, and nearly identical, to the human world with mice and rats as the dominant species.  It is Victorian London circa 1897 and a tiny mouse named Basil (who lives in a Baker Street tenement next to you-know-who) is an energetic and brilliant detective who works with his associate Mr. Dawson.  Their first case is helping a little girl Olivia find her father who has been kidnapped by the fiendish Ratigan (who hates being called a rat despite his name) who forces him to build a robotic façade of The Queen of England so that she can name him ruler of the nation.

What works first and foremost are the characters.  Basil is a great Sherlock Holmes.  He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s kooky, he’s energetic.  We will follow him anywhere.  He is matched by Professor Ratigan, beautifully voiced by Vincent Price, whose slippery and funny and erudite.  He sings and dances, he’s funny and sinister.  He’s everything that a great villain should be, not just a Disney villain, but a great movie villain.  The writing is smart too in that it allows the over-inflated egos of Basil and Ratigan to play off of one another.  The focus is on the characters and that’s where it should be.

If there is one minor quibble it might be that maybe the villain is revealed a bit too early.  Ratigan’s schemes are juxtaposed with Basil following the clues, but since Basil doesn’t know about the plot, it might have been more fun to follow the case to Ratigan right along with him.  That way we have the element of surprise and discovery along with him.

But that’s minor stuff.  This is a good movie and a good Sherlock Holmes movie too.  The climax inside Big Ben is a wonderful technical achievement.  The only good parts of The Black Cauldron were the new advent of computer effects and they are used to great effect here.  Originally, the final duel between Basil and Ratigan was to take place on the hands of the clock, but layout artist Mike Peraza came up with the idea of having them break through the glass and having a fight inside where the gears posed an additional threat.  The computer imagery allowed for a three-dimensional look so that we could be part of the experience.  The result is quite effective.

Thankfully, the film was released to respectable box office and a positive response from the critics and proved to the new Disney senior staff that animation could still be a viable commodity.  In many ways, it succeeded where The Black Cauldron failed, it got the ball rolling on what would eventually become The Disney Renaissance . . . and a little mouse would lead them.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.