The Great Disney Blogathon: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
|July 27, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
I didn’t see The Great Mouse Detective until I was already an adult and a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan. I’m the annoying kind of Sherlock Holmes fan, too – the kind who hates most adaptations and will argue pedantically for hours upon hours about how all the things pop culture thinks about him and his canon are wrong (Watson is NOT useless! Holmes is NOT a drug addict, at least not the way we think of addiction today! Irene Adler and Moriarty are given undue weight in adaptations to the detriment of many others in the extended and colorful cast!). I basically stick to rereading the entire canon every couple of years, ignoring adaptations, and grumbling to friends about how everyone else is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I LOVE The Great Mouse Detective.
This is largely because, like Elementary – another adaptation I actually enjoy – it is inspired by the original canon, rather than attempting to depict the Sherlock Holmes in any way. (Technically, of course, it’s an adaptation of the Basil of Baker Street books by Eve Titus, which are themselves a Holmes adaptation.) While riffing on Holmesian tropes and characters, The Great Mouse Detective presents its own world and its own characters, and is the stronger for it. I don’t have to be a cranky pedant about it because it’s not making any kind of argument about Holmes himself, or his world. It’s just having fun.
But I also love The Great Mouse Detective because it’s a delightful movie, even if you don’t care about Sherlock Holmes at all. And what a relief after the past few films! The Renaissance isn’t here yet, folks, but it’s just around the corner.
And we’ll start there, because this movie is not considered part of the Disney Renaissance, and though I really enjoy it and absolutely adore the next one in line, Oliver and Company, you can’t really argue that there’s a pretty huge jump in quality between The Little Mermaid and the two films immediately preceding it. The Great Mouse Detective is riddled with animation errors and off-model sloppiness – in a lot of ways it looks more like a very, very good TV show of its time than a movie. The songs – what few there are – are completely forgettable, and even though the stakes are the entire British Empire at its height (well…the mouse version of it, anyway), the movie feels very small stakes and contained. It doesn’t have the dazzle of the truly great Disney movies.
I said it was a delight, though, and I stand by that. The Great Mouse Detective is bright, funny, fast-paced, and completely watchable – but its true strength is its characters. Dawson and Olivia are charming enough, but the real stars are, as they should be, Basil and Ratigan.
And Basil is a brilliant creation. He’s absolutely magnetic from the moment he steps on screen (well, and out of the horrifically racist Fu Manchu costume he initially appears in – ugh). His voice, supplied by Barrie Ingham, is the epitome of dapper Britishness; his design is utterly appealing in the best Disney way. Notably, though ostensibly the mouse version of Sherlock Holmes, he really isn’t very much like Holmes at all. He’s a genius, of course, and has many of Holmes’s quirks like his ability to deduce convoluted facts from tiny details, his recklessness with firearms, and his violin-playing – but while Doyle tells us that Holmes is given to what today we’d probably call manic depression, working like mad when “the fit” is on him and then retreating into a slough of despond, you can’t really picture him being anywhere close to as zany about it as Basil, or as downright merry when he’s cheerful. John Grant argues that Basil is essentially childlike, and I think he’s right on the money there. Basil is a brilliant, captivating child, and he reacts like a child to triumphs, setbacks, and even smaller, pestering children like Olivia. (I don’t actually think Olivia’s a pest, I think she’s adorable, but Basil treats her like a tagalong kid sister and it’s just the cutest.) However, that effervescent immaturity just makes him more endearing, and like similar heroes Disney’s given us – Robin Hood and Peter Pan in particular spring to mind – it’s impossible not to love him, vanity and childishness notwithstanding. If you can watch him cockily posing for a photo after having escaped Ratigan’s death trap and not burst into applause, well, you’re a stronger mouse than I am.
Ratigan, too, is utterly captivating. He’s completely, deliciously over-the-top, and more often than not sublimely ridiculous, right up until he suddenly becomes terrifying. Literally every one of his facial expressions is golden. It’s clear that everyone involved in the character, from the writers to the animators to Vincent Price, supplying that glorious voice, was having the time of their lives. Between the two of them, Basil and Ratigan absolutely light up the screen, and the scenes where neither of them appear, though few and far between, seem dull by contrast.
That said, Ratigan is the first in a disturbing trend that Disney kept up for far too long of queer-coding its villains. He may, in fact, be the most flamboyant of them all, and if it were just Ratigan it would be less of an issue – but Ratigan begat Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, and Scar, all sinister threats to heteronormative happily ever after. All of these characters are fantastic and endlessly watchable, but they’re also part of a homophobic pattern. It’s long past time Disney balanced the scales with positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters, particularly leads (and not just their many wink-wink nudge-nudge comic relief supporting characters).
Finally, I should note the climactic battle scene inside of Big Ben’s mechanism. This is often incorrectly hailed as Disney’s first blending of CGI with traditional animation, when in fact, as I mentioned in my last post, that came with The Black Cauldron. However, it’s much more impressive here, and that’s because of the traditional animation as much as the CGI, from Basil and Olivia’s palpable fear to the completely believable transformation of Ratigan into a feral nightmare. That final Reichenbachian plummet into the mists is just the icing on the brilliant cake – I almost wish the filmmakers had held onto that Disney Death just a little bit longer, to make you really believe for a minute that Basil was gone. But it’s still pretty great.
The Great Mouse Detective isn’t a perfect movie by any means – as mentioned, the animation is weak in places, the parts that aren’t illuminated by Basil and Ratigan’s dazzle are accordingly lackluster, and there are a few sharply offensive moments. But it’s a deeply entertaining one, and it was the success of this film that convinced Disney that the animation department might still have something in the tank. Stay tuned, folks, because it’s just possible that they were right.