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Disney 53: The Great Mouse Detective

As we march bravely on through 2013, THN will take a nostalgic yet critical look at the 53 Walt Disney Animated Classics, from SNOW WHITE to WRECK-IT RALPH, through the obscurity of FUN AND FANCY FREE to the Golden Age of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. These are the films the Walt Disney company are most proud of, the ones that hold a special place in our hearts, the ones that still cost a fortune to buy on DVD.

This time, a little later than planned… we join Basil, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE.

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Directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener and John Musker
1986/ 74 minutes

Yet another in a long line of literary adaptations, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was based upon the Basil of Baker Street stories by Eve Titus, focussing on a community of mice living beneath Victorian London. And much like Disney’s other literary adaptations, it plays pretty fast and loose with the source material, though not to the extent of, say, THE FOX AND THE HOUND.

THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was a bit of a turning point for Disney, with many of the layouts created using computers, and also the use of (at the time) state-of-the-art computer generated imagery (CGI) for the climactic chase scene within Big Ben. The movements of the clock’s gears were produced as wire-frame graphics, printed out and traced onto animation cells where colors and the characters were added. Whilst the film is sometimes cited as the first animated Disney movie to use CGI, in reality, 1985′s THE BLACK CAULDRON has that distinction (though mostly for special effects sequences.)

The title of the film, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, which would go through several different permutations through the years, wasn’t particularly well-received by fans of the Basil of Baker Street books, nor with the filmmakers themselves. In retaliation for this “dumbing down”, animator Ed Gombert wrote a fake inter-office memo- allegedly by studio exec Peter Schneider, in which Disney’s previous works were given likewise generic titles:

A few of my favourites:
SEVEN LITTLE MEN HELP A GIRL (1938)
THE GIRL WITH SEE-THROUGH SHOES (1950)
TWO DOGS FALL IN LOVE (1955)
A BOY, A BEAR, AND A BIG BLACK CAT (1967)
THE EVIL BONEHEAD (1985)

The animation models of the lead characters were a step or three away from the original illustrations by Paul Galdone, given a more caricatured appearance to better suit the Disney art style of the time. Whilst Basil and Dawson’s appearances were based on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce’s, their voices and personalities were not – the better for differentiating them.

Ratigan, on the other hand, was originally designed as a thinner, weaker character, before Vincent Price was cast in the role; the animators based many of Ratigan’s mannerisms and grand, Shakespearean gestures on Price’s own.

After the financial and critical failure of THE EVIL BONEHEAD, Basil’s cinematic debut proved to be a success upon its initial release in 1986. As such, the new senior management of the company were convinced that their animation department was still a viable enterprise, keeping the studio alive and setting the stage for the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1990s.

 

SYNOPSIS: London, 1897. A pre-credits sequence sees young mouseling Olivia Flaversham celebrating her birthday with her father, a famed toymaker. Suddenly, there’s a sinister knocking at the door, and Olivia’s father hides her in a cupboard, just as a peg-legged bat breaks in and kidnaps the toymaker, leaving Olivia frightened and alone.

Shortly afterwards, Doctor David Q. Dawson returns to London after a term of duty in Afghanistan. Avoiding the rain, Dawson comes across a distraught Olivia, who has gotten lost while looking for Basil of Baker Street. Being a kind, stout-hearted fellow, Dawson offers to help, and sure enough, they soon find themselves at 221 1/2 Baker Street, a literal hole in the wall beneath Sherlock Holmes’ own residence.

At first, Basil is too busy with his own investigation to bother with missing fathers, until Olivia mentions the peg-legged bat. Instantly, Basil changes his tune, knowing full well that the bat, one Fidget by name, is in the employ of one Professor Ratigan, the most evil and powerful criminal in all of Mousedom.

Crossfade to Ratigan’s lair, where Flaversham is feverishly working on a new “toy” for Ratigan, who quietly informs him of the fate that will befall Olivia if the machine is not ready by tomorrow night. As Flaversham silently and solemnly returns to his work, Ratigan calls upon Fidget for another mission; a list of items integral to the plan.
[You know, one would think Ratigan would leave a bit more time to set up his scheme, rather than do everything the night before...]
As Fidget hobbles off, Ratigan indulges in a song-and-dance number with his troops – the first for a Disney villain – whilst expositing to the audience that not only does his plan involve the (mouse) Queen’s Jubilee, but also that he gets rather upset when someone calls him a rat. The unfortunate subordinate is fed to Ratigan’s pet and heavy, an obese cat named Felicia.

Back at Baker Street, Basil’s pondering is interrupted by the arrival of Fidget; he’s seen through the window by Olivia and scarpers, with Basil and Dawson on his heel. They lose sight of him, but Dawson finds Fidget’s cap on the ground. With evidence in hand, Basil makes plans to meet with “Toby”, inviting Dawson to join him. And despite his best efforts to leave her behind and safe at Baker Street, Olivia tags along as well.

Venturing upstairs to 221B Baker Street, Basil observes Sherlock Holmes himself about to depart for a concert. With the coast clear, Basil, Dawson and Olivia venture into the flat, and are soon met by Toby, Sherlock’s pet hound.

INTERESTING INTERLUDE: In this scene, Holmes is voiced by arguably the most famous Holmes actor, Basil Rathbone – star of no less than fourteen feature films and regarded by many to be the definitive silver screen version, not to mention a successful radio series reuniting him with Nigel Bruce as Watson, a pilot for an unmade TV series, a Broadway stage play and a set of five records of him reading the original stories. It’s also where the hero of this film gets his name, in honour of the great actor.
It’s from one of these records, “The Red-Headed League”, that Rathbone’s short exchange with Watson is said to be taken; this goes some way in explaining why his longtime Watson Nigel Bruce is not heard. In his place is Laurie Main, who had narrated WINNIE THE POOH AND A DAY FOR EEYORE and numerous Disney Read-Along records.

The character of Toby is taken from The Sign of Four, an original Conan Doyle story, though in the book he was a mongrel owned by a Mr. Sherman, rather than the basset hound seen here.

 

Basil has Toby set off after Fidget, leading them to a toy store. Fidget is busy swiping uniforms from toy soldiers and the mechanisms from several clockwork toys. Hearing Toby’s arrival, he hides, dropping the list as he scampers off. Finding their way into the toy store, the heroes begin their search. As Basil investigates, Dawson stumbles upon the list. Before he can inform Basil of the find, the myriad clockwork toys around them begin to move, filling the place with sound and distractions. Enthralled by a stream of bubbles from a clockwork elephant (who looks remarkably like Dumbo), Olivia finds herself drawn to a rocking toy cradle, from which Fidget leaps.

Hearing the girl’s scream, Basil and Dawson give chase, but Fidget gives them the slip. Basil’s furious ranting does little to help Dawson’s frame of mind; Olivia was his responsibility, and he failed. Seeing the older mouse on the verge of tears, Basil swallows his pride and does his best to lighten his companion’s spirits. Dawson then remembers the list he came across, which Basil rushes back to Baker Street for further analysis.

Meanwhile, Ratigan taunts Flaversham, briefly reuniting him with Olivia before sealing her up in a bottle. As Ratigan congratulates Fidget on a job well done, he finds out about Basil’s involvement in the heist. Ratigan is understandably upset with his chiropteran lackey, but saves him from Felicia’s tender mercies when he realises the opportunity to hit Basil where it hurts. His ego.

Basil’s chemical analysis of the paper leads him and Dawson to the “Rat Trap”, a seedy tavern on the riverfront. Disguising themselves as sailors, the pair try to keep a low profile while they wait for Fidget to return and lead them to Ratigan. Unfortunately, Dawson lands himself in it spectacularly, leading to a massive bar brawl. Basil and Dawson follow Fidget into the sewers, and right into a trap set by Ratigan.

Surrounded and humiliated, Basil is left broken and defeated, as he and Dawson are tied to a mousetrap-gun-crossbox-fireaxe-anvil deathtrap triggered by a record player, a sprightly little ditty recorded especially for the occasion by Ratigan (his second song of the film). Ratigan then makes that classic Bond villain error – leaving the hero alone while he sets off for Buckingham Palace. With Dawson’s “encouragement”, Basil is able to escape the trap.

At the Palace, Ratigan’s men take the Queen hostage; as she is taken to be fed to Felicia, Ratigan’s plan is put into action; using a lifesize clockwork model of the Queen, Ratigan plans to have himself named as the new Ruler of All Mousedom, and announcing his tyrannical plans for his new subjects.

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With Toby’s help, Basil and Dawson manage to rescue the real Queen from Felicia and reunite Olivia with her father and stop Ratigan’s ascension to power. As the maddened crowd amass on Ratigan and his men, the Professor manages to escape to his dirigible, taking Olivia hostage once more. Basil, Dawson and Flavershap give chase in a makeshift craft made from helium balloons and a Union Flag. At Fidget’s suggestion, Ratigan lightens the load by hurling him over the side into the Thames, and his apparent death. Basil manages to board Ratigan’s airship, which crashes into the Tower of Westminster (otherwise known as Big Ben).

Finding themselves within the clocktower, Basil manages to trap Ratigan’s cape between two cogs and rescue Olivia. As they make their way to the roof, and a rendezvous with Dawson and Flaversham, Ratigan breaks free. In perhaps one of the scariest moments of any Disney movie, Ratigan goes feral, his immaculate clothing torn to rags as he powers up the tower to reap his vengeance. Basil is no match for the larger, more powerful Ratigan, but when the clocktower strikes the hour, Ratigan loses his footing and plummets to his death.

Some time later at Baker Street, Basil and Dawson bid farewell to the Flavershams. Dawson is about to leave himself, but when a new client appears at the door, Basil introduces the good doctor as his trusted associate, “with whom I do all my cases”.

 

LESSONS LEARNED:

1. Sometimes your own worst enemy is your ego.

2. Never underestimate your own importance.

3. Never overestimate your own importance.

 

THE HERO
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Basil, voiced by Barrie Ingham. Sharp-witted, brilliant, borderline-bipolar, self-centred and blunt,  Basil is, to be honest, a bit of a twat, but his heart is in the right place. Caught up in his investigations, he quickly loses sight of what’s staring him in the face, be it the next big clue or a distraught little girl.
One wonders if he would actually get anything done without Dawson and Olivia; but of course, that is the point. It’s the relationship with Dawson that brings out the best in Basil.

THE HEROINE
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Olivia Flaversham, voiced by Susanne Pollatschek – apparently, her only film role.
Very much in the mold of Penny from THE RESCUERS, Olivia is the kind of girl who understands the dangers she’s facing, and goes out to face them anyway. Sweet and disobedient, she often comes across as being one-up on Basil, but sadly is little more than a damsel-in-distress for much of the film.

THE VILLAIN
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Professor Ratigan, voiced by the legend that is Vincent Price, in what he himself claims to be his favourite role. Fiercely intelligent, his calm exterior hides a deep fury and a lust for power and acceptance. He’s charming and urbane, even when threatening a little girl’s life, but unlike other Disney villains, Ratigan manages that balance between sinister and humorous.

While he could be described as a rather cliched villain, with grand schemes and even grander personality, it’s pulled off expertly by Price, who gives the character just the right amount of ham.

HIS FATE: If it hadn’t been for Big Ben striking the hour, it’s entirely possible Ratigan would have survived and killed Basil. But, much like the Queen in SEVEN LITTLE MEN HELP A GIRL, Ratigan plummets to his death (a fate shared by quite a number of Disney villains, as it happens.

SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
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Dr. Dawson, voiced by Val Bettin – but based on Disney animator Eric Larson – is very much the archetypal “Watson”. While he is by no means an idiot, Dawson is just behind for Basil to have to bring him – and the audience – up to speed. Kindly if somewhat clumsy, he actually comes across as quite naive at times, but when it comes down to it, Dawson is a mouse to have at your side in a crisis.

Which brings me to Fidget, voiced by radio performer and veteran voice actor, and arguably one of the best things about the film. Having voiced the Indian Chief in THE AMAZING FLYING CHILDREN (1953) and various other characters, Candido was no stranger to Disney; his voice was sped-up somewhat for Fidget, which gives him such a distinctive sound. It’s fair to say that Fidget does the lion’s share of the evil-doing while Ratigan takes the credit – perfect Henchman material.

LAUGHS
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Considerably lighter than its immediate predecessor, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE feels like a breath of fresh air. And while it certainly has its darker moments, most especially in the final act, we’re treated to a couple of really great visual gags, mostly of the slapstick variety. A surprising amount of humour is at the expense of the hero, whose fussy, pompous demeanour often gets the better of him.

SCARES
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I’ll just say it. Ratigan is a scary muther-lover. He’s intimidating to begin with, but when he goes feral at the climax, it’s a powerful, dark and terrifying moment.

There are several thrills in the film but here it’s a real scare, perhaps because it’s such a shock after the relative whimsy of the rest of the film. Fidget also gets a few points for the odd jump-scare; let’s face it, this face lurching out at you would give anyone the creeps.

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MORAL/EDUCATIONAL VALUE
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Basil is not much of a role model. He’s rude, up-himself, he smokes like a chimney and is demeaning to even those closest to him. Dawson on the other hand is a fine, upstanding character; being both a doctor and a soldier, he has both compassion and strong moral fibre.

And little girls could do worse than Olivia Flaversham for a role model.

MUSIC AND SONGS
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Serviceable, if not particularly memorable, with some very nice use of leitmotifs by Henry Mancini; the musical motif for Flaversham’s creation works well to maintain continuity, adding a subconscious reminder of the half-built machine earlier in the film.

More of note are the three songs; each of which is unique and groundbreaking in its own way;
Ratigan’s first number, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”, is the first time a Disney villain has his own major song in a Disney 53 film, and sets the bar for Gaston, Jafar, Ratcliffe  and a slew of others. It also serves as a great introduction to the man himself, his character and his exploits.

“Let Me Be Good To You” is a bit of a surprise; performed by Melissa Manchester (although Madonna was the first choice), it’s a cabaret act. It’s not a character singing their thoughts or a musical narration; it’s a song being performed, live, as the action takes place. It’s also surprisingly raunchy for a Disney movie, when the performer strips out of a simple dress to, uh… well.

Gives Jessica Rabbit a run for her money, doesn’t she.

The third and final song, “Goodbye, so Soon”, another by Price, is a first because, much like “Let Me Be Good To You”, it’s diegetic. By which I mean, Ratigan records it and plays it for Basil, in the context of the film.

PLOT
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As you’d expect for a detective movie, even one aimed at the family market, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE has plenty of twists and turns, giving you enough information to put things together for yourself; it’s not exactly THE MATRIX, but it’s not GI JOE either.

LEGACY
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Sadly, and unfairly, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE isn’t one of the best-known Disney films, lost in the shadow of the films that succeeded it.

Olivia and Fidget (who somehow survives the fall and reforms) became the heroes of a Disney Adventures comic set some time after the film.

Surprisingly,  a little detective work of my own uncovered a rather twee computer game for the Atari system, but not very much about it. One can but assume it fell down the back of the sofa like its cinematic counterpart.

FINAL SCORE: 36/53

Sources: Wikipedia, Disney Wiki, youtube, Disney DVD special features, imdb.com, bakerstreet.wikia