Synopsis: The clues are in, the chase is on, and the case of the century is about to break wide open in Disney’s greatest little mystery in history! Let the creators of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid take you on an adventuresome journey through the cobblestone streets of 1897 London, where some suspicious ‘mousechief’ is the suspenseful start to this thrilling musical adventure.
Olivia, the brave daughter of a beloved London toymaker, turns to Basil of Baker street for help with her father’s disappearance. Basil’s jolly assistant Dr. Dawson and loyal dog Toby lend a hand… a nose… as they sniff out clues through their charming miniature world. The final chase lead to Professor Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price), a hardened criminal whom Basil must outwit to save all of Mousedom!
Considering that I have started a Sherlock Holmes extravaganza and had been planning on delving into many iterations of Alice In Wonderland soon enough, I decided to dust off ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ from my ridiculously out of control “New Arrivals” section. It wasn’t a film that was dear to my heart (in fact, I wasn’t even sure that I’d seen it before), but it made for a nice bridge for what’s coming next.
‘The Great Mouse Detective’ is based on the Basil of Baker Street series of books by Eve Titus, which itself is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of books. It was made during Disney’s declining years (i.e. pre-‘The Little Mermaid’), with the quality of their animated films becoming sub par to the ones produced up to Walt Disney’s death; while they apparently did well at the box office (as per Wiki, which is likely monitored for “accuracy” by the people at Disney), the mid-’70s to the late-’80s films simply didn’t recapture the ol’ magic.
As I was watching it, I tried to imagine if this film would have been a success 30 years prior, when animation wasn’t taken as granted as it was by the ’80s, after being a staple of the boob tube for a couple of decades. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that it’s a less exciting film than, let’s say ‘101 Dalmatians’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Pinocchio’ or many other Disney classics. Something is missing, but I can’t quite figure out what that is… Enthusiasm, perhaps? Magic? Maybe it’s the lack of grandeur, not having enough of an epic quality? I’m not sure.
Still, this adventure of Basil, a mouse detective trying to find a child’s missing father, is actually rather good, if unexceptional: the story was enjoyable, but nothing amazing, the animation was par-for-the-course hand-drawn stuff of that era (although they did embellish one scene with CGI – a first in history, apparently), and it features a dynamic and beautiful score by Henri Mancini – one of the best one’s I’ve heard, I think.
The character designs are fairly straight-forward Disney stuff; you’d never mistake them for Warner Bros. or Don Bluth creations. It was amusing to me that one of the villains is a bat that strangely resembles a Gremlin, considering that the enormously successful Joe Dante film was released not long before (coincidence? Hmmm… ). Unusually, I found that the design for Professor Ratigan didn’t fit with Vincent Price’s voice – it’s not an intuitive match, so I wonder what happened there.
Thankfully, Price has fun with his voice work, going so far as singing a musical number along the way; peerless, he brought life to this picture. But, for every excellent voice actor, there are lesser ones: the person behind the character of Olivia seemed to have a difficult time with accents; it sounded lopsided at times (of course, it could very well just be that I’m not familiar with that particular accent. What the heck do I know?). It didn’t detract from the character or film too much, however.
Meanwhile, Basil himself is modelled after Sherlock Holmes – and, amusingly, he and Dr. Dawson reside under Holmes’ home. Sadly, we aren’t privy to his genius as much as we are with the original sleuth. Part of the problem is that there is no mystery in ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, seeing as we are aware from the onset what’s going on. Thus, the veil is already lifted and there is nothing for us to solve – a keystone of such stories. Obviously, Basil shows some minor cunning along the way, but we aren’t at all awed by his brilliance. There’s no real opportunity for it.
The film was probably never meant to emulate the feel of an original Sherlock Holmes mystery, anyway – Disney films usually tend to be fluffy, fun adventures more so than absorbing intellectual stimulation. Had they attempted to retain the flavour of Conan Doyle’s works, I think that this picture would have been a rare delight. But, as per usual, Disney’s decision was to offer audiences a slick production instead of a more enigmatic piece. Which is hardly surprising.
One choice that I find especially strange coming from Disney, however, is that drinking and smoking are introduced casually in this animated world, despite being designed as a kids’ film (not all animations are for kids, even though -with very few exceptions- we still believe this in North America). Admittedly, the story takes place in a time when these vices would have been common-place, but, coming from the now politically-correct studio, I was veritably surprised by this (even though it’s hardly the first time what with ‘Pinocchio’).
Nevertheless, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ is a generally innocuous, family-friendly film that is light, pleasant fare. It probably won’t “wow” anyone big or small, but it’s got enough going for it that it will leave viewers contented – and maybe curious enough to read the original Basil of Baker Street books. I imagine that it could even make for a decent babysitter – so, in that context, it has plenty of replay value. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ may not be great, but it’s good enough. And sometimes that’s all you want or need.