Hits and misses of “The Great Mouse Detective” (DeDisneyfication, Part 11)
I turned my attention to The Great Mouse Detective (GMD) recently. I didn’t see this film when it came out; in fact, I don’t even remember it coming out. Regardless, the film was both critically acclaimed and financially successful, with the worldwide box office for its original 1986 release reaching over 50M USD, more than three-and-a-half times its budget.
Many point to the film as, if not the first film in the Disney renaissance, at least preparing the way for it. According to Disney itself, the movie laid the groundwork for the runaway blockbusters to come in three key ways:¹
[I]t had great music, utter commitment to its concept, and a willingness to innovate technologically.
Still, similar to Wordle, GMD is more or less a copy of a copy of a copy. The film was based on a series of books called Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus. This was intended to be the title of the movie as well, until a fairly strange decision was handed down to the studio to change it. Story artist Ed Gombert lampooned the move with a memo suggesting renamings for Disney’s other animated classics:²
- Seven Little Men Help a Girl
- The Wooden Boy Who Became Real
- Color and Music
- The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly
- The Little Deer Who Grew Up
- The Girl With the See-Through Shoes
- The Girl In the Imaginary World
- The Amazing Flying Children
- Two Dogs Fall In Love
- The Girl Who Seemed To Die
- Puppies Taken Away
- The Boy Who Would Be King
- A Boy, a Bear and a Big Black Cat
- Robin Hood with Animals
- Two Mice Save a Girl
- A Fox and a Hound Are Friends
- The Evil Bonehead
Apparently, the directive came from Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose takeaway from the box-office flopping of Amblin’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) was the fictional detective’s pull wasn’t so great. This type of arbitrary-feeling decision making mirrors my own experience with the infamous marketing department at Sega. One of my games, The Ooze, featured innovative gameplay and a unique look and feel, but its sales were unquestionably hurt by the hideous cover art and terrible tagline—“Yuck, what a slob!”—they attached to it. Mark Cerny, who ran my studio, Sega Technical Institute (STI), prior to my arrival relates the tale of Sonic the Hedgehog:³
[N]o feedback had arrived from Sega of America’s marketing group, so I asked if they had any comments for the team. I heard, I kid you not, that the characters were “unsalvageable,” that this was a “disaster,” and that “procedures would be put in place to make sure that this sort of thing would never happen again.” These “procedures” included a proposed “top ten list of dos and don’ts” to follow when making products for the American market. Additionally, I was told that the marketing group would be contacting a known character designer (I won’t reveal the name, but it made me cringe at the time) to make a character that showed exactly what the American market needed. Needless to say, this character designer would have been totally inappropriate for the Japanese market. Not that great for the American market either, I suspect.
In the case of GMD, it’s hard to tell what the effect of the name change was. The source series ran to five books by the time of the film, with a further three being written by a different author, Cathy Hapka, in more recent years, the latest published in 2020, so there certainly must be a fanbase. Objectively, the original name has more flavor, and Gombert’s genericized parody names are well targeted, as they apparently pissed off Katzenberg mightily. And while the box-office performance of the film was good, it pales in comparison with The Little Mermaid.
I’ve already spoiled the reveal, but of course the books themselves were referencing the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. The name Basil was a reference both to an alias Holmes used in some of the original tales, as well as to Basil Rathbone, probably still the detective’s most famous portrayer with a series running to 14 films.
Backing up yet another step, even Doyle acknowledges his works were strongly influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin, beginning with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Doyle remarked of Poe’s detective stories:⁴
[E]ach is a root from which a whole literature has developed…. Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?
To be clear, the answer is nowhere. Poe literally invented the genre. Dupin’s techniques of careful observation and analysis, termed ratiocination, strongly influence those of Holmes, and some of his personality quirks do as well. In addition, as one of his biographers noted:⁵
Poe’s detective stories use several devices that are now so familiar that they are taken for granted. […] The stories are told in the first person, not by Dupin, but by an unnamed narrator who lacks the brilliant detective’s ratiocinative abilities. […] Another of Poe’s devices comes at the end of the tales, when Dupin announces his surprising solution and then explains the reasoning leading to it.
Disney, naturally enough, does nothing with this legacy. GMD is, in fact, not a proper detective tale at all. In order to track Fidget (Candy Candido), Professor Ratigan’s (Vincent Price) henchman, they use Holmes’ dog Toby rather than following any clues. And it’s probably better that way, as in the subsequent sequence, Ratigan’s lair is pinpointed partly using chemical analysis as the only place in London there’s a bar where the sewer meets the saltwater (!) Thames river.
There is a bit of a mystery as to why Ratigan kidnaps Mr. Flaversham (Alan Young), a toymaker, and gathers tools, gears, and toy soldier uniforms. But there isn’t ever a real crime to solve apart from the abduction and there’s only ever one suspect, Ratigan—an obvious analog of Professor Moriarty of the Holmes tales, who they even term “the Napoleon of Crime”. An actual detective story using the same elements would have started with the Queen’s (Eve Brenner) announcement of Ratigan as her royal consort, and then had Basil (Barrie Ingham) use clues to figure out why. Instead, we see all the steps and the crime occurs an hour into the movie.
Where Disney, and its fluffy critics say GMD borrows draws more from Bond film tropes, I agree, but in more of a classic Batman TV show realization thereof. We get an archvillain with a bevy of henchmen of whom he demands total loyalty punishable by being fed to a cat. Basil and Dawson (Val Bettin) fall into his clutches and he leaves them immobilized in a Rube Goldberg contraption, from which they narrowly escape with their lives. He has an excessively complex master plan foiled by Basil at the last minute. There follows a chase scene, which ultimately sees Ratigan dead and Basil triumphant.
In the area of technological innovation, I’d say Disney’s claim is a bit of hyperbole. It’s true this is the first film to make extensive use of CGI and traditional animation together, but the way it’s used leaves a lot to be desired. The Black Cauldron used it, but mainly to add visual effects.
The whole sequence is only one minute and 20 seconds long. Obviously, CGI, especially in those very early days, was very costly, so limiting it to one scene makes sense. The film had a small budget, cut by Michael Eisner from 24M USD to 10M, with a compressed timeline as well.
The tech was pretty difficult to work with, with measurements carefully taken at Big Ben, then typed into their computers, added cameras and animations using rotational data, then left the scene to render, sometimes overnight.
I can relate having worked on Die Hard Arcade, STI’s first foray into 3D. 10 years on from GMD the technology was certainly better—we could use mice as input devices for example—but as it was run-time animation rather than pre-rendered, there were still a lot of limitations. Even though we built the characters using SoftImage on pretty fancy Silicon Graphics boxes, we had to check the vertex data as a big string of numbers to ensure each polygon was a quadrilateral, as anything else would make the renderer fail. We also relied on rotational data among the body parts of characters to animate them, which proved tricky for a robot character I built with an attack where its arm was meant to shoot straight out.
In any case, GMD’s use of 3D is also completely out of keeping with the film’s overall aesthetic. The other backgrounds in the film feature a dark and smoggy palette in keeping with the setting of Victorian London, and the surfaces are worn and pockmarked and fade into one another. The clockwork elements of the CGI scene by contrast are cell shaded more like the foreground characters: thick lines with crisp edges and solid colors within.
As to the music, there are only three songs in the film. Two of them are quite odd, “Goodbye So Soon” plays on the phonograph that’s essentially the timer for Ratigan’s fiendishly overcomplicated death trap and “Let Me Be Good To You” is a song accompanying a burlesque performance by a character who appears only for the purpose. The villain song, however, is great. Not only is it the first of what was to become a whole genre, it’s a particularly good one because of Price’s strong performance.
The big failing is in the area of Disney’s goal of providing whole-family entertainment. The mystery and thriller elements are barely good enough for an audience of children, while there are also several grisly deaths implied and even taking place on screen, and of course the burlesque performance definitely not for the kiddos.
Since GMD’s corollaries to Batman are obvious, they might’ve followed that model more closely as having successfully cracked the code. The show was charmingly campy to adults but with action and panache for younger viewers.
Read subsequent articles in the DeDisneyfication series
Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War
Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”
Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred
Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”
Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions
Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio
Read previous articles in the DeDisneyfication series
Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”
Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak
Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes
Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest
Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle
Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation
Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt
Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan
- “How ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ Kick-Started the Disney Renaissance”, Oh My Disney (website), September 2015.
- Steve Hulett, “‘Mouse in Transition’: Basil or Mouse Detective?” (Chapter 19), Cartoon Brew, April 2015.
- Ken Horowitz, “Interview: Mark Cerny”, Sega-16, 2006.
- “The Poe Centenary”, London Times, March 1909, quoted in Frederick S. Frank and Tony Magistrale, The Poe Encyclopedia, 1997.
- Kay Cornelius, “Biography of Edgar Allan Poe”, Harold Bloom, ed., Bloom’s BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, 2002.