(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
With recent global events, plenty of people are resorting to nostalgia and comfort when it comes to their movie watching. Whether it’s that comedy you love or a family-friendly movie you loved as a kid, few things can help calm you down when the world seems chaotic quite like a good movie. That’s why for this week’s Out of the Disney Vault column, I decided to re-watch one of my favorite Disney animated movies, which is usually ignored when discussing the Disney Renaissance: The Great Mouse Detective.
What do you get when you combine Disney animation magic, a Sherlock Holmes-like mystery, film noir aesthetic, and one of the most deliciously diabolical and elegant Disney villains, voiced by none other than Vincent Price? One hell of a good time to get you through these social-distancing times.
As we’ve mentioned in this column before, the ‘80s was a dark period for Disney, infamous for the string of financial flops for the company. When it became obvious that Disney executives, particularly Jeffrey Katzenberg, weren’t happy with how The Black Cauldron was turning out, an adaptation of Eve Titus’ book series “Basil of Baker Street” was approved as an alternative. But when Cauldron became a huge financial flop, Disney CEO Michael Eisner slashed the production budget in half, from $24 million to around $10 million, and moved the release date up, giving the production year a single year to complete the film.
Because of the short time for production, The Great Mouse Detective features five different directors, including the directorial debuts of two future prominent Disney animation figures: Ron Clements and John Musker. The film follows the titular great detective, Basil of Baker Street (voiced by Barrie Ingham). He’s pretty much a stand-in for Sherlock Holmes, and lives in the famed detective’s flat (Holmes himself makes a quick appearance), and works with Dr. David Dawson (Val Bettin), who just like a certain Watson, is returning from service in the Middle East.
Together they’re hired to solve the case of a toymaker that was kidnapped by the henchman of criminal mastermind, Professor Ratigan (Price).
In many ways, The Great Mouse Detective feels like a better version of what The Black Cauldron tried to do – it takes a genre usually aimed at a slightly older audience, and make it accessible for everyone. But unlike the latter, The Great Mouse Detective very much feels like a dark detective noir, but it’s a film kids can still see and enjoy. The visual palette feels straight out of a classic detective film of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with gloomy greens and grays that bring the melancholic and grim Victorian Era London to life in a way that feels more like a Don Bluth movie than what Disney would become known for just a couple of years later.
Indeed, The Great Mouse Detective has a constantly creepy atmosphere. As Basil and Dawson investigate the toymaker’s kidnapping, they visit a dark pub full of drunken scum and villains and witness a revealing burlesque show that makes Jessica Rabbit’s big number seem almost tame by comparison. They also find themselves walking through an incredibly creepy toyshop full of mechanisms and dolls that give Annabelle a run for her money. On top of this, the film’s score builds an eerie feeling of dread. In fact, the score was the debut of Henry Mancini in scoring animated movies after having written music for many horror and noir films, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula, and Touch of Evil. As dark as The Black Cauldron was, it pales in comparison to the horror that is the scene where a small and innocent Olivia approaches a seemingly harmless mechanical rocking chair, and instead of a baby she finds the hideous villain bat, Fidget, who kidnaps her and a Psycho-inspired, string-heavy score emanates from the soundtrack.
A very big part of why The Great Mouse Detective holds up and is fondly remembered by those who have seen it throughout the years is its villain, Professor Ratigan, voiced by horror legend, Vincent Price. He’s the film’s version of Moriarty, a sewer rat who fancies himself a high-class mouse, and hates to be called a rat so much he feeds aggressors to his giant pet cat/executioner. His plan is to build and control a mechanical version of the mouse Queen of England so he can dominate the mice of the UK. Price is an absolute delight in the role, bringing a rare insecurity to a Disney villain who nevertheless is as physically intimidating as he is absolutely terrifying. He is also the rare Disney villain who gets not one, but two villain-centric songs. Written by Mancini, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” is a complete bop, a maniacally elegant tune that paved the way for an era of great villain songs during the ‘90s renaissance. Likewise, Ratigan also doubles as a Bond villain, turning to an utterly ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine to kill Basil and Dawson while a record sung by Ratigan himself accompanies their painful death.
Inadvertently or not, The Great Mouse Detective paved the way for the Disney Renaissance with many elements we now associate with Disney animated movies. Though it features a much smaller selection of songs compared to later Disney movies, it introduced the villain song that would become a staple of Disney movies just a couple of years later when “Poor Unfortunate Souls” became a hit in The Little Mermaid.
Likewise, just as Tarzan innovated with its use of the Deep Canvas technique, The Great Mouse Detective was the first Disney animated movie to extensively use computer animation (The Black Cauldron used it substantially less), including a spectacular final confrontation between Basil and Ratigan on top of and inside Big Ben that was inspired by the climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, combining CGI background alongside hand-drawn cel animation.
Though The Great Mouse Detective wasn’t as huge a hit as The Little Mermaid or even The Fox and the Hound, it proved to be a critical hit, and earned enough at the box office to convince the Disney executives not to rule out their animation department, leading to the second golden age of Disney animation just a short couple of years later. While not as successful, The Great Mouse Detective remains undefeated in how it handles creepy imagery and an eerie atmosphere while still remaining appealing to all audiences. Plus: that Vincent Price performance.
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