Watching or rewatching all the Disney full length animated features in order is fascinating, as it puts each work in historical perspective.

With Disney’s THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986), we near the end of the Disney’s Dry Spell of inferior offerings and see hints of the renaissance to come. As with all Disney films, childhood memories make objectivity nigh impossible, but, in my particular case, I had never seen this film before, no heard any review of it, so my first viewing is as a graybeard of many winters.

And yet I was delighted.

Based on the children’s book series BASIL OF BAKER STREET by Eve Titus, telling the adventures of the mouse detective who lives in the basement of Sherlock Holmes, and emulates his habits, dress, and profession. Eve Titus named him after Basil Rathbone, who famously portrayed the Great Detective in fourteen Hollywood films between 1939 and 1946 and in a radio series.

However, the Disney voice actor and animators for the Mouse Detective seems to be mimicking the voice and mannerism of Leslie Howard, as seen portraying the supercilious Professor Higgens in the 1938 film version of GB Shaw’s PYGMALION. Meanwhile, the stout mouse sidekick here does a seamless job capturing the spirit of Nigel Bruce, the archetypal film version of Dr. Watson.

The plot follows Dr. Dawson, a mouse medic returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan (and kudos to Disney and Eve Titus for remembering this bit of Holmesian lore) looking for lodging, and willing to share a room. He stumbles across a mouse child weeping in the rain: Olivia Flaversham, whose father, a toymaker, was kidnapped out of his shop by a one-legged bat earlier than evening. She is seeking 221B Baker Street. Dr. Dawson gallantly takes the child under his wing, and seeks an audience with the consulting detective, Basil.

Suddenly, a strangely comical chinaman, dressed as a Mandarin, enters Basil’s room without knocking. Dr. Dawson confronts the fellow, but all is not as it seems…

Basil is impatient and comically awkward the child, until he discovers that the kidnapping was perpetrated by Fidget, the bumbling bat-henchman of his archenemy, that Napoleon of Crime, Professor Ratigan (who, despite the name, and his ratlike appearance, insists he is not a rat). Galvanized by the chance to hunt his ancient foe, Basil dons his deerstalker cap, and the game is afoot.

One clue leads to the next. There is a chase scene through a toyshop, and a bar room brawl in a sailor’s dive which our sleuths visit in disguise. There are chases, escapes, Rube Goldberg deathtrap, and a plot that menaces Queen Mousetoria, our beloved mouse monarch, herself! All of England is at hazard!

The final set piece in the Tower of London, with Basil and Ratigan scampering among the teeth and cogs of turning clock-gears, according to the animator himself, was inspired by the parallel scene in Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (1979), which came out recently before. This scene is also the first use of computer graphics in a Disney feature, not counting a very minor use of the technology in Disney’s prior offering THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985).

The actual detective work is not the centerpiece here, any more than in the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Basil is able to deduce locations from microscopic traces of inkstains on letters, and so on, just as Sherlock can deduce a man’s route through the city by the consistency of mud on his boots.

Ratigan is shown rejoicing in his evil wickedness in a fashion uniquely charming, even among Disney villains. He is voiced by the immortal Vincent Price, and some sources quote the actor as saying it was his favorite role. There is small room for doubt: the way he chews the scenery, his sly sarcasm, his gloating, all are rich with the sheer fun of the role. It certainly sounds as if Price enjoyed being Ratigan.

Speaking of voice actors, let it not be forgotten that Basil Rathbone himself, or, at least, a recording of his voice, is present in the brief scene as the mice of 221 Baker Street scamper across the floor, and see their human counterparts briefly. This is a touching homage, as Basil Rathbone had by then passed away.

This is not a musical, albeit there are three songs included. One a barroom ballad by a dancing girl. The other two are villain songs sung by the villain, written by Henry Mancini of PINK PANTHER fame. Of which the final is a gloating ditty celebrating the coming demise of our helpless hero tied to the most elaborate deathtrap of all trapdom  set to be triggered by the record player finishing the song: “Goodbye so Soon.”

Aiding the villain is his pet cat, summoned by a tinkling bell, to whom he feeds any hench-mice found insufficient. Likewise, Basil employs a bloodhound, naturally enough, to track ne’er-do-wells through the foggy lanes of London town.

The background and draftsmanship evoke Victorian London with proper Disney perfectionism, albeit the animated tour-de-force of BLACK CAULDRON or the magnificent work of the spring rain sequence of BAMBI are not equaled, nor attempted.

There was an amusing squall at Disney over the name.. According to an article discovered in preparation for this column, Disney’s decision to rename the film THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE and not BASIL OF BAKER STREET provoked animator Ed Gombert to satire, and he circulated a fake interoffice memo, renaming the prior films to follow suit:


  • Seven Little Men Help a Girl
  • The Wooden Boy Who Became Real
  • The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly
  • The Little Deer Who Grew Up
  • The Girl With the See-Through Shoes
  • The Amazing Flying Children
  • Two Dogs Fall in Love
  • The Girl Who Seemed to Die
  • The Boy Who Would Be King
  • A Boy, a Bear, and a Big Black Cat

This film risked less than BLACK CAULDRON, but paid off its humbler goals well enough. GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE shows none of the recurring flaws that dogged the films of the Dry Spell. This work fewer characters, but none of them were useless, extraneous, or out of place. The pacing was well-timed, and the boring sequences of pointless slapstick the mired the Disney films of the Dry Spell are absent. The comedy and action and danger are well handled and present in proper proportion.

Likewise the cute elements are cute without being cloying or saccharine. Olivia is woebegone and perky enough to be charming, without overstaying her welcome.

However, the film is not likely to be listed among the top ten of Disney, perhaps not even among their twenty. No horrors will haunt the dreams of children, no fairytale princess awe and inspire, no song to live in the heart forever, no beauties to make one weep. Since both early Disney and Renaissance Disney achieved these heights with unearthly regularity, the contrast invites comparison.

GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, by the nature of its subject matter, comes across like an episode from a well-made television show, merely with more adroit draftsmanship than normally seen on television.

The plot twists are clever enough to engage young and old alike, the characters are likable, but not loveable. The tale is meant to be an homage to another man’s story; a salute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Nothing wrong with that: Disney goes off the rails when the try to invent rather than adapt a tale not already well known to the audience.

And, let as hasten to add, that as a Sherlock Holmes film it is better, more true to the original, more likeable, than many another pastiche in the subgenre. Basil is a perfect Holmes, if Holmes were a mouse, that is.

But in this case, while the Great Detective is perhaps the most often portrayed human character on the silver screen, he lacks the mythic stature of a Snow White, a Maleficent or a Mowgli.

The detective character solves a crime, but is not likely to grow or change. While it may be his first case, it will not be his last. Such is the limitation of the genre.

Let me sum up by saying THE GREAT MOUSE is as comfortable as an old slipper. It breaks no new ground in writing or animation (except, of course, for the computerization of the background in the clockwork chase scene through Big Ben) but it makes no missteps either.

This film heralds that the Disney Dry Spell is coming to an end. But not quite yet.

I can recommend this film. If, like me, you had not seen it previously, you are in for a treat. Vincent Price as Ratigan is by himself worth the price of admission.

And it would be wrong not to end this review without providing an example of Vincent Price’s singing skills:
Spoiler warning! This is one of the finest escape from a trap scenes in any film or cartoon. If you did not see this film, and this scene, in your childhood, this might detract from your first time viewing pleasure.

Well, let me try again: