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Friday, May 25, 2012

Disneyear: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

After the disappointing failure of The Black Cauldron, the Disney studio had  to think of something to get back on their feet. The next film they did, The Great Mouse Detective, did a lot better than I think anyone would suspect of a film with this simpler, family-friendly nature. One thing, it cost a little over half of what the last film cost and it actually made almost 3x the cost back. It also was a hit with audiences and critics alike and to this day has a devoted fan base. Siskel and Ebert even gave the film his trademark "two-thumbs up" rating to this movie. It's also the first animated film with some CGI backgrounds. As such, the new senior management of the company were convinced that their animation department was still a viable enterprise and this set the stage for the Disney Renaissance in the future. Well, I'm gonna find out if this movie is still as fresh as my childhood memory claims it is or if it deserves to be killed with rat poison and adult cynicism.

The movie is set in Victorian London, where a little girl mouse's father is kidnapped by a bat with a peg leg and a broken wing. She finds a mouse named Dawson and with his help finds another one named Basil of Baker Street, who they believe can help find her father. Basil is basically the rodent equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, he lives in Holmes' house! So he and Dawson set off to find her father who Basil believes has been kidnapped by an evil criminal mastermind named Professor Ratigan (played by Vincent Price). His plan is to use the girl's father to make a robotic version of the mouse Queen of England to name him ruler of the empire during a knighting ceremony and using the girl as bait. After a rather intense final showdown on a clock tower, Basil outwits and defeats the Professor and reunites father and daughter, only to get another case by the end with Dawson as his permanent co-worker.

It's funny that just by reading my summary of the film, you'd ordinarily dismiss it as another one of those movies where there's little mice living like people in a big human world. Thankfully, there are just enough things to make it stand out from other films like The Rescuers for example. The focus and best aspect of The Great Mouse Detective is where it should be: the main hero and the main villain. Both of these characters deserve to be mentioned among Disney's best heroes and villains.

Let's start with Basil of Baker Street. Voiced by Barrie Ingram, this guy is everything we love about heroes. He's witty, he's egotistical, he's a jerk sometimes but with a good heart. He's also really frickin' smart but also can be foiled and gets instantly humbled once that happens. Speaking of intelligence, he really is arguably the smartest Disney character out there. It's one of those rare moments where I wish I was smarter just from watching him in action. I think the scene where he and Dawson get trapped really exemplifies this. Just watch it!

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Then there's the villain, Professor Ratigan, played by Vincent Price. What else do I even need to say? It's Vincent Price doing the voice of a Disney villain! According to Price, this was his favorite film to do and watching him in action, you can really see why. He's just having so much fun being evil and enjoys every last second of it. He sings, he giggles, he dances, he's just having so much fun! He's arguably just as smart as Basil and has the honor of outwitting him in previous occasions and once in the film. Normally, I'm against celebrities doing voices for animated films like this because in most cases, it's easy to tell that they're just doing a voice and not a character. However, I never got that from Vincent Price. He and the animation by Glen Keanne become one, it's just a fantastic performance. He and Basil just play each other off perfectly. I think it's on par with the epic rivalry of Captain Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II.

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There's also this great climax where the two rivals have a final showdown on Big Ben. If I recall correctly, it's the first time that Disney combined traditional animations with CGI backgrounds. Some of the angles that they capture and the pace of it is really suspenseful. That and the animation and sounds make it look like a painful fight. You feel some of these blows! I don't want to ruin the best part of the film here in case you haven't seen it yet, so instead, I give you a preliminary sketch by Glen Keane to set the mood for you.

Trust me, it's on par with the bear scene from The Fox and the Hound!

Everything else about the movie is surprisingly good. The animation's fun, the score and songs by the great Henry Mancini are delightful, the characters are good, it's just an all around fun and clever movie with good action and heart. I think it's pretty underrated as far as Disney films go. A few other films I have to review later usually get the credit for starting the Disney Renaissance in the near future, but it's really The Great Mouse Detective that got Disney started in the right direction. If you haven't seen it yet, go find it on DVD or Netflix or however it is you watch movies now. I personally recommend it.

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