Just as Sherlock Holmes had Dr Watson, so Basil has Dr Dawson, a portly, moustachioed mouse – modelled, it is said, on veteran Disney animator, Eric Larson, who acted as animation consultant on the film. Dawson, who has lust returned from serving as a surgeon with Her Majesty’s troops in Afghanistan, is soon caught up in Basil’s adventures and eventually proves himself indispensable – if only for exhibiting suitable amazement at Basil’s astonishing (though, of course, elementary) ingenuity.
The story is set in the year 1897, on the eve of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the Mouse Queen (and Queen Victoria, to whom she bears a striking resemblance), and the period evocation is perfectly realised with superb background paintings of wet, foggy, gas-lit London. And it is within this authentic setting that the Disney artists have cleverly worked a delightfully imaginative juxtaposition of the worlds of mice and men. Behind skirting-boards and beneath the streets is a miniature world with mouse-sized houses, shops, pubs and palaces and its own newspaper – The Illustrated London Mouse.
Just how brilliantly this Victorian mouse-world has been created can be seen in a sequence which parodies a memorable escapade from one of the Sherlock Holmes movies of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Disguised as sailors, Basil and Dawson visit ‘The Rat Trap’, a sleazy, smoky dockside tavern in search of information about the evil Ratigan and mingle with the crowds of crooks, drunks (and the occasional fille joi) who are giving a raucous reception to a desperate music hall show with high-kicking chorus-mice, a seductive chanteuse and a frantic juggling octopus.
Following one of Walt Disney’s cardinal principles, everything in The Great Mouse Detective – characterizations, dialogue, songs and music – serve only to aid and enhance the process of dramatic storytelling. Henry Mancini’s excellent score does this, as does the sharp, literate script (easily the wittiest for any Disney film since The Jungle Book), and the voice-talents: Vincent Price as the succulently sinister Ratigan; Barrie Ingham as the thoroughly British Basil; Val Bettin as the stiff-upper-lipped Dr Dawson; former Scrooge McDuck, Alan Young, as the gentle Scottish toy-maker, Flaversham; and Candy Candido (who voiced the Indian Chief in Peter Pan and Malificent’s goons in Sleeping Beauty) as the grotesquely guttural Fidget. And movie-buffs should listen out for the voice of Basil Rathbone in a cameo appearance as – who else? – Sherlock Holmes.
Without doubt, the characterizations are among the strongest conceived and drawn for a Disney movie. There is Basil himself: a multi-faceted character, as complex as Arthur Conan Doyle’s original creation; a mouse-genius with an intuitive mind, a physical resilience, a generous heart and an interesting streak of vanity. There is Dr Dawson: a mouse of breeding who embodies those Victorian virtues – loyalty, steadfastness and integrity; and so totally without guile that while attempting to pass himself off as one of London’s rodent low-life, he almost scuppers Basil’s plans by inadvertently asking the bar-maid for a small sherry.
And, by way of contrast, there is Professor Ratigan (inspired by Holmes’ perpetual nemesis, Professor Moriaty), the flamboyant mountebank who will let nothing and nobody stand in the way of his megalomaniac lust for power.
The strong supporting-cast includes Toby, a blundering basset-hound who lives with Sherlock Holmes, but works for Basil; Felicia, a gargantuan feline psychopath, trained by Ratigan to kill at the tinkling of a tiny hand-bell; a comic gang of ruffian mice and lizards; the thoroughly unpleasant Fidget – all fangs and wild-eyed mania; and the dignified Mouse Queen who, despite overwhelming odds (and an indecorous display of royal bloomers), somehow maintains her regal bearing – on one occasion gazing doubtfully through her lorgnette at Fidget in disguise as a beef-eater, and mildly enquiring: “Have you been with us long?”
The character-styling is traditionally Disney and although Basil and Ratigan are highly original creations, others look somewhat familiar: Faversham, for example, strongly resembles Ratty in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad, while his hideously cute daughter, Olivia, recalls the animal kids in Robin Hood and the mice-children in Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH. There is, however, an effective simplicity in the animating of the characters, occasionally using limited-animation techniques, that suits a story with so much pacing, action and invention.