The Great Mouse Detective is the best Disney movie you’ve never seen. Okay, that’s not entirely accurate, it’s a bit rough at times to call it “the best”, and at least some of you have seen it. It is, however, certainly one of the most underrated Disney flicks. The movie is based on the Basil of Baker Street books, which follows a genius mouse detective and his sidekick, if you’ve already realized the reference, yes Basil lives on that Baker Street, right underneath Sherlock Holmes’ place, to be more precise.
The movie opens at the turn of the century with young Olivia and her toymaker father. He is a master at toys involving complex gears and motion. He is then kidnapped, leaving Olivia orphaned and afraid. She is later found by Dr. Dawson while attempting to find the great Basil of Baker Street because of his reputation for solving crimes. Dawson helps her find Basil, and after a wild entrance and more than a little hesitation, Basil finds out that Olivia’s father has been taken by his nemesis, Ratigan.
Ratigan is a flashy rat who refuses to acknowledge he is one, and in fact, kills all those who call him that. He is also voiced by the incomparable Vincent Price, who delivers just… a fantastic performance through and through. Not only that, but Ratigan in and of himself is pretty interesting. Beyond the weirdness with his own status as a rat and desire for power, he also has a hair-trigger temper that he is seen as constantly trying to keep control of. He is fun and a bit interesting to watch, but there is something under there, and we are finally given a full view of it later.
Honestly, all of the characters are fantastic. Basil is a well-done interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. He is just rough enough around the edges to be similar to the source material but much more approachable for children. They could have leaned in hard, but it would have made his already stilted moments with Olivia even worse. Dawson is a great Watson analog. He is a bit bumbling and messes up a few times but is truly compassionate and far from serving only to bring Basil down. Either character could have been shifted, Dawson could have been even more of a hindrance, for instance, and it could have still fit in a kids’ movie but maybe made them too cartoonish. Olivia is adorable but thankfully not on screen enough that she falls into the “annoying kid that needs to be constantly rescued” trope too often. Instead, when she is put into danger, we still feel a bit of intensity because it hasn’t been overused.
The case itself is part of what is a little flat. It is not bad but underdeveloped for a more advanced audience, but the movie is not for a more advanced audience. It also feels slightly disconnected at times, as though certain scenes were planned but not always the how and why to get there. So while what is there is good, there seems to be a bit of a lack of flow at times. However, there is an effort put into keeping a bit of mystery alive and “how does he figure it out” to make the audience impressed with Basil, but not entirely leave them in the dust.
That being said, there are many really great moments in this movie, both from an animation and entertainment standpoint. The fight in the toy shop is impressive, with a lot of moving parts and great use of the setting, especially for hand-drawn animation of the 80s. Likewise, the clock tower fight is one of the best scenes I have seen from this era of Disney. It is cool looking, pretty intense for a kids movie, and just well-executed. I wish it were a little longer, but I certainly see why it was not.
It is not the most entertaining or consistent Disney movie, but from start to finish, it is fun and is different from a lot of the other movies in the lineup.
So why is it lesser known/appreciated? Well, kind of because it was different. Shortly following the death of Walt Disney himself, the Disney company entered what is known as “The Bronze Age.” This lasted from 1970-1988, with later movies like The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast started what is known as the Renaissance.
The Bronze Age is a bit of an odd time in Disney history, but one I feel is deserving of more love. The company itself was at a bit of a loss without Walt’s strong influence and was also sort of tired of fairytales. It was a largely experimental phase with stories and concepts that people at the time were not used to from Disney. We got movies like Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron (sadly a box office failure that marked the beginning of the end for this experimentation), Oliver and Company, and The Great Mouse Detective.
Aside from going away from traditional fairytales, the movies themselves were also a lot darker in nature. Now we had some pretty dark moments from Disney before that, hello Maleficent calling herself Satan and Cruella’s crazy face, but now the themes and tones were starting to shift. Themes of loss in a way that could not easily be fixed started to become common. Take, for instance, The Fox and the Hound, the happy ending to that movie is, by a lot of standards, not that happy. Yes, Todd and Copper make peace, but their friendship is over, Todd can never come home, and it took nearly killing Todd to get there.
The Great Mouse Detective is far from the darkest movie to come out of the bronze age, comparatively speaking, it’s downright happy. However, Ratigan stands out as being very “of the times” when you look at what came before. He openly and easily kills his own henchmen. He goes completely and violently mad at the end of the movie, and his goals and methods of achieving them are pretty twisted.
It also fits well in the Bronze Age due to its lack of overall “messaging” and instead is just a fun mystery. It is also disconnected from a lot of the other Disney movies. When you look at, say, The Silver Age and The Renaissance, while there were pretty drastic changes, it is easier to draw a line between Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and traditional fairytales to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
When you look at The Bronze Age, it’s hard to draw those same lines. Of course, every era of Disney is slightly related to each other, and you can see the shifts working together, but The Bronze Age was specifically marked by its experimentation in storytelling style. When that experimentation ended, a few voices even left Disney to find places that they could continue that tradition. Notably, Don Bluth worked for the Disney company both in the Silver and Bronze Age, but his own stories were never really told at Disney. And while they would have fit with Bronze Age classics, he likely wouldn’t have fit in with the Renaissance.
I think The Bronze Age is worth looking at more and the movies found there are often more approachable because of the way they shifted storytelling. There is more mystery, more intrigue a lot of times, and often heavier emotions and a more realistic look at what a “good” ending might actually be.
So bottom line? If you like Sherlock Holmes at all and haven’t seen The Great Mouse Detective, then I have to assume you have a hard line against kids movies (which is fine), or you just desperately need to fix this. If you have kids around the right viewing age, I think it’s a great little movie that is worth watching. And if you are a horror fan at all, you should watch for Ratigan. In the end, The Great Mouse Detective is honestly a fun movie, it shows its age a little, but it’s entertaining and one of the kids’ movies with a pretty big appeal. Also not the worst movie to watch on a loop for when children get in that phase. As for The Bronze Age, next time you are feeling nostalgic, try to look up some hits from then and give them a watch through the lens of “this was a time to experiment.”