The House the Mouse Built was in a sad state in the 1980’s. Its attempts at slightly more mature live-action films (such as The Black Hole, Tron and Watcher in the Woods) had underperformed to different extents. Its animated feature The Black Cauldron was a massive financial failure which wasn’t very well-received critically, either. Disney desperately needed something to turn their fortunes around. Something made relatively on the cheap, but with the potential to yield a substantial return.
1986’s The Great Mouse Detective fit the bill perfectly. It’s a riff on Sherlock Holmes, everybody’s favorite lapsed copyright character. Set in the same era as the original stories, it has anthropomorphic rats as surrogates for Holmes and Watson. They even operate out of a tiny apartment located at 221 Baker Street.
One of the things I found most intriguing about this picture is how the world of the rats parallels that of humans, without the latter apparently being aware of the former. The rats here only have heads and tails that distinguish them from doll-sized humans. They even dress in fashions appropriate for the period, and their residences and businesses are the same as those for humans, only on a much smaller scale.
The feature opens on a rat’s toy shop, which has a storefront on the sidewalk similar to that of the human version it is in the front wall of. Olivia, a young girl rat, has just been given a doll from her toymaker grandfather when a deranged, peg-legged bat bursts through the window and kidnaps him. Never thought I’d use “deranged, peg-legged bat” in a sentence again!
Forgive me this diversion, but I found it a tad confusing the doll she receives is in the image of a human. It seemed to me that would happen as rarely in the rat world as it would be for a human child to receive a doll in the image of a rat. I’m not sure why, but this stuck in my craw.
Similarly, while I found the parallel worlds of humans and rats to be interesting, I spent way too much time wondering about the minutia of this arrangement. Do rats still eat whatever they can and piddle and poo wherever they like? Do humans still lay out rat traps and poison? Apparently, the traps exist, at least, as one is used as the centerpiece for the movie’s best setup. But wouldn’t killing one of these talking, clothed rats be murder?
Anywho, back to more relevant matters. The toymaker has been kidnapped by Rattigan, the Moriarty of the rat world. Despite the first three letters of his name being R-A-T, he is greatly offended when called as such. And this offense has a capital punishment, a fate we see befall one poor rat in an early scene.
Rattigan is voiced by Vincent Price, and his voicework is the main reason to seek out this film. I was pleased to learn that, even in his advanced age at the time, he performed in the recording studio while delivering his dialogue. The animated character’s movements and gestures are exactly what I imagine him doing if this had been a live-action film.
His plan involves the construction of a clockwork queen who will relinquish power to him. Of course, I don’t mean the human queen, but a rat one, which just opened up additional avenues for my mind to wander down. She’s announced as the head of the empire, so did British rats invade India and Africa and impose their rule on the rats there?
If there is one aspect of the production that is subpar for the bar set by Disney, it is the animation. While it is still better than the hand-drawn output of most of those studios, there are some obvious corners cut here which left me a bit dispirited. The characters have a flat look to them, and I swear some do not cast shadows. The backgrounds are far more simplified than I had come to expect from the studio, even at this late juncture. There’s even a wide shot of a bar fight where many characters are still images, frozen in mid-action.
Given this, I was very surprised to see early use of computer animation. In an action sequence inside Big Ben, the camera flies through and around a complex series of gears. This is integrated better into the hand-drawn elements than I thought would have been possible at that time. It was the first time this had been done in a feature film.
Another thing I liked in the movie is how a young girl is really the driver of the plot. She still has to be rescued a couple of times, but she takes the initiative to seek out Holmes to find her grandfather. And she is not going to take no for an answer.
The Great Mouse Detective is mid-tier Disney, but it has a fascinating place in the studio’s history as the project that kept them from going under completely. Myself, I like the studio’s immediately previous film, The Black Cauldron, more. But that was nearly the nail in their coffin, so what do I know. Even without any baggage, Detective is light, fun and enjoyable on its own slight merits.
Dir: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, John Musker (Four directors! It’s a miracle this isn’t a complete mess)
Starring the voice talents of Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek
Watched on Disney blu-ray