Forgotten Gem: Basil, the Great Mouse Detective

The precursor to the famous Disney Renaissance, Disney animation owes a lot to The Great Mouse Detective, though viewers seldom remember it as one of the greats.

Starring Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Diana Chesney, Eve Brenner, and Alan Young.
Story by Pete Young, Vance Gerry, Steve Hulett, John Musker, Ron Clements, Bruce Morris, Matthew O’Callaghan, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and Mel Shaw.
Directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener and John Musker.
Based on Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone

Basil, The Great Mouse Detective

It’s hard to conceive of Disney and its affiliates ever presenting as the underdog, and yet that was the climate to which The Great Mouse Detective was released in 1986. Behind the scenes, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had taken over the Walt Disney Company as part of a shareholder coup against Ron Miller, and their focus upon animation was different to their predecessors. Namely, they were of the opinion that the type of meticulous hand animation techniques employed on Disney classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was too expensive, and too time consuming to be economically viable. The Great Mouse Detective was also released (though a lot of work had been completed on it before) after The Black Cauldron, which was a massive commercial failure, owing to the huge budget put into the film, animators strikes and a corporate lobotomy of the original intended content. To this end, The Great Mouse Detective experienced a significant budget cut themselves, and was subject to a lot of suggested storylines (as you can see from the extensive credits list above). It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that what is produced is an evident precursor to what would become known as the Disney Renaissance: a successive run of films by Walt Disney Animation, starting with The Little Mermaid, and concluding with 1999’s Tarzan, that enjoyed unprecedented success.

The Great Mouse Detective, however, revived the viability of the animation department, earning $50 million against their $14 million budget at the box office: a far cry away from the $44 million Black Cauldron, which only earned $21 million. Its success was a testament to the animation department, and the specific creatives who worked on the project, and persuaded Disney executives that producing new animated content (instead of relying upon re-releases of vaulted projects) was still a valuable and rewarding endeavour.

What was it, however, that made The Great Mouse Detective so successful? Firstly, the animation looks the best that Disney looked in years. Polished looking, full to the brim of character and colour, and in this particular film a gritty, noir-sequence feel, this film is notable for being the first to extensively combine traditional cel animation with new computer-generated backgrounds, which results in a positively spellbinding and nail biting conclusion to the film as Basil and his enemy Ratigan fight within the cog machinery of Big Ben. These techniques aren’t exclusively used for dramatic sequences, however, but are used consistently throughout the film, allowing the backgrounds to be gorgeously realised in stunning detail: something which hadn’t been possible since Disney’s early animated ventures, before economic and time constraints had been placed upon the animators. These new techniques would be well-utilised in future, hugely-successful Disney films, famously in the ballroom sequence of Beauty and the Beast, and the stampede in The Lion King, though all of the Disney Renaissance films used computer software to realise their backgrounds in a more time-efficient way.

Not only does The Great Mouse Detective look divine, but it is wholly dedicated to its concept. In contrast to The Black Cauldron, which had some deliciously dark moments but also had trouble fully following through on this more mature tone, The Great Mouse Detective perfectly executes a neo-noir mystery. From the misty, dimly lit streets of Victorian England, to the abandoned toy shops, even down to the narration, it is a wonderfully realised Sherlock Holmes-esque investigation. To summarise the plot, Hiram Flaversham, an expert mouse inventor, is kidnapped, leaving behind his daughter Olivia. Olivia is found by Dr. Dawson, who helps take her to Basil of Baker Street, the best detective in London. Their investigation leads them to uncover the machinations of the villainous Ratigan – Basil’s greatest enemy – who plans to overthrow Queen Mousetoria so that he can take over all of mousekind.

Adding on to all of this appeal, this movie is just great fun. It is literally Sherlock Holmes but with mice, and delights in cramming in as many nods to that heritage as humanly possible. The music nicely props up the action, instead of detracting from it, and the entire film is full of dramatic tension and high stakes. In fact, it’s slightly surprising that the film earned a U certificate, when the likes of Frozen and Tangled are both PG: as this film is most certainly more atmospheric and chilling than either of those instalments. It’s also quite refreshing to see a Disney film in which it’s not magic or true love that save the day, but rather just a good old-fashioned caper in which intelligence pulls through. The plot unfolds in a perfectly paced way, with the audience being drip-fed details about Ratigan’s nefarious intentions, keeping the intrigue up long enough to hold the interest, but not too long that it becomes frustrating. Ratigan, voiced by Vincent Price, is also one of the most compelling Disney villains, who deftly performs Ratigan’s veneer of sophistication that barely conceals the unhinged ferocity that lingers underneath.

The importance of The Great Mouse Detective cannot be overstated. The technological advancements within this film literally assured the existence of the Disney Renaissance, let alone the clear seeds of it being sewn here. While it may not hold the same magical thrill of lots of other Disney instalments that many have their own special nostalgia-factor for, it is a beautifully structured animated thriller, with lashings of humour and plenty of references for the adults: not to mention a genuinely compelling plot. The Great Mouse Detective is definitely worth a watch.

Basil, the Great Mouse Detective is streaming now on Disney+.

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