Maybe it’s the London fog, or the peg-legged bat with his in-your-face fangs. Maybe it’s the villainous rat tinkling a bell to punish a drunken mouse for a slip of the tongue by feeding him to his giant cat. Maybe it’s the fact that some of the characters drink on purpose to get drunk, something we haven’t seen since “Dumbo.” But “The Great Mouse Detective” has always seemed a little darker than the typical Disney animated feature. It’s not a must-own title, but it’s also a better film than the obscurity it’s seemed.
Disney fans who don’t already own it will want to add “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986) to their libraries if for no other reason than it was the first time the studio blended computer-generated images and hand-drawn animation. It was also a first for Vincent Price, who had never before lent his distinctively eerie voice to an animated character, and it was the first time Henry Mancini composed music for a full-length animated feature (“The Pink Panther” was a short film). While “The Great Mouse Detective” isn’t one of Disney’s four-star efforts, it’s still solid entertainment.
Created by the same team that later brought “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and, more recently, “The Princess and the Frog” to the screen, “The Great Mouse Detective” is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Basil of Baker Street children’s books by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone, which chronicle the sleuthing exploits, circa 1897, of a mouse that just happens to reside in the same London brownstone as his human counterpart, Sherlock Holmes (voiced in the movie by Basil Rathbone!).
For this caper, the Disney crew relies on one of the studio’s tried-and-true plots: kidnapping. This time the victim is a toymaker (Alan Young, of “Mr. Ed” fame) who has the ability to make amazingly lifelike mechanical mice. The fiend responsible for the toymaker’s disappearance is none other than Basil’s arch-rival, the diabolical Professor Ratigan (Price)--the mouse world’s greatest criminal mind and the one responsible for the famous Brinks heist. He forces the toymaker to create a mechanical double so he can eliminate the real queen of mousedom and take power. But Basil (Barrie Ingham) is called into action when Dr. Dawson (Val Bettin) brings the toymaker’s daughter (Susanne Pollatschek) to him and asks him to help her. As they say at the end of “Casablanca,” it turns out to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as this first case will lead to many more Holmes and Watson-style investigations. Older kids will appreciate the plot, while younger ones will warm to the little girl mouse and Toby, the basset hound that gives the trio a lift.
Basil may be the hero, but this is Price’s film. He plays the part of a rat who doesn’t like to be called a rat with such relish and range of emotions that it’s a shame it was produced before Disney’s now-standard procedure of incorporating the physical traits and mannerisms of voiceover principles. Instead of resembling Price, the evil Ratigan is a robust, barrel-chested, dapper-dressing mob boss who only lacks spats. But that voice? It’s all there in spades. And that’s why a character that was originally frail was reportedly changed to be more vital.
Four years in the making, “The Great Mouse Detective” spotlights Mancini production numbers that herald an era in Disney animation that will lean towards Broadway for a decade to come. The songs are toe-tappingly strong and flashy, with plenty of animated choreography. One notable and interesting exception is a seductive little song sung by a mousy vamp at a waterfront dive, which was written and performed by Melissa Manchester. Three years later, Ron Clements and John Musker will launch into a full Broadway-style soundtrack with “The Little Mermaid.” And their love of Disney allusions first blossomed in “The Great Mouse Detective,” which has everything from “Dumbo” and “The Lady and the Tramp” allusions to the old Firehouse Five Dixieland group that appeared on the old “Mickey Mouse Club.” So there are a lot of details that youngsters who grew up on Disney cartoons can recognize and enjoy.
Parents should know that while “The Great Mouse Detective” is rated G, in addition to that “sexy” mouse number sung in front of whistling sailor-mice and moments of peril involving gears of a clock tower there’s one mouse whom Ratigan orders his giant cat to eat. It’s off-camera, but still . . . .
Overall, it’s an entertaining animated film. The music is decent and the artwork captures the look and feel of 1897 London. While Ratigan isn’t as menacing looking as some of Disney’s most dastardly, he and his peg-legged bat henchman Fidget make for a few scary moments.
“The Great Mouse Detective” has always looked a little murky and grainy, but the Blu-ray is definitely an improvement. There’s still a substantial amount of background and negative-space grain, but only a smidgeon of noise. Colors were never very bright, and they’re not here either. But the level of detail is such that you can appreciate the film more. Like the previous DVD release it’s presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, transferred to a 50-gig Blu-ray disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology.
The audio was never great shakes either, but the DTS-HD MA 5.1 offers some improvement. It’s still not as full-bodied or rich in timbre as most titles from Disney, but it’s clear and more substantial sounding than the DVD audio. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Disney has a habit of rationing extras on their older releases, and “The Great Mouse Detective” is no exception. The squeak-by bonus features include an original seven-minute making-of feature that’s packed with enough behind-the-scenes footage and interviews to only make viewers wish it were longer. From the original DVD release there’s also a sing-along for “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” (a.k.a. “Oh Ratigan!”). And the ported over from the DVD feature “So You Think You Can Sleuth?” Challenge isn’t really as much a game as it is a brief animated history of private detective work. It runs less than five minutes, but there’s some nice trivia here . . . like the first private eye, details on the founding of Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and the suggestion that the term “private eye” may have even come from the Pinkerton logo (a single eye), with the motto “We Never Sleep.”
In other words, the same brief bonus features from the most recent DVD are included here. For families, the biggest bonus is the inclusion of a DVD version of the film.
Over the years, “The Great Mouse Detective” has been clumped with such lesser Disney achievements as “Robin Hood,” but it’s a better movie than that. And it still holds appeal for today’s youngsters.