The Great Mouse Detective was the first film released after The Black Cauldron, and the tone of this 1986 film is directly opposite of our worst Disney feature. As opposed to the dark, dramatic, epic fair that The Black Cauldron tried to be, The Great Mouse Detective is a comedic, lighthearted film that returns to the brighter character models and overall magic that hadn’t been seen from the studio in a long time. (The somewhat ironic thing about this return to brightness is that most of The Great Mouse Detective takes place, in fact, at night.) The Great Mouse Detective is actually one of the most important films in Disney history. The success of this film, especially in comparison to The Black Cauldron’s failure, convinced Disney to both continue pushing new talent (this is the first film from our good old friends John Musker and Ron Clements) and to continue pushing the Animation department, eventually leading towards The Little Mermaid’s release in 1989.
The Great Mouse Detective draws its inspiration from the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and more specifically, the children’s book series Basil of Baker Street. The film begins with Olivia Flaversham watching her father being kidnapped by a mysterious peg legged bat, Fidget. Around the same time, David Q. Dawson returns from tour in Afghanistan, and comes across the crying Olivia looking for the famed Basil of Baker Street. They find him, and he takes interest in the case after figuring out that his long time rival, Professor Ratigan, may be behind the kidnapping. Basil, Dawson, and Olivia set out to figure out Ratigan’s location and his plan, and must act to outsmart Ratigan and save England before it is too late.
I can’t get far in this post without mentioning that Basil is a personal favorite character of mine. He is one that short list of “Disney Characters that I Wish Were More Popular So That They Would Be Used More.” I love his over the top attitude, the fact that he has the deduction skills of Sherlock Holmes, yet there is this naivety, this cockiness about him that gives him a great build throughout the movie. He has a clear and great arc which leads to a ton of fun character moments throughout the entirety of the film. I especially love the fact that he isn’t just a mouse version of Sherlock Holmes. Basil is his own character. His own, extremely awesome character. Basil has so many wonderful moments, but two of my many, many favorite Basil moments are his introduction and his figuring out how to escape the death trap. These are two excellent and high energy scenes that really make him shine.
I also like the relationship that forms between Basil and Dawson. I love that though Dawson is a reluctant partner, he eventually becomes the perfect associate and friend to Basil. He becomes what Basil was missing, the reason he could never catch Ratigan even in his most brilliant moment. Dawson is clearly able to reign Basil’s insanity in, and to inspire Basil in his darkest hours. Dawson needed to be a huge aspect of Basil’s arc, and that’s what he is. Dawson and Basil’s bromance works on a number of levels.
Overall, I like the inspiration it takes from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Even though it is not much of a mystery, since the fact that Ratigan is the villain is revealed pretty early, it still is a lot of fun to discover the plot and the clues alongside Basil and Dawson, as well as discover Ratigan’s personality and plan for rule. Basil, Dawson, and Ratigan are great variations of their Holmes counterparts Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty. At the same time, it never falls back on the fact that Sherlock Holmes is the inspiration. That’s what it is, inspiration. It is its own wonderful story with its own wonderful characters.
Back to the character side of things, Ratigan is a fun villain. You can tell that Vincent Price had a ton of fun voicing the character. Like Basil, his own the top nature is what makes him really fun, and it really is shown that he has the same level of intelligence as Basil. You really believe his success is warranted and a believable, and for a comedy villain, he is extremely competent. Yet it is also believable that he would put our heroes in one of the greatest Bond Villain traps known to man. He’s even got an awesome song devoted to his greatness. Ratigan is great.
Also, for a largely comedic film, The Great Mouse Detective has some pretty inspired action, mostly in its final moments. The highlight of all of this is by far the Big Ben sequence. The Great Mouse Detective was one of the first major animated films to use computer animation within its running time, and it is used to full effect. The interior of Big Ben is completely CG animated, and it looks great, and actually adds to the sequence. For the comfy the film has, I love that the dramatic moment, the climax, actually feels dramatic. It adds so much to the fun of the film.
You may have noticed that I consistently use the word Fun when describing the Great Mouse Detective, and that’s really the greatest thing about this film. It’s a ton of fun to watch. Nearly every moment of the film is extremely enjoyable, save for one or two minor scenes, which is in all honesty are still good. The Great Mouse Detective ranks among my most underrated Disney films because of its great quality.
I do greatly appreciate the use of Basil Rathbone’s voice from one of his classic Sherlock Holmes performances for the Sherlock Holmes cameo. Just a fun moment for a geek like me.
Honestly, the film doesn’t have a ton of glaring weaknesses. What puts it just outside of the Top 25 is that everything in this film is great, but it needed a bit more in each great aspect to turn it into a classic. The sleuthing in the film is great, but it could use a bit more mystery solving. The relationship between Basil and Dawson is great, but it could use one or two more scenes of them playing off of each other’s strengths and finding themselves perfect for each other. Ratigan is a great villain, but we could be shown a bit more of his planning to get a great sense of his criminal mastery. This goes on and on. The film is great, but it is only great. As we reach the Top 25, the best of the best, just being great all the way through is only going to get you so far.
That isn’t to say that the film is perfectly great. One scene that always bothered me is the film’s second of two songs “Let Me Be Good to You,” which is sung at a bar where Basil and Dawson are undercover looking for Ratigan. The song is fine and dandy, but it has nothing to do with the plot, does nothing to build the characters, and is sung by a character that has never appeared before and will never appear again. The time spent on this song could have spent making that Dawson and Basil relationship become the classic relationship it could have been. It’s a very minor gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.
And with the quality of films in the Top 25, you better get used to this style of weakness section.
(Also, since Alan Young has always been Scrooge McDuck for me, it is very odd to hear him as the voice of the toymaker father.)
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
The best song is no doubt “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind.” Not only is a catchy tune with great lyrics, but it does wonders in introducing us to Ratigan and all of his glory.
There are many scenes I could have chosen for Best Scene, including the two Basil scenes I mentioned in my earlier Basil rave. However, since I already shared those with you, the best scene becomes the climax, the chase through the skies of London and the fight through Big Ben.
The Great Mouse Detective is high on my list of underrated Disney features. Save for one or two minor faults, the film is great all the way through, with a fantastic set of characters and some great humor, alongside the great homages to the classic stories it is inspired by. I could just imagine how great a TV series would have been with these characters, that is how much I love them. Though it could do more in all of its aspects, it is still a film I highly recommend. Discover the wonders of Basil and Ratigan for yourself. Don’t leave yourself in a mystery.