From its heartwarming story, to its incredible score and tight plot, it perfectly captures the heart and whimsy of the Holmes stories.
For many people, when thinking about Sherlock Holmes, they might think about the recent BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch. Perhaps the purists might think of Basil Rathborne or Jeremy Brett - complete with deerstalker, pipe and the swirling smoke of Victorian London. What not many people think of is Disney’s underrated 1986 feature ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, which reimagines the classic story with charming, traditional hand drawn animation.
Based on Basil of Baker Street, a series of children’s books by Eve Titus, The Great Mouse Detective has a surprising history in essentially kickstarting what we now regard as the ‘Disney Renaissance’, bringing about films like The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Indeed, rather than Mickey, it was a different mouse who saved this company from a series of box office difficulties. This was not without difficulty: its budget was slashed in half by Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO at the time, due to great apprehension in the company following their recent failures. However, rather than making the film imperfect, these constraints helped to give The Great Mouse Detective its charming quality. The constraints inspired innovations such as the impressive CGI clockwork insides of Big Ben (the backdrop of the climactic fight scene), while the shorter runtime caused by the limited budget forced the plot to remain tightly focused.
The film resonates especially well as an adaptation of the classic Sherlock Holmes formula. In its short duration, it focuses upon the quickly blossoming friendship between Holmes and Watson, now imagined as the eccentric, aloof detective Basil and a new lodger and medical professional, Dr. Dawson. Their partnership is initiated by their mutual pursuit to help a young girl, Olivia, and through the investigation they quickly warm up to each other and develop a wonderful relationship, all whilst trying to thwart the villain Professor Ratigan’s evil schemes. For me, the success of a Sherlock adaptation lies in its portrayal of Holmes and Watson - it is a delicate balance to try and find how to present their friendship, as it is easy to generalise Sherlock as a cold, calculating machine of a man, whilst Watson can be a bumbling audience-stand-in with little personality. Instead, we see Basil and Dawson struggle and earnestly become friends, learning how to communicate, look after each other, and work together to help protect those in need. With this tight focus, the film avoids pretension or padding whilst being full of heart. It is notable that Holmes and Watson also exist in this murine adaption of the classic tale: Basil and Dawson in fact live in a small mouse hole underneath Baker Street. Therefore one of the most charming ideas the film presents is that, in every universe, whether human or mouse, there is the potential for this unlikely pair to become friends and help any who need it.
What makes The Great Mouse Detective work is its unique tone. When hearing that this is a Disney film, it might automatically be assumed that this would be an inherently childish or immature take on the Sherlock Holmes story. Instead, while it can definitely be enjoyed by a younger audience, there is a fascinating and highly entertaining blend of horror and campiness present in The Great Mouse Detective which stems from the larger than life villain, Professor Ratigan. As an obvious representation of the Moriarty character, Ratigan, described through song by his henchman as ‘the world’s greatest criminal mind’, has a nefarious but nevertheless extremely fun plot to take over the world. As he relishes in his villainy, enjoying every second of his evil schemes, there is no doubt that he is a threat: with one of the most brutal final fight scenes in an animated film, and the on-screen murder of a mouse with a cat, the stakes are high.
The relationship between Basil and Professor Ratigan is arguably just as fundamental to the film as that of Basil and Dawson: the rivals are well-matched in intelligence and wit, as they constantly thwart each other’s plans throughout the film. Their relationship almost comes across like bitter ex-boyfriends: each has a portrait of the other above their fireplace and upon every mention of their nemesis’ name the portraits are dramatically struck with lightning. This dynamic makes for an intense but entertaining battle of wits between two mice who are determined to bring each other down.
While perhaps not the most polished Disney film, The Great Mouse Detective is one of the most underrated, charming and earnest. As a longtime Sherlock fan, ever since I first saw this film it has been one that I have recommended to everyone in my vicinity. From its heartwarming story, to its cutting edge technology that still holds up, to its incredible score and tight plot, it perfectly captures the heart and whimsy of the Holmes stories. It is a film I’d recommend to absolutely anyone and is, without a doubt, essential viewing.