Sometimes I wonder if this movie just hit the theatres at the wrong time. After all, Sherlock Holmes is currently more popular than ever. And while this trend has reached a peak with the success of the movies series and BBC’s modern version “Sherlock”, it came in the wake of countless TV-Shows based on Sherlock-Concept, the most notables being House and Monk. One of the longest running Anime out there, Detective Conan (in the US also known as Case Closed) is practically a love letter to Sherlock Holmes. Technically I should compare The Great Mouse Detective to the book series Basil of Baker Street. But as far as I can tell, the movie mostly takes the idea and the name of the characters from there, but the plot itself is original. And are we really supposed to believe that the animators weren’t influenced by the original Sherlock Holmes and the countless adaptations out there? Therefore I’ll take a much broader look this time around.
Sherlock Holmes as a mouse. Well, why not. What I said about Treasure Island is double true for Sherlock Holmes: If you do a movie (or TV-Show on that matter) on such an overdone material, you better do it from a new angle. And doing it with anthropomorphic mice allows a more light-hearted take on the character. If a human Holmes would do fake science the way Basil does, the audience would cry fool play. When a mouse does it, it’s funny. It also allows Disney to insert some stuff which you would never find in a children’s movie otherwise. Like strip dancers. A villain who causally murders his henchman.
What is kind of remarkable, though, is how London in general is portrayed. The whole story plays by night, it is dark, gritty, and rainy. Not a nice place to be, at least not until you enter Baker Street. This place is bright and inviting, not just in the part of the house in which Basil lives, but in the human half, too. Even the last shot of the movie shows a London which nearly vanishes in thick fog. But the Window of Baker Street is a sole light in the darkness of the world which surround it.
2. The Animation
The Great Mouse Detective is quite notable for the use of computer animation for the Clock Tower scene. Which still holds up really, really well and is definitely the high point of the movie. Otherwise though, the animation is mostly okay (for Disney…it is still above what most other animation companies created around the same time). The backgrounds are just detailed enough that they give a realistic feel, and Basil’s home is appropriately cluttered. All in all, though, it is the kind of animation which is exactly one step above mediocre.
Where the movie shines, though, is in the character designs. Whenever there is an emotional moment, the facial animation of the characters is spot on. You don’t need the tone to understand what they go through. Remarkable is also the way Basil’s fast movements contrast with Dr. Dawson’s slower ones. Similar notable are the exaggerated poses of Rattigan which is practically a copy of what his voice actor, Vincent Price, did in the recording studio. And Rattigans “turn” at the end of the movie. When he runs through the clock tower the thin lawyer of fine clothes are ripped away and he is revealed as the rat he always denied to be. All this is transported without words, only through the animation.
3. The Characters
Sherlock the gentleman, Sherlock the rude genius, Sherlock the drug-addict, there are countless versions of this character, and most of them are valid in one way or another. It just depends on which part of the descriptions in canon you intend to emphasis. What has to be there is Sherlock’s ability to deduct more than a normal human (or mouse) would be capable of. And Disney delivers, Basil does one leap after another during this movie, most of them fairly outlandish. But you never really have the time to question such a self-assured personality. And looking at his erratic behaviour, the way he leaps over his furniture and has difficult to grasp emotions – I’m starting to wonder how many makers of recent adaptions know this movie.
Because back when it was made, most adaptations were heavily inspired by the Basil Rathbone one, in which Holmes acts more like an automaton, a think machine, and rarely loses his cool demeanour. Disney’s take, which emphasises the various quirks Sherlock Holmes had, is nowadays the more common one, but back then this was a refreshing new (it is true that the Granada TV-Show, which is nowadays widely considered as the most faithful adaptation, also moved away from this interpretation and technically it started to air two years earlier, but if the animators were aware of this adaptation, the movie would have been way in the making by then, so I hesitate to claim any cross-influence in either direction).
The design of Dr. Dawson on the other hand is heavily influenced by the Basil Rathbone adaptations, though thankfully more in looks than in actual behaviour. While he does act like a bumbling fool sometimes, it’s mostly because he is entirely out of his element for most of the movie, and not because he is an idiot, like the comic-relief which was Nigel Bruce. (BTW, in the short scene when Basil and Dr. Dawson enter the “human” part of 221B Baker Street, we can hear the voices of those two actors discussing music. Those are old recordings of them). Either way, while Dr. Dawson has some scenes in which he slips into the role of the funny sidekick, most of the time he actually has more the role of the narrator, the watcher and sometimes the one who prods Basil into the right direction. I have to admit though (and one could see it as failure of the movie) that the relationship between Basil and him is not particular interesting. Most of the time it feels like Dr. Dawson is mostly there because you need a Watson for Holmes. But then: I never found Watson particularly interesting in any adaptation until the BBC version came around and actually came up with a convincing reason why John should put up with Sherlock. This in mind, the Disney version of the character is a decent one. Though I guess the main reason I’m mostly distracted from the relationship between those two men is Olivia.
Cute. Wide-eyed. Cute. In grave danger. Did I mention cute? This is one of the few cases in which an overly cute character actually works. It helps that Olivia, cute or not, still very much acts like a child, and not like an adorable puppet. Oh, she can do adorable well enough, but she also tends to snoop around and explores where she shouldn’t – like a normal child would. Though the main reason why she works so well is that she is the perfect foil for Basil. Not even he can keep up a façade of not caring when confronted with a helpless half-orphan whose whole appearance just screams “protect me”. At the same time, it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know how to deal with her. The funniest moments of the movie are based on this dynamic (and I think it’s very telling that it’s easier to find pictures of Basil and Olivia in the net than pictures of Dr. Dawson).
Though the most important character beside Basil is naturally Professor Rattigan. Physically perhaps the smallest villain Disney ever created, but nevertheless one of the most threatening. Moriarty is actually an easy figure to adapt, simply because there isn’t much to him. He is mostly so notorious because he turns up in a case and immediately kills Sherlock. (Later on ACD allowed Sherlock to rise from the death and he wrote one additional story describing one of Moriarty’s earlier deeds, but even in this one Moriarty only schemes in the background). Since there isn’t really much in canon about him, the only important thing in any adaptation is that he works as Holmes, or in this case Basil’s, nemesis. I think a guy who drowns orphans and widows, makes sure that one of his henchmen is eaten alive and is one step ahead for most of the movie qualifies. Of the interpretations I know, the Disney one is certainly the most flamboyant and erratic one – well, at least it was until the Moriarty form BBC Sherlock came around (which makes me wonder….). But this is the perfect fit for Basil. The way those two deal with their triumphs and disappointments is actually quite similar (well, minus the tendency to murder someone when being in a bad mood). They are like two sides of the same coin – in short, exactly what Sherlock and Moriarty should be, even if they are called Basil and Rattigan.
There are also a lot of minor figures like Mr. Haversham, Mrs. Jugson, Toby, a parody of Queen Victoria, Fidget, various henchmen and so on. They all work fine, but they mostly just provide the background for the main characters, so I won’t go into detail about them. Nothing wrong about them, but none of them are particular memorable either – unless they start to strip, naturally.
4. The Plot
You might have guessed it: This is not really much of a detective story. If you expect to get clues in order to solve the case yourself, you’ll be disappointed. Not that this is a requirement for a Sherlock Holmes story, most of them aren’t about finding the murder but about Sherlock Holmes methods to catch him.
This movie though is more a character study of Basil and Rattigan, and as such it works very well. It’s just fun to watch those two characters trying to outwit each other, even though some of their actions are very much over the top. Rattigan’s evil scheme in a more realistic movie would never work, neither would Basil’s crazy math-skills be believable, but in the setting Disney picked, it’s just too enjoyable to nit-pick about plausibility. Parallels to the original stories are few and far between. There are the backgrounds of the main characters, the way Basil deducts Dr. Dawson during the first meeting and the ending, which could be seen as a version of the Reichenbach fall. It’s a little bit funny that Disney for once had every right to make sure the Basil survives, considering the A.C. Doyle created a version of the Disney death long before the animation studios even existed.
Speaking of which, the final fight between Basil and Rattigan is positively vicious. There are few scenes in Disney movies which come even close to be as brutal. Just look at Basil. He is beaten up and at one point out of options. Only the lucky timing is rescuing his life in the end.
One of the most common complains I have about Disney-movies is the pacing or the lack of focus. This movie knows exactly what kind of story it wants to tell, and it builds up the suspense perfectly. Not one filler scenes in this one, every story-line is tightly wrapped up towards the end, and when it comes to the climax, it delivers full scale. The Great Mouse Detective is also a rarity in the Disney Canon in that there isn’t any kind of love-story in it. The only other Disney movies without one I can come up from the top of my mind are Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, the Winnie the Pooh movies and, more recently, Big Hero 6.
5. The Soundtrack
I pointed this out already when I talked about the villain song, but “The World’s most Criminal Mind” is the first full-fledged villain song in the Disney canon. Oddly, though, it is the only song of this kind in the whole movie. The other two songs are both justified. “Let me be good to you” is sung by a performer during the bar scene and “Goodbye So Soon”, which doubles as Conclusion song, is originally picked by Rattigan as ironic commentary on Basil’s approaching demise. To a certain degree Rattigan’s song is justified, too, because the singing is more treated as part of Ratigan’s flamboyant personality. In any case, it is a masterpiece of built-up:
“From the brain that brought you the Big Ben Caper
The head that made headlines in every newspaper
And wondrous things like the Tower Bridge Job
That cunning display that made London a sob”
Note that the audience has no idea what crimes is he exactly talking about, but the inclusion of “Big Ben” and “Tower Bridge” suggests that they were big and impressive.
Now comes the real tour de force
Tricky and wicked, of course
My earlier crimes were fine for their times
But now that I’m at it again
An even grimmer plot has been simmering
In my great criminal brain
Here happens the first built up. The song starts with something which sounds impressive and then establishes that what we will see in the movie is even bigger than anything Rattigan did beforehand.
Even meaner? You mean it?
Worse than the widows and orphans you drowned?
You’re the best of the worst around
The rest fall behind
The world’s greatest criminal mind
Hold a minute…this guy is drowning widows and orphans? That’s worse than saying that he is routinely killing cute little puppies.
Thank you, Thank you. But it hasn’t all been
champagne and caviar. I’ve had my share of
adversity, thanks to that miserable second-rate
detective, Basil of Baker Street. For years, that
insufferable pipsqueak has interfered with my
I haven’t had a moment’s peace of mind. But, all
that’s in the past! This time, nothing, not even
Basil, can stand in my way! All will bow before
Note how the tune of the song changes here. The text is now spoken and doesn’t rhyme any longer, and Rattigan is playing the harp to great dramatic effect. The excitement is dimmed for a moment, just to come back even more effective.
You’re tops and that’s that
To Ratigan, the world’s greatest rat
What now follows is the demise of poor Bartholomew. Which is not directly part of the song, but underlines the point even further. We have heart how dangerous Rattigan is up to this point. But seeing how he kills one of his henchmen brings the point across even better. But what makes the whole matter truly terrifying is that in the aftermath, his other goons are singing even more with very forced smiles on their faces.
We’ll shout it!
No one can doubt what we know you can do
You’re more evil than even you
You’re one of a kind
The world’s greatest criminal mind
While this is the main villain song of the movie, in a way there is a second one. “Goodbye so soon” is played twice, once when Basil is trapped as a “last greeting” from Rattigan and once at the very end, as last greeting of the movie to the audience. The only difference is the tone in which the two versions are sung. Rattigan’s tone is mocking, while the chorus in the end is neutral.
Goodbye so soon
And isn’t this a crime?
We know by now that time knows how to fly
So here’s goodbye so soon
You’ll find your separate way
With time so short I’ll say so long
If you read this text out of context it sounds totally harmless. But in context there actually is a crime (a murder!) happening, and the time is not flying, it is running out for Basil and Dr. Dawson.
You followed me, I followed you
We were like each other’s shadows for a while
Now as you see, this game is through
So although it hurts, I’ll try to smile
As I say
What the text is describing is a circle of events which repeated itself again and again. The song itself is constructed in the same way, it can be sung in a loop at least until the vinyl is through. And the double meaning doesn’t stop there. In this case, it will certainly hurt, if Rattigan’s plan works. Thankfully someone else smiles in the end.
Yes, I know, I skipped “Let me be good to you”, but I felt that Rattigan’s songs belong together. Now, the last one left is a pure filler song. It serves no purpose whatsoever aside from creating some atmosphere and background noise for the scene. And it is an opportunity to get a lot of crap past the radar.
Dearest friends, dear gentlemen
Listen to my song
Life down here’s been hard for you
Life has made you strong
Let me lift the mood
With my attitude
So far, this is pretty harmless. Just a pretty girl singing a song, expressing understanding for the hardship of life. Until she takes of her first layer of clothing. Then the tune changes pretty quickly.
The time is right
Tonight’s the night
Boys, what you’re hopin’ for will come true
Let me be good to you
Mmmm….what exactly might a bunch of boys hoping for when they see a half naked female dancing on a stage? That’s right, Disney just put a promise for sex in one of their movies.
You tough guys
You’re feelin’ all alone
You rough guys
The best o’ you sailors and bums
All o’ my chums
Note how the text is addressing the crowd again. In-universe this is a very clever move, because it feels more intimate this way.
So dream on
And drink your beer
Your baby’s here
You won’t be misunderstood
Let me be good to you
And even more intimate, especially through the inclusion of the words “your baby”, which creates a connection between the singer and the crowd. While parents just hope that their children won’t get the connection between “let me be good to you” and sex.
I’ll take off all my blues
There’s nothin’ I won’t do
Just for you
Kitty wears nothing but blue. So we all know what will happen when she takes it all off. She even promises that she has no limits, suggesting whatever someone dreams of, she will do it.
So dream on
And drink your beer
Your baby’s here
Hey boys, I’m talkin’ to you
Your baby’y gonna come through
Let me be good to you
Note the addition of “Hey boys, I’m talkin’ to you” in the text, which addresses everyone in the audience on a personal level. In-universe and in the theatres.
I have to admit, I am really amused by the audacity of the song. And even more amused that despite the fact that some people are obsessed with discovering subliminal messages in Disney movies, this song often gets overlooked. Someone really had fun with this one.
And “fun” is really the best word to summon up the songs in this movie. They are designed to be over the top delightful. And every single one of them fulfils the brief perfectly. It was a good choice, though, to leave the singing mostly to Rattigan. I don’t think that musical numbers for every character would have fit the tone of the movie or Basil’s character.
6. The Conclusion
Sandwiched between box-office failure The Black Cauldron (I don’t care that the movie has some sort of a cult following by now, it will always be remembered as the one which lost against the Care-Bears) and the soulless merchandise machine which was Oliver and Company (I’ll go into detail about this one in a later review), also overshadowed by the more successful Don Bluth movie An American Tail, The Great Mouse Detective is often overlooked. But it shouldn’t be. It might not be as visually stunning as some of the later (and a few earlier) movies, but it’s nevertheless very pleasing to look at. It might not be the movie which started the Disney Renaissance, but it is the one which marked the end of the dark age of animation. Without the modest success of this one, The Little Mermaid wouldn’t even exist today. But its importance aside, this is simply a genuinely good movie. My lists of Sherlock Holmes adaptations I consider “well done” is very short, though the one I consider “Must watch” is, as you can see, a little bit longer, but The Great Mouse Detective will always have a spot on both of them.