All the elements of a good movie “The Black Cauldron” was lacking, being nice music, likeable characters, decent voice acting, quality animation, charm, etc. All of that went into this.
“The Great Mouse Detective” is a significant step forward for the Disney animation studio, not just in the look of the animation, but by using an actual innovative technique that had not been done before, or at least not so successfully. This movie marks the first major advancement in the craft for the company since “Lady and the Tramp”, when they utilized cinemascope for the first time. It’s actually a bit sad when you think about it. They’ve been playing it safe and cheap for so long that even the slightest advancement comes across as notable.
The premise is based on the “Basil of Baker Street” books by author Eve Titus. They’re a kiddy version of the famous “Sherlock Holmes” adventures, reimagining the hero as a mouse. Cute, a bit silly, but perfect material for a family cartoon. Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatshek) is the daughter of a kidnapped toy maker who was captured by the evil Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), a giant rat pretending to be a mouse. He’s the nemesis of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a famous detective in the mouse community. With the help of the girl and Major Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), he sets out to capture the villain and thwart his evil schemes.
The setting is very much in the vein of “The Rescuers”, in that it follows anthropomorphic mice that operate in their own world beneath ours. It’s simplified here and relegated to only the actions of the main characters, but it feels spiritually similar. The movie is very cute and charming, playing a lot of the danger for laughs, but without feeling too condescending. The two leads, Basil and Dawson, are both very likeable as the Sherlock and Watson personas. They fit the characters admirably, capturing all their famous mannerisms and sayings. More over the top is Ratigan, who’s as big and campy as you might expect a cartoon voiced by the great Vincent Price to be. With the exception of one scene, he’s not nearly as threatening as he is silly.
This is a musical, or at least an attempt at one. It contains two full musical numbers, one by Vincent Price and the other by Melissa Manchester, but they don’t stand out as particularly memorable and in the case of the Manchester song, entirely out of place and pointless. Where it makes up for this is in the very catchy and strong score, which provides a lively and memorable theme for the film.
The animation is what truly sets this movie above most of the previous Disney films since the ‘70s. Gone is the sketchier style of coarse backgrounds and characters. The cels are far more fluid and graceful in their movements here, and the backgrounds are painted and detailed. The sequence in the toy shop is fully interactive and impressive for the time. Where “The Great Mouse Detective” becomes innovative is in its use and employment of CGI. This was one of the first feature length cel animated films to also contain computer animation, and they pack it into the surprisingly thrilling climax.
Set inside the Big Ben clock tower, Basil finds himself in a life and death struggle against Ratigan. The colossal grinding gears are fully CG, animated over to resemble the hand drawn style. It holds up really well, and the entire sequence is staged to emphasis this new technique. There’s no music, no more jokes, and only the impressive scope of their constantly changing and highly dangerous environment. Even Ratigan, the amusing and hammy villain, suddenly stops being so silly. He turns into a feral rat and races up the tower, dodging gears and cogs with murderous rage. It’s a jarring but welcome shift in tone and style, making it by far the most memorable and exciting part of the entire movie (and most other Disney movies from that era).
Though very lighthearted and simple, “The Great Mouse Detective” is a solid addition and a genuine move forward for the animation department. It’s the first of their animated films in decades to show any sign of advancement in the craft.