This weekend’s Saturday Morning Cartoon is one of my favourite Disney animated films: The Great Mouse Detective (1986). A rodent version of Sherlock Holmes, Basil of Baker Street is after the evil Professor Ratigan, the world’s worst criminal who manages to stay one step ahead. Basil plays homage to Basil Rathbone, the enigmatic portrayer of Holmes: the film’s silhouettes of Sherlock Holmes depict him, and that’s how Basil got his name. The animators obviously had a great time with the Holmes references: Toby the bassett hound, Dr. Dawson as the narrator and assistant (whose Disney-fied portrayal is influenced by Nigel Bruce, who played Watson opposite Rathbone in several films), the damsel in distress coming to his home at the end, not to mention his clothes, chemistry set, deductive reasoning, and that violin.
If a spin-off of Sherlock Holmes isn’t enough, the villain is great. Voiced by Vincent Price (in one of his last major roles before his death in 1993), Professor Ratigan is one of the truly ruthless villains in Disney’s collection. Those who displease him, he feeds to his giant cat, Felicia, whom he summons with a little bell. He wears pink and purple and serves pink champagne. He’s refined, in touch with his feminine side, and completely evil. Capturing Basil, he tries to decide what method of execution to use, but he can’t. That’s where we get our title quote today. So, he constructs this complicated apparatus that will set off multiple weapons to ensure that Basil and Dr. Dawson are no more … developing something like the game Mouse Trap, except this mouse doesn’t get properly trapped.
There’s a crucial, climactic Big Ben sequence, a rescue mission to save the mouse queen, and the prototypical assistance of the damsel in distress, all in a single film. Overall, it’s a great adventure with a fast-moving plot and a creative villain. Disney took a couple of risks, too. Dawson and Basil go to a seedy pub looking for Ratigan, and they encounter a lounge singer mouse who is pretty well-suited for the environment, but a bit unusual for Disney, with an act that some people would call risque, even for animation. It’s also one of the few times Disney used the word “deuce” in one of their screenplays, which fits the time and, frankly, amuses me. Part of me couldn’t help but think of Family Guy’s Stewie Griffin.
We also see some quoting in regards to other films in the Disney canon. While the cast is mostly a novel crew of voice actors for Disney, Candy Candido comes back to play Fidget the bat (after portraying other characters such as the crocodile captain of the guards in Robin Hood and one of Maleficent’s goons in Sleeping Beauty). Ratigan is a trendsetter himself. During his grand moment of a theme song, he runs up a pile of treasure and poses, and he has a signature pose to the side of the camera with a smug expression. We’ll see this again, years later in Pocahontas. The cruel Governor Ratliff (yeah, not kidding) does both of these things. He also has a similar color scheme to Ratigan. Go ahead and run with that one.
The Great Mouse Detective marks the second Disney film (after The Black Cauldron) to use computer-generated imagery to complete segments of the animation (notably, the Big Ben scenes). As the 1980s drew to a close, ushering in the “Disney Renaissance” with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, the use of CGI in the productions of the Disney animation studios became much more commonplace.
It’s also notable that the film was scored by the great composer Henry Mancini, a double Oscar winner for his themes for 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany‘s (the seminal “Moon River”) and the following year’s Days of Wine and Roses (the title tune). He also gained notoriety as the composer of the “Pink Panther” theme, and scored the music for all of the Pink Panther series of films. This would be his only turn working for Disney, though Mancini did go on to score the music for another animated feature, 1992’s Tom and Jerry: The Movie.