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.

James Plath's picture

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). And while it isn't one of Disney's four-star must-sees, 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" was "retired" and placed back in the vaults, so a new generation of fans will probably be eager to add this to their collections. It's being advertised as having an all-new digital restoration, and a comparison to the earlier release does show a picture that has a little brighter backlighting with not quite as many indistinct edges and a little less noise. The 2002 release was listed as 1.66:1 aspect ratio, while this one is listed at 1.78:1, "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. I compared two scenes for detail, and they really looked to be close--but it's significantly less grainy.

The audio is another matter. It sounds like the same Dolby Digital 5.1, to my ears, with French and Spanish language tracks and French and Spanish subtitles. It's not a particularly dynamic track, though it is recorded at a higher volume.

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 behind-the-scenes footage and interviews that will 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!"). This time around, Disney replaced sneak-peeks with a Dylan & Cole Sprouse promo for Blu-ray, a "Learn How to Take Your Favorite Movies on the Go" promo for Digital Copy. And the new "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."

Missing from the 2002 release extras are two animated shorts.

Bottom Line:
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.


Film Value