Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Raya And The Last Dragon, the new SpongeBob movie, and the half-cartoon Tom And Jerry all available this week, we’re looking back on some of the most under-appreciated family-friendly animation.
Sandwiched between a decades-long string of classics (from Snow White to The Jungle Book) and a subsequent “Renaissance” (which most fans consider to have kicked off with The Little Mermaid), Disney’s animated features of the ’70s and ’80s tend to get comparatively short shrift. Walt Disney himself was no longer around to provide a unifying vision, and the company floundered for a while before creating what would become its new, re-energized template. Budgets were cut back, with a corresponding loss of rich visual detail. One key animator, Don Bluth, quit to form his own outfit, poaching a lot of Disney’s talent.
Still, that period wasn’t all clunkers. 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective wound up overshadowed by Bluth’s rival mouse-themed adventure from the same year, An American Tail, which was a much bigger hit (and remains better known today). But Disney’s film is a thoroughly charming Sherlock Holmes riff, bolstered by a particularly inspired voice-casting choice. Its premise—based on the Basil Of Baker Street series of children’s books—imagines that every aspect of the Holmes universe is mirrored in miniature by mice, with Basil (voice of Barrie Ingham) inhabiting a hole at the base of 221B and functioning as the mouse world’s sole consulting detective. Echoing A Study In Scarlet, the movie introduces Basil to his own Watson, named Dr. Dawson (Val Bettin); the two immediately set out on their first joint case, investigating the abduction of an inventor (Alan Young) at the behest of his adorable young daughter, Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek).
As one might guess, the culprit turns out to be a Moriarty-esque “Napoleon of crime,” Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Price leans delectably hard into the most velvety-acid register of his vocal range, making Professor Ratigan one of those villains who intimidates via patently fake sophistication and decorum. Only when someone makes the mistake of referring to him as a rat—which is what he looks like, though he insists on being perceived as an enormous mouse—does he lose his temper. (Even that involves killing offenders by proxy, ringing a bell to summon a hungry cat.) Basil isn’t quite as memorable, but the film sticks admirably close to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s conception of Holmes as a man so consumed by mental stimulation that he’s oblivious to most social niceties. Even at the end, Basil still can’t remember Olivia’s last name, Flaversham, bidding farewell to “Miss Flangerhanger”; the new Disney classics to follow would be a lot more mushy.
Visually, The Great Mouse Detective doesn’t rank anywhere near Disney’s finest work, being notable mostly for its groundbreaking (though barely detectable today) use of computer animation during the film’s climactic battle, which takes place amongst the gears of Big Ben’s clocktower and was reportedly inspired by a similar sequence in Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle Of Cagliostro. There are scattered lovely touches among the cel backgrounds, too, like the opening vision of 19th-century London street lamps haloed by fog. But the movie is mostly just a rollicking good time—much more so than Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, which actually seem to take their cue from Great Mouse Detective’s idea of how a mighty brain works. Small kids were Disney’s target audience, and true Sherlockian deduction would sail over their heads; the screenwriters consequently made Basil, like Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes, more of a high-speed physics expert, able to instantaneously calculate trajectories and anticipate multiple steps in a chain of events. This allows him to escape Professor Ratigan’s hilariously over-the-top Bond-villain deathtrap—a Rube Goldberg device meant to conclude with, in Ratigan’s honey-dripped words, a snap! boom! twang! thunk! splat! If you’re curious about what that sort of intricacy looks like when it’s executed with droll panache—rather than via a lot of dorky, pseudo-gritty slo-mo—this is the Holmes-based movie for you.
Availability: As you might suspect, The Great Mouse Detective is streaming on Disney Plus. It’s also available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango Now, AMC On Demand, DirecTV, and VUDU.