If this is not the first Disney animated movie I saw in its initial release, it’s the second. It might’ve been The Fox and the Hound, but if not, it was definitely The Great Mouse Detective. I seem to recall that my older sister had already read several of the books and was therefore excited that it was being adapted; I read the books after. And I love them, though they are not quite the same as the movie. Unfortunately, it’s been so long that I can’t really remember how they differ!
Young Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek of Glasgow in her only film role) lives alone with her widowed father, Hiram (Alan Young doing his Scrooge McDuck voice), a toymaker. Who is abducted by a bat with a crippled wing and a pegleg. This is Fidget (Candy Candido), who is in the employ of Ratigan (Vincent Price), the world’s greatest criminal . . . mouse. Not rat. Not a rat at all. Probably Mus musculus; definitely not Rattus rattus or Rattus norvegicus. Anyway, Ratigan has a suitably byzantine plot to rule all mousedom that requires the toymaker’s work.
Olivia, quite sensibly, goes off to find Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham), our title character. She gets lost and is helped by Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin). Her description of the bat who abducted her father gets Basil’s attention, and he is on the case in the belief that it will lead him to Ratigan. Which of course it will, but it can’t all go smoothly, or where’s our plot?
One of the differences I remember is that Dawson’s a bit less Stereotyped Watson in the books; here, he seems to exist to screw up and say, “How extraordinary, Basil!” And to have social skills, which Basil does not. Again, I seem to remember that this is different in the books, but they are really leaning into the “detective is brilliant but bad with people” trope here. (Or bad with mice, but whatever.) But it’s been a while since I’ve read them, so this may well be wishful thinking on my part; it’s one of my least favourite bits of Sherlock Holmes as a character, honestly.
Basil was also, in the books, part of a small community of mice, and we don’t get that feel here. I mean, it’s partly, yeah, London is a city full of mice, and so there are scads of mice everywhere. But I even remember that they had small houses inside the walls of 221B Baker Street? Like I said, it’s been a while. And I can see why they didn’t go there with this, because it’s world-building in a book and extraneous detail in the movie. It is, that said, still a bit interesting.
As is the fact that this is the first animated feature to contain computer animation, in the clock scene, which was itself inspired by the clock fight in Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, because of the neat circle that is what inspires animators. Since we know many Japanese animators to have been inspired by Disney, though I’ll confess I don’t know for sure if Hayao Miyazaki was one of them after the top of my head, it seems only right that Disney animators are in turn inspired by anime. I honestly think the computer animation here blends better than that in Beauty and the Beast, though I’m not sure how popular a belief that is.
This is not a musical, but it does contain a fairly delightful Villain Song in “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind.” It was, it seems, the long-time ambition of Vincent Price to appear in a Disney movie, and here he is. He is, of course, wonderful; how not? I’m honestly only so-so on the song itself, which is Mancini but lesser Mancini in my opinion, but Price’s performance elevates it. He’s also deliciously smarmy in “Goodbye So Soon,” proving that even a prerecorded monologue just gives your opponent time to escape.
Naturally, that good-natured charm turns on a dime when Ratigan is crossed, and that’s the real beauty of Price’s performance. His incandescent rage when he’s thwarted. His melancholy when he’s feeding a subordinate to a cat. His cheerful disdain at Basil’s intelligence. It’s disappointing to me that so few people have seen the movie and therefore have been exposed to such a quality performance.
IMDb claims that “Let Me Be Good to You,” the cabaret song inexplicably stuck in the middle, was originally intended to be sung by Madonna. So far, so 1986. It then says she was considered “not contemporary enough for audiences to enjoy.” Which is definitely a collection of words. It’s possible they meant “contemporary to the era,” but that doesn’t really make sense, either, since their next choice was allegedly then Liza Minelli, before they finally settled on Melissa Manchester. I cannot imagine that most of this is true, and goodness knows there’s never a source listed on IMDb trivia, but there we are. And how can I resist sharing this information? Especially since we then get to picture a True Blue-era Madonna voicing an animated mouse. Wikipedia says it was Eisner’s idea to cast Madonna and that he also suggested that Michael Jackson voice a character who would walk in, sing a song, and leave again.
Honestly, the IMDb phrasing, based on what Wikipedia says, seems to be conflating two different issues—the original song written for the scene was considered not contemporary enough, and also there was a suggestion that what the movie really needed was Madonna. And now I want to know why it didn’t have Madonna and how that all fell through and why is this information always left so tantalizing?
What we definitely know, however, is that quite a lot of people were unhappy with the title. Hence the infamous memo that, for example, retitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as “Seven Little Men Help a Girl” and so forth. Peter Schneider, who was responsible for the title change, initially wanted whoever wrote the memo to be fired, though he’s allegedly come to understand the point being made. It’s almost like people forget how great titles are more than just a description of content, not that I honestly think Basil of Baker Street is itself a great title. Just a better one.