Directed by: Ron Clements/Burny Mattinson/Dave Michener/John Musker
Written by: Pete Young/Vance Gerry/Steve Hulett/John Musker/Ron Clements/Bruce Morris/Matthew O’Callaghan/Burny Mattinson/Dave Michener/Mel Shaw
Based on novels by: Eve Titus/Paul Galdone
While The Black Cauldron was being made, some of the folks working on it knew it was going to be a pretty big bomb. They left the project and were given a secondary title to start working on: The Great Mouse Detective.
The studio had been thinking about doing a Sherlock Holmes animated animal feature since the 70s when The Rescuers was being made. But it was too similar to that film, so they put it on the back burner. Then the idea came up to do a film based on a series of books by Eve Titus about Basil of Baker Street, a mouse who styled himself after Holmes.
Basil (Barrie Ingham) is on the trail of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), but he’s hit a dead end. Enter Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek), the daughter of a prominent toymaker (Alan Young, who also voiced Scrooge McDuck until his death in 2016…and he owned a very famous horse, of course, of course). Her father was kidnapped by a peg-legged bat (Candy Candido), who happened to be in the employ of Ratigan. Olivia is brought to Basil by Dr Dawson (Val Bettin) hoping that he can help her. He’s pretty unwilling until he finds out that there’s a connection to Ratigan.
This is a pretty rollicking little adventure with a lot of great characters and an amazing turn (naturally) by Vincent Price and, of course, another evil cat. And Basil is probably one of the truer depictions of Holmes I’ve seen: he’s pretty socially inept and selfish. But he’s just so darn cute!
This whole movie is just really charming and cute. It’s maybe the best of this sort of mid-period, just before the renaissance of The Little Mermaid. (It’s not my favorite, but it’s probably the best.)
Besides the great characters and voice acting, there’s also the animation. For the most part, it’s fairly typical for Disney of the period. But then there’s the climax in Big Ben. It’s the first use of CGI in a Disney animated feature. (The Black Cauldron beat it to release, but this was the first produced.) As Basil and Ratigan careen through the gears of the clock, the camera follows them quicker than hand drawn animation would allow. It’s a thrilling scene that caps off the movie perfectly.
The only mistep, in my opinion, is the Melissa Manchester cameo, and maybe it’s because I know that it was done for strictly monetary reasons. Michael Eisner wanted a bankable pop star to sing a song in the film. Initially, his idea was Michael Jackson. (This suggestion was met with stony silence.) Then they thought about Madonna. Finally, they decided on Manchester. Her character sings a silly song in a seedy bar and then disappears from the movie. It’s kinda fun, I guess, but it’s a weird “sexy” moment in a Disney movie. And I guess Melissa Manchester was bankable in 1986? I really don’t remember her having much bank beyond about 1979. But, whatever.
The rest of the music, though, is pretty good. It’s Henry Mancini doing his first animated feature music so, yeah. It’s definitely pretty good.
My favorite story about the film is the story of the title. It was originally called, like the books, Basil Of Baker Street. But then Young Sherlock Holmes bombed at the box office, so they decided that maybe “Basil” was too English. They changed the title to The Great Mouse Detective, much to the chagrin of most of the crew. The change was so hated that animator Ed Gombert wrote a satirical studio memo “officially” renaming past Disney hits: Seven Little Men Help a Girl, The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly, The Little Deer Who Grew Up, The Girl with the See-through Shoes, Two Dogs Fall in Love, Puppies Taken Away, and A Boy, a Bear and a Big Black Cat.
I love angry satire.
The title was actually changed a few times over the years. For almost every release after its initial release, the title was The Adventures Of The Great Mouse Detective. In a few countries, it was changed to Basil The Great Mouse Detective. Finally, for the DVD release in 2010, it was changed back to just The Great Mouse Detective. It’s been under that title ever since.
Whatever title, the movie was good enough to make the Disney CEOs realize that their animation studio was still viable. But they were still a few years away from really getting over The Black Cauldron.