THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Great Mouse Detective’

The one that sparked a revolution.

As newly-minted Disney President, Ron Miller began his reign in 1980, many hoped a member of the Disney family (Miller was Walt’s son-in-law) could leader the studio back to its former glory. Just four years later, Miller would be unceremoniously booted out of the top job, as covered in my piece on The Black Cauldron. But in the midst of the chaos surrounding the production that pending disaster, Miller would also greenlight another animated project which would prove to a gamechanger.

In the mid-1970s, veteran Disney layout artist Joe Hale had floated the idea of adapting Eve Titus’ children’s book series Basil of Baker Street into an animated feature. Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, Basil of Baker Street focused on the titular mouse and his adventures solving mysteries with his personal biographer, Doctor David Q. Dawson. But studio executives felt the project too closely resembled its upcoming release The Rescuers, and it was promptly shelved.

By the early 1980s, Miller was encouraged by the progress of The Black Cauldron, but anxious over the fact the studio did not have another more traditional animated tale in the pipeline. After animators Ron Clements and John Musker left the production of The Black Cauldron in 1982 due to creative differences with the film’s producer, Clements pitched the idea of adapting Titus’ series to Miller through a 15-minute animated short, created by story artist Pete Young.

Desperate for an alternative project for those animators not currently working on The Black Cauldron, Miller greenlit the adaptation and assigned Clements and Musker to direct the project, alongside storyboard artists Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener. This marked the first directorial collaboration of Clements and Musker, who would go on to direct several Disney animated features (including one in the not-too-distant future starring a mermaid) and still continues to this day.

Just as pre-production was getting underway in 1984, Miller was ousted from the top job, with Michael Eisner stepping in as CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg as the new head of Walt Disney Pictures. One of the duo’s first tasks was to review all projects currently in production, particularly those in the lagging animation department. After a story reel screening of Basil of Baker Street in 1985, Eisner and Katzenberg were not impressed with the story’s pacing and demanded a rewrite of the script before animation could commence. Nor did they like the film’s title.

After Paramount’s 1985 live-action film Young Sherlock Holmes flopped at the box office, Eisner was concerned over the connections of using Baker Street in the title of Disney’s animated adaptation. Likewise with including the name Basil, which he deemed to be too British sounding and likely to alienate American audiences. As such, he retitled the film to The Great Mouse Detective, much to the chagrin of the entire production team. Strangely, the film was released as Basil the Great Mouse Detective in several countries including Australia.

It spurned a now-infamous cheeky interoffice memo where animator Ed Gombert renamed several Disney classics with generic titles including Seven Little Men Help a Girl, The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly, The Little Deer Who Grew Up, The Girl with the See-through Shoes, Two Dogs Fall in Love, Puppies Taken Away, and A Boy, a Bear and a Big Black Cat. When the memo was discovered by Vice President of Walt Disney Feature Animation Peter Schneider, he furiously attempted to find the author and have them fired, but the animators kept quiet.

With the budget of The Black Cauldron already spiralling out of control, Eisner slashed the projected budget of Basil of Baker Street from a modest $24 million to a paltry $10 million. In a curious move that angered the animators, Eisner also moved the release date from Christmas 1987 to July 1986, giving the production team just one year to complete the final film. It was a decision which would ultimately inspire a revolution of animation.

With such little time to complete their work, animators turned to the new invention of computer-generated imagery (now commonly known as CGI) to assist with crafting the complicated climactic sequence set in the interior of London’s Big Ben. Originally, the sequence was to take place on the clock hands, echoing the famous scene from Peter Pan. However, layout artist Mike Peraza suggested to Musker the finale would work better inside the clock face itself.

Peraza was inspired by the climactic sequence in the 1979 Japanese anime film The Castle of Cagliostro, which marked the debut of legendary animator Hayo Miyazaki, in which the characters ventured inside the turning gears of a clock tower. After Musker approved the change, Peraza and his team ventured to London where they were granted unprecedented access inside Big Ben to shoot video reference footage. As the bells of Big Ben chimed at every quarter-hour, the team had to hastily exit every 12 minutes to avoid the deafening sound within the clock’s chambers.

Animators Phil Nibbelink and Tad Gielow spent months designing the intricate gears of the clock tower as wire-frame graphics on a computer, which were then printed out and traced over on animation cels. The process saved the studio hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of animation work. As such, The Great Mouse Detective would stand as the first Disney animated film to extensively use computer animation; a process that would soon revolutionise the entire art form.

To further keep production costs low, the animators fell back on an old tactic Disney hadn’t employed since the 1950s. Within each scene, no more than two characters moved at any given time, generally against completely static backgrounds. Even in scenes involving large crowds, such as a sequence inside a London pub, the background characters remained completely still, often appearing as little more than silhouettes. The character designs featured thick black lines to eliminate the need for costly, intricate detailing, which damaged the film’s overall aesthetic but allowed the producers to adhere to Eisner’s strict budget.

After auditioning numerous British actors, Royal Shakespeare actor Barrie Ingham won the role of Basil after only six minutes into his audition. The recorded audition was so remarkable, a portion of it was used in the final film. For the film’s antagonist Professor Ratigan, the studio cast horror movie legend Vincent Price in the role. Despite his notoriety, Price was still required to audition, which he happily obliged, later noting, “If anybody but Disney had asked me, I would have been offended.” By all accounts, Price had long wanted to voice a Disney villain, yet had strangely never been approached.

When The Great Mouse Detective was first screened to the Motion Picture Association of America for classification, they took exception with the film’s rather risqué can-can dance sequence inside the pub (we’ll get to that shortly) and a scene involving an inebriated mouse, which could be seen as promoting alcohol to children. As such, they handed the film a PG rating. While Disney accepted the same rating for The Black Cauldron, given it was targeted at an older demographic, they appealed the MPAA’s decision, fearing it would damage the film’s potential box office. The studio argued given the drunk mouse eventually suffers an unfortunate fate, it ultimately promoted an anti-alcohol message. Surprisingly, the MPAA agreed and the classification was lowered to G.

The Great Mouse Detective was released on July 2, 1986, to generally positive reviews. Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert gave the film their famous “two thumbs up” rating, with Siskel praising the film as the “most truly memorable animated feature in 25 years” and Ebert declaring it “looks more fully animated than anything in some 30 years.” London’s Time Out magazine called the climactic showdown “breathtaking,” while The New York Times praised the film as being “witty and not overly sentimental.”

The film was a remarkable box office success, ultimately grossing over $50 million worldwide against a final budget of $14 million, making it one of Disney’s most profitable films in years. After the disastrous failure of The Black Cauldron, the success of The Great Mouse Detective convinced Eisner and Katzenberg the animation department could still prove to be a great asset for the company.

It’s unlikely you’ll hear many fans and critics discuss The Great Mouse Detective in the 21st century. As popular as it may have been in 1986, the film has mostly faded away over the last three decades, which is a mighty shame because it’s a terrific little gem. While it’s abundantly clear how little was spent on its production budget, the film still manages to offer a wonderfully entertaining narrative filled with a hefty helping of charming characters.

While the film is naturally focused on its titular detective, the real star here proves to be Ratigan, who stands as one of the more adept and crafty villains of this difficult period of Disney history. With echoes of future Disney villain greats like Ursula, Jafar, and Scar, Ratigan steals focus in every single scene, even going so far as to sing an entire extravagant musical number about how incredible he is.

And he’s a damn menacing villain too, typified by his decision to feed one of his subordinates to a cat, purely because the drunken mouse mistakenly called Ratigan a rat, which, let’s be honest, he clearly is. In a piece of inspired casting, Price is magnificent in a role he was clearly born to play. Ratigan is rarely mentioned as one of the great Disney villains, but there’s something so wonderfully devilish about an antagonist who leaves his nemesis to die in a mousetrap but not before popping on a record playing a song entitled “Goodbye So Soon,” recorded by the villain himself. Showmanship at its finest.

Now about that aforementioned can-can sequence. Only in the 1980s could you stick an animated mouse, wearing a corset and garter, in a musical sequence that can only be described as a borderline striptease and somehow still walk away with a G rating. The song “Let Me Be Good to You” is equally as suggestive, with lyrics including “Boys, what you’re hopin’ for will come true” and “Hey fellas, there’s nothin’ I won’t do, just for you.” Yikes.

Written and performed by pop star Melissa Manchester, the song is painfully similar to “Let Me Entertain You” from the musical Gypsy, which, unsurprisingly, is also set to a striptease. Look, nothing overtly sexual happens in this scene and it’s terrifically saucy fun, but it’s genuinely staggering Disney both included it in their family-friendly film and somehow got it by the classification board.

As a moment of genuine artistic progression, the sequence inside Big Ben is unlike anything Disney had crafted before. The revolutionary effect computer animation had on the creation of this one scene is abundantly clear to anyone with a set of eyeballs. In a film of generally dull animation, the climax practically leaps off the screen, with a calamity of turning gears creating a genuinely thrilling sequence that wraps the film up in magnificent fashion. Even with one scene, it was obvious Disney animation was about to progress to a whole new level.

And that’s the ultimate legacy of The Great Mouse Detective. It gave both the animators and studio executives the confidence to allow Disney to continue pursuing animated feature films. Once again, we see the animation studio on the precipice of collapse, only to be saved by the endeavours of one little film that could. The Great Mouse Detective opened the door to the future, and the future for Disney animation was suddenly looking bright again.

Is The Great Mouse Detective a Disney Classic? It’s hardly a film most remember nowadays. However, in an era of several disappointing films, The Great Mouse Detective proved to be a breath of fresh air that evoked the classic sensibilities of Disney’s past, while pushing towards its impending revival. This is an underrated Disney Classic that deserves more love than it receives.

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