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Should I Watch..? 'The Great Mouse Detective'

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

The Great Mouse Detective (also known as Basil The Great Mouse Detective) is an animated family mystery film released in 1986 and is loosely based on the children's book series Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus. The film is set in Victorian London where a mouse that imitates Sherlock Holmes is caught up in a kidnapping case involving his arch nemesis, the villainous Ratigan. Directed by the team of Burny Mattinson, David Michener, John Musker and Ron Clements, the film stars the vocal talents of Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek and Candy Candido. In stark contrast to the previous Disney release The Black Cauldron the year before, the film was a hit with critics and audiences with global earnings of $38.6 million and ultimately helped save the animation studio at Disney from being shut down after several costly failures.

Enjoyable

Home video trailer

What's It About?

In a dark and wet London in the summer of 1897, a young mouse named Olivia Flaversham lives with her toymaker father Hiram in relative tranquillity until one night, her father is kidnapping during a violent break-in by a crippled bat with a peg leg. Distraught, she attempts to make her way to Baker Street to enlist the services of the legendary mouse detective Basil but gets lost on the way. As luck would have it, she is encountered by the kindly Doctor Dawson who has just returned to the city after a tour of duty overseas. Together, they make their way to Baker Street in the rain.

Upon meeting the somewhat eccentric Basil who models himself after the equally adapt detective Sherlock Holmes in the flat above, the three of them begin hunting the culprit who Basil identifies as Fidget, a long-time associate of Basil's arch enemy Ratigan. As they follow the trail across London, they soon discover that Ratigan's scheme is far bigger and more fiendish than they ever supposed. And with a gang of loyal henchmen as well as the ever-hungry feline Felicia by his side, Ratigan will stop at nothing to achieve his diabolical aim...

Main Cast (voice performance)

ActorRole

Vincent Price

Professor Ratigan

Barrie Ingham

Basil

Val Bettin

Dr David Q. Dawson

Susanne Pollatschek

Olivia Flaversham

Candy Candido

Fidget

Alan Young

Hiram Flaversham

Frank Welker

Toby / Felicia

Technical Info

*based on 'Basil Of Baker Street' by Eve Titus & Paul Galdone

DirectorsRon Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener & John Musker

Screenplay

Pete Young, Vance Gerry, Steve Hulett, Ron Clements, John Musker, Bruce Morris, Matthew O'Callaghan, Burny Mattinson, David Michener & Mel Shaw*

Running Time

74 minutes

Release Date (UK)

10th October, 1986

Rating

U

Genre

Animation, Family, Mystery

Fulfilling a life's ambition of appearing in a Disney film, Price's performance turns Ratigan into a larger-than-life classic Disney baddie.

Fulfilling a life's ambition of appearing in a Disney film, Price's performance turns Ratigan into a larger-than-life classic Disney baddie.

What's to Like?

Despite being the perfect age when this film was first released, I somehow missed The Great Mouse Detective but have finally caught up with it now. Undoubtedly one of the better films to emerge from the company's more fallow years, the film is an engaging caper through just about every London cliche you can think of without going full-on Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. The animation is crisp and detailed with characters especially standing apart from each other, though the film does have a fairly small cast. Naturally, the film also ticks off every trope regarding Sherlock Holmes and in that sense, the casting of horror legend Price as the larger-than-life Ratigan makes perfect sense as the borderline psychotic baddie is just as memorable as Holmes' nemesis, Moriarty. He even has his own musical interlude, which is just fantastic.

Crucially, the film isn't afraid of aiming for more than just anthropomorphic antics. There is a genuine emotional heft to the narrative with scenes of familial tenderness and sadness alongside the occasional fright or two. The climatic scenes in and around the clock tower at the Houses Of Parliament are exciting and for the time, quite cutting edge. Modern viewers will notice that the animation feels suitably mechanical here, due to the film's use of CG animation for the inner workings of Big Ben. Signs, perhaps, that Disney were perhaps aiming to move with the times although whether they chose this technique for filmmaking or cost-cutting measures is unclear. But unlike many Disney films of this era, it feels progressive somehow - an unsteady foot forward for a company that had been slowly dying on its feet for some time.

Fun Facts

  • The character of Basil is named after the actor Basil Rathbone who became synonymous with the Sherlock Holmes character due to his appearance in fourteen films as the detective. Rathbone's voice even makes an uncredited cameo as Holmes in the film, despite the fact that he died in 1967. Coincidentally, Basil is also an alias used by Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Adventure Of Black Peter.
  • The song 'Let Me Be Good To You' was originally planned to be sung by Madonna and then Liza Minelli. In the end, it was performed by Melissa Manchester. In fact, the song nearly didn't make it in the film at all as censors objected to some of the risqué lyrics, nearly putting a damaging PG rating on the film. The filmmakers won out after they pointed out that mice singing the song were unlikely to be objectified.
  • This film marked the last time that an animated Disney film used the stock sound effect known as Castle Thunder, heard every time lightning strikes in the film. After The Black Cauldron the year before, Disney began using newer thunder sound effects that were digitally recorded. It was also the last film to feature Eric Larson as an animation consultant before his retirement - Larson was the last member of Disney's so-called Nine Old Men who were responsible for the company's animation since the 1930s.

What's Not to Like?

For all the film's strengths, there were a few moments that didn't quite hit the mark for me. Take the introduction of Basil when he bursts into his home on Baker Street in white paleface and sporting Oriental costume and makeup, acting very strangely. It's never mentioned again but it's a bizarre way to introduce any film's lead character and it certainly doesn't help Basil's case who feels underwhelming next to Price's scene-stealing baddie. I also feel that the narrative wasn't paced quite right - speeding along in places before grinding to a halt in others - and while I enjoyed the obfuscation of Ratigan's scheme, I would have liked a bit more exposition. Frankly, Ratigan is just too good a character to leave off screen for too long and apart from the overly enthusiastic bloodhound Toby, there wasn't much in the good characters I could get behind.

You could argue that, only watching this today for the first time in my early forties (or very late thirties as I like to think of it!) that I'm not the target audience and so the film's not going to appeal to me. However, I still enjoyed the film on the whole with its witty subversion of the standard Holmes portrayal on screen. It's certainly worth a watch if you have a young family as younger viewers will enjoy the adventure while adults will understand the Holmes references. But personally, it's just missing something - whether it's a bit less corner-cutting in the animation, a smarter script or a more involving score (a surprising misfire from a composer of Henry Mancini's talents). It's a good film but one that lacks that crucial spark to push it into true classic status.

The clocktower scene is one of the first to utilise CG animation alongside traditional techniques and it pays off in spades.

The clocktower scene is one of the first to utilise CG animation alongside traditional techniques and it pays off in spades.

Should I Watch It?

The Great Mouse Detective is possibly the most Disney adaptation of the Holmes character ever but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying a colourful and energetic caper that will delight viewers young and old. With Vincent Price shining and creating a Disney baddie for the ages, the film's focus feels misplaced but this is still a great family film that isn't showing its age as much as many other Disney films from this period. In fact, it's a shame that they haven't gone back to the film to squeeze a sequel out...

Great For: young families, erasing the memory of Dick Van Dyke's dreadful Cockney accent, reviving interest in Disney, going under the radar

Not So Great For: comparing to some of the company's better films, anyone looking for a memorable hero, Sherlock Holmes purists..?

What Else Should I Watch?

The Disney Renaissance officially started in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid, a stunning film that won two Academy Awards and won over critics and audiences all over the world. In the years that followed, the company enjoyed hit after hit - Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, Mulan and so on. Not every film from this period was a solid classic but compared to the company's perceived decline in the Seventies and Eighties, this period in Disney's history is seen as reviving the fortunes of the company and are currently among several live-action adaptations the company are currently working on or have already released.

It turns out that mice and rats are creatures that feature in animated feature films with some regularity. From Pixar's Ratatouille to Disney's own The Rescuers to more recent fare like The Nut Job and even the 2021 revival of Tom & Jerry, there seems to be little escape for anyone who doesn't like rodents. Among the more notable films based on these creatures are An American Tail - released the same year as The Great Mouse Detective by former Disney animator Don Bluth and his team of fellow renegades - and the live-action animation cross Stuart Little.

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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