"Actually, it's elementary, my dear Dawson."—Basil of Baker Street, the great mouse detective
Old-school Disney. Well…not Snow White old-school, but you know what I mean.
Facts of the Case
London, 1897. Mouse detective Basil of Baker Street (Basil resides below 221 Baker Street, the home of a certain high-profile Victorian-era human detective) is called on the case when toymaker Flaversham is kidnapped by Basil's mortal enemy, Professor Ratigan (a rat—voiced by the late, great Vincent Price—desperately trying to convince the world and himself that he's a mouse). Basil teams with his new partner, Dr. David Q. Dawson, and Flaversham's young daughter, Olivia, to determine the toymaker's whereabouts and uncover Ratigan's dastardly scheme, which threatens the Mouse Queen herself. Basil's adventure takes us on a tour of Victorian England and culminates in a final showdown between the detective and his arch-nemesis in the massive clocktower of Big Ben.
Based on the Basil of Baker Street book series by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone, 1986's The Great Mouse Detective is a lesser-known gem from Disney's vault of animated features. Co-directed by Burny Mattison and David Michener, who had collaborated on the previous Disney charmers The Rescuers (1977) and The Fox and the Hound (1981), and Ron Clements and John Musker, who would go on to direct The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and Hercules (1997), The Great Mouse Detective can be viewed as the end of a period of Disney animated features characterized by engaging storytelling and solid animation coupled with less-than-overwhelming box office magic. In three years would come The Little Mermaid, whose structure and box office returns would begin to solidify the adventure/romance/Broadway musical formula Disney would follow to massive financial and critical success, as well as a plethora of Oscar nominations, in the next decade.
From the perspective of 2002, The Great Mouse Detective is surprisingly refreshing precisely because it doesn't follow the big-spectacle Disney formula that, by now, has become rather threadbare. The film has only three musical numbers, none the lavish, Busby Berkeley-type extravaganzas we've come to expect. Two of the numbers, surprisingly, are sung by Vincent Price, the third by Melissa Manchester in a voice cameo. You'll also find none of the aggravating self-referential postmodern performances of massive stars portraying both a character in the film and themselves simultaneously (think Robin Williams in Aladdin or Whoopi Goldberg in The Lion King). Granted, Vincent Price isn't a no-name, but he plays a villain just as he would in any other film; one never gets the impression he's being self-indulgent, working to ensure the audience at all times envisions his face behind the animated rat we see onscreen.
Mostly, the movie is lean with a good sense of narrative pacing, moving briskly from one clever set piece to the next, each providing plenty of fun while also advancing the plot. I didn't find myself pressing the Time button on the remote to find out how much longer I had to wait until the end (my primary subjective criterion for determining the quality of a film's pacing). Only children will be caught up by the story's mystery, but even adults can enjoy the suspense of the perils faced by Basil and crew.
The film boasts nicely executed hand-drawn animation, as well as some computer-assisted animation in one key scene (more on that later). It's been digitally restored for the DVD presentation and looks beautiful. Presented in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the anamorphic transfer provides deep blacks and a broad spectrum of colors, bright when they're supposed to be and appropriately muted and misty during scenes on the foggy London streets. The only flaw in terms of color is that, because of DVD's resolution, you can occasionally see that the character animation cells are hand-painted; slight shifts in color saturation are noticeable, for instance, in light gray clothing. The elements used for the transfer were extremely clean, showing no signs of dirt or damage. There's a slight bit of grain inherent in the film stock and 1986 animation techniques; none of it is distracting.
On the audio front, the DVD impresses with three Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks: English, French, and Spanish. I'll confine my comments to the English track since it's the only one I listened to from beginning to end, but having sampled the other two, they seemed similar in dynamics and quality. With the exception of a few instances of minor distortion from the source, the track provides consistently clear dialogue. LFE is almost entirely absent. Henry Mancini's score benefits most from surrounds, which are otherwise fairly inactive. Still, it's an impressive track for a film from 1986.
Supplements include an eight-minute featurette called The Making of The Great Mouse Detective. It's fluff for the most part, but it's fun seeing Vincent Price performing his character. The most interesting part of the piece is a very brief discussion about how the showdown in the guts of Big Ben was partially rendered by computers—but not at all like computer animation is done today. Plotters were used to draw the moving cogs of the clock, while human animators rendered the characters. All the paper drawings were then transferred to animation cells in the traditional way.
Also included are two animated shorts: "Clock Cleaners" from 1937 starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy; and "Donald's Crime" from 1945 starring Donald Duck. The picture quality on each is quite a bit rougher than the feature, displaying plenty of blemishes and faded colors, but they're truly in amazing shape considering their respective ages.
"The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" Sing-Along is one of the musical numbers pulled directly from the movie, with lyric subtitles and bouncing Mickey Mouse head added. It's not the greatest musical number ever to appear in a Disney film, but kids'll enjoy it and it at least has the kitschy appeal of Vincent Price singing.
There are, of course, a vast number of Sneak Peeks included on the disc. Unlike other Disney DVDs, though, this one boots straight to the main menu. All the previews are menu accessible, so you don't have to sit through them or chapter skip them in order to get to the feature. There are trailers for: The Rookie, Mickey's House of Villains, Monsters, Inc., Beauty and the Beast: Special Edition, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure, Inspector Gadget 2, Rolie Polie Olie: The Great Defender of Fun, Schoolhouse Rock, and Teamo Supremo.
The Great Mouse Detective is nowhere near the top of Disney's achievements, but it's still a strong entry in their massive catalog, and its rhythms and sensibilities differ so much from the grander animated features of the past decade that it has a quaint sort of charm.
Disney has put together a fine DVD package for The Great Mouse Detective, and I've got to give them major props for presenting the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio (especially since they didn't include an optional full screen version).
It's a simple thing to deduce that The Great Mouse Detective, having saved the Mouse Queen and wrested London from the clutches of evil, is guilty of no crime. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of The Great Mouse Detective
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