This time nothing, not even Basil, can stand in my way. All will bow before me!
- Professor Ratigan, Basil the Great Mouse Detective
Although not one of the more successful animated Disney films, Basil The Great Mouse Detective has attracted a loyal following who believe that this is one of the better animated Disney films out there. Everyone speaks kindly and politely to each other, there is no bloodshed, minimal violence and of course animals in every corner.
Why? Because it's a film for the children of course! You want a remotely grown up cartoon, you watch The Secret Of NIMH, Watership Down or When the Wind Blows. But as a children's film, this works pretty well.
|Professor Ratigan||Vincent Price|
|Basil of Baker Street||Barrie Ingham|
|Dr David Q Dawson||Val Bettin|
|Olivia Flaversham||Susanne Pollatschek|
|Mrs Judson||Diana Chesney|
|Queen Mousetoria||Eve Brenner|
|Hiram Flaversham||Alan Young|
|Sherlock Holmes||Basil Rathbone|
|Dr Watson||Laurie Main|
The Making Of
I hope we never lose sight of one thing; this was all started by a mouse.
- Walt Disney
Following the colossal flop that was The Black Cauldron, a film that cost over $25 million to make and made very little back, Roy E Disney, son of Roy O Disney and Walt's nephew, was given control over Disney's animation department. As the Disney Corporation was in a period of financial difficulty, serious proposals to sell off Disney's assets and end the company had been considered.
Roy E Disney ensured that the Walt Disney Company was not split up, and worked closely with new chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to give the animation department a chance to prove itself. Katzenberg was keen to pursue a project that combined live action with animation like never before, which later became Who Framed Roger Rabbit1, yet with that film in slow development, Roy and Katzenberg were open to other suggestions.
A film based on the Basil of Baker Street books by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone had first been proposed in 1982. Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, John Musker and Ron Clements, all later credited as directing the film, met with Disney and Katzenberg, who agreed to greenlight the project. That the last successful film Disney had made, The Rescuers, had similar themes also helped Basil the Great Mouse Detective get the green light. Just as Basil the Great Mouse Detective involved the mouse queen living beneath the shadow of Buckingham Palace, The Rescuers had involved an international mouse organisation located inside the United Nations building2. Although it had this similarity in its favour, Disney's financial problems meant that the film was only given the go ahead on the proviso it met strict conditions. John Musker later recalled:
What Jeffrey said was, 'If you can make it in half the time you're used to, for half the money – go ahead'.
One of the things that had impressed Roy E Disney was that the film featured heroic mice. As the Walt Disney Company owed its success to a cartoon mouse, it seemed appropriate to have a rodent hero in a film that aimed to re-establish Disney animation's success.
Impressively, the film was made on budget and released in the summer of 1986, only a year after The Black Cauldron. Compared with earlier, more lavish films, its small budget and rush to be finished is apparent. For instance, in the pub sequence, it is obvious that the background characters are stationary. Also, the dialogue at the start of the film is quite prominently out of sync, not matching up to the characters' mouth movements. For Disney, this basic error is silly. Yet the story is well told and funny, and also foretold things to come with the climactic clock tower sequence.
Although in the UK the film has always been known as Basil the Great Mouse Detective, in America the film was originally released as The Great Mouse Detective, and since has been renamed The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective. The title was unpopular with the animators behind the film, who always felt that the title should be Basil of Baker Street, following the books. They had spent considerable time and effort in implying at the start of the film that the heroes are human in order to surprise the audience that it is all about mice, only for this twist to be ruined by the unwanted title.
Animator Ed Gombert wrote a satirical interoffice memo, stating that in line with the decision to rename Basil of Baker Street, previous Disney films would be renamed too, including Seven Little Men Help a Girl (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly (Dumbo) and A Boy, a Bear, and a Big Black Cat (The Jungle Book).
Here be Plot
It is London in 1897, on the eve of the Royal Diamond Jubilee. A certain Scottish toy-making mouse, Mr Flavisham, is kidnapped in front of his daughter Olivia (who enjoys pronouncing everything she says syllable by syllable). In desperation the child goes out looking for Basil of Baker Street and is found by an old mouse named Dawson, who takes her to Basil, who lives at 221½ Baker Street, a mouse hole beneath the home of Sherlock Holmes.
Soon they go off searching for daddy, following the trail of Fidget the bat who, in between stealing tools, cogs and uniforms, has conveniently left a few clues behind by accident. Fidget is the henchman of the fiendish Professor Ratigan (the baddy). They follow Fidget through a toy shop, end up in a bar appropriately named the Rat Trap, and after a fight get literally trapped when they are captured by Ratigan. And then the motive behind Ratigan's atrocity is made clear...
Now, in describing that, a few things become apparent.
First, stereotypes. The good people have the sort of posh English accents that everyone in America thinks are prevalent in the UK, which is at least better than sounding like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Basil sounds a bit like John Cleese at times, and rolls his 'r's like Johnny Rotten. Whereas the accent attempts work well with Basil, they sound a bit silly at times with Dawson. Basil's maid Mrs Judson is the worst!
Still, Basil's got it all. Looks, voice and wit. Basil is charming, suave and dashingly clever and has a smart accent. You watch that film and when Basil and Dawson narrowly escape death, Basil grabs Dawson and Olivia and, saying 'smile everyone', grins to the camera, you can't help smiling yourself.
Ratigan is the typical Disney bad boy - charismatic, dopey with his plans ('I'll just explain how you can escape from my trap, Basil') and very melodramatic. Ratigan, who plans to become the supreme ruler of all Mousedom, loves all the trappings of being a baddy. Suave, sophisticated and selfish, he is at home both playing the harp and casually executing someone for a minor faux pas. For Ratigan doesn't like being called a rat, which becomes the downfall leading to the bumping off of a certain character called Bartholomew. Bartholomew spends barely a few minutes on screen, and he's drunk all the time. When he calls Ratigan a rat, this likeable comic character shockingly gets eaten by Ratigan's pampered cat Felicia3.
Ratigan is enthusiastically played by Vincent Price, who splendidly gives the character charm and menace. When interviewed about his performance, Price simply stated, 'I just wanted to do it – he's the ultimate villain'. It is also the first time that horror-film legend Price sang on film. Sadly the character is never really explored, and we never learn why Ratigan goes into such a rage when he is called a rat. Ratigan certainly has a ratlike appearance, being much bigger than the other mice and having a banded tail.
Also typical of Disney, corny musical bits. Though not a musical, there are three songs. Just for the kids to grin and bear it. But here, the first song's fun, the second one's cheesy and you barely hear the last one, except on the end credits. So that's alright.
Only the first song, 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind' is a sing-along, with a brief interlude for murder. The middle song, 'Let Me be Good to You', sung in the film by a showgirl in the Rat Trap seedy bar, was written and performed by Melissa Manchester and the third, 'Goodbye So Soon' is heard on a record playing in the background, but reprised in the end credits. The music, first and third songs were composed by Enrico 'Henry' Mancini, one of the greatest film composers of all time. This was the first animated film he had written the score for, although he is most famous for composing the music for The Pink Panther, which accompanied the films' animated opening sequences.
At the time the film was made, one of the most successful cartoons on television both sides of the Atlantic was Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, like Basil, lived in Baker Street in London, though in a postbox in the present day. There is also a resemblance between Danger Mouse's Penfold and Basil's Dawson.
The influence of earlier Disney films also can be seen in the film. The toy shop looks very similar to Geppetto's in Pinocchio, and even contains a Dumbo toy, even though the film is set in 1897 and the character of Dumbo was created in a story published in 1939 and made famous by a 1941 film. Like Dumbo, Basil the Great Mouse Detective was a cheap film made following the failure of an earlier, more ambitious one. The plot, which hinges on the creation of a clockwork robotic duplicate of Queen Mousetoria, was perhaps influenced by Walt Disney's determination to make an animatronic Abraham Lincoln. He and his creative team of Imagineers manufactured a life-size Lincoln for the 1964 New York World's Fair.
It isn't just Sherlock Holmes that inspired the heroic Basil. At the end of the film, Basil and Dawson ride in a balloon made out of ordinary balloons wrapped up in a Union Jack flag. This is very similar to the ending of the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy, in which Bond and Q ride in a Union Flag hot air balloon. Ratigan would make an effective Bond villain and sets a typically complex death trap, which only a hero like Bond can escape.
Home Sweet Holmes
Like the book series it is based on, the film is littered with references to Sherlock Holmes. Many of the characters have similar names to their counterparts created by Arthur Conan Doyle. So Dr David Q Dawson is based on Dr John Watson, Mrs Judson was inspired by Mrs Hudson and Professor Ratigan is a rat-equivalent of Professor Moriarty. Basil4 himself is named after Basil Rathbone, who famously played Sherlock Holmes in 14 films made between 1939 and 1946. He had also narrated the Wind in the Willows segment of Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949).
Basil Rathbone again voices Sherlock Holmes in this film. The soundclip comes from an audio book recording he had done of The Red-Headed League, as part of his Five Cases of Mr. Sherlock Holmes record series. Rathbone himself had died in 1967. Basil's appearance too was inspired by Basil Rathbone, and Basil has many of Holmes' trademarks, including wearing a deerstalker hat, playing the violin, using a magnifying glass to search for clues and smoking a curved pipe5.
The crowning glory of the film is the fight between Basil and Ratigan inside the clock tower known as Big Ben6. As is typical of Disney films, the film has a fight at the end with the hero facing certain death, but ultimately winning. Unusually for a Disney film, the hero, Basil, gets beaten up and his clothes torn. This, coupled with his look of determination, makes him seem even more heroic. After anthropomorphically staying upright since the start of the film, in this sequence Basil and Ratigan both begin running on four legs, and Ratigan actually looks like a rat. With their clothes shredded (and nearly clean off with Ratigan), for the first time in the film the characters look like animals.
In the tower of Big Ben, the climax has Basil and Olivia face the evil Ratigan while the clock's complex cogs and counterweights, gears and wheels surround them. This highly stunning, visual sequence was revolutionarily animated with the aid of a computer.
The sequence was the first time a Disney film blended computer graphics and hand-drawn characters together, and it was only the second Disney animated film featuring computer generated imagery7. The inside of the clock tower, with the positions of the numerous clockwork cogs, was designed, mapped and created on the computer, allowing the animators to choose different angles from which to view the scene. This allowed the sequence to feature sweeping and tracking shots unknown at the time in animated films. To animate the sequence on screen, rather than using a printer, a mechanical pen holder drew the cogs' positions in each frame's chosen angle onto paper. The resulting picture was transferred onto an animated cel and then hand-coloured. This ensured that the hand-drawn characters would seamlessly match the cogs' appearance, which would not have happened had printing been used.
The Pixar film Cars 2 pays homage to this sequence, by also featuring a thrilling climax involving the cogs and clockworks of the famous London tower, now renamed Big Bentley.
Basil the Great Mouse Detective was a modest financial success. Though it was beaten at the box office by rival animated film An American Tail made by Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth, it did prove that Disney were still able to make profitable animated films cheaply and quickly. This instigated a change in Disney's policy in which animated films began to be made annually rather than every three or four years. So though not one of Disney's greatest films, it was a key step in the journey to Disney's greatest period of success that followed soon after, beginning with Who Framed Roger Rabbit and continuing with the remarkable string of hits The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
The film also shares many similarities with the subsequent 1989 television series Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers which featured two main mice characters, Gadget and Monterey Jack. Like Basil, The Great Mouse Detective's climactic balloon scene, Rescue Rangers also has a flying balloon airship.
So, to put it bluntly, an ideal showing for any furry fan who doesn't take anything too seriously.