THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986) has just recently been re-issued on Disney DVD in an all new digital restoration and the movie now looks better than ever. It was one of the first animated films to emerge from the studio after Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney took over and brought new life to Disney animation, as can be seen in Don Hahn’s current documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEATTY. In fact, Don Hahn was the production manager on THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, which was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who would go on to great animated success with THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, and most recently THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG.
The Great Mouse Detective also marked the first and only time Disney asked Vincent Price to voice a character in one of their feature animated films. Glen Keane who was supervising animator for the character of Ratigan related how Vincent Price came to be cast in the film: “We found the voice for Professor Ratigan while watching the 1950 movie Champagne for Caesar. We originally decided to view the film since it starred Ronald Colman, and we were considering his voice as a possible model for Ratigan’s. Vincent Price played the villain in that movie and as soon as he came on, we realized we had found the perfect actor for the role. Price’s expressive voice and attitude inspired us to further redesign the character.”
Originally Ratigan had been designed as a thin and wiry rodent, but as Glen Keane notes, Vincent Price’s magniloquent rendering of Ratigan’s voice led the filmmakers to turn the part into a much larger and more powerful character. Below are some of Vincent Price’s comments made in 1985, when the film was still titled Basil of Baker Street.
Q: How do you feel about the musical scores in your movies? Boris Karloff felt that background music sometimes got in the way of an actor’s performance.
VINCENT PRICE: It all depends on how well it’s done. Laura has one of the most famous scores ever written and I never felt it got in the way at all. When we all went to see Laura on opening night, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, Dana Andrews and myself, we had never heard the score! That was written long after the film was finished. So we sat there and thought, “isn’t that marvelous.” We also watched ourselves, as well. Sometimes though, the score does get in the way. I must say with some of those Alfred Newman scores, you often felt that the orchestra was swelling behind you, but nothing was swelling on the screen. For the most part I think the scores have fit very well. David Raksin, who did Laura was really a very good composer. I just recorded a song a few weeks ago with Henry Mancini, who is doing the score to a full-length animated Disney feature called Basil of Baker Street. Henry Mancini wrote two songs for me and one of them is done like a big Busby Berkeley production number called The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind.
Q: You play the arch-villain?
VINCENT PRICE: Yes… naturally. He’s really Professor Moriarty but he’s called Ratigan, because although he’s a rat, he likes to think of himself as just a large mouse. It’s a Sherlock Holmes story, but Sherlock is a mouse called Basil. Strangely enough, I seem to be overrun with Sherlock Holmes these days because every week I introduce a new episode of Sherlock Holmes on (The PBS-Television show) Mystery.
Q: You’ve done animated films before this, although this is the first time you’ve done a Disney animated feature.
VINCENT PRICE: Yes and Disney is really a magical name to me. They had never offered me one of these parts before, so I really wanted to do it because when you’ve been around as long as I have what you look for are new challenges and voicing Ratigan was a real challenge! Of course I’ve always been visually minded and a big fan of animation, but when they first asked me to do it they wanted me to audition. If anyone but the Disney people had asked me to do that I would have been offended. I was actually in a state of real terror, because I didn’t know what they wanted. In the end it turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. I loved doing it because I got to see the behind-the-scenes process of making an animated movie. The artists showed me hundreds of character sketches they had already made for Ratigan and they gave me the freedom to expand on that, because they wanted my interpretation of the character. So I was a part of the creative process. They ended up basing a lot of Ratigan’s personality on my gestures and movements, because while I was recording the dialogue in the studio they videotaped me. It was wonderful, because in the final movie you can see the character taking on your humanity, which is what they like because the more human the mouse or the rat is, the better it is for the picture.
Q: Do you play Ratigan with a sense of humor?
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, he’s got a huge sense of humor about himself, although he is deadly serious about crime. Ratigan is a real larger than life villain, so I did the part by exaggerating it. Besides being a great villain, Ratigan is also a great actor who plays at being a great villain in the story, which all great villains should be. This is his theory and it’s mine, too. A hero is just a hero, but a villain has to fool you all the time. He has many more facets to his character. He has to be charming, witty, decadent and funny. Everything is going on at the same time, so he’s much more fun to play.
Q: I understand that the animators screened your old movie Champagne For Caesar thinking they could use Ronald Colman’s voice as a guide for Ratigan and when they heard your voice in the film they thought you would be a good fit for the part.
VINCENT PRICE: Well, you know Champagne For Caesar is one of my favorite pictures. It was one of the funniest scripts I’d ever read and my favorite actor of all the actors I ever saw on the screen was Ronald Colman. I really worshiped him. When I was a beginning actor, I made my first movie, Service DeLuxe (1938) and it was a disaster, because I didn’t know how to do movie acting. So I went to a woman, Laura Elliot, that everybody in the theater who came out to Hollywood went to. Helen Hayes and so on, they all went to her to study the technique of film acting. It involved learning how to control your face, because when you are thrown up on a huge screen, and your face is 20-feet high, when you start to talk it can suddenly look like your eating the screen, and a lot of actors do! So she taught us how to control our face, so we don’t mug, because actors in the theater tend to mug a bit. She was invaluable, and we learned a great deal from her. One of her recipes for all of us, was to go and see two actors. She said, “I would recommend that you go and see any film that you can, whether it’s a new film, or an old film, with Charles Boyer or Ronald Colman.” So I went to see every film of theirs that I could to learn and I found that Ronald Colman was the master of his craft. He never really eye-contacts anyone, it’s always a sort of lower case thing, so you wonder who’s he’s talking to. Then one day I found out I was being cast by my friend (director) Richard Whorf in Champagne For Caesar with Ronald Colman. Ronnie was one of the most charming men in the business and I did his last picture with him, a little fantasy called The Story of Mankind that was a dreadful picture! A reporter came into the dressing room while Ronnie, Cedric Hardwicke and I were sitting around and this interviewer said, “Mr. Colman, where did they get the story for this picture?” He said, “from the jacket of the book!”
On Tuesday, April 13, 2010 Walt Disney Pictures re-released THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE on DVD. This one’s called the Mystery in the Mist edition, but it’s not quite clear why. Aside from the new digital transfer and a couple of new short features – granted, one involves solving a cookie jar theft (the misty mystery?) – there is little “new” under the sun. And you won’t find it on Blu-ray either. Frankly, aside from the digital transfer, it may almost be preferable for some to go for the 2002 DVD release instead because it offers several animated shorts that the latest version does not (and yes, the older release includes the ‘making-of’ documentary found on the new DVD).
So, why the relatively simple release and no Blu-ray edition? It couldn’t be because Disney figured the movie wouldn’t generate all that much interest, could it? All right, that’s just a subjective speculation, but for the sake of those who purchased the new DVD we hope that Disney isn’t planning some ultimate (Blu-ray) edition a year or so down the line.
Perhaps the aforementioned observation betrays a slightly negative attitude toward the movie that rests mainly with this reviewer rather than the majority of folks. After all, its standing on rottentomatoes.com has it resting quite comfortably at 80%. However, one should take a look at the number of reviews from which that statistic arises; it’s a mere 15.
Still, the film was received fairly positively during its initial release and it is said that its moderate success gave the then new heads of Disney enough confidence to go ahead with a more ambitious project called THE LITTLE MERMAID. Well, we all know what happened after that, so if THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (dubbed THE ADVENTURES OF THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE during a theatrical re-release) led to the precious slate of Disney releases that followed it, then I bow deeply to it on that count.
Yet, I must admit that the apparent charms of the film left me somewhat unmoved. It’s one I never had that much interest in during its initial release (thus, I missed it) and nothing really drew me to it over the years (so I never made an effort to watch it until this new digital release popped up). And to be wholly honest, I can see why. If THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE were produced – just as it is – today, then I would argue that it would find itself on the Disney Channel rather than in theaters. Aside from the current CGI movement, it simply doesn’t seem hold the punch necessary for a successful theatrical run. Oh, it’s a sweet enough little piece, I suppose, but it feels a little stilted when compared to today’s current crop of animated films. You may not call it fair to compare it with more recent animated projects, but remember, I had the same attitude toward it in 1986.
The whole thing feels a bit watered down. It may be that the fact that it had four directors and no less than 10 credited writers had something to do with softening its feel and pace. Too many cooks with their own particular palate to satisfy? It felt – and to some degree even looked – like a higher-end traditionally animated Rankin/Bass production more than it did a Disney feature. Now, that’s not meant to be too much of a slight. I like most Rankin/Bass productions. However, it does make THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE seem less…theatrical.
Here’s just one example of what I’m pointing out here: The very accomplished Henry Mancini scored the film, but his music is surprising listless. It plays more like simple background music and accompanies moments in which is not needed, which only adds to the feeling that it is more filler than anything else.
One might argue that this score came a mere eight years before his death and that he was winding down. But, in 1992 he would score TOM AND JERRY: THE MOVIE and that entry into his aggregate of work would be considerably livelier. So again, it makes one wonder whether there were too many cooks in the kitchen, requiring less spice in order to serve a more general type of viewer. At any rate, the Mancini point is indicative of the trouble with the entire movie.
Still, the idea is a cute one. Based on a series of children’s books by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone, it takes the world of Sherlock Holmes (that character known here as Basil of Baker Street and voiced by Barrie Ingham) and shrinks it down to the rodent arena. A young mouse (Susanne Pollatschek) witnesses the kidnapping of her father (Alan Young, sounding more than ever like his character in 1960’s THE TIME MACHINE) by a somewhat handicapped bat who works for an evil, power-hungry rat named Ratigan (who is the equivalent of Holmes’ arch nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, and is voiced by the always pitch-perfect Vincent Price). Soon after the game is afoot. The problem is that the game is rather bland.
Nonetheless, it served co-writers/co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker well; it and previous effort THE BLACK CAULDREN (which didn’t do well and received poor reviews) helped get their feet wet and honed their skills. Proof is in the pudding, as they say, because they went on to take leading positions on THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, HERCULES, the underrated TREASURE PLANET, and THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Burny Mattinson – one of the ten writers – went on to work on the stories for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, THE LION KING, the also underrated HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, MULAN and TARZAN.
Another interesting tidbit is that THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was the first Disney film in which its animators incorporated computer-generated imagery into their traditional cell animation. The clock tower sequence involves a deadly chase through the gears of London’s giant Big Ben clock. The mice and rat are traditionally rendered, but the gears and the angles we see as the chase ensues through them are generated via computer, offering angles and a rollercoaster type of view that might not be possible otherwise. This technique would later be put to greater publicized use in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING, etc.
Watching animator Phil Nibbelink describe the process and its effect in the ‘making-of’ short feature on the DVD is almost as fun as any scene in the movie itself. His “animated” demeanor and obvious excitement over the new creative tool is infectious. It’s a joy to watch his pleasure in connection to what he does.
There are a couple of other features on the DVD worth noting too. There is the standard Disney sing-a-long, of course, but there is also a nice history primer in relation to the profession of detective work. It’s a quick, fun way for kids to learn a little something.
The other tidbit younger ones will get some fun out of is the sleuth test video short. Again, it’s something that gives the younger set a chance to use some cognitive reasoning.
Of course, one is also subjected to the ads – uh, that is, coming attractions for other Disney product, specifically some Blu-ray releases. Of note to TOY STORY fans, however, is a nice trailer for TOY STORY 3. That oughta wet a few appetites; it did mine, anyway.
The final verdict: THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE is certainly no great work, nor is it as good as some others – notably the likes of Siskel & Ebert – have touted, especially in hindsight. Even the sound editing and sound transfer for the new disc were unimpressive. Nonetheless, it has its creative moments and even involves more obscure trivia connected to Holmes lore such as canine companion Toby, who showed up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, THE SIGN OF THE FOUR.
And perhaps most meaningful of all, it allowed those involved to cut their teeth on it, and then move on to help make history with future critical and public favorite works.
THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (Walt Disney Pictures/Silver Screen Partners II; 1986; 74 min.) Directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, and John Musker. Screenplay by Peter Young, Vance Gerry, Steve Hulett, Ron Clements, John Musker, Bruce Morris, Matthew O’Callaghan, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, and Melvin Shaw. Based on the “Basil of Baker Street” book series by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone. Inspired by the “Sherlock Holmes” book series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Produced by Burny Mattinson. Art Direction by Guy Vasilovich. Visual Effects by Dave Bossert, Mark Dindal, Tad A. Gielow, Ted Kierscey, Rolando Mercado, Patricia Peraza, Steve Starr, John Tucker, and Kelvin Yasuda. Music Composed by Henry Mancini. Edited By Roy M. Brewer Jr. and James Melton. Cast of Voices: Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Diana Chesney, Eve Brenner, Alan Young, Laurie Main, Shani Wallis, Ellen Fitzhugh, Walker Edmiston, Wayne Allwine, Tony Anselmo, Melissa Manchester, Frank Welker and Basil Rathbone. MPAA Rating: G for everyone.