Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday at the Movies: Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective" (1986)

For those who couldn't tell from my hint last week, this week's movie is the Disney animated classic The Great Mouse Detective, featuring the wickedly good voice talents of the late Vincent Price. Younger audiences today might not recognize Price's name, but they've certainly heard his voice in Michael Jackson's Thriller and perhaps even in school in an audio-taping of selected works of Edgar Allan Poe. As a lover of classic Gothic horror (not to mention Poe), I've seen all his collaborations with director Roger Corman, but Price's role here as Pr. Ratigan (the mouse version of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Pr. Moriarty) is can't-miss. It was also a big risk for Disney--remember: Disney had a huge slump in the 70s and 80s which they didn't recover from until 1989's Little Mermaid. Their last feature film The Black Cauldron was a huge flop that critics slammed for being too dark and not the typical Disney fun. A mystery set in London's grim alleyways and pubs with Vincent Price of all actors doesn't really indicate a break from "too dark."

Did I mention that Vincent Price is so awesome that even in rodent film he has a trained pet cat to eliminate his enemies? Yeah, he's that badass.

However, the story--based on the Basil of Baker Street books, a sort-of retelling of Sherlock Holmes with mice--is reminiscent of such "animalized" versions of classic stories as Robin Hood. Black Cauldron was more esoteric in its source material, so it's likely this movie's Sherlock Holmes references made it easier for audiences to relate.

The Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of the mouse world.

The story begins with Olivia Flaversham, a the young daughter of a toy maker who has been kidnapped. When she is guided by a somewhat reluctant Dr. Dawson to Baker Street where the detective Basil lives beneath the famed Holmes, the three are immediately thrown into a partnership once Basil realizes the culprit is none other than Pr. Ratigan--his greatest nemesis. With the help of an adorable basset hound named Toby, Dawson's logic, Olivia's innocent curiosity and Basil's rather eccentric attention to detail, Ratigan's plots begin to unravel and a secret threat to the monarchy is unveiled.

Olivia, Dawson, and Basil.

Despite some rousing song-and-dance numbers from Price as Ratigan (possibly one of the best villain songs EVER in my opinion) and a great storyline, this movie has some questionable moments in it. They aren't bad, but are certainly questionable given the context of a children's movie. In fact, the first time I watched this film again as an adult was while baby-sitting and THANK GOD those kids' parents picked them up before the final third of movie or I would have had to explain this to a three and five year old:
Burlesque mouse stripper singing songs filled with innuendo whilst being leered and lusted over by the scum of a seedy London riverside pub--I need a parent here right now(Oh, that 80s sexual revolution)! But seriously, the song and burlesque number need to find their way into the next Sherlock Holmes movie. I nominate Dita von Teese.

The other scene is more just scary--in fact, it's probably one of the most frightening final battle sequences I've seen in an animated Disney film simply for the fact that it's very believable. It takes place inside Big Ben--in the gears and then on the clock face, during a thunderstorm nonetheless, and during the scene Ratigan seems to morph into this rabid, demonic-looking Mr. Hyde of a rodent. The animators show his fur and teeth raised and poised to kill, and he moves steathily--it almost reminds me of the way the Beast moves in Beauty and the Beast (perhaps an early inspiration?). I don't know how the burlesque number and the terror of the final scene went over my head as a child, but WOW--some dark, adult material for a kid's movie,eh?

The climactic battle on Big Ben.

All things considered, it really is a great movie and lots of fun. It may be a bit dark for Disney, but the mood is kept up by the music and the charm of the characters. A great nolstagia film, just be sure to be present as a parent if you're introducing it to younger kids. It's great for Disney fans as well as those who love a good Vincent Price film. And basset hound lovers:

He's sooooooo cute!

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