Finally after five book reviews it’s time for a movie review and we begin in the world of animation, an area of film-making particularly special to me. As we’ve established I am very much a connoisuer of adventure storytelling and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of the best adventure movies are animations. My three favourite studios are Disney, Ghibli and Pixar, the latter is without any question the best and most consistently brilliant film studio in the world. For this review however I’m sticking with the best known film studio in the world, one that undeservingly reaps a lot of the credit for Pixar’s films by handling their release but has been responsible for a few corkers of iis own. I am of course talking about Disney.
People talk about Disney’s ‘Golden Age’, which ended with The Jungle Book and the ‘Disney Renaissance’ beginning with The Little Mermaid, claiming that the 22 years in between were a low point for the company but I don’t really hold with that. There were classics released in this period, they just don’t get the attention they deserve. Foremost among them is The Great Mouse Detective, released in 1986.
The Great Mouse Detective (sometimes called Basil the Great Mouse Detective) is based on a series of books by Eve Titus called Basil of Baker Street, in turn inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s innumerable stories about Sherlock Holmes. Set in London in 1897 the film presents us with a colourful adaptation of Sherlock Holmes’ world (minus the opium and cocaine) casting the principal characters as mice. Though the characters are mostly anthropomorphic mice Disney have not quite gone down the same road as their excellent adaptation of the Robin Hood legend (another great film from the studio’s supposed dark years). London is still inhabited by humans, among them Sherlock Holmes who we only see in silhouette, his voice provided courtesy of a recording from The Red-Headed League of Basil Rathbone (whose name inspired the naming of Holmes’ mouse equivalent) some years after the actor’s death. The world of Basil, the titular detective is hidden under floorboards and in secret places and Basil lives in a cosy little apartment underneath 211B Baker Street. There’s that tiny-people-living-in-a-big-human-world theme I love so much. It’s a great premise and paves the way for some terrific setting-based adventure.
So what’s the story? It begins with little Olivia Flaversham’s toymaker father’s abduction at hands, or rather wings of one Fidget, gravelly-voiced, peg-legged bat henchman to Professor Ratigan, equivalent to Holmes’ Professor Moriarty, voiced gleefully by Vincent Price no less. Little Olivia (bright-eyed and adorable thanks in chief to her cute Scottish brogue) seeks out Basil of Baker Street with the help of Major Dr David Q Dawson (our plump, very likeable Dr Watson in mosue form). Though Basil appears at first uninterested in the case, preoccupied as he is by his attempts to track down the aformentioned Ratigan, upon hearing about the bat’s involvement his sleuthing brain is stimulated and so begins a thoroughly enjoyable case.
Among The Great Mouse Detective’s triumphs are the way in which some of the more well-known sensibilities of the famous Holmes have been repackaged and shrunk down for kids. Basil is egotistical about his intellect, hell-bent on catching Ratigan and his persona borders at times on arrogance but he is all enthusiasm and breathless, heroic likeability. Most importantly Holmes’ extraordinary ability to deduce very accurately incredible details from the meagrest of clues is cartoonishly intact in a number of scenes, as is the character’s mastery of disguise. Basil is a worthy representation on one of fiction’s most famous characters and has been perfectly presented in colourful, child-friendly fashion and is the kind of hero pretty much everybody will love. Almost stealing the show is the dastardly Professor Ratigan, a quite excellent Napoleon of Crime figure. The rivalry between the two characters drives the whole show and gives real sparkle to the memorable scene where they finally meet near the film’s conclusion in which our hero faces a pretty sticky fate.
The film is pacy too, with scenes taking in seedy bars, Buckingham Palace and most memorable a dark toy shop at night. The plot is tight and satisfying, driven by Basil’s clever deductions, never staying in one place too long or getting bogged down by unnecessary gags or side-plots. There are faults, it’s too short and the songs could be better and I’m not really a fan of the Loony Tunes-style wacky cartoonishness in some places (piano keys wiggling around in a whip-crack wave), but these are minor quibbles at worst and are overwhelmed by the strength of the plot, it’s characters and settings and thew whole sense of fun.
The words ‘forgotten classic’ have never been more appropriate. Considering the inspiration and, more relevantly the quality on show here it’s amazing The Great Mouse Detective didn’t enjoy greater success as it should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Disney greats. Be sure to check it out if you have any interest in animation because this is one overlooked film that deserves attention.