You’ve seen me talk with a certain element of affection for the remarkable work that the Walt Disney Studios have done in the way of feature animation. Who can really argue with me when I state categorically that the studio invented that particular medium? The long line of classics could certainly fill a lot of space in this review, but these are things you already know. Left out of the list of classics, and deservedly so, is this 1980’s Disney feature. the studio’s take on Sherlock Holmes, The Great Mouse Detective.
Now, the first thing that pops into your mind when you connect Walt Disney with a mouse is that studio icon image himself, Mickey. That image is so ingrained in my skull that I at first thought I remembered Mickey being in this film. Obviously I was mistaken and am thinking of some similar role the royal rodent likely performed in another title. The mouse in question here is more your standard-looking mouse without the trademark three circle head and ears. The characters are no less endearing here. Still, this was a transition time for the studio, and they were not putting out their best work in the 80’s.
Young Olivia (Pollatschek) and her father, Professor Hiram Flaversham (Young) are taking in the London nightlife when the professor is kidnapped by a peg-legged bat. Olivia is left alone and distraught when she is discovered by the gentle Dr. Dawson (Bettin). He takes pity on the lost little girl mouse and offers to escort her to the home of Basil of Baker Street (Ingham), the greatest mouse detective in the world. Together they go to the famous Baker Street flat, whose human tenants have a very familiar shadow form. There we meet Basil, playing the violin and smoking his large pipe. When he is told the details of the abduction, he immediately deduces that Olivia’s father has been taken by the bat Fidget (Candido) who is a henchbat for the evil and infamous Professor Ratigan (Price). The three mice instantly take up the trail of the criminal mastermind. But they only end up allowing Olivia to fall in his clutches as well. Now Ratigan uses the threat of harm to Olivia to coerce the scientist to create a mechanical doppelganger of the mouse Queen, who is about to celebrate her Jubilee. It is Ratigan’s intention to substitute his mechanical Queen for the real one and have her publically turn her kingdom over to him. It’s going to be a dark season for all of mousedom if Basil and Dr. Dawson can’t save the day.
The Great Mouse Detective is notable for a couple of things. It was the first animated feature to have computer animation. While this is absolutely a hand-drawn film, for the first time, computer graphics were used to track and animate fast moving scenes, giving the movie a certain boost in action and mobility of the characters. While the very first use of computer animated f/x appeared four years earlier on Star Trek: The Wrath Of Kahn, there’s no question this was a milestone that would eventually lead to the magic of Pixar, among others. It was a baby step, but a step to be sure. It’s not surprising that yet another groundbreaking milestone occurred on a Disney feature. This was also the only time that Vincent Price appeared in an animated feature for the Mouse House. He was already in his declining years, so that his voice wasn’t quite the powerful projection he had been famous for. Yet his sneer has always been as audible as any spoken word could be. It was unmistakably Vincent Price, and that catapulted Ratigan to the top of the Disney Deans of Badness.
The Great Mouse Detective is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This particular film hasn’t aged very well. I found the colors quite soft. Part of this can certainly be attributed to the misty London atmosphere. Still, even those images taking place indoors look nearly as soft. Colors just never pop out at you like Disney animation is so notable for. The print does exhibit some wear and tear, but not enough to be all that distracting. Black levels are average at best here.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is not what I expected. Usually, you can count on impressive musical reproduction from even the most economical of Disney features. It all sounds rather flat here. There are some rather nice songs here, but they never give you that dynamic crystal quality I was hoping for. You can hear dialog fine, and there isn’t anything outstanding in the way of noise. A rare merely serviceable track from Disney.
So You Think You Can Sleuth: I expected this to be an interactive game, and the box art suggests that it is. Instead you get a history of sleuthing, both in real life and fiction, followed by a cookie jar caper that is solved too quickly for you, to invite your own observation and guesses.
The Making Of The Great Mouse Detective: (7:53) In this short piece you get a quick run down of the production. The best part is meeting the voice cast, including Vincent Price.
Sing-A-Long: (2:00) The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind is played with the lyrics.
The animation here is often more economical then we’ve come to expect from Disney. Many of the background characters bring new meaning to the term “still life”. While the London scenery was certainly atmospheric, the mattes also had a certain deadness to them that hurts the overall feel of the movie. It was an experiment of sorts, and it ended up entertaining enough. You’ll find some nice music by Pink Panther composer Henry Mancini and even a number by Melissa Manchester. All in all, it’s a very average and mediocre outing from Disney, but isn’t it strange how Disney even at their most mundane never fails to entertain children of all ages. “It’s absolutely elementary.”