THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986 DISNEY ANIMATED FILM)
A Sherlock Movie Review - Written by Sloane Jensen
[Note: contains minor spoilers]
Before I begin this review, I would like to state up front that I have not seen every single Sherlock series/film adaption. There are many of them, and some of them more popular and well-known while some others are quite obscure. The film I am reviewing belongs, I believe, in the latter category, and I wish to review it from a Sherlockian perspective and bring it to the wider attention of other Sherlock Holmes fans.
The film is called ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ and it is a 1986 Disney animated film. It takes place in London, England in 1798. In this world, intelligent, anthropomorphic mice have constructed their own parallel society that mirrors the Victorian human one. They wear clothes, conduct business, have houses, flats, pubs and a palace for their Queen, Mousetoria (which is built within Buckingham Palace). They seem to live peacefully and without conflict (though they endeavor to stay under the radar) with their human-counterparts and are like them in every regard except that they are mice.
The Sherlock Holmes of this mouse world is a young mouse named Basil (in tribute to Basil Rathbone) who lives right under the Great Detective’s own 221B. Whether Basil is a natural-born Holmes in his own right or has decided to take on the habits and works of the human Holmes he lives with is open to debate – but I am pleased to report that, in spite of the fact that he is a rodent, this ‘Basil of Baker Street’ is one of the most Canonically-correct (not to mention just plain delightful) portrays of Sherlock Holmes I have yet seen.
While the storyline and plot are not on par with any of Doyle’s Sherlock stories (though they do contain elements from various tales), it is an engaging and entertaining movie nonetheless. The film opens without credits and plunges into the action right away. A widowed mouse named Hiram Flaversham (who is a toymaker by trade) is about celebrate the birthday of his eight-year old daughter Olivia, who is his only child. But their celebration is abruptly shattered when Hiram is suddenly abducted by a hideous bat – a scene which have must have scared the crap out of child audiences country-wide back in the day. But this is old Disney (and kids were apparently tougher back then, or at least given more credit) and in this film it is the characters and how they interact with each other that makes this such a memorable movie. Little Olivia gets lost trying to find Basil of Baker Street to help her search for her father, is discovered by the kind Dr. ‘Dawson’, who is looking for a place to live, and together they go visit the great mouse detective. The rest is history.
The character of Olivia could have been very bratty, very annoying, and very underfoot – but, in spite of all the unpleasant things that happen to her throughout the film, she remains a sweet, cute, defiant and positive character whose love and worry for her father is the main driving force behind her actions. It is always nice to see a father-daughter relationship portrayed in a positive, non-dysfunctional way and I was quite edified by it (being a ‘daddy’s girl’ myself). Olivia is one of the most likeable child-characters I have watched in an animated film. She is adorable and innocent in a natural, non-forced kind of way, and I am pleased that some effort was made to make her a truly genuine and sympathetic person.
The character of Dr. Watson (called Dawson) is modeled mostly after Nigel Bruce. He is rather short and has an extensive waistline. Unlike Nigel, however, he does not stammer as much, rarely bumbles and does not fall asleep in arm-chairs while on watch-duty. Still, it is rather difficult to imagine him as an army surgeon who has seen combat in Afghanistan. He is amazed by Basil, who runs rings around him – yet he is a loyal and faithful friend, and both he and Basil comfort and inspire each other when each mouse is at their respective low points, which is what any incarnation of Watson should be and do.
Then there is Professor Ratigan, the Moriarty of the mouse-world (known in the Canon as the ‘giant rat of Sumatra’). He is voiced by Vincent Price, and is quite a spectacular – and underrated – villain. His criminal goals and plans are wider and more far-reaching then his human-counterpart (Mycroft would not have failed to appreciate him; sadly, the older Holmes brother does not appear in this film). Ratigan is indeed a huge, ugly rat – and he hates being reminded of the fact – and seeks to rule over his weaker, smaller and more gullible mouse relatives. He is sarcastic, cruel and cunning, with an intellect and an ego to match that of the detective Basil. He smokes, wears flamboyant clothing, plays the harp, amasses treasure, deals out brutal punishment to the cronies that displease him and takes the BBC Jim Moriarty’s popular ”honey, you should see me in a crown” statement to even grander levels. Although he is styled as a ‘professor’ his character has more in common with other Canon-villains such as Culverton Smith (‘The Dying Detective’) and Count Sylvius (‘The Mazarin Stone’) then with Canon-Moriarty. It is hard to picture him as a professor of anything. Vincent Price really gets into his role and Ratigan is a impressive and worthy foe of Basil.
And finally there is Basil himself, the Sherlock of Mousedom. Although the movie is rather short and fast-paced, the person of Basil manages to encompass almost all of the key character-traits that Canon-Holmes is endowed with. Often, in many Sherlock film adaptions, more focus to directed on Sherlock’s depression, drug use, and his emotions and relationship-issues concerning John Watson. The lighter, more exuberant, more humorous and kinder side of the Great Detective is not always depicted as much as it should. Basil makes up for this lack. Form the moment we first meet him, we are seeing an incarnation of Holmes in all his eccentric, work-devoted detective glory: his cleverness in his disguises, his crazy, unsafe ballistic-experiments, his love of chemistry, his stylish way of dressing, his rapid-fire deductions and his fierce determination to land Ratigan behind bars is wonderfully depicted. His ego, his arrogance, his intelligence, his living habits, his self-control, his dislike of affectionate physical contact, his charm and even his skill with the violin is also marvelously showcased. This mouse-Sherlock is full of energy and workaholic passion. He is entertaining and engaging – and coming from an animation studio that often makes the main heroes boring compared to the main villains, this is high praise; but then again, this IS Sherlock Holmes we are dealing with – the man has so much personality that one would have to go intentionally out of the way in order to make him a loser of a character. As far as accurate portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in cinema go, Basil certainly delivers.
Another strength this movie has is that it stays focused on its central theme: the rivalry between Basil and Ratigan. Both are smart, both are egotistic, both are sophisticated and classy, both are passionate about their life-goals and missions, and they both hate each other’s guts. Basil has hindered Ratigan in his plans before, but has failed to bring full justice upon him and is very frustrated by this fact; Ratigan is still at liberty, yet he hates Basil for meddling in his affairs, and is haunted by the idea that Basil might still ruin his great master-plan of mouse-world domination. Here we have a hero and a villain who are on an even playing-field, both in skills and personality and they each squander no opportunity to torment the other. In the film’s climatic – and brutal – version of the ‘Reichenbach‘ scene the kid-gloves come off and Basil and Ratigan are exposed for what they both inwardly are. Ratigan is revealed as a bestial creature of pure savagery – a true ‘rat’ in every sense of the word, with no mercy or heart. Basil, for all his intelligence and his superior mind, is shown to be someone who is willing to sacrifice his life for someone else – a brave mouse with a great heart as well as a great brain, which is something that is often lost in modern translations and adaptations concerning the master detective.
The final thing about this film that makes me praise it so highly is that is the character of Sherlock Holmes – via Basil – is shown to child-audiences in a very complete and thorough way, with all his strengths and faults and all his uniqueness and specialness intact – and still there is room for further character-development as Basil is gently more humanized as Olivia slowly wiggles her way into his heart. There is no romance in this story and Basil remains one of the few Disney-heroes with no love-interest (an impressive feat for Disney and a score for the character of Sherlock), yet there is much love in the friendship the three mice – Basil, Dawson and Olivia – share. All-in-all, it is an adventurous and heartwarming movie, and I highly recommend it to any Sherlock fan and any fan of classic Disney who is looking for something uplifting and edifying to watch.
A five-star movie with a five-star Sherlock, and one that is quite easy to find and buy. I hope this review brings it some wider recognition in the Sherlockian world and other devoted fans of the Great Detective enjoy it as much as I do.
Sloane Jensen is a 25 year-old Sherlock Holmes fan who lives in the USA in the State of Colorado. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding and hanging about the house in pajamas and a bath robe when not at work. She is grateful for more serious, Canon-respecting Sherlock sites like this one and is pleased to be able to submit her writings to the 'Sherlock-Sherlockian' English-site. Her favorite Sherlock actors are Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Basil Rathbone in that order. Her favorite Sherlock short-story is 'The Dying Detective'.