Film Review: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The Walt Disney Corporation went through hell in the immediate years leading up to the Disney Renaissance, which lasted from 1989′s The Little Mermaid to 1999′s Tarzan. When the release of The Black Cauldron in 1985 proved to be critically and commercially traumatic, the studio took a hard look at itself and its future with animated features. Thankfully, the company tossed out The Great Mouse Detective in 1986, which proved to be much more successful and paved the way for more iconic features such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

The Great Mouse Detective borrows heavily from the mythos of Sherlock Holmes for both story and characterization purposes. The anthropomorphized titular mouse is named Basil of Baker Street. At the beginning of the story Basil encounters two characters: the portly Dr. Dawson, who slowly becomes his unofficial partner; and a young mouse named Olivia, who has lost her father to the clutches of a hilarious bat named Fidget.

While initially dismissive of both parties, Basil becomes intrigued by Olivia’s plight when he learns of the abduction’s connection to his arch nemesis, Professor Ratigan. Before long, the unlikely trio is off on an adventure to not only recover Olivia’s father but to put an end to Ratigan’s nefarious scheming.

While not officially a part of the Disney Renaissance, The Great Mouse Detective is still a beautifully made animated feature in its own right, featuring evocative animation and excellent voice acting. The film does not come close to the epic thematic content and character development of Beauty and the Beast or Lion King, and the animation can’t really hold a candle to what the company began to do with those features.

Aesthetically, the film is very much a relic of a time, personifying an era before computer assistance became commonplace. There is a lovely nostalgic feeling to the art of The Great Mouse Detective. This quality is best exemplified in how you can see certain pencil marks popping in and out around the outlines of characters in certain scenes, and how the moving elements of each frame boldly stand out from their stagnant backgrounds.

Of course this isn’t always a good thing. While for the most part the animation is very fluid (especially the celebrated battle between Ratigan and Basil amidst the cogs and gears of Big Ben’s interior) certain movements, such as when the dog Toby charges away from the camera towards the horizon, look awkward and jarring.

The film’s greatest strength comes through the bright, consistently entertaining vocal work; there isn’t really a weak link in the cast, with the possible exception of Susanne Pollatschek’s performance as Olivia. Barrie Ingham owns the role of Basil, evoking both the character’s intelligence, tenacity and egomania perfectly. As his trusted sidekick Dr. Dawson, Val Bettin (who would bring The Sultan to life six years later in Aladdin), was perfectly cast as a character with a heart of gold who is mostly out of his depth.

Of course, the film’s greatest performance comes from the late Vincent Price, whose Ratigan is the ultimate megalomaniac blowhard. Like all great villains Ratigan is immensely colorful, dominating the entire film and usually overshadowing the hero. It’s strange that Ratigan is never included when people talk about great Disney villains; he really is a memorable creation.

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An entertaining albeit slight feature, The Great Mouse Detective gives us an engaging caper plot with effective visuals and voice work. It’s an important entry in the Disney canon to return to for its historical status in the studio’s evolution. It stands as the film which corrected the company’s errors from the immediate past, and paved the way for the artistic explosion that was to come in the immediate future.

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