Ok…2 weeks and about 2 years behind schedule here it is. This one was not easy and I am not delighted with it. I wrote it, my computer died and it went away, I started working on it again, my computer died again, I cried a bir, it occurred to me around the stage the computer wouldn’t even switch on that I should buy a new computer but by this point I was sick of trying to remember what I had written and what I wanted to say about the sodding film…But it is done. It might not be good, but it exists and so I can move on with my life. Thanks for your patience. And my hope is that the Disney reviews will now pick up steam again.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) Review
What do I know about the film?
After the total unmitigated disaster that was ‘Black Cauldron’ Disney was yet again in the position of needing a win. Enter Basil of Baker Street. No case too difficult, even the case of the box office poison. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was well received by audiences and critics alike and as such its legacy is partial redemption for the Walt Disney animation department thus leading to work commencing on the films that would trigger that most marvellous of things: A renascence.
But not yet. Yeah, at the time ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was released it was unfortunately overshadowed by Bluth’s second big mouse film: The far more financially successful and Steven Spielberg produced ‘An American Tail’ Of the two films, it is more likely you have heard of that one. Hell, if you were a child in the 80’s or 90’s chances are you just burst into a sentimental chorus of ‘Somewhere Out There’ against your will.
While not all critics appreciated ‘Tail’ it was…big. Bombastic. Epic. In short, it out-disneyned Disney by a long shot especially where it counts-money. So if you are keeping track at home, the tally is Don Bluth 2, Disney 0. For now.
She’s coming…Don’t worry…Any minute now…
Did I see it as a child?
Yes and I liked it very much. Although I was a bit baffled to learn that there have been a lot of different titles. It started of being called ‘Basil of Baker Street’ but apparently the name tested badly or something and was changed to ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ much to the irritation of a lot of the people working on the film. In fact, animator Ed Gombert sent around a memo claiming it was from a studio executive alerting the staff to the fact that all the films had to have generic titles lest the audience get confused such as ‘Seven Little Men help a Girl’ and ‘The Wooden Boy who becomes Real’
Oddly enough, the version I had as a child had a third title:
So I don’t know why they couldn’t make up their mind about it. I am still slightly confused but then I guess it is not the first time a film has changed titles depending on where it is distributed so I think I will just post a picture of Vincent Price looking disdainfully at a parrot and move on:
So you may have spotted by now that the ‘Mouse Detective’ design seems to have a lot in common with another famous detective. That’s right. Poirot.
Honestly? I had always assumed Disney couldn’t get the rights to Sherlock Holmes or something seeing as he clearly appears in the film a couple of times but is never named. It felt like a singularly weird copyright dispute. However thanks to the internet I have learned that ‘Basil of Baker Street’ was a series of children’s novels by Eve Titus. There were 5 books where Basil, a detective, and Dr Dawson, his biographer, solved the crimes of the mouse world while living downstairs from Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. An odd concept, certainly. What’s next? The going on’s of the woodlice who roam the rotten floor boards in Room 101? How about the raccoon who lives in Rochester’s attic? Comics from the perspective of Superman’s head lice? A series of best selling films about the bed bugs at Hogwarts?
No JK Rowling-stop! You have enough money…Well ok. But I want a cut.
Olivia is a young mouse and is having a nice birthday with her nice Father who is a toy maker and a single parent which is just charming and he gives her a wind up ballerina doll he presumably made himself and she has just declared it her very best birthday ever and he the very best Father ever in the whole world and she has just finished announcing that her favourite thing about him is how present he is…when a one legged bat breaks into their home, fucks their shit up, and kidnaps her Father.
That escalated quickly
And so it is that Dr Dawson, a portly English gent recently returned from action Afghanistan, (ok, I know mice have their own anthropomorphised universe here but…how the fuck did they start a war with some Afghani mice?) finds Olivia sitting on a box of liver pills sobbing about needing to find the greatest detective ever to locate the missing Father. So they head to Baker Street together and thus begins a crazy adventure…
Can Basil not Sherlock and Dawson not Watson save Olivia’s Father from the clutches of the evil Professor Ratigan not Moriarty while eating crumpets made from Mrs Judson not Hudson?
Judson? Really? Smooth.
Basil enters the story as a fully formed character who doesn’t need an arc. Unlike most Disney protagonists, this is more a day in the life of the lead character than it is the story of how he came to grow and change as a result of his adventure. While the lack of growth might be a point of contention in another film I appreciate it here because Basil is already awesome. Unlike the parade of Princes and Princesses that have traipsed through the halls of the Mouse over the years, this particular protagonist is charismatic from the off and excluding learning a small amount of humility and softening up a bit he doesn’t need to learn any lessons or find love or become King stupidly easily…He is a detective, he solves the mystery, appears to die, doesn’t and then it is on to the next adventure.
He is played brilliantly by Barrie Ingham whose vocal performance is truly perfect and animated enjoyably too. From the first scene there is a lot to appreciate: I like his disdain for Olivia (mainly because I share it), his dramatics when things go wrong followed by self pitying violin playing, his guilty look when Mrs Judson gets upset about her pillows and his frantic excitement when he realises Olivia’s case may link him to his nemesis. It is all good stuff. Except his perpetuation of ‘elementary’ as a catchphrase for this kind of stock character, that I could do without.
You know what you did…
It might sound like I am saying it is hard to care about him because he doesn’t grow and change much but shut up and let me finish: the film does a good job of making you root for him via showing him being flawed from the start. He is prideful and easily brought down if he feels vulnerable and criticised, traits that are present from his entrance. The sequence where Basil believes he has finally found the villain only to discover they all knew he was coming and it was a trap is pretty excruciating as his puffed up chest falls in defeat. Dawson sees right away they are in trouble because Basil has been humiliated and it is easy to empathise with his pain as he declares himself beaten. It is quite dark because he initially fails to make any attempt to escape even knowing it will cost him and his friend their lives. Indirectly he is telling Dawson that his life is worth less than his ego. It is understandable that Dawson freaks out when his mate’s eyes go crazy and he declares that they should trigger the trap that will kill them asap. It does feel a bit like he has just lost it so it is a relief when it turns out Basil has got his groove back.
In the end, he has learned to appreciate his mates a bit more but he still gets Olivia’s name wrong during their goodbye and is quick to move on after she leaves. It is nice to have a Disney character whose passion is his work free from sentimentality and this not being shown as a thoroughly bad thing. He is self involved and very pleased with himself but he is still likeable and enjoyable to watch.
But if you like Basil, get ready for his rival.
Ratigan is introduced with a thunder clap and a portrait that changes smirk as needed.
‘I keep the portrait of my arch enemy over the fireplace for reasons unknown…’
Before we cut to him holding a little meeting with his gang.
Now, here is what elevates this film beyond standard cartoon fare: This whole introduction scene is mostly made up of exposition. We learn that Ratigan is plotting something and he is indeed behind the kidnapping of Olivia’s Father. We learn that he hates (ahem loves) Basil as much as Basil despises (cough wantstosex him) we learn he is the movie baddie because he has a sex doll, I mean voodoo doll, of Basil and he crushes Olivia’s birthday present…which presumably Fidget the Bat brought with him for some reason?
But none of that matters as much as the knowledge that amongst the silliness and the monologuing and the evil laughing, Vincent Price is having the time of his life in the role and as such it is pretty hard not to be won over. It leads to his big villain song: ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ It is fair to say it is not as epic as some Disney songs but it is a great number that introduces how Ratigan is both a dangerous narcissist and a triple threat at singing, dancing and harp playing. If every film could do an exposition scene this entertaining we’d be laughing.
The tonal shift DURING the song as the unfortunate Bartholomew is polished off in a deeply unpleasant way is not especially comedic, the moment Ratigan forces everyone to cheer up after he has just murdered one of their friends is genuinely unsettling, but the way the song starts up again is kind of funny and that is quite an impressive tight rope walk for Disney.
There is nothing clunky about it…except…after Ratigan’s song it cuts back to Basil, Dawson and Olivia who I can only assume sat quietly waiting for the musical number to end before resuming their conversation exactly where they left off?
Anyway…back to Ratigan.
Immediately you can hear how much fun Vincent Price is having giggling in delight as everyone sings about scary he is. It is nice to be appreciated after all. And his reading of lines like: ‘How delightfully wicked’ and ‘I love it, I really love it’ and even the more dry lines like when he feeds someone to his cat as they protest and he snarls ‘you’re not coming through’ are just brilliant. Apparently Price was desperate to do a Disney film and his delight brings the film to life making him a clear highlight of the whole picture.
Oh God, I even forgive Ratigan the cliché of ‘I am going to set up an elaborate trap for my enemy and then leave and just assume it worked out’ because the performance is so damn funny-the scene is literally scored with the villain’s gloating tones wafting from a vinyl he made himself for the occasion. Effing genius. I love picturing Ratigan in the recording studio all: ‘Have we got this? Check the levels. I’m going to do another take…I really hope he will get to hear this one day.’
Ratigan manages to be both scoffing scenery like a professional ham master and genuinely threatening and a huge part of that is Price truly commits to the Shakespearian levels of unhinged malice that the character demands. One minute Ratigan is having a heart attack because part of the plan has been messed up, tries to have his assistant calmly murdered for this before realising he can turn it to his advantage and laughing delightedly. He enjoys being bad and I always love that in a villain when it is executed with such skill.
But he is not just a one note antagonist either. Sure his deal is that evil is fun but there is something deeper going on It is sad really. You see Ratigan is a rat but claims to just be a big mouse. There is obvious comparisons to be made to “passing” which is a practice where someone of one ethnic groups is accepted as being part of another because it might not be immediately obvious what race they are. This of course wasn’t just for fun: Especially back when minorities were at a legal and social disadvantage it was often crucial that the person passing as a different race was not discovered. I say ‘back when’ like it doesn’t still happen…Sigh. But this is a cartoon about mice so I am not going to vanish too far up my own ass lamenting how slow our progress for equality is.
The point is, Ratigan obviously feels he has to indulge in “passing” in order to be accepted by wider society despite his natural brilliance. Who knows what his tragic backstory is? But it must be bad for him to literally MURDER anyone who calls him the R word, for him to want to be a far right ruler despite being a persecuted minority and when Basil uses the dreaded word in front of a crowd of people he literally howls in anguish. Jesus, Ratigan…what happened?
So both characters are great apart, but what about when their paths cross and we see their rivalry up close?
It is easy to get invested in the competition between Basil and Ratigan because they have the best chemistry of the Disney protagonist vs antagonist dynamic. This is the first time, that I can think of, that Disney implied that the ‘good’ character and the ‘bad’ character are cut from the same cloth. Usually the protagonist is virtuous and the antagonist is comparatively like another species. In Great Mouse Detective, Basil is as nuts as Ratigan and his obsession with him is clearly borne from recognising that they are well matched intellectually and…in other ways…
Ok, Ok…I know. But ship happens. And of course it happens here.
Now it is fairly typical for fans of a film/TV series to create subtext where very little exists so it didn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that there exists quite a bit of fanfiction where Ratigan and Basil are…well…you know…They are obsessed with each other after all. While you might think it is all a bit silly and far-fetched it is testament to how successful their paring in the film is. Who needs a love interest when the will they/won’t they is the two enemies? People are always quite rightly asking when Disney are going to write a gay love story into their work and I think they already did. And not that quietly either.
Despite their lack of shared screen time, the work that went into making their relationship feel like it existed before this film as well as during it leads to a fantastic climax. Keep it clean.
Or don’t. I don’t really care.
A lot of Disney cartoons (and indeed films in general) choose to build to a third act spectacular designed to be an exciting and memorable conclusion to the picture, the idea presumably being that even if what came before was slow and uninteresting what you take away as an audience member is the bit where it all came together. Of course, this has varying degrees of success depending on budget, the quality of the set piece and how invested we are in the fate of the characters. Often, what is set up as the third act extravaganza falls flat because of one of these things not being in place. But sometimes the stars align and you get the Big Ben scene from The Great Mouse Detective.
So Ratigan’s plan has fallen apart like post 2011 Charlie Sheen but, like post 2011 Charlie Sheen, Ratigan is not willing to admit he has lost. So sensing it is time for the aforementioned big climax he grabs Olivia and tries to escape and as Basil tries to stop him the three of them end up crashing right into Big Ben (Yes I know Big Ben is the bell not the whole tower just take your QI knowledge and call someone who cares) Dawson and Olivia’s Pa look on concerned and it cuts to inside the clock.
There is a cool effect where Basil regains consciousness and the camera is all woozy like the dude operating it was also knocked out. The animation is striking (like a clock! No, sit down…) in its quality and the sound effects of the clock ticking works as an ominous reminder that the threat is really close.
What is so cool about the sequence is how violent it gets. In a film where the two leads are engaging in a battle of who is the slicker, cleverer, wittier Gent it is quite shocking to watch as it dissolves into fisticuffs. Ratigan becomes more and more rat like as his rage grows…He drop kicks Olivia (for reals-I cheered) and proceeds to seriously beat the crap out of Basil. And like Robin Hood when he tries to escape at the end of his film it is quite intense watching Basil grow more and more afraid as he realises he is physically outmatched by what it turns out is one ripped rat. He knows being clever can’t help him now and he just needs a way out leading to the vulnerability from earlier returning in another way. He is desperate to escape and his relief when he spots his friends returning for him is beautifully illustrated and possibly my favourite shot of the film. He doesn’t need to do a rambling speech about the importance of friendship (looking at you Black Cauldron, you piece of shit) to communicate to the audience that he appreciates their loyalty, it is all delivered in that one look.
There are a lot of great animation choices here actually. The close up of Ratigan’s crazy eyes, the way he scurries after Basil shedding his clothes to reveal the form of what lies beneath and each time Ratigan strikes Basil you REALLY feel his pain…I was right there with him praying he could get away, it is properly exciting and a finale that will be hard to top in the films to come.
But it is not just the leading pair that is worth sticking around for. There is ample support from their respective sidekicks Dawson and Fidget. Dawson gets a bit of a raw deal and if I was ranking the best “Watson” incarnations he wouldn’t break the top 5 but he gets points for his go with the flow approach to the whole adventure as the story doesn’t open with him assisting Basil or anything, he meets him when Olivia does. There is no conversation about them teaming up. Basil begins chase, calls for him and Dawson is all ‘Right behind you Basil!’ I like the instant commitment to his post and how easily he fits into Basil’s world. He is a more successful audience surrogate than the alternative (more on her later…) and his reactions often matched mine so overall I would consider him a tick in the plus column.
Fidget is a pretty good comic foil for Ratigan mainly because of his odd vocal stylings and line readings. I love his delivery especially with little moments like when he is going down his check list correcting his confident assertion that he has completed his task ‘Got girl…No didn’t get girl’ and ‘My foot! My only foot!’ just sounds funny in that gruff little voice. I was quite sad when he got killed off by being hurled into the air amid panicked cries that he can’t fly…wait what? I can’t believe I never noticed that until now. He didn’t fly throughout the film…Huh.
The songs come from Moon River composer Henry Mancini and while there are not that many of them, they are pretty great. The score makes you want to go have an adventure and I especially love the main theme which is reappropriated throughout the film as a little sting for Basil:
There are some cool Sherlock references littered throughout the film-even the name Basil is a nod to the great Basil Rathbone who was one of the best known Sherlock Holmes actors. Basil’s disguise as a sailor is a hat tip to the one Rathbone wore as Sherlock in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon and one of Basil’s speeches where he rattles off all the clues he can deduce from finding Fidget’s note is taken nearly word for word from The Man with the Twisted Lip. As I mentioned above Sherlock is on a case running parallel with the mice story and the exerts we hear are actually Rathbone from a recording he did of The Adventure of the Red Headed League. Now all this is plainly just trivia I looked up but I still appreciate little nuances like this. It is this kind of attention to detail that makes this a fun film to introduce yourself to the Sherlock Holmes world.
Speaking of this film as a world: The phrase that often gets pulled up when you research this movie is underrated and I am inclined to agree. While I have criticisms of the film (they will follow naturally) I am bitterly disappointed that Disney seems to have deemed Basil and co unworthy of a follow up adventure and felt we needed hours and hours of Cinderella’s Step Sister falling in love instead.
I just feel there is so much potential to expand the universe, continue the story or even reboot it. I would pay out of my own pocket to see Steampunk Basil and I bet you would too if you thought about it:
Yes to this!
Seriously, if Timon and Pumbaa can get their own TV series, why not this??? I am really asking here! There were other books to adapt plus the whole catalogue of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to pilfer just-Come on Disney! I’m not coming out of my room until you sort it out.
Part of the reason I want this is because not all the potential of the characters is fully realised in the way The Great Mouse Detective story is told. While some films are unfairly mistreated by history and subsequently forgotten sometimes there are good reasons films slip your mind after you’ve seen them…
What Doesn’t Work:
Olivia is part of what was soon to be a frickin’ epidemic come the 90’s: The kid character who is there to be a representative for the target audience who doesn’t do a damn thing she is told and gets in the way. I find this utterly charmless nine times out of ten. This is one of those times.
Olivia really doesn’t participate massively in the story. She needs to be there to tell Basil about her Father going missing so he can take the case and then she does nothing but get in the way and ignore simple instructions until, right on schedule, she gets kidnapped too and that is kind of it for her. It occurs roughly 30 minutes in and while the voice actors playing Basil and Dawson do a good job of making an unearned sad scene work it really is a bit…empty. She is not the character you care about.
In fairness, she is not the worst little kid character in a film by any stretch but it is a trope I don’t appreciate followed by another I am not a fan of: The character who is basically just bait. Hell there is a creepy moment where Basil and Dawson think they have found her and it turns out it is just Fidget in her clothes. So…did they have to strip her for that to work? That’s…uncomfortable. Then seconds after she is properly reunited with her enslaved Parent she is once again snatched by Ratigan.
Speaking of clichés I am not fond of, and I will because I am in the ‘what doesn’t work’ section of the review, there are a few hoary jokes I could do without. I hate the ‘This thing isn’t happening and that is final!’ followed by a smash cut to that thing happening. It always makes me groan. I also can’t stand the running gag about Basil being unable to remember Olivia’s name because the whole ‘wrong name’ ‘right name’ ‘whatever’ shtick is something lazy writers do as a shortcut to let us know one character doesn’t respect another and I always feel there are better ways to do that. There are so many glorious ways to be rude using language so why do writers return to THAT particular well so often? And since I am proper ranting about clichés featured in this film, when oh when oh when will films stop using the narrator at the beginning and the end of the film only? Either use the narrator the whole way through to enhance the story in some way or go back to school you fucking hacks.
All of the above are small problems, ones I tolerate in a lot of films so it doesn’t massively distract from my enjoyment. However it does prevent it being as memorable as it could have been. It doesn’t feel like a huge amount of effort was put in to every aspect of the story and the resulting shortcomings are quite apparent especially when you compare them to what the film does do well.
There is a scene early on where they sneak quietly into a creepy toy shop and it is such a great set that it feels like it is leading somewhere good…then it just sort of fizzles out.
The set up of Fidget’s attack isn’t bad but after he nabs Olivia the ensuing chase is a little underwhelming. It happens, sure it does, but it is not delivered very convincingly. He scampers up a convenient pile of miscellaneous toys and makes an easy getaway and frankly it could have been a lot better. But perhaps they were saving their ‘chase’ budget for the clock tower scene and if getting that means a slightly underwhelming trip to a hellish toy store then I say: carry on Disney.
But then there is the Let me be Good to You scene… It is not getting away so lightly. Basically, Basil and Dawson go a rough pub to stave out Ratigan and end up staying for some drinks that are drugged despite a complete lack of pay off to this. The acts performing at this bar keep getting booed and attacked until a young mouse comes on and performs a sexy striptease. A now slightly drugged Dawson has a bit of dance and then…that’s it. She sings a frankly inappropriate song, Dawson dances and then the plot resumes.
It is actually quite a good song that is well performed by Melissa Manchester who I am reliably informed by her IMDB page won the 1982 Best Female Vocalist of the Year Award…It doesn’t specify who awarded it to her mind you so for all we know her mates had a whip round for her. I remember I liked the song and the design of the sexy mouse a lot as a kid but it is really rather pointless. I considered putting it in the ‘What Works’ section because, in fairness, I do like the old timey feel of the speakeasy band with the ragamuffins in the criminal seedy underbelly and it does feel like the kind of scene that would play in a live action movie of this kind. Perhaps the scene is a reference to that bit in every detective story ever where they visit a strip club? But…that justification feels weak in a film this short. The performer doesn’t join the story in any capacity and nothing would be lost from dropping the whole number.
It feels like they are delaying the Basil and Ratigan meet cute for the sake of filling time rather than trying to create an entertaining non sequitur. I feel like at least the random sexy track in a family film was justified in Lady and the Tramp because Lady is subsequently humiliated and it leads to her argument with the Tramp later. Cause and effect. This? Why is a sexy mouse needed here? Why is a sexy mouse needed anywhere? Did you need a sexy mouse? I resent that I actually enjoy this scene because it really has no need to exist and is an unfortunate reminder that the filmmakers don’t trust the plot to hold our attention for 90 odd minutes without throwing some sexy mice at us.
‘There’s nothing I won’t do just for you…’ Wow. Ok, Disney animators…Not seen your wives for a while then?
Because that is the biggest problem: The story is too generic. Mysteries are difficult to get right and this one falls a bit flat. The writers may have included a few nods to Sherlock Holmes here and there but the spirit of intrigue and a love of clever yarns is largely absent from The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, Ratigan took Olivia’s Dad so he could build a replica of the Mouse Queen and then Ratigan kidnaps the Mouse Queen (there is a lot of kidnapping in this film isn’t there?) and has the replica pronounce him in charge. The whole plan is foiled painfully easily about 8 seconds after Ratigan takes control.
And Basil doesn’t really get to do a lot of detective work. He has a big dog called Toby sniff around to follow trails and then when he gets to the toy shop where Fidget is gathering items for Ratigan, he makes a quick deduction saying to Dawson: ‘Isn’t it painfully obvious?’ about something which, yes, is obvious. He is staring at some toys that have had their outfits stripped. He notices right away that this is what has happened. It is not that impressive because he is standing next to a box with the answer written on it.
‘I am…not sure how to work this thing to be honest’
My point is…Basil is an impressive character because he is enjoyably camp, slightly unhinged and fun to watch but he is not as demonstrably brilliant as the film tries to make out.
You might be wondering how he and Dawson escape Ratigan’s death trap later in the film. Will…good for you, because it is never really explained. Basil works it out by muttering random clever sounding shit about isosceles triangles and it…It just isn’t very convincing. I love how in the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes on TV, the character speaks at the speed of thought and the script sparkles with creativity. I know Basil isn’t Sherlock but he is supposed to be exceptional. And there just aren’t a lot examples of this. Almost as if the writers are perhaps not willing to go away and come up with the kind of puzzles worthy of a great detective because it is too hard so they just have him piss around with chemistry sets and mutter about complicated sounding things under his breath in the hope we won’t notice he isn’t really saying anything.
While the characterisation of Basil doesn’t really suffer from this and I suppose Disney don’t want to alienate the easily confused crotch dumplings who make them that sweet sweet dollar, the lack of compelling mystery is the reason this film is not well remembered. I am pretty sure of that. I have seen it quite a few times and I never really retain the stuff about the Mouse Queen, the Toy Maker and the toy soldiers outfits being repurposed and…nope. I’ve already forgotten what else the plan was or how it is resolved.
Basil deserves better and so do we.
A cleaner tribute to Sherlock Holmes with more mystery and less child could have promoted this film to classic status. However I am not here to look a gift horse in the mouth: the lead hero and villain are fantastic with some of the best chemistry in any Disney film, the clock scene is one of my favourite moments in cartoon history and it is a jolly, understated romp that deserves to be seen. All in all, the only mystery still needing solved is why they have never revisited this world in TV/film since.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4
Opening scene attack, Bart’s death, creepy toy shop and the truly ace clock tower fight.
I have to give it to ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ if only to honour just how much Ratigan enjoys being sung to. About himself.
Next Time: Billy Joel. As a dog. Billy Joel. As a dog.
Billy Joel Dog.
It’s Oliver and Company 1988