Initially released in 1986, Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective” was a sprightly foretaste of the more impressive animated features to follow.
Based on the “Basil of Baker Street” books by Eve Titus, “The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective” (in its first return engagement, citywide) is modest, agreeable entertainment, involving Basil (voice by Barrie Ingham), a Sherlock Holmes-ian mouse and his assistant, Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), who just happen to live in the foundation of 221-B Baker St.
When the ingenious toy maker, Flaversham (Alan Young), is kidnaped, his daughter, Olivia (Susan Pollatschek), comes to Basil and Dawson for help. The unlikely trio are drawn into a dastardly plot to take over the mouse version of Victoria’s Empire by Basil’s arch-nemesis, Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price, clearly relishing the opportunity to parody his villainous roles).
Obviously the work of young artists testing their powers, “Great Mouse Detective” features some broad, cartoon comedy that suggests the influence of the old Warner Bros. shorts--especially the sequences involving Toby, Basil’s rambunctious basset hound, and Felicia, Ratigan’s smugly menacing Persian cat.
The high point of the film involves Basil’s escape from Ratigan’s baroque trap, a murderous Rube Goldberg contraption as fantastic as anything Indiana Jones ever faced. When Basil figures out how to elude certain death, the audience can actually see him get an idea and act on it, in an unusually polished example of character animation.
The film is weakest when the animators pull back, rather than flex their artistic muscles.
The scenes involving the Victoria-esque Mouse Queen seem needlessly tame, and the animation of the barroom singer fails to match Melissa Manchester’s torchy performance of “Let Me Be Good to You.”
Despite a last-minute title change (from “Basil of Baker Street”), “The Great Mouse Detective” received good reviews when it opened and earned $25.3 million at the domestic box office--a respectable sum for an animated film six years ago. As the first feature in which the new Disney crew began to assert its identity as animators and filmmakers, the film anticipates the studio’s more recent hits, including “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Although he’s a much broader character, the bulky Ratigan is clearly an ancestor of Beast, especially when he sheds his suave veneer and becomes a vicious monster during the final confrontation with Basil on the hands of Big Ben. The gently paternal Flaversham and the kindly, befuddled Dawson suggest Maurice, Belle’s father, while Beast’s teapot/housekeeper, Mrs. Potts, bears more than a passing resemblance to Mrs. Judson, Basil’s landlady.
“The Great Mouse Detective” reflects the energy and enthusiasm of a talented group of young artists stretching their wings for the first time. That group has gone on to produce some truly extraordinary work, win awards and earn sums no one believed could be made from an animated film. And, as has often been the case at Disney, it all began with a mouse.