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"The Great Mouse Detective": Of Mice and Mysteries

I suppose I’m confessing to a form of thought crime when I say so, but there it is: I was never much of a fan of Disney’s Katzenberg-era animated features. I liked The Little Mermaid well enough. But I thought the admittedly lavish Beauty and the Beast an odious perversion of the original fairy tale; I found Aladdin silly and self-indulgent; and The Lion King was pretentious and badly written. After that I just gave up on Disney’s animated features, and their slowly deflating box office fortunes during the mid to late Nineties suggest I wasn’t alone.

The main problem, I think, was that the new generation of Disney artists couldn’t reconcile their ids and their superegos. They were working at Disney, so they had to labor within its tradition of creaky, conservative storytelling and timeworn animated clichés; at the same time they were (maybe subconsciously) itching to make Looney Tunes. At least, I suspect that is why they wound up producing a bunch of lavishly over-produced gasbags, and yet couldn’t resist decorating them with jokey little firecrackers. No wonder so many of them—in my contrarian opinion, at least—pulled a Hindenburg. There are too many times in those features when a serious moment is completely ruined by a wholly inappropriate gag, and too many times when the humor is ruined by the lumpy, sodden, “serious” story around it.

Before all that happened, though, I think they had one moment of grace and clarity: The Great Mouse Detective. This spiffy little feature, which clocks in at just under 75 minutes, shows how much fun the young guns at Disney could have when they didn’t have to worry about living up to a reputation or set of expectations.

The story—based on the novel Basil of Baker Street, and how I wish the studio’s marketing department had kept the original name—is pretty straightforward. It’s just a Sherlock Holmes caper, transmuted into mouse form. (The mice live in a human world, and there are glimpses of the real Holmes and Watson in the background, but no fuss is made over this fact.) The title character is a “great detective” in the Holmesian mold, and he lands on the trail of his archenemy, Professor Ratigan, when he is retained by a small child whose father the evil professor has kidnapped. There follow episodes of adventure, espionage, low comedy, and high deduction as Basil and his new partner, Dr. Dawson, try to foil the professor’s scheme to win control of the mouse kingdom.

If you want to compare The Great Mouse Detective to a classic Disney, you’d probably find the closest resemblance in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or one of the other featurettes that Disney made in the late forties. It is definitely not one of those stuck-up-its-own-ass fairy tale adaptations; but neither is it one of those loose and self-consciously irreverent stories like The Jungle Book. Instead, it’s just a light entertainment, full of supple movement, cartoony hijinks, and vivid stereotypes. Even the kid character—a very Scotch little girl—isn’t overly sentimentalized. It’s full of clever little bits, but it never feels like it’s showing off.

A lot of the credit for the movie’s success should go to its lead actors. Vincent Price plays the great Ratigan, and though he could easily have hammed it up he actually gives a very subtle performance. His Ratigan leers and sneers and giggles like a maniac, but there is a genuine sense of madness beneath his suave exterior; you have the sense that he is reining himself in, that he secretly fears his fragile façade may crack if fully lets go. It’s a clever performance choice on Price’s part, because Ratigan is, actually, a rat who is trying to hide that fact, and there is a powerful sequence at the end of the movie when the professor really does show his true form. The animators, for their part, have skillfully followed Price’s lead and given Ratigan a great range of fun expressions.

At the other extreme is Barrie Ingham as Basil. Sherlock Holmes is usually played as a very dry and intellectual sort, which would have been fatal to this kind of movie. Ingham’s Basil is effortlessly cerebral and tosses off the impossible deductions with believable aplomb. He also captures Holmes’s high-strung emotions, and can segue instantly but effortlessly from manic excitement to melancholic despair. But his Basil also has a raffish, schoolboy charm to his manner, and he is never smug or condescending. We often forget that Holmes was as good with his fists as with his brain, and Basil also has a sleek athleticism rippling beneath his trim figure. It’s very rare in a story of this sort for the hero to be as fun and attractive as the villain—especially when the villain is played by Price—but we never miss Ratigan when Basil is on screen. That is how winning he is.

The movie was made in the mid-Eighties, when the future of the Disney animated feature unit was in serious jeopardy, and it looks like it was made on the cheap. Those who are used to Disney’s silky sheen may be surprised at how rough and simple many of the visuals are; in places it looks only a cut above television animation. It boasts only two musical numbers (and a third song, which plays in the background in one scene), neither of which are terribly memorable. The score is by Henry Mancini; sadly, it is not one of his better efforts, though it does well at keeping the movie effervescently alight. There’s not much to say about the recent DVD re-release, which only adds some new trailers and one silly featurette about the history of detective agencies to the bonus material on the earlier DVD release.

Despite its roughness and lack of ambition, I like The Great Mouse Detective a lot more than its successors, made after its artists became hostages to their own reputations and to the studio’s insistence that every animated feature be more special and spectacular than the one that came before. It’s a modest little movie, with much to be modest about, but it doesn’t contain a single dull moment. I wish more movies tried for that kind of charm.

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