It’s safe to say that as production started on The Great Mouse Detective (1986), no one at Disney’s Animation Department was very happy. The Fox and the Hound had done decently, but not well enough to encourage Disney executives to send money to the animation department, especially since the conventional wisdom was that the glory days of Disney animation had died along with Walt Disney. Animation itself seemed more of a former craze, something relegated to kiddie cartoons on Saturday mornings—no matter what might be happening over in Japan. Disney itself was undergoing a major corporate shakeup, which left two executives with limited experience in animation—Michael Eisner as CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg as the head of the film division—in charge of directing and approving future animated films. The Black Cauldron, released in the midst of this, was an artistic and financial disaster, exiling the entire animation department out of their nice animation studio and into a much less nice warehouse. The animation department could only watch the skyrocketing careers of two former Disney animators—Don Bluth and Tim Burton—with envy and dismay.
In a crowning touch, after seeing the storyboards for The Great Mouse Detective, Michael Eisner slashed the film’s budget in half.
This move was later given a remarkably kind spin by in house Disney historians and public relations people, who credited Eisner’s “courageous” budget cuts as the step that inspired Disney animators to develop new, cost effective methods of using computers to slash animation costs, but at the time, it was yet another discouraging moment.
The results of this can be seen in the finished film. The thick dark lines around characters are back, as are leftover pencil marks, and the occasional “shimmer” effect, admittedly just seen in The Black Cauldron, but before that, not since Snow White. Very few scenes featured more than one moving character, and in a couple of scenes the characters in front move while the characters in the back remain completely still, something Disney hadn’t done since Cinderella. It’s even more noticeable here, since in Cinderella an argument can be made that the background characters at the dance are remaining still out of respect for Prince Charming, or really are part of the background. Here, the characters in the back are mice drinking at a pub, or evil mice cheering on the defeat of hero mice Basil and Dr. Dawson, or mice terrified that their country is about to get taken over by a Very Evil Rat—er, that is, Mouse. All of these mice should be moving. They don’t.
That pub scene ended up causing other issues for Disney, since it features the hands down first show of, how can I put this, sex and legs in a Disney animated film, during the singing of a cabaret style song, voiced by an uncredited Melissa Manchester. It’s just mouse legs, but the Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA) found the entire thing far too risqué for children’s entertainment, and nearly slapped a PG rating on the entire film. Disney had happily accepted the PG rating for The Black Cauldron—which was intended for older audiences—but balked on receiving a PG rating for a can-can dance performed by mice, even if one of the mice was ever so slightly under the influence and even if the other mice were definitely singing and dancing in a rather seductive sort of way. The MPAA was also not thrilled with another, separate scene showing a mouse under, shall we say, the influence. Very under the influence. After some discussion, and agreement that a scene that ends with the death of the rather drunk mouse in question could hardly be said to have a pro-alcohol message, the MPAA backed down, agreeing to give the film a G rating, a move that might well have earned/saved Disney millions.
(That’s about it for any offensiveness in this film, although very small children may find the villain Ratigan and his pet cat VERY SCARY since Felicia the cat—you should be warned—EATS CUTE MICE and ALMOST EATS A BAT. Bad mice and a scary bat, and all of this is offscreen, but still, MICE. Children older than four should be fine.)
That was not the only scene that ended up giving animators fits. The final great set piece—a chase scene through the great clockwork gears of Big Ben—was possible only thanks to a bit of computer generated imagery/computer assisted animation: the graphics for the gears were plotted into a computer, then printed out and traced, saving animators months of work. That part looks great. The rest of the film, not nearly as much, even with a cabaret dance; this is probably Disney’s worst looking film in decades, even filled, as it is, with generally adorable mice.
That the film works at all is almost entirely thanks to one piece of inspired casting: Vincent Price as the very very evil Ratigan. Price reveled in the sheer over the top evil of the role, and was reportedly delighted when, following Disney tradition, the animators even made Ratigan look a little like Vincent Price.
A few things to know about Ratigan: one, he might not actually be—gasp—a mouse. In fact I’m pretty sure he’s really a rat, with an odd fixation on the mouse world, but let us move on. Two, he has big plans—BIG PLANS. His grandiose plan includes kidnapping, an evil bat, a skilled toymaker, uniforms stolen from toy soldiers, a clockwork Queen Mousetoria that can impersonate the real Queen Mousetoria right down to her voice, some rather nasty ideas about eliminating mouse pensions (reportedly inspired both by some ongoing “discussions” with Eisner about benefits and Vincent Price’s “discussions” with industry executives during Filmways, Inc. takeover of American International Pictures in 1979) and TAKING OVER THE WORLD. It’s all awfully complicated, but you can’t accuse Ratigan of having no imagination. Or ambition. Or modesty: he sings an entire song about how great he is, and it’s so convincing that almost all of the listening mice agree. Ok, that’s partly because the one mouse that doesn’t agree immediately gets eaten by a rather spoiled cat, but I was convinced even before the cat started snacking.
Ratigan’s also not totally evil. I mean, ok, sure, he takes pride in killing off widows and orphans and terrorizing people and assault and robbery, but, in his defense, he plays the harp rather well and throws great parties. And can we really hate a villain who loves his pet cat so much that he carefully feeds her all of his tastiest henchmen, not to mention a genuinely royal treat—Queen Mousteria herself? I think not. It’s both kind—well, to the cat—and efficient—well, in the sense of effectively terrorizing the rest of his henchmen. (Also almost entirely offscreen in deference to the sensibilities of some of the younger members of the audience, though it’s not that difficult to figure out what he’s doing.) And I think we all have to admire his dedication to the task of thoroughly killing his greatest enemy, Basil, ensuring that Basil will be killed off in five different ways. It’s a setup that puts the greatest of Bond villains to shame. And if he doesn’t like to be called a rat, that just makes him a sensitive sort.
Alas, compared to Ratigan, the other characters in The Great Mouse Detective, even Basil the great detective himself, are rather bland, although little Olivia makes up for this by being blandly adorably cute. Even Basil, clearly not at all fond of children, ends up succumbing to her charms, as does Toby, the dog, not inclined to think favorably of strange mice. Basil also manages some—gasp—actual character development, going from a self-centered, arrogant detective to—well, a somewhat less self-centered, arrogant detective, especially in a touching moment when he realizes that poor Dr. Dawson is feeling devastated and guilty about his—that is, Dawson’s—failures. If I can’t quite buy their sudden bromance at the end of the film, when Basil unexpectedly invites Dawson to stay with him, well, it does reflect the Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson friendship we all know and love from the Sherlock Holmes story.
With that said, the Dr. Dawson of the film is not that much like Dr. Watson—for one thing, he’s not writing down the story. For a second thing, this is a very kindly version of Dr. Watson—not to say that the original Dr. Watson is unkind, exactly, but this Dr. Dawson goes out of his way to comfort a little girl and take her to the great detective, and later stand up for her. And Dr. Dawson has, shall we say, a bit more of an eye for the ladies than even the married Dr. Watson ever did. He and Dr. Watson share an admiration for the techniques of Basil and Sherlock Holmes, a desire to stop the criminal element, and a tendency to bumble—but that’s more or less it.
(And I also can’t really see Watson crying, at least, not the way Dawson does.)
But otherwise, like the book that inspired it, the film’s a largely adorable, lighthearted take on Sherlock Holmes from a mouse point of view, complete with moments of cuteness (mostly centered on the adorable Olivia mouse) and some entertaining moments of pure slapstick. It’s also an early example of the steampunk aesthetic, not just because of its late Victorian setting, but because of Ratigan’s choice of transportation—an airship—and the clockwork and clockwork figures which form a significant part of the plot.
In the end, however, neither the steampunk moments nor the adorable bits allowed The Great Mouse Detective to become a major hit. It enjoyed an only modest success at the box office, overshadowed by rival Don Bluth’s mouse film, An American Tail, a collaboration with Steven Spielberg, and a little in-house film that also briefly featured a mouse, also a collaboration with Steven Spielberg. (According to both studios, releasing two rival mouse films was a sheer coincidence.) Disney authorized very little film-related merchandise—although if you look carefully, you can still find Ratigan and Basil pins in very limited quantities in specific places at Walt Disney World. (I’ve been told that an Olivia pin is also around, but I can’t verify this from personal experience.)
Slowly, the film sunk into obscurity. But if The Great Mouse Detective could not be said to be among Disney’s greatest triumphs, it did have an important legacy on the studio. First, it was the first Disney film to extensively use computer assisted animation to cut costs (rather than to create effects, as in The Black Cauldron) guaranteeing that Disney would take a closer look at that technology in the future. Second, by pulling a profit—any kind of profit—it convinced Katzenberg that his plan to release one animated film every year was financially viable, as long as computers could be used to keep costs down, the financial start of the Disney Renaissance. Third, this was the film that brought the animation directing team of John Musker and Ron Clements together for the first time, two men already looking at drawings of underwater landscapes, who had thoughts—just a few thoughts—about a genie and a magical lamp.
But not only did Disney first have to finish up a little film about singing dogs before anyone could pay that much attention to a mermaid, another film was about to snatch away everyone’s attention: an animated Disney film that wasn’t, technically, produced by the Disney animation studio, but which was to spark the Disney Renaissance.
Coming up next: some cartoon murders.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.