Arriving near the end of Disney’s long creative doldrums that began in the early ‘70s and concluded with an homage not so much to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories as to the 14 highly successful Sherlock Holmes films produced between 1939 and 1946 starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, The Great Mouse Detective features none of the humor, charm, or implicit social commentary—not to mention elegant visuals—of the Rathbone series. A recasting of these films with mice instead of humans, though Rathbone’s voice is used for a cameo from the human Holmes, Mouse Detective focuses not on Baker Street’s most famous resident, but on the dashing rodent detective Basil, who lives below Holmes’s flat and shares his profession. (In one scene, Basil disguises himself as a tough longshoreman just as Rathbone’s Holmes does to genuinely scary effect in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.) The daughter of a kidnapped toymaker calls upon Basil to find her father, little knowing that he’s been spirited away by the vile Ratigan (Vincent Price, channeling his inner Moriarty), who has a diabolical plot (what else?) to become King of Mousedom, even though he’s a rat.
But whereas the Rathbone-Bruce series generated effortless humor as a result of the always comical interaction between Holmes and Watson, Mouse Detective has no interest in developing the relationship between Basil and his sidekick, Dr. Dawson. The film is even supposed to be an origin story, as such, for how Basil and Dawson first met and had their first adventure together, but there’s no feeling of discovery, of taking those first steps into a very familiar but beloved friendship. This alone wouldn’t be inexcusable, I suppose, because Conan Doyle’s account of Holmes and Watson’s first adventure in A Study in Scarlet is every bit as incoherent and charmless, devolving as it does into a stunningly hateful anti-Mormon tract.
Unlike Disney at its best, Mouse Detective lacks any personal animation style. Woolie Reitherman gave even The Aristocats (an unfairly derided film, it’s like an animated Howard Hawks romantic comedy) his unique authorial signature by rendering the backgrounds of Belle Epoque Paris in his trademark scraggly, ink-heavy style, but Mouse Detective looks like any cartoon produced for television with character outlines inked only very lightly and containing broad swaths of color. It doesn’t help that the movie’s two songs written, inexplicably, by Henry Mancini each sound like they could be a TV theme song. Perhaps Mouse Detective would have worked better as a half-hour special, like a one-off DuckTales or Darkwing Duck. For instance, the 24-minute Mickey’s Christmas Carol doesn’t just substitute Disney characters for Scrooge, Cratchit, and Marley, then otherwise slavishly follow Dickens’s outline: When Goofy, as Jacob Marley, responds to Scrooge’s claim that he should be proud of his business acumen because he “robbed from the widows and swindled the poor,” Goofy responds “Yup! I mean…no!,” questioning quite rightly whether, if there is an afterlife, the dead would somehow become magically enlightened as to the errors of their ways. Mouse Detective, though, just tries to get by with nothing more than the novelty of having rodents play detective, and then pulls the rug out from under it by showing, however briefly, the human Holmes and Watson.
This raises an interesting question. Normally, Disney’s anthropomorphized animal characters act exactly like human beings, but in animal form. Here, though, we’re led to believe that these rodents really are just animals, but mimicking the behavior of the humans around them in an attempt to elevate themselves. Basil acts like a detective because he lives underneath 221b Baker Street and wants to be like Holmes. He’s just an animal playing dress-up. This is hit home quite disturbingly in one scene where a personified mouse character is actually fed alive to a cat—something that I’m quite certain doesn’t happen in all the rest of Disney. It’s like the House that a Mouse Built is consuming itself, and there’s a similar self-loathing on display elsewhere here. More than in any other Disney film, the animators emphasize how precariously perched mice are in our collective psyche between cuteness and repulsion by showing what they deem to be perverted mice—rats and bats. Maybe that’s why this seems like such a dark, ugly movie. If Disney doesn’t respect the integrity of its own mouse iconography, then truly nothing is sacred.
Not even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, made more than 50 years earlier, has such a rudimentary soundtrack as The Great Mouse Detective. Much of the dialogue is muffled, especially that of the toymaker's daughter, who has an affected lisp that's supposed to be terribly adorable, but makes her sound exactly like Feivel in An American Tale. On DVD, the images look about as good as they are supposed to, which isn't saying much. The nighttime scenes hold up well, though, even if they ultimately convey little mood.
The only new extra feature on this Mystery in the Mist Edition is a "So You Think You Can Sleuth" game, which really is just a game in name only. It starts off as a brief history of private detection in real-life and in fiction from the founding of Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton agency to its depiction in the works of Conan Doyle and in Hollywood film noir of the '40s. But in the last couple minutes, the game kicks in when you are presented with a series of clues about who stole some cookies from a cookie jar and utilizing the clues you have to solve the case. The other extras, such as a making-of documentary and a sing-along feature to the song "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" appeared on previous video releases. The other features include The Suite Life of Zack and Cody's Dylan and Cole Sprouse extolling the virtues of Disney's Blu-ray releases and a how-to guide for uploading digital copies of Disney movies. As always, this DVD comes with Disney's oxymoronic FastPlay feature, which forces you to watch endless trailers for other Disney products unless you press the "Main Menu" button in time.
Arriving near the end of Disney's long creative doldrums that began in the early '70s and concluded with the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989, The Great Mouse Detective offered no indication whatsoever that the animation renaissance of the '90s awaited the studio.