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Blu-ray Review: The Great Mouse Detective

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The Great Mouse Detective is adapted from the children’s book series Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, which translates the Sherlock Holmes world into a children’s setting featuring mice in all of the leads. The movie was delivered in 1986, right before Disney’s big renaissance period was ushered in with The Little Mermaid. It’s interesting bit of trivia is that it was the first major animated feature to use computer graphics (which can be found in the climactic clock-tower scene). The film features the voices of Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, and Val Bettin in the lead roles.

The Movie

The roles will be familiar, but the names have been changed. In The Great Mouse Detective, Sherlock’s mouse counterpart is Basil of Baker Street, and his trusty companion is Dr. Dawson. The duo are trying to solve a case involving Basil’s arch-nemesis, the devious and treacherous Ratigan, “the world’s greatest criminal mind.” This particular tale finds Bail and Dawson helping a young girl by the name of Olivia Flaversham, whose father – a skilled toymaker – has been abducted by Ratigan. But why? That’s what the duo must find out. And all they know is that it seems to coincide with the Queen’s sixtieth gala celebration.

The Great Mouse Detective comes near the end of Disney’s run of making films that weren’t adapted from fairy tales. Some of the stories skewed older, many of them became less formed around the structure of a musical, and some of the “formula” for a Disney film was stretched. One could argue that reversing all of these trends is what made The Little Mermaid a return to their earlier successes: it fit the well-established success mold.

But all of this is part of why The Great Mouse Detective feels somewhat unique in the Disney timeline, because it’s decidedly non-Disney in comparison to many of the films that surround it. The first difference is the tone, which stays rather dark throughout. Literally, in fact, as there isn’t a single scene that takes place during the daytime. The stormy night setting and constant lurking in shadows keep the film from having more than cursory light moments. The overall feel of the film is somewhere between a style comfortable to the studio, as well as borrowing a note or two from The Secret Of NIMH.

But it also separates itself from the standard Disney fare in its musical approach. There are really only two big musical numbers, with the rest of the film receiving an engaging, but appropriately cartoony, music accompaniment from Henry Mancini. It’s a very dialogue-focused film, with Holmes… er, Basil of Baker Street, extrapolating the situation for everyone, both characters and audience. Basil is a bit more fun-loving than Sherlock is typically presented, so even his character is an attempt to bridge the family-friendly animation gap.

One thing it does maintain with other Disney films is its quality voice talent, and in fact I would hold up some of the characters here with their very best. Vincent Price is gleefully evil as Ratigan, and provides one of the most skillfully theatrical Disney villain voices. Barrie Ingham delivers a top-notch Sherlock variation, finding the perfect balance between Sherlock’s self-obsessed chatter and something that’s a little more approachable, and even likable, as an animated lead. Val Bettin turns in a top-notch performance as the straight man in Dr. Dawson. He provides the humanity for the duo, but occasionally also the comic relief, as in the saloon scenes.

The end result is a picture that is quite engaging, and filled with typically rich Disney animation, but that perhaps skews a couple of years older than normal. It’s not scary, but neither is it light, and this lack of relief from story tension could be a bit much for young viewers (although honestly, if they can handle the darker scenes in Pinocchio, they’ll be fine here). However, it is a fairly wispy story in Sherlockian terms, and relies more on mood than any real sense of cohesive mystery. It’s not particularly complicated or circuitous, and kids shouldn’t have any problems following the story develop.

The Great Mouse Detective is quite fun, and frankly is a nice change of pace for Disney. Not only that but it’s a good introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes, for those who are still under the age for reading the books or viewing other adaptions of the Baker Street world. Its story could have used a little more in the mystery department, but again its approachability and non-complexity is what make it family fare. A quality film that feels like a nice hidden gem.

Video / Audio

The first thing that becomes obvious is that this title hasn’t merited Disney’s usual fastidious restoration job. But what’s more curious is the overtly heavy noise on the film, an issue where Disney usually errs on the opposite side. Especially in the opening shot, the combination of grain and noise mixes with the fog and takes some time to figure out where one begins and the other ends. Some will no doubt find this to be a faithful look to what they remember, but its overabundance seems to point to the fact that it was one of the studio’s more rushed conversions. Flicker is also an issue throughout, and the two things work to make a patchy looking picture.

More unfortunate is the rather dull color palette that remains throughout the entire film. Almost all hues seem muted, as if faded and dulled with time. Granted, the dark setting of most of the scenes is certainly a stylistic choice, but none of the colors particularly pop, and when dealing with restorations that we’ve seen Disney perform time and again for Blu-ray, this one rather curiously maintains something closer to a “before” look, with faint colors and low contrast. Detail is reasonably intact, but even it betrays the film in spots. This is still better than the film has looked on DVD, but is only a slight upgrade, hampered by what could have been with Disney’s usual restoration in tow.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is stable, if heavily front-centered. Character voices are occasionally unevenly mixed during the picture, with both elder and younger Flavershams being the most affected, but this is only an issue in a few scenes. The few musical numbers are rather well balanced, and the voices of Basil, Dr. Dawson, and Ratigan stay consistently positioned, which is good as they comprise the bulk of the speaking time. The audio certainly isn’t a failure by any means, although it only occasionally ventures beyond an enhanced stereo mix (although there are a couple of scenes where the rear speakers really spring into action).

Bonus Material

There are but three brief supplemental items included, although they are present on both Blu-ray and DVD discs. The first is “So You Think You Can Sleuth?” (SD, 4:41) which after a woefully scant overview of British detectives offers a quick case to solve. It’s a forgettable addition, but might entertain kids during its run time. “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” (SD, 2:00) gives a follow-the-bouncing-ball treatment to this song excerpt from the film. And finally, “The Making of The Great Mouse Detective” (SD, 7:53) is an unfortunately truncated but interesting collection of interviews of the making of the movie. Interesting bits include quick interviews with Vincent Price, composer Henry Mancini, and one of the animators who discusses their first use of computer graphics in the film.

Conclusion

The Great Mouse Detective is a surprisingly enjoyable film, even if it’s less “Disney” in feel than most of the studio’s other feature animations. Instead it seems to strive for Sherlock Lite, which it manages ably and delightfully. The character voices are exceptionally acted, and while some might find it a tad slower-paced than some Disney titles, this is partly due to its intention to play it more straight, as it were, and less cartoony. It’s a shame that the restoration simply isn’t up to Disney’s usual standards, as the delightful animation often feels trapped under a faded layer of time. But as a movie this is one of the studio’s true hidden gems that hopefully will find a new audience with this release. The Great Mouse Detective releases October 9.

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