27 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 26: The Great Mouse Detective

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It is rather astounding how many Disney animated features star mice. Sure, Fantasia and Fun and Fancy Free star Mickey, the mouse that started it all, but rodents pop up time and again in the films, all designed differently with a multitude of personalities. Dumbo's best friend and manager is one Timothy Q. Mouse, a huckster with a heart of gold and a mind for show business. Cinderella splits its narrative between the human protagonist's preparations for the ball and the exploits of little Jaq and Gus, who spend the duration of the picture escaping the clutches of Lucifier the cat. Meanwhile, the stars of The Rescuers are part of an international organization of mice sworn to help those in need. And now we find a thoroughly British society of mice in 1986's The Great Mouse Detective. The film is based on a book series by Eve Titus entitled Basil of Baker Street, which for a time remained the title of the film until the corporate overlords homogenized it, to the chagrin of the animators. The titular mouse is a Sherlock Holmes surrogate, living in fact beneath the great fictional detective (who himself makes a brief shadowy appearance, voiced by none other Basil Rathbone, whose dialogue was lifted from a previous Sherlock performance.) The plot revolves around a little girl named Olivia, whose father, an inventor, has been kidnapped by Basil's nemesis Professor Ratigan, played to the hammiest hilt by Vincent Price.

The Great Mouse Detective feels less like a continuation of the traditional Disney theatrical feature than the starting point (or ahem, the launchpad) for the studio's imminent dominance in syndicated television shows. A year after the film's release, Disney introduced DuckTales, a half hour cartoon show based upon the fantastic Uncle Scrooge comic series, written and drawn by one of the greatest artists ever to work for Disney, Mr. Carl Barks. DuckTales eventually became the anchor of the weekday block known as the Disney Afternoon. All of the shows originally presented under that moniker were well-produced, high flying adventures starring classic characters like Chip, Dale, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. To its advantage The Great Mouse Detective shares the syndicated shows' penchant for rip-roaring storytelling, but unfortunately the reason it is most reminiscent of the shows is because it basically looks like television. Almost all of the shots in the film are close or medium, there is very rarely a wide shot showing more than two characters, or any significant bit of landscape for that matter. Most images are dominated by a character framed from the chest up. This is a tactic used to cut down on production costs as there was less need to animate multiple things in any given frame or adequately fill in backgrounds.

However, there are moments worthy of the silver screen. The climactic chase sequence that sees Basil and Ratigan fighting among the gears housed in Big Ben is a wonderful piece of big screen action, with some stellar early CGI work. The two rodents, bathed in the yellow light leaking through the clock's face, are almost completely dwarfed by the mammoth spinning mechanisms they are dueling upon. There are other visual moments sprinkled throughout the film that show a dedication to craft and a knowledge of cinematic history. Early in the picture we get two different shots of hulking shadows looming into the frame. The first predator appears in the prologue and turns out to be Ratigan's lackey, Fidget, revealed to be a rather small bat, not the towering presence his shadow portended. A few scenes later Ratigan summons another creeping shadow to exact punishment on an insubordinate. This time however, the subverted expectation is itself subverted and instead of getting another small creature, the rotund feline that stalks into the frame is much larger than anything we would have expected. Its size is akin to the Imperial Star Destroyer that swallows the rebel ship in Star Wars. In fact, to complete the comparison, the cat swallows the henchman.

Speaking of henchmen, one of Ratigan's gang is none other than Bill the Lizard from Disney's Alice in Wonderland. His appearance is curious because, Fidget the bat excepted, all of Ratigan's men are mice. The cameo is more distracting than anything else. The same goes for a brief appearance by Dumbo as a figurine in a toy shop. Playing "spot the character" does nothing but pull us out of the narrative. The most subtle and clever character allusion is in the design of Sherlock Holmes's hound, Toby, who Basil uses to track down Fidget. The dog, whose design is Disney-fied through and through, does possess an overly familiar blue collar that subtly reminds one of another canine who helped solved a series of mysteries. This one went by the name of Scooby.

To its discredit, the film chooses to shoehorn in a couple of song and dance numbers of varying degrees of annoyance. The most tedious is a vampy performance of "Let Me Be Good to You" sung by a floozy in a dive bar for bilge rats. The song seems woefully out of place in the picture, in part because it is delivered in a robust Broadway style unfit for both the environs and the 1897 time period. The better of the two sequences is an expository introduction to Professor Ratigan, sung by his drunken henchmen, although this too wears out its welcome long before the last note is sung. The best musical moment in the picture is sung by Price himself and works well because it actually serves a purpose in the plot. Ratigan is, as his name implies, a rather less adorable rodent than our mouse protagonist. Being a rat causes the professor extreme shame and he hides it by putting on the airs of a foppish dandy. This is best exemplified by his recording of "Goodbye So Soon" which plays on a Victrola set to trigger a chain of homicidal destruction upon the captured Basil and his sidekick Dawson.

If you trim the expository introductions and the superfluous musical numbers, The Great Mouse Detective could be a stand-in for a solid two-part episode of Darkwing Duck, nothing more. That is not necessarily a knock against the picture, as it proves itself deft in pacing and competent in its action. However it does lack certain qualities that would propel it further up the list of Disney features. No desire is exhibited and the picture possesses a dearth of dreams. Meanwhile the trademark darkness, that reached its zenith with The Black Cauldron, has been excised completely. Professor Ratigan may be an entertaining villain but he instills nary a modicum of fear. In summation, The Great Mouse Detective is a bit like its protagonist, witty at times and occasionally charming, but ultimately cold and a little distant.

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