The standard House of Mouse myth goes a little something like this: after six decades of decidedly excellent work, Disney fell on hard times during the ’70s and ’80s. Their full length feature animation division had a precious few heralded hits (Robin Hood, The Rescuers) and more than its fair share of flops (The Black Cauldron being the biggest). It wasn’t until The Little Mermaid came along in 1989 that Uncle Walt’s reputation was restored to its former glory. In truth, only parts of said summary are true. Disney did see its fortunes wane through most of the Me Decade, but many of their efforts were still commercially viable. If anything, the shoddy animation work on Oliver and Company indicated the studio’s desperate needs for an injection of new blood.
Enter Ron Clements and John Musker, a duo often cited as rediscovering the old Mickey magic and jumpstarting the real renaissance with Mermaid. However, it’s important to note that Ariel’s adventures under the sea were not the first time the duo attempted to lift the corporate creative spirits. Three years before, the pair worked with old school pro Burny Mattinson and fellow up-and-comer Dave Michener to (loosely) translate Eve Titus’ charming children’s series, Basil of Baker Street, into the equally delightful The Great Mouse Detective (out on DVD in a “Mystery in the Mist” Edition). While not the biggest of blockbusters in the company’s long legacy, it represents the direction their future animated films would take as well as offering a window into the untapped potential waiting there.
When little Olivia Flaversham’s toymaker father is kidnapped by a maniacal bat, she seeks the help of famous mouse detective Basil of Baker Street. Along the way she meets up with recently discharged military officer Dr. David Q. Dawson. Together, they both find Basil, who is knee deep in a caper involving his lifelong nemesis, Professor Ratigan. As luck would have it, the fiend who abducted Olivia’s dad is one of the crime kingpin’s most loyal henchmen. After canvassing the clues and investigating the possibilities, Basil comes up with a most horrifying conclusion – Ratigan is planning on usurping the Queen on her Diamond jubilee, using a mechanical replacement to overtake the throne and turn over all royal power.
Serious, scary, and slightly underdeveloped, The Great Mouse Detective is still a terrific test run of the future of family filmmaking among the newest members of Uncle Walt’s world. This is a movie that’s not afraid to take risks, to make its villain as mean as possible while its heroes fail as much as they win. There’s still a reliance on songs (this time essayed by Hollywood heavyweight Henry Mancini) and a couple of calculated corporate contrivances (fat cat Felicia, loyal hound Toby), but for the most part, we wind up with a film that considers its characters, and their literary point of reference, very seriously. Unlike Guy Ritchie, who reinvented Sherlock Holmes out of bits and pieces of ancillary myth, Basil is 100% copycat Conan Doyle.
For the most part, this anthropomorphized version of the detective shines. The familiar elements are all in place – harried housekeeper, bumbling but good-natured sidekick, nasty arch-nemesis – and Basil comes across as both supremely confident as well as capable of mistakes. He is an easy champion to support since he’s never off-putting or callous and learns to care deeply for Olivia and Dawson. Granted, some of the subtleties get lost in the over the top action set pieces (a journey through a darkened toy store presents a wealth of worthy but distracting delights) and Ratigan’s plan has more than a few flaws, but overall, The Great Mouse Detective has some solid storytelling and an excellent execution of same.
Oddly enough, the voice work offers little in the way of obvious celebrity. The venerable Vincent Price plays Ratigan, and he is indeed wonderful. He chews the pen and ink scenery with the best of them. But as for the rest of the cast, there is nary a famous name to be found. Basil is played by Barrie Ingham, a noted UK actor while Dawson is essayed by an American, Val Bettin. Elsewhere, Candy Candido gives bad bat henchman Fidget his low, ominous tones while Alan Young (of Mr. Ed fame) is a fine Mr. Flaversham. If it was made today, one can imagine a wealth of A-list talent from both sides of the Atlantic bringing these characters to life. With the mostly low profile approach, however, this version of The Great Mouse Detective really resonates. It’s seems like more of a movie and less of a casting agency wish list.
Too bad the surrounding DVD is so sparse. We get a full screen making-of (ported over from a previous edition) that is pure Disney EPK and an unnecessary “game” involving the art of super sleuthing. There’s also a sing-along to Ratigan’s theme “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” and a look at Blu-ray with Dylan and Cole Sprouse (?). What’s missing here, and what would make the package complete, is a commentary track from Clements and Musker. Having just brought the company back from the brink of 2D animation exile with the brilliant Princess and the Frog, this talented team has been around for the last 20 years of House of Mouse prominence. Hearing them discuss working on The Great Mouse Detective, as well as how it influenced their future films, would be a great historical asset. Sadly, this digital presentation goes more toward product and not preservation.
Maybe one day someone will rewrite the Disney legacy to legitimize the films made between 1970 and 1988. For the most part, they are dismissed as lesser entries in the company’s catalog, oddball efforts with more nostalgia appeal than actual artistry. Yet buried within such strangeness as The Aristocats and craven crowd pleasers like The Fox and the Hound are a treasure trove of genuine growing pains, a peek into a directionless department and the many imaginative ways it tried to reinvent itself. Sure, when Mickey went monsters and black magic, nobody really cared and even an updated take on Charles Dickens couldn’t hide the sloppy sketchbook qualities of the end product. That’s why The Great Mouse Detective is Disney’s definitive revitalization starting point. While incomplete, it was this vision that would make them viable again.