I only own one animated Disney feature on DVD. And it is The Great Mouse Detective, the mouse version of Sherlock Holmes. Why every parent doesn’t use this movie to get kids to read Sherlock Holmes, I do not know.
Let me tell you a story about a child who watched The Great Mouse Detective on loop. And then, once reading was a possibility, graduated to actual Holmes stories. It’s a gateway drug, I tell you. A wonderful, wonderful gateway drug.
The Great Mouse Detective has a relatively simple plot: the famous mouse detective, Basil of Baker Street, is reluctantly engaged in the work of finding the missing father of Scottish mouse-child Olivia Flaversham. Her father is an inventor who has been kidnapped by the evil Professor Ratigan who is both Basil’s nemesis and engaged in plan to take over the empire.
What makes The Great Mouse Detective so endlessly delightful are the characters. Basil is named after Basil Rathbone — whose voice appears as Holmes, Basil’s neighbor — and he’s introduced in the usual Holmesian way. The apartment is overstuffed with Basil’s experiments. He bursts in and never stops moving, making deductions, and deflates once his evidence fails to point where he needs it to. Only Olivia giving him a new lead gets him going — and its not Olivia’s need that motivates him, it’s the case. He thaws to her by the end of the film, but he never bothers to actually learn her name.
This is basically Basil’s modus operandi (mouse operandi?) throughout the whole movie. Manic forward motion, and utter catatonia when he runs into a roadblock. His introduction scene is actually a wonderful bit of foreshadowing, because when Ratigan outwits and captures Basil at the end, he similarly just gives up on everything. And it’s only until an outside force — Olivia in the introduction, Dawson when they’re captured — that he manages to be inspired back into action.
Basil and Barrie Ingham’s energetic voice performance are great — “Ratigan, no one can have a higher opinion of you than I have . And I think you’re a slimy, contemptible sewer rat.” — but Vincent Price as Ratigan steals the show. Basil has two modes, but Ratigan, as Price explained, has many:
[H]e’s got a huge sense of humor about himself, although he is deadly serious about crime. Ratigan is a real larger than life villain, so I did the part by exaggerating it. Besides being a great villain, Ratigan is also a great actor who plays at being a great villain in the story, which all great villains should be. This is his theory and it’s mine, too. A hero is just a hero, but a villain has to fool you all the time. He has many more facets to his character. He has to be charming, witty, decadent and funny. Everything is going on at the same time, so he’s much more fun to play.
As Ratigan, Price is the progenitor to Scar, Jafar, and all of the other smooth-talking and big-singing villains of the Disney Renaissance. Everything about Ratigan is amazing. From his murderous insistence that he is, despite any and all evidence, a mouse and not a rat to his well-trained fluffy white cat. His disappointment that Basil is fifteen minutes late to finding him is slimily grand.
There are only three songs in The Great Mouse Detective, and Price sings two of them. “Goodbye So Soon,” the taunt to the felled Basil. But the true genius lies in his villain song, “World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”:
This version cuts out the interlude where Ratigan casually murders one of his minions for calling him a rat.
There’s a lot of hidden gems for adults in The Great Mouse Detective, too. There’s the aforementioned use of old Basil Rathbone dialogue to give him a cameo, Basil’s violin playing, “Elementary my dear Dawson,” and so on. Adult Holmes fans have fun spotting them and they’re a perfect through-line for children growing up with the movie who are then persuaded to give the original Holmes a try. There’s also some stuff that really only registers for adults. One of Ratigan’s plans once he takes over the country is to levy a heavy tax on parasites, which Ratigan names as the old, sick, and young.
And then we have the even-more-innuendo-laden-than-usual musical number “Let Me Be Good to You.” It’s a little interlude without a ton of relevance to the plot, but so very entertaining. But there’s an obvious sexual component to the lyrics “Hey fellas, the time is right. Be ready, tonight’s the night. Boys, what you’re hoping for will come true. Let me be good to you.”
As a child, I mostly just wanted to wear her outfits.
Like most great animated children’s movies, there are moments of utter terror. The climactic between Ratigan and Basil in and on Big Ben is beautiful and exciting, of course, but my nightmares were haunted by Fidget, Ratigan’s bat enforcer:
Both of these reveals still creep me all the way out.
The Great Mouse Detective: turn your kid into a Holmesian fiend and give yourself a break from the more popular Disney animations. If you don’t own it, it’s streaming on Netflix.