Friday, January 18, 2013

The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The other day we talked a little about the monotony of motion picture animation. This was especially true in the mid 1980s, when animation was a far more riskier enterprise than today. The golden age of Disney was over. The company hadn't had a real hit since 1967's The Jungle Book, their latest release, The Black Cauldron, was a box office bomb, and for the first time the company had real competition. Recently fired Disney animator Don Bluth had released The Secret of NIHM a couple years earlier to general acclaim and had just partnered with megaproducer Stephen Spielberg for his next movie, An American Tail. The company was in turmoil both inside and out.

What the company needed was a hit, a movie to restore confidence in it's animation department and bring in their next run of critical and commercial hits. Instead they got The Great Mouse Detective.

While watching this movie for the first time in years the other night my sister and I came up with a drinking game for it within 20 minutes. There's only one rule: take a drink whenever you notice something is ripped off from an older, better Disney movie. We didn't test it, but I'm pretty sure one would get pleasantly tipsy if attempted. A lot of people usually forget this movie even exists and there's a reason for that. It's not a bad movie, it's not nearly memorable enough to be considered "bad." It's textbook bland, like eating a bowl of oatmeal cobbled together from parts of other better oatmeals.

The plot is Sherlock Holmes has a mouse that lives under his house named Basil, who just happens to act exactly like Sherlock Holmes. Right away the movie has an upward slope to climb. Adapting Sherlock Holmes is tough to do the same way adapting Dracula is; it's been done so many times and already has an iconic performance behind it, so how do you differentiate your movie from previous works? The answer is not "name your main character after the actor behind the iconic performance."

The idea of mice having a secret society very similar to our own is a clever one. So is a group of mice solving mysteries while navigating through the oversized world of the humans. These are such good ideas that Disney had the good sense to use both of them 9 years earlier in The Rescuers. Not only is that movie a far superior film in my opinion, but it also integrates the idea of the human world and the mouse world much better than this one. I understand that the movie doesn't have a human focus nor does it necessarily need it, but when it's set in a city you'd at least expect there to be some interaction with humans. The only thing we get is the shadows of the real Sherlock & Watson and a carriage. It feels empty, and if there is one thing a city like London shouldn't feel, it's empty.

As for the mystery itself, it's pretty darn slight. One of the joys of reading a Sherlock Holmes story is trying to put the pieces together. The best mysteries are the ones that, when the culprit is finally revealed feels like you could have figured it out all on your own. The mystery in The Great Mouse Detective is, uh, not that. A toymaker is captured and his daughter, a precocious Scottish mouse, seeks out Basil to help. Along the way she meets the Not Watson mouse, named Dawson. So the mystery as to who captured her father is answered in about 10 minutes, where we meet the best character in the movie, Professor Ratigan, voiced by the indispensable Vincent Price. Mr. Price is in full on camp mode, and we are all the better for it. His introduction comes with the second most pointless song in Disney history, where his cronies sing his praises while he really gays up the place.

Okay, so that mystery is solved, now I guess the only thing we need to know is why. The problem here is that for being one of the greatest sleuths of all time, Basil doesn't do a whole lot of sleuthing. He fights some obnoxiously voice bat who kidnaps little Scottish mouse and goes undercover in a mouse bar, which is where we are subjected to the most pointless song in Disney history as a slutty mouse sings and stipteases cause that's what happens in bars, before they are captured by Ratigan's cronies. During none of this do Basil and Dawson get any closer to figuring out why this man was kidnapped in the first place. It's not until Ratigan gets his big villain monologue that we discover his master plan: get the toymaker to build a robot replica of the mouse Queen that will replace the real one at the diamond jubilee and declare that Ratigan is, uh, a super cool rich guy I guess. Occam's razor.

The only thing that makes this movie notable is the final sequence in Big Ben. It was one of the earliest uses of integrated CGI in an animated feature. Not only does it look really nice, even by today's standards, but it's a very exciting scene as Ratigan loses his gay gentleman charm and goes full on mental. It's the only moment the movie doesn't feel like it's going through the motions.

This is a mediocre movie, at best. But some good did come out of it. Even though it was by no means a box office success it did make just enough money to convince Disney on keeping its animation department afloat. A couple years later Disney would find that mega hit necessary to kick off it's second golden age with The Little Mermaid. In a way, The Great Mouse Detective helped save Disney. In a more accurate way, it's a shallow, boring movie not worth the effort to find, except to Disney purists and parents who need to shut their kid up for an hour. On the Wicker Scale, it's slipping towards the end, but nobody really bothers to notice it.

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