I was something of a latecomer to crime fiction. For most of my existence I kept away from detective novels, and the only TV crime drama that evoked any degree of interest from me was, um, the X-Files. While I did develop an interest in film noir, it took my discovery of G.K. Chesterton and his Father Brown stories for the genre as a whole to click for me.
But, like many of my adult interests, an early hint of it can be found in my childhood. You may indeed have identified my WordPress avatar as Basil, the titular character of Disney’s 1986 movie, The Great Mouse Detective. Coming out of that somewhat bleak period before the company’s 90s Renaissance, TGMD is often overlooked. And indeed, when stacked up against heavy-hitters like The Lion King and The Beauty and the Beast, the movie can seem a little underwhelming. But it kept me entertained as a kid, and as an adult I’ve had a continued fondness for it.
Anyhow, our protagonist is an obvious expy of Sherlock Holmes, who teams up with war veteran expy Dawson to save a kidnapped toymaker from the clutches of a fun-sized version of Professor Moriarty called Professor Ratigan. There isn’t much mystery moving the story: it’s just straight-up heroes vs villains, which is fine for what the film wants to be. While the success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is proof that kids can appreciate a mystery plot, my sneaking suspicion is that TGMD would only become bogged down if the writers attempted something like that.
Basil is a charming take on the Holmes persona. He’s self-absorbed and single minded, but not abrasively so. His intelligence and eccentricity doesn’t become inscrutability and inconsistency. He knows how to handle his alcohol, tobacco and firearms. I’ll take him over your average Disney prince or princess any day of the week. But beyond that, I find there’s something strangely heartening about having a Holmes character in a Disney movie.
You see, a lot of protagonist character arcs in children’s movies are generated by the tension of acceptance/non-acceptance, whether this is cashed out in romantic terms, in terms of pitting the individual against the community, or in terms of self acceptance. This is fine to a point, it can start to feel a bit…constrictive.
What I like about Basil is that he is an eccentric loner who has given himself over to his intellectual passions and who is extremely comfortable in his own skin. There’s neither a sense that, a) he is a tragic victim of a closed-minded society that does not recognize his gifts nor b) he is an emotionally stunted weirdo who really needs to get a girlfriend. I guarantee you that if TGMD were remade today, at least one of those tropes would make it into the script. So it’s nice that they threw a bone to the recalcitrant types in the audience; or at least it feels flattering to the sort of life I’ve slid into as an adult.
Then there’s Ratigan, memorably voiced by Vincent Price with a large helping of ham. Even though the movie isn’t really a musical, he even gets his own villain song, because, well, why not?
Basil and Ratigan don’t get much screen-time to play off each other, but they’re both entertaining in their own right.
The animation throughout is workmanlike, but does a decent job of evoking a fog drenched, Victorian England. But what stands out the most, visually, is the climactic showdown inside the Big Ben. If there is one part of the movie that elevates itself from good to great, it’s this; the climax is one of the most suspenseful sequences in animation, showing that a well constructed set piece doesn’t require flashy eye candy to be exciting (although it does feature an early example of CG).
Sure, I’m looking at this movie through rose-tinted glasses, and there are some things that just fall flat, but there are worse ways to spend some 70 odd minutes.