The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – The 26th Walt Disney Animated Classic – Directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker – Starring Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Vincent Price, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Alan Young, Frank Welker, and Basil Rathbone.
THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE is very well done animal analog film, where the main characters are all animals, but all clearly based on human characters. In this case, it’s Sherlock Holmes, re-done as a mouse-dominated story that takes place simultaneously with Holmes’ Victorian adventures.
Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham) lives in the same house as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Sherlock Holmes (voiced by clips of the legendary Holmes’ performer Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson, and is also a genius detective solving crimes for a free for anyone who comes to him with an interesting case to solve. This time around, it’s precious little Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek) who arrives at his doorstop thanks to Major Doctor David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin). Olivia has witnessed her father’s kidnapping from his underground toy shop, and she’s come above ground to find the famous “Basil of Baker Street” to enlist his help in getting her dad back. Dawson (the Watson analog) agrees to help her find Basil, but he’s not yet connected with his future partner.
There’s a wonderful sense of happenstance in DETECTIVE that brings our protagonists together. Olivia doesn’t find Basil; instead, Dawson finds her, crying in the rain on the streets of London, then agrees to bring her to Baker Street, where Basil has no real interest in taking on her case until she reveals that her father was kidnapped by a bat that Basil recognizes as Fidget (Candy Candido), the lackey of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Basil takes the case, but only because it dovetails with his long-term goals of catching his nemesis, which does add a nice, subtle layer of characterization to the detective’s character. He’s not a bad guy, but he sees a more communal picture than Olivia. For the young girl, her whole life is her father (her mother is dead) and so obviously getting him back is the only thing she can see. For Basil, however, it’s more important to stop Ratigan because of the damage the rat-who-doesn’t-like-to-be-called-a-rat can cause. It helps, of course, that Ratigan is his nemesis, and Basil is rather myopic when it comes to capturing him, so perhaps he and Olivia are more alike than it seems. It’s a nice character attribute (for us, not Olivia) that he does never quite get Olivia’s last name right, so why he’s not a bad guy, he’s not the most thoughtful guy, either.
DETECTIVE is a fast-moving 74 minutes; there’s little chance for anyone to catch their breath as the film rips towards its conclusion. In that regard, we can see DETECTIVE as a direct precursor to the Guy Ritchie Holmes films, which also don’t waste a ton of time with investigating.
One of the things that I really like about DETECTIVE but that I can see giving parents pause is the level of really terrifying evil at play. In the opening sequence, Olivia hides in a cupboard while her dad is viciously attacked and kidnapped by Fidget the bat. Now, as the film goes on, we see that Fidget is used a bit for comic relief, but we don’t know that in the opening sequence. We see a creepy dude in a cape who bursts into Flaversham’s shop as his scary face is shoved forward to dominate the frame. Poor little Olivia cowers in the cupboard while the fight is going on (her dad put her there) and then exits to find the shop in ruins and her dad missing. It’s scary stuff and could easily be a sequence lifted from a slasher film.
The film ups the ante later on in regards to horror when Ratigan orders a drunk mouse who called him a rat to be put to death by kitty cat. The massive, fat cat Felicia (Frank Welker) loves to eat mice at Ratigan’s request, and while DETECTIVE does not literally show the mouse being eaten, we see the mouse being dangled above Felicia’s mouth in shadow, and then we cut to the grossed out reaction of his fellow gangsters.
There’s even a scene in a human toy shop where the toys are used to provide the film with some added creepiness. None of this is to suggest that DETECTIVE is a horror movie, but merely to point out that beneath all of the humor derived from Basil getting Olivia’s name wrong and Dawson’s fumbling, and in addition to all of the running around action, there is a really dark underbelly here. The film teases Basil’s death and suggests that both Fidget and Ratigan die because they have fallen from great heights.
Ratigan’s goal is to replace the Queen of Mousedom with a lifelike replica that Olivia’s dad creates for him and then have himself appointed King. The plot is really just here to get all of the pieces moving, however, as the Queen plays no real role in the film until it’s time for her to be kidnapped.
There’s a few Sherlockian “great detective” moments but for the most part, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE is more physical action than brilliant detection. It could be smarter and there could be more of a mystery but I’m not complaining. DETECTIVE doesn’t alter the landscape of animated movies, but it is a really engaging story. There’s not a lot of songs (and none of them memorable), so watching DETECTIVE might not fill your hunger for classic Disney, it’s still a highly enjoyable animated film.
One addendum – there is a delicious story of how the film’s title angered the filmmakers. Based on the Basil of Baker Street books by NNN, Disney executives decided that title was “too British” for American audiences and changed the film’s title to THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE near the end of production. According to the Los Angeles Times, a inter-office memo was written that took a dig at the marketing department:
A mystery’s afoot in the animation department at Disney, and it’s going to take a moustermind to solve it. What we shall call “The Case of the Impertinent Memo” began when Disney’s marketing department invited the animation department to suggest new titles for “Basil of Baker Street,” an animated feature about a famous crime-fighting mouse. […] The animators think the title is as imaginative as retitling “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as “Seven Little Men Help a Girl.” In fact, one day in February, a memo appeared on the animation department bulletin board announcing that the studio had renamed all of its animated classics. First on the list was “Seven Little Men Help a Girl.”
And here’s the full list of the animation department’s dig at the marketing department’s renaming DETECTIVE reprinted in the LA Times:
“The Wooden Boy Who Became Real”
“Color and Music”
“The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly”
“The Little Deer Who Grew Up”
“The Girl With the See-Through Shoes”
“The Girl in the Imaginary World”
“The Amazing Flying Children”
“Two Dogs Fall in Love”
“The Girl Who Seemed to Die”
“Puppies Taken Away”
“The Boy Who Would Be King”
“A Boy, a Bear and a Big Black Cat”
“Two Mice Save a Girl”
“The Evil Bonehead”
I’m pretty sure PUPPIES TAKEN AWAY is in development as a Liam Neeson movie.
SAFH is a kid’s espionage novella, but it’s also a tribute to the television shows I watched as a kid: The A-Team, Magnum PI, Knight Rider, Hardcastle and McCormack, Riptide, Dukes of Hazzard and generally any show where Post and Carpenter did the music. Recommended age? If you let your kid watch superhero cartoons or Knight Rider reruns, SAFH should be age appropriate.
Here’s the back cover description:
Jurgen the Gorilla. Throne the Lion. Bronze the Golden Eagle. Ray the Brown Bear. Bottle the Dolphin. Dev the Lynxwoman. 3 the Triceratops. Ptera the Pterodactyl.
These eight stuffed animals make up the Return Squadron. For seven months they have worked together to return disconnected stuffed animals home. But now … on their final mission, the Return Squadron seek to steal the legendary Map of Everything.
Before Christmas morning arrives, three of the Squadron will turn traitor, four will be stranded, and one will never see another Christmas.