#TBT — 'The Great Mouse Detective'
Courtesy of Disney
#TBT is my biweekly column where I revisit my favorite media as a kid and see how well they hold up today.
I experienced the bulk of my childhood in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, so I consider myself to be part of the greatest period of pop culture for children. Sure, many people wax nostalgic about their own history, claiming their youth had it better than anyone else’s, no matter how old they are now. I’m not so naïve to believe that my bold claim isn’t also simultaneously absurd: I mean, what would TV and film in my time have looked like without all that came before it: Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones, and the Looney Tunes gang, among others, directly influenced the shows I watched as a kid. However, I feel confident in my claim because my childhood coincided with two of the most distinctive and influential waves in the evolution of children’s content: the rise of Nickelodeon, and the Disney Renaissance.
It’s the latter of those two that serves as the focus here. For the uninitiated, the Disney Renaissance is the unofficial name for the ten-year period where the Walt Disney Animation Studios released a string of hits that raked in colossal amounts of money for the company. It began in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid and went on to include Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. Altogether, the films earned over 3 billion dollars at the box office, and they helped make Disney into the powerhouse it is today...literally—seven of those films have been either released as live-action* remakes or are in the planning stages for future releases, continuing to earn Disney even more billions of dollars.
(*2019’s The Lion King remake is not a live-action movie, and if I hear anyone call it that, I will gladly and loudly point out how wrong they are.)
This success didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere. Disney was already a legendary animation studio long before I was born, and the Renaissance films stood on the shoulders of classics like Cinderella, Pinocchio, and The Jungle Book, to name a few. However, after the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966, the studio began to see a steady decline in both animation quality and popularity. In 1979, animator Don Bluth and many others left Disney to form their own studio, Don Bluth Productions, and became responsible for popular animated hits An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go To Heaven. Disney was struggling to compete against those films and was close to possibly giving up on animation. After a restructuring and relocation in 1985, Disney produced The Great Mouse Detective, co-directed by Ronald Clements and John Musker, and released the film the following year. It became enough of a success to instill new confidence in the animation department. Clements and Musker went on to direct The Little Mermaid, and as they say, the rest is history.
So, it stands to reason that The Great Mouse Detective is a key component to the success of the Renaissance. Disney re-released it in theaters and then on VHS in 1992, and this is the time that I discovered the film. I don’t remember if I saw it in theaters, but I know for sure that once I got the home video, I watched it over and over and over. I had always been drawn to mysteries and puzzles, so the movie certainly scratched that itch: A young mouse named Olivia witnesses the abduction of her father, so she seeks to employ the help of the famous detective Basil of Baker Street, who lives under the floorboards of Sherlock Holmes and thus emulates him completely. Since I’m biased, it’s hard for me to gauge how appealing that type of narcissistic, off-putting character is to children in general, but when I was young, Basil’s eccentric personality drew me in like a magnet; I was enamored by his intelligence and his ability to solve puzzles. In one of the most memorable scenes, Basil saves Olivia and his partner Dawson from an elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque death trap…using MATH! I mean, there’s simply no way to make a geek look cooler than that.
The movie also had all of the staples of the great Disney films that were to come: an adorable pet animal (Sherlock’s pet basset hound, Toby); a hapless minion for kids to laugh at (Fidget the bat); and a strong sense of peril and adventure. (I always loved the chase scene in the toy store.) However, I think the biggest hallmark of the Renaissance films is a larger-than-life villain who at times outshines the protagonist. Aladdin had Jafar, the Beast had Gaston, Ariel had Ursula, and in this case, Basil’s nemesis came in the form of Professor Ratigan. Voiced by legendary actor Vincent Price, best known for his roles in horror films, Ratigan’s tone has the perfect blend of cunning playfulness and sheer terror. Similarly, his appearance belies his true nature: He’s a giant, ugly rat in stark contrast to all of the cute mice, with yellow eyes and jagged teeth, but attempts to appear sophisticated with combed hair and a three-piece suit. That is what made Basil and Ratigan’s final confrontation inside Big Ben so genuinely creepy. As Basil outwitted Ratigan one too many times, the real monster was unleashed.
Does it stand the test of time?
I mentioned All Dogs Go To Heaven, which was another film I loved as a kid, but watching that one as an adult, I actually found it a bit meandering and boring. Fortunately, the same isn't the case with The Great Mouse Detective; the film is as delightful and fun as ever. I’ve actually come to appreciate a bit more about it, like the wonderful music composed by Henry Mancini. Basil’s theme was instantly recognizable, and I found myself humming along as if I had never forgotten it. The only slightly cringe-worthy part is an entire scene set in a pub. There’s excessive smoking, which the Disney+ service does display a caution about, but there’s also heavy drinking, a burlesque-style musical number, and beers getting drugged—which Basil actually says out loud! It might be hard to explain that one to the kids today. But other than that, it’s an entry worthy of the collection, and I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave to all of the beautiful Disney movies that came after it.
'The Great Mouse Detective' is available to stream on Disney+.