You never miss Sherlock Holmes on screen for long these days. In just the last decade we had BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’ Elementary, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock: Holmes a Game of Shadows, and Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, in which Ian McKellen played an aged version of the sleuth.
With such a familiar character, it’s no surprise that revisionist takes are in vogue at the moment, and certainly, there are precedents in film and TV. In the early 1970s, author Eve Titus and illustrator Paul Galdone remounted the whole concept for children’s literature with the Basil Of Baker Street novels, in which mice stood in for Holmes and Watson, making deductions from the gutters and mouseholes of Victorian London.
Disney’s 1986 adaptation of those books, The Great Mouse Detective, is one of the underappreciated gems in the studio’s back catalogue. The story finds Dr. Dawson arriving back in London after “lengthy service in Afghanistan” (if you ask us, we were robbed of a mouse war flashback) and bumping into Olivia Flaversham, a vulnerable young girl whose father has been kidnapped and made to serve the nefarious purposes of Professor Ratigan.
Only the famous Basil of Baker Street can save Mr. Flaversham and fettle Ratigan’s plan for a coup d’etat over all of mousedom. Rather than drawing specifically from the story of any of Titus’ novels, the film is an original tale that adopts certain elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original inspiration and its screen adaptations, and even a little bit of James Bond-esque adventure and intrigue, all using the mice characters from the source material.
The film had a few hiccups behind the scenes on its way to the big screen, but it also included a few firsts for animated movies, helping turn around the fortunes of the studio’s struggling feature animation division in the process.
The softball ‘making of’ feature on the DVD begins by drawing a line from The Great Mouse Detective to Steamboat Willy, pointing out that Basil follows in the footsteps of Mickey Mouse as a Disney rodent. The idea of doing Sherlock Holmes with animals and specifically adapting Basil of Baker Street was floated before the more troubled mid-1980s period, but the project was shelved due to similarities with Disney’s other mice detectives, The Rescuers.
The idea was dusted off when some of the animators working on The Black Cauldron (an altogether more troubled production) were re-assigned to another unit to create a different feature. The two films were in production simultaneously with a changing of the guard in the studio’s upper management upon the arrival of chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Michael Eisner.
Three years into development, the production team had to re-pitch the whole project to their new bosses. The film got the go-ahead from Eisner, but its budget was slashed by half. The studio also brought the release date forward from December 1987 to July 1986, leaving the animators less than a year and a half to complete the film.
Worse, when The Black Cauldron came out in 1985, it proved to be an expensive flop for the studio and precipitated a move from the original purpose-built Disney animation building in Burbank to a converted warehouse outside of the studio lot. As a result of all of this, the project was on the bubble throughout the animation process–the pressure was on to make the film cheaper and faster and the future of the department itself seemed to be in the balance.
Among the ten writers and four directors credited on the final film were two storyboard artists by the name of John Musker and Ron Clements. Along with co-directors Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener, they marshalled the film to completion, but not without further difficulties in terms of internal relations.
Led by focus group logic, Eisner decreed that the project’s working title of Basil of Baker Street was “too British” for American audiences and changed the title to The Great Mouse Detective, with Basil as a prefix in international territories. The animators wrote an internal memo mocking the new, generic title by dreaming up equally flavorless titles for previous classics, such as Seven Little Men Help a Girl (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) Colors and Music (Fantasia) and Puppies Taken Away (101 Dalmatians).
The anonymous memo landed the production in hot water when it was leaked to the Los Angeles Times ahead of the film’s release and the furious upper management withdrew a lot of marketing support in retort. Funnily enough, the studio has now taken up this strategy enthusiastically with titles like Tangled and Frozen masking the respective fairy tale inspired stories of their CG-animated hits.
With all of these troubles, it’s astounding that the only side effects that really show in the film are a few trifling continuity errors and an abbreviated run-time that’s cleverly disguised by breakneck pacing. Frankly, The Great Mouse Detective isn’t just surprisingly good for how it was made–it’s an absolute belter.
Holmes Away from Holmes
As mentioned, there’s a whole bunch of different influences here, but the film has a very nice line in reinterpreting Conan Doyle’s characters through Basil and company, while tipping its deerstalker to a previous screen adaptation in the process.
The character designs of Basil and Dawson are loosely based on the appearance of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, whose take on Holmes and Watson is still the definitive take on the characters are traditionally portrayed. Rathbone also posthumously ‘plays’ Holmes in the movie–although the character only ever appears in silhouette, his one line of dialogue is pulled from a Rathbone reading in 1966’s radio play of The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.
Basil and Dawson are voiced by Barry Ingham and Val Bettin, respectively, and each bring their own register to their characters rather than following type. The antisocial edge of Holmes is toned down in Ingham’s Basil and extends only about as far as a flippant disregard for Olivia, forgetting her surname every time he addresses her. Though Dawson skews closer to the stereotype of Watson as a portly, well-meaning sidekick, Bettin gives it more warmth than is typically associated with his counterpart.
But where the film really excels is in the dynamic between Basil and Ratigan. The script borrows the “Napoleon of crime” line that Holmes uses to describe Professor Moriarty in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, but as rendered in animation, the mutual enmity between the two rodents is quite darkly funny.
You get the sense from their individual scenes that each of them unknowingly sends the other’s blood pressure sky-rocketing, but the murderous edge makes Ratigan more dangerous. Well, that and the fact that he’s voiced by the inimitable Vincent Price.
Disney villains are often best remembered by their villainous musical numbers and Ratigan has a doozy in the form of The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind. The fact that it comes so early in the film might be a consequence of the changes during production, but it’s a vivid highlight of the film and a terrific bit of musical storytelling, taking in the villain’s ego, insecurities and hidden flaws all in one ludicrously catchy number.
Price was no stranger to villainous roles, but he seems to have a ball with this one, a character who’s almost played up more like Blofeld than Moriarty at times. In Felicia the Cat, he has the Bond villain’s pampered pet and carnivorous animal as a disciplinary measure. At the ring of a bell, he has anyone who has mildly affronted him devoured, with all of the venomous gusto of a megalomaniac.
Basil gets some Bond-like moments in kind, most notably when Ratigan makes the classic mistake of leaving the two sleuths in an elaborate death machine after trapping them, without making sure they’re dead. In his favor, he only fails because he’s recorded yet another musical number, for the express purpose of playing to Basil as he dies–in the villain stakes, that makes him quite the magnificent bastard.
Ratigan also has the disfigured henchman in the form of Fidget, who never appears normally when a mad disguise will do, and a plan for world domination that involves becoming the consort of a steampunk robot replica of the mouse Queen at her diamond jubilee. As villainous plans go, that’s even battier than Fidget.
The mouse Queen’s jubilee takes place right downstairs from Queen Victoria’s, because Basil’s environment is a world inside a world. The establishing shots place Dawson on the stoop of Dr. Watson’s cab and Basil in the abode below 221b Baker St, with Holmes silhouetted in the widow as he plays the violin. As in The Rescuers, the diminutive lead characters all run around in a human-sized world.
This is where the film is at its most imaginative, coming up with sequences in which Basil borrows his upstairs counterpart’s basset hound Toby as both sniffer dog and steed, a chase in a toy shop in which relatively massive dolls and clockwork gizmos prove to be insurmountable obstacles and of course, the final confrontation.
INT. Big Ben
Aside from being the first directorial effort for Musker and Clements, who went on to secure their status as Disney legends, the film boasts a couple of other firsts. For instance, it was the first animated film scored by the Oscar-nominated Henry Mancini, whose zippy and hummable soundtrack could work just as well in a legit Holmes movie. Yes, even The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind.
But most impressively, this was the first traditionally animated film to use CGI alongside hand-drawn cel animation, in the film’s striking finale inside Big Ben. After an aerial chase, Ratigan crashes his miniature zeppelin into the iconic clock face and plunges himself, Basil and Olivia into a gigantic labyrinth of grinding gears.
Layout artist Mike Peraza pitched the sequence, inspired by the climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, and it was clear that computer animation would have to be used. Even then, the process of creating the interior of Big Ben was a huge technical challenge, first because it required rare access to the tower itself for the purpose of obtaining reference photography, which led to Peraza and his wife lugging heavy camera equipment up hundreds of steps once they were finally granted a tour.
The absence of a computer mouse proved a problem when the animators had to type data in order to plot the drawings of the environment on a single computer, taking hundreds of hours of rendering time, but they eventually added a couple of animated ones in after, in the form of the scurrying Basil, Ratigan and Olivia. All told, the sequence lasts two minutes in the finished film, but even to look at it now, it was worth the effort.
Sorry to the bristling Disney buffs who are ready to point out that The Black Cauldron was actually the first animated film that featured CGI. It was the first released, certainly, but as mentioned, the production of the two films overlapped. As it turns out, Cauldron producer Joe Hale saw the work-in-progress and asked animators to create computer generated elements including the titular cauldron for the other project. After the earlier film failed to connect with audiences, the CGI in the pioneering Big Ben sequence became a bigger part of the eventual publicity drive for this one.
Despite a tumultuous production, The Great Mouse Detective was a deserving box office hit, making around $25 million back in its original run, from a lower budget than was originally intended. After stumbling with The Black Cauldron, a film that has since enjoyed reevaluation and found its audience, this was a hit for Disney feature animation.
The sting in the tale came a few months after the film’s July release, when Disney defector Don Bluth released another mouse movie, An American Tail. Fievel comprehensively out-grossed Basil at the box office and the film became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.
Nevertheless, the animation department was saved and Musker and Clements would carry it into the period we now call the Disney renaissance. When the film came out, Clements had already convinced Eisner and Katzenberg to take a chance and greenlight The Little Mermaid, and the rest is history.
Quite aside from being a funny and imaginative entry in the House of Mouse’s history of animated features, that makes The Great Mouse Detective the most important Disney film of an uncertain era.