Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986) Review

Image: Disney, Wikipedia

A dialogue-driven mice mystery adventure!

PLOT –

When her father is kidnapped, young Olivia enlists the help of the great mouse detective, Basil of Baker Street. With the assistance of the helpful Doctor Dawson, Basil tracks down the kidnapper, his arch-enemy, the evil Professor Ratigan.

The plot in this film is really good. Very streamlined and beat-to-beat, with a good sense of escalation and character growth. The plot is reminiscent of a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ novel, or, even more appropriate, a James Bond film. There are also several interludes to Basil’s science and the inner workings of a detective, that, while not explained, are really cool to watch. The only negative to the story is a long bar scene with a song near the end that doesn’t really advance the plot or characters at all, and could be replaced with more scenes of Ratigan and Basil. Other than that portion of the film, the rest of the film holds up very well. It even sets up a sequel that, in this reviewer’s opinion, should have been made.

My PLOT RATING is 4 / 5.

CHARACTERS –

Basil (Barrie Ingham) is our beloved protagonist. Intelligent, manic, sure-of-himself, quick-witted, talented, and has a secret heart of gold. His failings come in the form of long periods of silence and reflection that sometimes turn up when his mind is needed most. Not to point that as a negative, but as a positive for this well-rounded character. He is a logic-based character, his emotions are stunted, and this film is probably the first time where he works with a partner in crime-solving, so it takes him some time to warm up to the other characters. There’s a nice scene with Basil and Dawson that humanizes him, and also averting the second-act breakup between friends.

To note, I’m personally not a fan of Basil smoking in the film, but then again: It was the 80’s when the film was made, it’s set in the Victorian Era 1800s, and most everyone in this film smokes, so it’s understandable. He does have a great gag where he has a machine to smoke his pipe for him when he’s out, so I’ll give it to them. It’s also the classic Sherlock pipe, which is a nice touch, but it’s still weird to see smoking in a more-recent Disney film. To note, this film is one of the more ‘adult’ films in the canon. There is a lot of drinking, smoking, implied drugging, and multisyllabic words here, but I think that’s part of the reason why I like it: it challenges the preconceived notions and blurs the line of what a Disney Animated Film is: for children, or adults? So, while I personally don’t like the fact that these substances are consumed, I completely understand the reasons why and how it contributes to the film.

Doctor Dawson (Val Bettin) is a nice character, and the comic relief of the film. He has more faults than Basil, and makes a good foil to the detective. His fish-out-of-water tendencies are quite funny, and he brings a more human side to Basil’s detective work. He does get taken advantage of for his good nature, and pays for it in a few ways. He serves as the ‘Watson’ to Basil’s ‘Sherlock’, and they both play off of each other really well.

Mr. Flaversham (Alan Young) and his daughter Olivia (Susanne Pollatshek) are adorable characters. They’re sympathetic, and this gives the audience a reason to care. They’re just so cute together, and we want to see them reunited. Flaversham is voiced by the late Alan Young, and he plays a more restrained character here (similar to Wilbur in Mister Ed, and less so to Scrooge McDuck), a doting, loving father that wants the best for his little girl. Olivia is a cute little girl, and smart for her age. She’s played better than other child actors, and has actual character here, as opposed to her being a plot device. Her curiosity and inquisitiveness move the plot forward rather than hinder it.

Ratigan (Vincent Price) is excellent. He’s the perfect counter to Basil, and a wonderful villain. He’s an entertaining comedic antagonist with some more serious moments near the end. He’s camp and flamboyant, but it’s all a facade for his true ‘rat’ personality. He shows glimpses of this more unhinged character throughout, and his transformation at the end is terrifying. His character is a great balance of serious and humorous traits, and he’s not above doing the job himself and getting his hands dirty when his minions fail him.

Basil and Ratigan also have parallels with how they feel about each other. Basil has a nice portrait of Ratigan on his mantle, while Ratigan has a pincushion voodoo doll of Basil on his.

Fidget (Candy Candido) is really good. He’s a creepy character that is Ratigan’s right-hand bat. His character design is scary, yet he’s the film’s punching bag. He’s somewhat of a composite of Basil in that he uses disguises, and Dawson, in that he’s the comedic relief of the film. The raspy voice he has works both for comedy and terror, and his peg leg allows for a distinguishing characteristic that lends to the mystery-solving.

There are a lot of minor characters in the film as well. Ratigan’s henchmen are less goofy and more threatening than other Disney minions, and the larger animals, Felicia and Toby, have great moments, and are adorable. The patrons and clients in the bar are all appropriately threatening and weird, but special mention goes to the stage crew. The first two acts are fun, but everyone remembers the dancing mice. I personally feel like their characters waste time instead of contributing anything to the story. The Queen is a bubbly, fun monarch, only figuring out Ratigan’s plan just too late, sadly, and Mrs. Judson is fun in how she keeps the house organized while Basil creates scientific hijinx.

My CHARACTER RATING is 5 / 5.

DIALOGUE –

The dialogue in this film is perfect. Conversations play out like a game of tennis, quickly relaying and countering information back and forth between characters. Every character has something interesting to say, whether it be to move the plot or comedy forward. The voice acting here is brilliant and the voices fit the characters almost too well, with Vincent Price being a standout.

My DIALOGUE RATING is 5 / 5.

EFFECTS –

The effects in this film are very good. The artwork captures the grittier parts of Victorian London, and the mist, fog, and rain effects in this film are done very well. The character animation is vibrant and fluid, and the expressions that the characters make are nothing short of hysterical. The best effects in the film come at the end. The cinematography and animation gets bumped up: the camera angles during the flight scene is incredible, and the computer generated (!) clock gears are awesome. To this day, they still look great and hold up very well. The backgrounds of the film are also purposefully dark to let the colors of the characters stand out.

My EFFECTS RATING is 5 / 5.

MUSIC –

The music is done by Henry Mancini, who makes one of the first memorable themes, at least for me, in the Disney Animated Canon so far. The music is also very restrained during tense moments, letting the visuals and sound work together. A lot of vibrant orchestra in this film, with an adventure-oriented soundtrack. The lyrical songs are notable for being sung by the characters after their main appearance in the film.

“The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” – Such a great villain song, with a dark intermission that switches back to comedy. Vincent Price sings very well here, as do the rest of his henchmen. Just don’t call him a rat!

“Let Me Be Good to You” – Melissa Manchester sings this on stage near the end of the film. While this is part of the unnecessary bar scene, the song holds up pretty well and has some funny moments within.

“Goodbye So Soon” – Perfection. The best ‘I Win’ song, detailing the relationship between Basil and Ratigan. It also plays at the credits, but the version inside the film is more fitting to the character’s taunting rat-and-mouse nature.

My MUSIC RATING is 5 / 5.

OVERALL –

The Great Mouse Detective is a wonderful film. This film brought back Disney after the failure of The Black Cauldron. This is a much lighter-hearted film, while still having some dark moments. The character dynamics in this are perfect, and the dialogue reflects that, being full of life and wit. The effects and cinematography are really done well, having many particles and characters onscreen at once, as well as having a notable use of CGI that still holds up more than 40 years later. The music is also very well done, having an entertaining score, and a few great lyrical songs as well. The plot is very streamlined, though veers for a moment in a scene that could have been cut, yet it doesn’t really slow down the plot too much.

A wonderful mystery, amazing characters, new technology, and Disney’s comeback.

Image: Disney, Whatsitsgalore.com

My OVERALL RATING for The Great Mouse Detective is 96%.

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