In 1986, Disney was still very much a company in turmoil. Their last animated feature, The Black Cauldron, had been very expensive and had not returned that expense at the box office. New management had taken over, led by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, and they were not entirely sure that feature animation was part of Disney’s future. It was into this environment that The Great Mouse Detective entered.
Directed by a combination of Burny Mattinson, John Musker and Ron Clements, The Great Mouse Detective adapts the Basil of Baker Street books by Eve Titus. Taking off the concept of Sherlock Holmes and applying it to the “underworld” of mice and rats, the story is a fast paced adventure through the streets of London, as Basil, his companion Dawson and a little girl named Olivia search for the girl’s missing father.
It had been a while since I had seen this, but a few days back I enjoyed it again, and I had forgotten how magnificent this film really is. First of all, it’s dark, in the way that is so fashionable these days. While it can’t truly be film noir, because the hero is not as flawed as the villain, it has many elements of noir in it. Basil and his friends are consistently faced with dark bars, drinking, smoking and gun play. When watching it I had forgotten how in your face the violence is.
But never does it feel threatening or scary. The directors and animators do a good job of balancing the fear with a lighter tone that makes the whole thing very fun. The intellectual competition between Basil and his arch enemy Ratigan are the core of the story, and just when you think you are there, things take a twist and go in a different direction.
The characters are easy to fall in love with. Basil is endearingly intellectual, and oblivious to the concerns of those around him for the most part. Dawson is swept up in to the proceedings without having a chance to breathe. Olivia is charming and immediately gets the viewer on her side. Ratigan, voiced by Vincent Price, is perfectly done, providing enough villainy to make you hate him but smooth enough to be eminently watchable.
This is not a perfect movie, to be sure, as there are some pieces that move a little too quickly, and the plot seems to tie up entirely too easily for my tastes. But they are minor quibbles with a film that otherwise works really well. This was the foundation of Disney’s second golden age of films, and bears watching as a great movie in its own right.