Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
Title: The Great Mouse Detective 1
Source materials : Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, which was in turn inspired by the character of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Budget: $14 million 2
Box office: $38.7 million in North America. $50 million world wide
In London in June 1897, a young mouse named Olivia Flaversham is celebrating her birthday with her toymaker father, Hiram. Suddenly, a bat with a crippled wing and a peg leg bursts into the Flaversham’s workshop, kidnapping Hiram. Olivia searches to find the famed Great Mouse Detective named Basil of Baker Street, but gets lost. A surgeon named Dr. David Q. Dawson, who has just returned from a lengthy service of the Mouse Queen’s 66th Regiment in Afghanistan, meets Olivia, and escorts her to Basil’s house.
Upon their arrival at his residence, Basil is initially indifferent, but when Olivia mentions the peg-legged bat that kidnapped her father, Basil realizes that Olivia saw Fidget, a henchman of Professor Ratigan, a villain Basil has attempted to arrest for years. It is then revealed that Ratigan kidnapped Hiram to create a clockwork robot, which mimics the Queen of the Mice so Ratigan can rule England. Hiram initially refuses to participate in the scheme, but gives in when Ratigan threatens to harm Olivia. Ratigan then announces his plans to kill the Queen and become “supreme ruler of all mousedom” to his henchmen.
Meanwhile, as Basil is deducing the case, Fidget appears through the window, scaring Olivia. They give chase as Basil finds Fidget’s footprints, declaring that they purse him in order to find Hiram. Basil, along with Dawson and Olivia, takes Toby, Sherlock Holmes’s pet Basset Hound, to track down Fidget’s scent, where they locate him in a toyshop stealing clockwork mechanisms and toy soldiers’ uniforms. Fidget ambushes Olivia from inside a toy cradle and kidnaps her. Basil and Dawson pursue Fidget, but become entangled and fall behind. While searching the shop, Dawson discovers Fidget’s checklist, to which Basil does some chemical tests to discover the list came from a riverfront near the Thames.
Basil and Dawson disguise themselves as sailors, and head to a tavern called the “Rat Trap” and follow Fidget to Ratigan’s headquarters. They are caught in an ambush by Ratigan and his allies, and Ratigan has his hooligans tie them to a spring-loaded mousetrap connected with a Rube Goldberg machine laid out to kill them both. Ratigan sets out for Buckingham Palace, where Fidget and Ratigan’s accomplices kidnap the queen. Basil deduces the trap’s weakness and escapes along with Dawson and Olivia just in time, shortly after Dawson helps Basil out of a state of self-pity into which he allowed himself, thanks to Ratigan’s ambush.
At Buckingham Palace, Ratigan forces Hiram to operate the toy Queen, while the real one is taken to be fed to Felicia, Ratigan’s pet cat. The toy Queen declares Ratigan the ruler of all Mousedom, and he announces his tyrannical plans for his new “subjects”. After Basil, Dawson and Olivia save Hiram and the real Queen, they restrain Fidget and Ratigan’s other henchmen. Basil seizes control of the mechanical queen, making it denounce Ratigan as a fraud and tyrant while breaking it into pieces. The crowd, enraged by Ratigan’s treason, start climbing on him and defeating his guards. Ratigan frees himself and escapes on his dirigible with Fidget, holding Olivia hostage. Basil, Dawson and Hiram create their own craft with a matchbox, and some small helium-filled balloons, held together by the Union Jack. Ratigan tosses Fidget overboard to lighten the load, and he attempts to drive the dirigible himself. Basil jumps onto the dirigible to confront Ratigan, causing it to crash straight into the Big Ben clocktower.
Inside the clocktower, Basil manages to get Ratigan’s cape stuck on some gears. He rescues Olivia and safely delivers her to Hiram. Ratigan breaks free and attacks Basil, eventually knocking him to the dirigible. When the clock strikes 10:00, the bell hits for the loudest sound and Ratigan falls to his death, taking Basil with him. However, Basil grabs the part of Ratigan’s dirigible saves himself and reunites with the others. Back at Baker Street, Basil and Dawson recount their adventures, as well as the queen’s gratitude for saving her life. After the Flavershams leave the house, a distraught new client arrives and solicits Basil and Dawson’s help, with Basil noting that Dawson is his trusted associate, prompting Dawson to remain and assist Basil.
Background: The idea of doing an animated film about Sherlock Holmes with animals was first discussed about during the production of The Rescuers. Joe Hale is credited with suggesting to adapt the children’s book series Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, but the project fell into development limbo because of the similarities to The Rescuers. In 1982, Ron Clements 3 proposed adapting the children’s book series into an animated feature and, along with story artist Pete Young, it was pitched to Disney President and CEO Ron Miller who approved the project Burny Mattinson and John Musker were assigned as the original directors while Dave Michener was also added as co-director.
When Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over, they slashed the budget and moved the release date up to July 1986 giving the production team one year to complete the film Following the box office under-performance of the film Young Sherlock Holmes, Eisner decided to rename Basil of Baker Street into The Great Mouse Detective feeling the name “Basil” was “too English”. 4
Barrie Ingham won the role within six minutes of his audition so much that a compelling portion of it was used in the finished film. Val Bettin was co-director Ron Clements’s first choice for Dawson. For Olivia, Susanne Pollatschek was selected over hundreds of other applicants while Alan Young, who had voiced Scrooge McDuck for Mickey’s Christmas Carol, was selected to voice her father Hiriam because of his authentic Scottish brogue. Vincent Price was willing to an audition commenting “If anybody but Disney had asked me, I would have been offended.” Following a voice test, veteran voice artist Candy Candido recorded his dialogue for Fidget in one hour.
Changes from the Source Material: There are a few differences between Basil in the book series and in the film version, such as mood swings in the latter. He also plays the violin quite well in the film, whereas the book series stated Basil’s violin playing was atrocious — instead, Basil played the flute. In the book series, Ratigan’s given name is Padraic and he is a mouse; in the film he denies that he is a rat.
Incidentally, there are many references to the original Holmes stories:
- The first meeting between Basil and Dawnson reflects the first meeting between Holmes and Watson in “A Study in Scarlet”.
- In both cases Holmes/Basil calls his future partner a “Doctor” and explain how he deduced he was a Doctor and that he just came back from Afganistan.
- Toby is Holmes’s dog from the story “The Sign Of the Four.”
- The final fight between Basil and Ratigan reflects the final fight between Holmes and Professor Moriarty in the story “The Final Problem”.
- When Dawson says (commenting on Basil’s deduction skills) “It’s amazing”, Basil replies, “Actually it’s… elementary, my dear Dawson”, a reference to Holmes’s so-called catchphrase. Basil repeats this phrase when going through the maps to find the location of Ratigan’s hide-out.
- Another Holmes catchphrase “The game’s afoot!” is used by Basil as well.
- Ratigan’s voodoo doll looks just like Basil in Paul Galdone’s illustrations in the original “Basil of Baker Street.”
- A silhouette of Sherlock Holmes is shown in the window of 221 Baker Street, not 221b. The ‘B’ is above Basil’s mousehole.
- When they venture into Holmes’ rooms, there’s a picture of an elegant lady over the mantlepiece who Holmes fans will recognize as Irene Adler.
Animation: Basil was first modeled on Bing Crosby, but the animators eventually took inspiration from Leslie Howard. Initially, Ratigan had been designed as thin, weasely, and ratlike. Glen Keane 5 noted that following the casting of Price, “[h]is expressive voice and attitude inspired us to further redesign the character.” Additionally, during one story meeting, Glen Keane decided to base the stature of Ratigan on then-Disney CEO Ron Miller, who was a 6’6″ former football player for the Los Angeles Rams.
The original finale was to take place on the hands of Big Ben with Ratigan eventually falling to his demise. However, layout artist Mike Peraza approached Musker with the idea of restaging the final confrontation so the characters would break through the face of the Big Ben with the grinding clockwork gears providing added menace, in which Musker agreed.Pereza and his team was sent to London for video reference and were granted unprecedented access to the clockworks inside Big Ben. Because the bells would chime at every quarter-hour, the team completed their research in one hour. Back at the Feature Animation building, animators Phil Nibbelink and Dave Gielow spent months designing the interior of Big Ben, with each gear produced as wire-frame graphics on a computer that was printed out and traced onto animation cels onto which the colors and characters were added.
Music and Songs: This marked the debut of Henry Mancini for score composition of an animated feature aside from the animated opening for The Pink Panther. Initially, Mancini composed a song titled “Are You the One Who Loves Me?” to serve as parody of a Victorian British music hall. Already in rough animation, the song was recorded by Shani Wallis. 6 Mancini also co-wrote two of the film’s three original songs, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” and “Goodbye So Soon” (both performed by Vincent Price).
Barrie Ingham as Basil. He also plays Bartholomew. An accomplished stage actor, he appeared at the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mermaid Theatre Company, and the Royal National Theatre. He appeared in many Broadway musicals, including Copperfield on Broadway, and in the London production of Gypsy: A Musical Fable. He appeared as King Pellinore in the 1981-82 revival of Camelot to critical acclaim. He appeared in Aspects of Love, and his last Broadway outing was in the Broadway musical Jekyll & Hyde. Vincent Price as Professor Ratigan, Basil’s enemy. Although he first came to fame in the film Laura, he’s best known for starring in numerous horror films. 7 Price was an art collector and consultant, with a degree in art history, lecturing and writing books on the subject. Additionally, he was the founder of the eponymous Vincent Price Art Museum in California. He was also a noted gourmet cook. Val Bettin as Major Dr. David Q. Dawson. He appeared as the director in Somewhere in Time. Susanne Pollatschek as Olivia Flaversham at the age of eight. Candy Candido as Fidget, and also voices a reprobate in the pub. You might remember him from Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Robin Hood.
Prolific voice actor Frank Welker as Toby and Felicia. He’s probably best known as the voice of Megatron in The Transformers television show. 8
Alan Young as Hiram Flaversham, using his natural accent also heard as Uncle Scrooge. Diana Chesney as Mrs. Judson, Basil’s housekeeper. Eve Brenner as Queen Mousetoria,
Melissa Manchester (uncredited) as Miss Kitty Mouse. “Midnight Blue,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “Through The Eyes of Love” (from Ice Castles), “I’ll Never Say Goodbye” (from The Promise), 9and “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” 10 She wrote and performed “Let Me Be Good to You.” Basil Rathbone, posthumously, as Sherlock Holmes. Probably the most famous portrayal of Holmes, his voice is taken from The 1966 Caedmon Records recording of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”.
Critical Reception: On their syndicated television show, At the Movies, the film received a “two thumbs up” rating from critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. In his print review for The Chicago Tribune, Siskel enthusiastically praised as the most “truly memorable animated feature in 25 years” that “travels a wide emotional range, taking us from cuddly to scary, from recognition to wonder.” London’s Time Out magazine wrote, “As usual with film noir […] it is the villain who steals the heart and one is rooting for in the breathtaking showdown high up in the cogs and ratchets of Big Ben.”
The New York Times film reviewer Nina Darnton applauded that “[t]he heroes are appealing, the villains have that special Disney flair – humorous blackguards who really enjoy being evil – and the script is witty and not overly sentimental.” Johanna Steinmetz, also from The Chicago Tribune, graded the film three-and-a-half stars (out of four) writing “This movie is cute, cute, cute, but it’s a higher grade of cute than The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. The key to good Disney animation is character and facial expression, and Detective abounds in both.”
Legacy: Characters from this film are not represented in the park, but the success of the film gave a new confidence in the animation department after the disappointment of The Black Cauldron. This confidence would lead to what is now called The Disney Renaissance
My take: You don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes fan to enjoy this film, but if you are, it’s a treat. Everything that we like about Sherlock is here (besides the drug use): the disguises, firing guns in the house, mood swings, and the anti-social behavior, but kid friendly. I really feel they got the character right (in mouse form).
When you see early CGI, it stands out, and you can tell when it’s done, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I think it works great for that sequence, and I don’t think we would have gotten such a scene without it. I was watching the bonus features and I think it’s interesting that the computer is used to create a printed sheet for each cell rather than creating a digital image.
I love listening to Vincent Price’s voice in anything, and you can tell he’s having a hell of a time hamming it up. I kind of wish they made a few sequels to this.
Next Week: Oliver and Company