Coming as it did after a prolonged dry spell in the Disney animated canon that threatened to push the once vibrant company into receivership, The Great Mouse Detective (1985) is a valiant, though nevertheless, largely fruitless retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes heroics loosely masqueraded throughout the children's book series 'Basil of Baker Street' by Eve Titus.
Often incorrectly sited as the first animated feature to use CGI technology for its climactic showdown inside the gears of Big Ben (CGI was first employed in Disney's The Black Caldron 1985), the screenplay struggles in fits and sparks to drag the narrative along to its next predictable scenario- inserting musical vignettes along the way that have absolutely nothing to do with the central tale and all but stop the story cold. Several curiously forgettable songs written by Henry Mancini attempt to resurrect the Disney tradition for 'musical' entertainment.
Set in London England circa 1897, the story concerns Olivia Flaversham (voiced by Susanne Pollatschek) the daughter of a toymaker. Olivia's father, Hiram (Alan Young) has been kidnapped by Fidget, the bat (Candy Candido) at the behest of his employer, Professor Padraic Ratigan (Vincent Price) to carry out a diabolical bait and switch scenario involving Queen Mousetoria (Eve Brenner).
Hiram's robot will replace the real Queen and declare Ratigan to be mouse-dom's supreme ruler. It's a wicked ploy to be sure, except that Olivia has decided to take matters into her own hands and seek out the crime-solving expertise of Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham); the great mouse detective.
Basil's domicile is at the base of Sherlock Holmes elegant mansion. After discovering Olivia lost and shivering inside an abandon boot, Maj. Doctor David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin) brings the young charge to Basil's attention. Basil, however, has other plans; distracted by his singular quest to apprehend Ratigan and prove himself the greatest crime solver in all England. Eventually recognizing that his and Olivia's quest are one in the same, Basil employs the services of Holmes faithful Basset Hound, Toby (Frank Welker) to pursue his arch nemesis.
From here, however, the narrative becomes increasingly distracted with living up to the 'Disney tradition' for song and good cheer. We get a truly terrible anthem to crime sung by a preening and remarkably effeminate Ratigan. This is followed by an almost equally obtuse torch song warbled by a sultry 'nameless' saloon entertainer (Melissa Manchester), who has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the other characters or the plot.
The narrative gets back on track with Ratigan capturing Basil - who temporarily loses his nerve and is resigned to his own demise - and Dawson, who refuses to accept defeat. Replacing the Queen with Hiram's creation, Ratigan is declared the new ruler of England only to have Basil intercept the controls and declare the entire evening a shrieking fraud. Ratigan escapes with Fidget aboard a flying machine that crashes into Big Ben, resulting in a showdown between Ratigan and Basil amidst the clockwork gears.
This last act is, to be sure, the highlight of the film and there are some stunning visual effects to behold. However, on the whole neither the visuals nor the character traits represented herein seem to gel with everything that's gone before them. The CGI recreation that allows the animation inside Big Ben to move with ease as a camera might through similarly staged live action footage liberates the sequence. But it also draws undo attention to the rather static animation that has gone before it.
In terms of character development; Ratigan, who has until this moment been played mostly as a feminized fop in love with his own image, is suddenly transformed into a pulsating mass of wicked testosterone, hell bent on clawing the rather lanky Basil to death.
The sequence ends with Ratigan plummeting to his death off the minute hand of Big Ben. Basil is rescued by his own ingenuity, transforming Ratigan's crippled airship into a makeshift solo flying device and peddling his way to safety. The story concludes with Olivia and Hiram reunited and Dawson, employed by Basil to pursue yet another case as his crime solving partner.
Viewed today, with the restoration of Disney's reputation for animated family entertainment galvanized in such contemporary classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, et. al. The Great Mouse Detective seems even more curiously dated and uninspired by direct comparison.
Lest we forget that the best Disney animation not only heralds its rich and illustrious past, it also retains a timeless appeal for adults as well as children. The Great Mouse Detective arguably does neither. Although it will be popular with tiny tots to be sure, there is a decided disconnect for older children and adults with the enduring Disney legacy. This is very much a kiddie flick and not the sort of eternal storytelling for the ages at any age that we've come to expect from the Disney banner!
In their infinitely confounding wisdom, Disney Home Video has reasoned that only some of their animated features deserve both a Blu-Ray and DVD release. The Great Mouse Detective gets only the latter; advertised as a remastered 'Mystery in the Mist' edition. On the whole, colors are vibrant, if slightly dated. Dirt and scratches that were inherent in the original DVD release have been cleaned up. However, edge enhancement is still glaringly present during the climactic Big Ben showdown.
The audio, originally recorded and featured in theatres as 'Dolby Surround' has been re-channelled to 5.1. Curiously, the upgrade seems to amplify rather than mask the shortcomings of the original fidelity. Effects sound tinny, while songs tend to be center channel focused.
Extras are largely direct imports from the original DVD release, including a fleeting 'making of' featurette. A new interactive game and quiz feature is also included.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)