The Great Mouse Detective is one of the first Disney movies I can ever recall watching as a kid, viewing it on VHS at my grandmother’s house on many occasions.
Made at the tail end of a less successful period for Disney animation, The Great Mouse Detective managed to be quite prosperous despite the recent failures of The Black Cauldron. This went on to set the stage for Disney’s return to form with The Little Mermaid; and what came with it was an era of critical, financial, and creative triumph known as the Disney Renaissance.
The Great Mouse Detective is an adaptation of sorts, based on a children’s book series Basil of Baker Street, which in turn drew inspiration from Sherlock Holmes. The film stars our Holmes-like protagonist Basil (Barrie Ingham), a detective investigating the kidnapping of a renowned toymaker named Flaversham (Alan Young). Along with his associate Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin) and the daughter of the toymaker Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek), they set off on a high-stakes adventure that may mean the end to England as they know it.
Watching the movie today gave me a sense of nostalgia that I often long for in animation. Not necessarily because I’m revisiting a childhood favorite, but because the film’s style was made to have that reminiscent effect. The Great Mouse Detective feels like one great big journey, an adventurous tale that takes the characters and audience to all kinds of locations. Perhaps in reality the film isn’t quite that ambitious, but the exciting soundtrack and energetic characters give it the juice needed to propel our imagination to those bounds.
The main highlight of The Great Mouse Detective is not Basil of Baker Street as one might expect, but instead the evil Professor Ratigan voiced by Vincent Price. Vincent Price was always known for his unique and ghoulish sounding voice, even providing the eerie voiceover narration for Michael Jackson’s hit Thriller. With every inflection and emphasis he speaks, you can tell Price is having the time of his life embodying this character. Match that with the expressive animation and dastardly personality of Ratigan, and you have one mean villain that just loves being evil.
The opening of the film always stuck out to me. It begins with a seemingly sentimental moment between father and daughter, and suddenly one thing leads to the next and the father is kidnapped in a rather frightening scene involving a jump scare. This part frazzled me as a kid, but not too much as to where I wanted the movie shut off. Just enough to get me excited and invested in the adventure to come. This kind of a setup is perfect in just how unexpected and shocking it is for a kid to experience.
And the final showdown atop Big Ben between Basil and Ratigan is worth mentioning as well. I’d put it among the darker moments in Disney’s history of animated films, right next to the violent climax of Tarzan and “Pleasure Island” in Pinocchio. The clock tower scene involves dark shadows, early 3D animation effects, and an all-around thrilling and intense mood. It’s when we see the true animalistic nature of Ratigan, who typically prefers a more proper appearance.
The Great Mouse Detective is an exciting Disney movie that hadn’t changed a bit since the last time I saw it over a decade ago. But now I respect the film for a whole new host of reasons. It’s a simple, entertaining adventure that respects its child and adult audience. The movie doesn’t go overboard with schmaltzy sentimentality, but has plenty of cute and redeeming moments between its protagonists. It has some scary imagery that has the potential to frighten some, but it never takes it too far into territory a kid can’t handle. The animators, writers, and voice cast put in the effort to give us a unique and fun little throwback to simpler Disney days, and that’s exactly what fans of The Great Mouse Detective received.
The Verdict: B+