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A Second Look: The Great Mouse Detective
In 1986, Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker released The Great Mouse Detective as the 26th feature in the Disney Animated Canon. Based on the book series Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus and drawing heavily on the Sherlock Holmes tradition, the film starred Barrie Ingham, Vincent Price, Val Bettin, Candy Candido, Frank Welker and Alan Young with a voice sample of Basil Rathbone. Grossing $38.7 million at the box office, the film convinced then Disney CEO Michael Eisner to continue making animated films.
Toymaker and mechanical genius Hiram Flaversham is kidnapped, causing his daughter, Olivia, to hire Basil of Baker Street to find him. Along the way, she meets Dr. Dawson and finds that Basil is reluctant to take the case until he realizes that it was his arch-enemy, Professor Ratigan that kidnapped Olivia’s father.
The Great Mouse Detective is a great film in its own right, with a fun story that seems almost ludicrous at first, a mouse who lives under Sherlock Holmes’ apartment and investigates a disappearance case. But when it comes down to it, the film takes what seems like it would never work and makes it work, all while continually topping itself. It starts with a kidnapping, then introduces wild and energetic basil, which shows the audience everything they need to know about the character. From there, Ratigan is introduced through a villain song where he kills a character simply for saying the wrong thing. The ensuing chase in the toy shop is interesting as every character uses their surroundings for their advantage, but that melts into the Victorian strip tease (where the original review mentioned being one of Disney’s best musical numbers) and the trap scene where Basil shows off how quickly his intellect works. This is followed by one of the most well-known uses of CGI in the 1980s with one of the best climactic fights in an animated film. The plot is fun, it’s got quite a bit of action and the only times it reigns itself in is to give the audience a brief breather before ramping everything up again. And it all works wonderfully.
And that’s nothing to say of the characters, especially Basil who is Sherlock Holmes in mouse form with lightning intellect and quite a bit of eccentric qualities, like shooting a group of pillows to test the bullet from a gun. And though he can be a bit rude at times, especially in the early film, it’s clear that at first, he doesn’t really have a lot of social skills because he’s by himself for most of the time, which can be seen when he’s trying to cheer Dawson up. However, Olivia and Dawson end up bringing out his more empathetic side making for some good character development. Ratigan is also a great foil to Basil namely in how he acts friendly towards his minions, except those who say the wrong thing, but it’s obvious he’s downright evil from the villain song that he and said minions sing. And where Basil gets kinder and more empathetic throughout the film, Ratigan gets more crazed, which really comes out in the Big Ben scene. There, he flies into an unstoppable rage in order to kill Basil. It’s very interesting to see both characters turn into the opposite of what they began the film as: Basil turning from a jerk with no social skills to less of a jerk who softens up and Ratigan from an affably hammy villain into a near insane psycho.
It also must be noted what this film did for Disney studios. The film that preceded this one, The Black Cauldron, did horribly and nearly shut the studio down. However, not only did this do well, but it saved animated films at Disney because of it doing so well and essentially launched it into the Disney Renaissance. It could be said that this film planted the seeds for what eventually became one of the most popular eras of Disney Animation. And it’s interesting that not only did it all start with a mouse, but another one saved it.
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