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Progress City Home Theater: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Let’s just cut to the chase – I’m a big fan of The Great Mouse Detective.

I’m also a firm believer that this modest 1986 feature is one of the most underrated gems in the Disney animated canon; more than just a solid stepping stone on the way to the later renaissance of feature animation, it’s a very entertaining film in its own right with more than its share of big ideas, funny moments, and interesting animation. To say that the film is overlooked is an understatement; it’s received little attention from the company since its release more than twenty (!) years ago, and I’d venture to guess that a number of fans have never even seen or heard of it.

The Great Mouse Detective (I prefer, rather pedantically, to call it by its development title Basil of Baker Street) has returned to home video via the rather absurdly titled “Mystery in the Mist” edition. Apparently all earlier releases were either some degree less mysterious or misty. I couldn’t detect the difference, but I assume it must be there since it’s in the title.

Anyway, this new edition, which hit stores on April 13th, 2010, is a rather bare-bones affair, with a brief making-of feature that was pulled from an earlier DVD release as its only bonus feature of note. The only new material here is a bizarre little featurette only tangentially related to the film, as well as the requisite slew of new trailers and promo videos. But, for the uninitiated, let’s first take a look at the film itself.

The Film

Dr. Dawson and Olivia Flaversham meet Basil of Baker Street, the Great Mouse Detective

In 1985, the Disney animation studios reached what is considered their lowest ebb when The Black Cauldron flopped upon release. As the recent documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty points out, Disney was defeated at the box office that year by the bottom-drawer TV spinoff The Care Bears Movie. A year later, in July of 1986, The Great Mouse Detective arrived in theaters.

The film was a smaller, leaner production than The Black Cauldron; that earlier release had been in development for around a decade, while Mouse Detective was made on a much smaller budget and a much tighter schedule. It was also the first of the Disney features to be predominantly created by the new generation of talent at the studio; directing alongside veteran storyman & animator Burny Mattinson and animator David Michener were Ron Clements and John Musker, who would famously go on to direct The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and most recently The Princess and the Frog.

Based on a series of stories by author Eve Titus, The Great Mouse Detective takes place in the fog-shrouded gaslight era London of 1890. It depicts a world in which mice live in a society parallel to our own, with their own houses, pubs, and palaces carved out of the urban clutter. The titular Basil of Baker Street is a detective of great renown in the animal world; his signature magnifying glass, pipe, violin and deerstalker hat mirroring those of his more famous upstairs neighbor at 221B Baker Street, the human detective Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Dawson and Basil of Baker Street consult with a new client

From his office beneath Holmes’s townhouse, Basil has made a name for himself by solving innumerable crimes through his combination of forensic science and good old-fashioned detective work. Even the great Basil’s skills, though, are taxed when faced with the nefarious schemes of his mortal nemesis (and the world’s greatest criminal mind) – the vile Professor Ratigan.

We’re introduced to Basil and his world via young Olivia Flaversham, daughter of a great mouse inventor and toymaker, who has just seen her father mousenapped by a gang of thugs. Alone on the streets of London, Olivia meets Dr. David Q. Dawson, just returned from the war in Afghanistan (!); as the rodent stand-in for the famous Dr. Watson, Dawson acts as our narrator throughout the film. The two meet up with Basil, enlist his help in finding Flaversham’s father, and in the process uncover an elaborate scheme by the evil Ratigan that threatens the very fabric of the Empire itself.

The insidious Professor Ratigan

The film is great fun; it moves at a very quick pace but never seems rushed or frantic. The characters are all appealing, and there’s some really fantastic voice work across the board. Most notable is Vincent Price’s work as Ratigan, a larger than life character that Price later would say was one of his favorite roles. Ratigan is a great villain and actually quite menacing; more to the point, he’s interesting, which always helps.

Basil himself is great fun as a character, exuding a kind of manic energy that is both simultaneously in control of every situation but also just a hair’s breadth from running completely off of the rails. Basil is cool but awkward, confident and insightful but often oblivious. He’s a really fun character that Disney has completely abandoned – it occurred to me as I watched that while it seemed obscene to make two or three sequels to Cinderella, it would be perfectly natural and actually quite worthwhile to continue the serialized exploits of Basil. Barrie Ingham, who voices Basil, and Val Bettin as Dr. Dawson play well off of each other, and their brief appearance together in the making-of featurette was far too brief for my tastes.

The young Ms. Flaversham is equally well-executed, taking a character that could be irritating or saccharine and making her genuinely sweet. Her father, inventor Hiram Flaversham, receives a familiar Scottish brogue courtesy of Scrooge McDuck himself, Alan Young. Long-time character actor Candy Candido contributes his trademark gravelly croak to “a peg-legged bat with a broken wing,” and the great Basil Rathbone himself has a brief cameo as the voice of Sherlock Holmes.

Visually, the film has its highs and lows. The production design is by turns moody and cozy, and goes a great job of creating a very lived-in world for the characters. There are a lot of neat ideas and even “Easter eggs” – look for visual tributes to Dumbo, the Firehouse Five, and even the airship Hyperion! Overall the animation is quite good, but there are some glaring exceptions. Character animation on the leads is mostly great; Basil is dashing, and evokes Errol Flynn at times. Dawson is suitably pleasant, and young Flaversham is as cute as a young Scottish mouse should be. Their animation is fluid and full of detail, as are most incidental characters – there’s a lot of interesting character design here, and even bit roles and background characters seem very evocative of the period. Where things get rough, though, are the group scenes; the animation seems much more crude in the musical numbers especially. In one particular song the mouths of the “chorus” seem out of sync with the lyrics, and this makes me wonder if something musically was changed very late in the process. But while the crowd scenes seem dodgy due to a lack of time or money (or both!), there’s still a lot of great animation to be found. The exception among the main characters, unfortunately, is Professor Ratigan, who is hampered on occasion by lead animator Glen Keane’s trademark…. overexuberance.

No mention of the film’s animation would be complete without discussing the famous climax inside Big Ben’s tower at Westminster Palace, which marks the earliest prominent use of computer-assisted animation in a Disney feature. Computers were used to render the complex machinery inside the clockwork mechanism, allowing for complex and fluid camera movements within the whirling gears and cogs. The effect still works; perhaps due to its relative simplicity, or the appropriate meshing of technique and subject matter, the scene within Big Ben is still exciting, well staged, and impressive. It remains among the great action finales in Disney films and is a far more organic integration of computer-generated imagery than even many recent features.

Seriously, it’s really cool

In the end, perhaps one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is how different it feels from anything you’d get from Disney today. Everything aside from the title feels like it never saw a focus group, and there’s loads of stuff that feels downright bizarre in today’s pasteurized world – both Basil and Ratigan smoke, booze of various sorts flows freely throughout (“Rodent’s Delight”!), people are drugged and kidnapped and murdered, stilettos and daggers fly through the air, people wave guns around, and, oh yeah, there’s totally a showgirl mouse doing a striptease.

Yeah, you heard me.

I’ll just say that if you ever wanted to hear Melissa Manchester sing a song she penned for a showgirl mouse in a rundown sewer-side tavern, this is the film for you. There are a couple of other songs in the film by Henry Mancini, who also contributes the musical score.

Yeah, seriously, I was totally not kidding

All in all it’s a good time, and well worth checking out if you’ve missed it over the years.

The DVD

As mentioned, this new release is titled, rather ridiculously, the “Mystery in the Mist Edition”. Aside from a new transfer there’s nothing new of worth here; if you have the previous pressing of the disc you’re not missing anything. Well, unless you care that the new transfer includes the film’s original title cards whereas the previous DVD’s titles are from the film’s 1992 re-release when it was billed as The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective.

Video & Audio

It looks good; really good, in fact. Most of the film’s action takes place in the span of a single night so the film is generally darker than most, but the colors in the new transfer were richer than I remembered. It’s far from washed out and it’s mostly free from dust and various other artifacts of its age. It’s good to see Disney at least giving a lesser-known film a respectful digital cleanup. The film is presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

The soundtrack, in Dolby Digital 5.1, is nice and clear, but due to its age doesn’t feature a lot of fancy surround effects. There’s some nice swooping sounds when Basil and Ratigan are soaring around London in dirigibles, but otherwise it’s just a good, high-quality audio track.

Bonus Materials

There’s not a lot here as far as bonus materials, which is a real shame. The making-of featurette, The Making Of “The Great Mouse Detective” (7:50) is ported from the previous DVD release and looks to have come directly from some television special in the 1980s. It’s fun to see young animators like Glen Keane at work, as well as Vincent Price and the other voice talent. Roy E. Disney also makes a welcome appearance. But it would have been even better to have some current interviews, and perhaps a better look at the actual creative process behind the film and the groundwork it laid for later features.

Also from the original DVD release is a Sing-Along Song for Professor Ratigan’s number, The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind.

New to this release is an odd little nut of a feature called So You Think You Can Sleuth? (4:40). From the blurb on the DVD package, I thought this was going to be one of those awful set-top games that appear on every release. Instead, it’s a short summary of the history of private detectives and forensic science, which culminates in a “mystery” for the viewer to solve. You’re presented with a mystery, conveyed via static black-and-white photos, in which you must determine whether your mother, father, sister, or slouchy unemployed uncle stole all the cookies from the kitchen. It all happens so quickly that you don’t really get a chance to realize how strange it all is until it’s over.

And that’s pretty much it. There are the requisite trailers for upcoming Disney films, which are pushed via the irritating “FastPlay” feature, and this really creepy thing with the actors from The Suite Life trying to hype kids up to pester their parents into buying a Blu-ray player (ironic, since Disney didn’t see fit to release The Great Mouse Detective on Blu-ray). That little gem is even listed as a “Bonus Feature” on the DVD package. Sad. Then there’s one more promo video, which is perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen on a Disney DVD. It starts off like a trailer, and for the life of me I thought it was a promotion for the next video in the Tinkerbell franchise. Oh, look it’s Pixie Hollow. Oh, Pixie Hollow is in danger. Oh, it’s because of DVD piracy.

What?

Yes. According to Disney, and I swear this is true, DVD piracy will DESTROY THE MAGIC OF PIXIE HOLLOW FOREVER. So the next time you start up bittorrent, please remember: you’re killing Tinkerbell. Sleep tight, kids!

The Shallow Stuff (aka the Package)

The Great Mouse Detective comes in a standard-issue black keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. The cover art is the typical eye-gougingly awful Disney marketing artwork with off-model characters crammed in the frame accompanied by bare-bones Adobe Illustrator fonts. There’s no artwork on the disc, and no inserts in the case aside from a coupon for 100 Disney Movie Rewards points and a flier for, again, Disney Blu-ray.

In Summary…

I find this film really, really enjoyable. I think it’s underrated and fun, and really kicked off the renaissance of Disney animation in style. Yet it’s hardly heeded even in fan circles; in the recent film Waking Sleeping Beauty little is said about it except for the controversy surrounding its title change, and much more attention is given to the subsequent Disney release Oliver & Company. Perhaps this is understandable as Oliver was a more profitable release; while The Great Mouse Detective was a modest success it was bested at the box office by Don Bluth’s An American Tail. But The Great Mouse Detective has aged far better than Oliver; the story feels more timeless and less calculated.

While this “Mystery in the Mist” edition has little to recommend it in the way of bonus features, it’s still worth checking out if you’ve passed on previous releases or somehow missed the film altogether. The film’s the thing, after all, and this is a good one.

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