Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Great Mouse Detective

With a film library as large as Disney’s, it’s inevitable that regardless of quality, some films slip through the cracks. One such film, The Great Mouse Detective, has also gained somewhat of a cult following over the years. After finally watching the film for myself, it’s hard not to see why, especially considering it was successful enough on its initial release that it saved Disney Animation from bankruptcy. However, while it’s certainly underrated, it’s also not one of Disney’s best.

In 1987 London, a young Scottish mouse, Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek), celebrates her birthday with her father, a toymaker named Hiram (Alan Young). Suddenly, a peg-legged bat with a crippled wing, Fidget (Candy Candido), breaks into Flaversham’s and kidnaps Hiram. Olivia searches for the famed detective Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham), but gets lost until he is aided by Dr. David Q. Dawnson (Val Bettin), a surgeon who has just returned from service in Afghanistan. Once they find Basil, he seems indifferent until he realizes the connection between the bat and Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), Basil’s archnemesis and a villain who has eluded capture for years.

Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin; left (background)) and
Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek; left (foreground))
seek the help of Basil (Barrie Ingham; right).

If you’re at all familiar with Sherlock Holmes, you have some idea what to expect from The Great Mouse Detective, which takes many cues from the famous detective and even acknowledges his presence in one scene. Even if his will falters once in a while, Basil’s deductive abilities are more or less on par with Holmes and he has his own Moriarty in the form of Ratigan, as well as his own eventual Watson in Dawson, who shares a similar backstory to his human counterpart. Despite the similarities to the famous literary series, however, this film does have its own spin on the premise. Chief among them are the use of animals and consistently scaling the world down to mouse size. The smaller scale presents unique opportunities for building tension that a normal Sherlock Holmes tale wouldn’t allow, like dodging and surviving a plethora of human-scaled toys during one scene or escaping a highly elaborate large-scale death trap in another. Using animals also allows for interesting interactions like Basil teaming up with Toby (Frank Welker), Sherlock Holmes’ basset hound, or Ratigan feeding undesirable henchmen to Felicia (Frank Welker), his pet cat.

While the film remains pretty light-hearted throughout with plenty of fun moments that feel earned, it’s also surprisingly dark at times. Aside from Ratigan feeding henchmen to his cat, a standout moment is during the tense climax, where Ratigan chases after Basil through the central clockwork of the Big Ben, where the gears could end their lives at any moment. There are also some decisions that noticeably clash with the film’s G-rating, like Basil smoking and a risqué dance number at a pub, where Dawson also gets drunk (or rather drugged).

As expected from Disney, the animation is very fluid and expressive, with designs that show off each character’s personality at a glance, along with a darker color palette that fits the tone of the story and the realistic London backdrops. Among Disney’s animated features, however, The Great Mouse Detective has the distinction as the first from the studio to have extensive use of CG and the first animated feature to place 2D characters within a 3D space (though it’s not the first animated Disney film to use CG, as that honor goes to The Black Cauldron). Specifically, the animators used CG for the climactic Big Ben scene. To this day, this sequence holds up very well, near-seamlessly blending the CG and traditional methods. It’s a little clunky by today’s standards, since you can tell which portion was rendered in CG, but it’s still impressive nonetheless. One detail I especially liked during this scene is that as Ratigan grows more desperate, he also appears more rat-like. By contrast, however, one shot where Basil examines a bullet feels out of place, as the obvious rotoscoping makes it look comparatively too real.

The Big Ben scene is still impressive today.

Like the animation, the voice acting is also very good, as expected from Disney, though Vincent Price is a notable inclusion as Professor Ratigan and suits the villain role well. There are also three songs in the film, which barely qualifies it as a musical, though they’re worked in pretty naturally. As a result, however, they’re not particularly memorable, as good as they are.

Interestingly, the book series this film was based on, Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, initially lasted five books and went out of print sometime later. In recent years, however, the books not only received a reprint, rebranded as The Great Mouse Detective, but a new writer, Cathy Hapka, has taken up the mantle and, at the time of this writing, released three new books, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Though the story may be more or less standard Sherlock Holmes fare, I admire the great character writing and animation, especially the Big Ben scene and the consistently scaled setting. However, I’m equally baffled that, despite the premise and newly expanding breadth of its source material, Disney hasn’t made any attempt at a follow-up, not even a DTV sequel or short-lived TV series. I wouldn’t hold my breath for Disney to capitalize on it now, but The Great Mouse Detective is a good film worth watching in the meantime.

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