Sherlock HolmesVincent PriceBarrie InghamBasil Rathbone
The Great Mouse Detective
Medium: film
Year: 1986
Director: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, John Musker
Writer: Peter Young, Vance Gerry, Steve Hulett, Ron Clements, John Musker, Bruce Morris, Matthew O'Callaghan, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, Melvin Shaw, Eve Titus, Paul Galdone
Keywords: Disney, Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, animation, detective, musical
Country: USA
Actor: Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Diana Chesney, Eve Brenner, Alan Young, Laurie Main, Shani Wallis, Ellen Fitzhugh, Walker Edmiston, Wayne Allwine, Tony Anselmo, Melissa Manchester, Basil Rathbone, Frank Welker
Format: 74 minutes
Website category: Sherlock Holmes
Review date: 8 July 2009
I've always known this as Basil the Great Mouse Detective, but apparently his name only appears in the European titles. For a while Disney also called it The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective for the video release.
This was the 26th Disney animated film and in its own lesser-known way it's quite an important one. It did quite well at the box office and got good reviews, which was an improvement on The Black Cauldron (which flopped) and gave Disney's new management team more confidence in the studio's animation department. Two of this film's directors (John Musker and Ron Clements) then made The Little Mermaid, which of course three years later blew the roof off the House of Mouse and kicked off the post-Walt golden age.
It's a book adaptation, as were all of them around now. The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, Oliver and Company (spit)... they're all adapted from books you'll never have heard of. Well, maybe you'll know about Oliver Twist. This one's based on the Basil of Baker Street children's book series created by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone. It's about Sherlock Holmes as a mouse. Sounds very Disney, doesn't it? However this isn't another Robin Hood, in which everyone's an animal without apology or explanation, but instead something that's ostensibly set in the real world. This is the real Victorian London and Basil is a deerstalker-wearing mouse who lives in a hole underneath 221B Baker Street, sharing the personality, occupation and methods of his neighbour. The results come surprisingly close to being a straight Holmes adaptation. The original children's books apparently have a few differences between the personalities of Basil and Sherlock, but the Disney version isn't having with any of that. The books' Basil plays the flute, for instance, but in the film of course he has a violin.
Apparently his name is a Basil Rathbone reference, by the way, although coincidentally Conan Doyle gave Holmes the alias of Basil in The Adventure of Black Peter. You'll even hear Basil Rathbone's Sherlock in the film despite his having been dead for nineteen years, with his voice representing a brief non-appearance of the man himself.
There are two ways of judging this film and I'll start with the obvious one. As a Disney animated film, it's good. It's not up there with Little Mermaid, but it's certainly far above Cinderella and The Aristocats. It's funny, it's exciting and it has a surprisingly likeable child. Don't worry, she isn't Basil's daughter or anything like that. Her name's Olivia Flaversham and her father has been kidnapped. Even better, halfway through she helpfully gets kidnapped and becomes much less active in the film, which means she can't steal the limelight from the main attraction. The nearest thing to a problem would be the villains. They're... okay. They fulfil their story roles and they're certainly dangerous enough, but I wouldn't put them in the top rank of Disney villains with Ursula and Cruella de Ville. There are three of them:
1. Professor Ratigan is voiced by the mighty Vincent Price and I've seen claims that this was his favourite role, but to my surprise I was disappointed in him. Price has one of my favourite movie voices and his casting should have been a stroke of genius, but unfortunately he's Disneying himself up a smidgin. He's recognisably himself when singing Goodbye So Soon, though. His character Ratigan is a rat in a world of mice, a gigantic hulking monster who's normally a bit camp and silly but will feed you to his pet cat if you say the R-word. He doesn't think of himself as a rat, you see. His manners might seem to be charming, but underneath he has quite a temper.
Anyway, all this could have been great. Ratigan is full of personality, with denial and suppressed savagery. I liked his pet cat, which plays the Rancor to his Jabba the Hutt and almost turns this into a horror movie the first time she shows up. I laughed at the way he pauses and snaps his watch closed when Basil says the unforgiveable. I liked the way he turns bestial at the end. Even in the film as it stands he's a powerful adversary for Basil and a dangerously deranged monster. My only complaint is that despite all this, he isn't scary in the least and I'd have liked to see Disney playing with that a little. Compare him with the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, for instance.
2. Fidget, the pegleg bat. When we first see him he's a monster, smashing up Olivia's house and abducting her father. However the film wants him to make him comical and lovable, so in the end he's a charmingly ugly rascal who's full of personality but doesn't present any threat. For starters, he's shorter than the mice. The character does have one bizarre quirk though, in that the script's forgotten that bats fly. The animators give him a couple of inconsequential flutters, but there are at least two occasions in the film when being able to fly would have been invaluable, e.g. when falling off Big Ben.. As the most likeable of the three named villains, he gets the least impressive death (if indeed he dies at all).
3. The cat. She's obscenely huge and 100% evil. She also really eats her victims, making this one of those rare Disney animated films that includes killing. She was always great to see and I laughed a lot at her downfall.
4 (ahem). He's only a walk-on role, but Ratigan's gang includes Bill, the "lizard with a ladder" from Disney's Alice in Wonderland.
Apart from that, I have no complaints with the movie. I might have wanted the villains to be fearsome, but I admire the violence of the dockside pub to which Basil drags Dawson (Watson) in search of information. The film's version of Victorian England feels tougher and more authentic than that of Oliver and Company. Historical accuracy might seem surprising from Disney, but don't forget that they've also got the Sherlockian canon to play with and that they're taking surprisingly seriously. It's possible to date the movie to the autumn of 1890 by noting that Basil Rathbone's lines are from The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, while you can see that this is the year of Queen Victoria's 60th jubilee by watching the humans going into Buckingham Palace while the mice are trying to save Queen Mousetoria. There's all kinds of detail here. Basil borrows a dog called Toby, for instance, presumably the one from The Sign of Four. I'm surprised that it was being kept at 221B Baker Street, though.
There's also an eerie scene where the toys come alive. Look out for the mechanical Dumbo.
The film has singing, as you'd expect from Disney, but they've got Henry Mancini on the music and even the weakest song is quite good. Vincent Price gets two numbers, The World's Greatest Criminal Mind (okay) and Goodbye So Soon (lots of fun). Also very enjoyable is a jazzy torch style number called Let Me Be Good To You, with music and lyrics by Melissa Manchester. The producers were originally going to get Madonna.
So it's a good Disney film. The main thing I'm complaining about is some Disneyfication and even that's better than it might have been. However as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation I'm actually more impressed with it. It's faithful, it's funny and it not only gets away with but triumphs with the idea of giving Basil and Dawson a kid sidekick. The scene where they realise she's been taken is a lovely moment in their relationship. It's also got good action sequences, which is something you never see in Sherlock Holmes films. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, I'm looking at you. This is the second Disney film to have had computer-assisted animation, the first being The Black Cauldron, and they use it to awesome effect for the monstrous gears of Big Ben. That's still an impressive scene today. We have an airship escape, chase scenes and more. I'd have never expected "Disney does Sherlock" to be a success, but to my surprise their approach has blown away a few of the cobwebs you tend to get with more straightforward adaptations and resulted in a fast-paced, exciting adventure. It's better than Young Sherlock Holmes the year before, for a start.
Basil is also a surprisingly authentic Holmes. He gets bouts of depression, he's rude to people and for my money he's closer to the Conan Doyle original than, say, Basil Rathbone was. However he's also an action hero and often cool, as for instance in his introductory scene in the bit with the dartboard. The only difference is that Basil doesn't smoke except as part of a disguise, with smoking being something that you'll only see being done by dodgy lowlifes. Me, I'm happy with that.
Incidentally, Basil's sailor disguise is an animated version of Rathbone's in the same situation in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943).
There are some bits you shouldn't think about and I'm probably a bad person for doing so. Why isn't Dawson even trying to stay in character when they're in the pub in disguise? Shouldn't we be worrying about Olivia dying of asphyxiation when sealed in that bottle, or is it a little-known fact that corks allow air transmission? Why is Basil's technobabble such complete gibberish when he's calculating their escape from Ratigan's elaborate deathtrap? "Multiply by the square root of an isoceles triangle", indeed. That whole scene is pretty stupid, in fact. Admittedly the Rathbone movies did it all the time, but it was rubbish then too. Ratigan captures Basil and Dawson, but instead of killing them, ties them up and leaves them in the jaws of a ludicrously elaborate contraption that allows them a few minutes to live, etc. The redeeming factor is that at least the film isn't half-hearted about going over the top with axes, anvils, mousetraps and more.
Overall, this film was quite a surprise. It's a perfectly good Disney animated film, but at the same time a more than respectable Sherlock Holmes adaptation. The animation has some charming details, one of my favourites being Toby's ear becoming a staircase, and the comedy is actually funny. The action climax is impressive, not to mention in my opinion being a homage to Conan Doyle's Reichenbach Falls. You know you're looking at quality when your biggest complaint about a movie is Vincent Freaking Price.