Disney Animated Features
<< The Black Cauldron | Oliver and Company >>
Release Date: 2 July 1986
During the creation of The Black Cauldron, a few members of the team received permission to work on a new project. Among these members were Ron Clements and John Musker, who would go on to reinvigorate the Disney Animated Feature as directors of The Little Mermaid.
When Jeffrey Katzenberg was hired by new Disney CEO Michael Eisner to head the feature animation division, he could see that The Black Cauldron was going to be problematic. As Katzenberg worked to salvage that film, the top brass gave their approval to go ahead with Clements and Musker's project, but with a few conditions. This new film would have to be made quickly and cheaply, two elements the company had struggled with in recent years (The Black Cauldron went far over budget, in part due to the changes Katzenberg had to make).
Amazingly, Clements and Musker and their team were able to satisfy both requirements, while at the same time creating an excellent film that utilized computer animation and the vocal talents of Vincent Price. That film was The Great Mouse Detective, based on the novel Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone.
This film is a rousing comedy/mystery/adventure, set in Victorian London. It's based on the (not uncommon) premise that a parallel culture of anthropomorphic rodents exists beside and underneath our own (see also The Rescuers). One such example is Basil, who lives underneath the well-known address 221 Baker Street. Like the famous detective who lives upstairs in apartment B, Basil is extremely observant, wears a deerstalker cap, plays the violin, is knowledgeable in chemistry and criminology, and is a master of disguise. One hopes that Sherlock Holmes' cocaine habit is not also duplicated in his diminutive doppleganger.
Also like Holmes, Basil has an arch-enemy: the nefarious Professor Ratigan. Ratigan has hatched a scheme to kidnap the Mouse Queen and replace her with a clockwork imposter. To create this 'robot' of sorts, he kidnaps toymaker Hiram Flaversham, whose daughter Olivia shows up on Basil's doorstep one rainy night. She's escorted by the portly Nigel Q. Dawson, M.D. Although Basil, hot on Ratigan's trail, is disinterested at first, when he discovers a connection to his quarry, he quickly recruits the reluctant Dawson and, as they say, the game is afoot.
What follows is a wonderful adventure, with action, comedy, and suspense. It all leads up to one of the best animated action scenes ever, with Ratigan and Basil duking it out high atop Big Ben. It is the Big Ben scene that stands as the first major use of computer animation in an animated feature; without computer animation, the scene couldn't have been made with the limited budget available.
Another interesting note about the animation. Ever since 101 Dalmatians, the studio had used a process that sped up production time, but left the animation looking rough and muted. Even The Black Cauldron showed signs of this. Improvements to the process, though, allowed the company to return to a cleaner style for The Great Mouse Detective, with clear, clean lines and bright, vivid colors. Based on these visual aspects alone, this film clearly marks the beginning of the modern era of Disney Animated Features. Quite a change from only a year previous!
While not a musical, the music in this film is still notable. Primarily, this is because the entire soundtrack was created by the inimitable Henry Mancini, one of the great film score composers of the 20th century. Most of Mancini's music is in the background, but there are three vocal songs in the film; two of these were written for and performed by Vincent Price as Ratigan, who does so to great comedic effect.
Apparently having blown their budget on Price and Mancini, the rest of the cast is largely unknown. The one exception is Alan Young. Young is perhaps best known as the hapless Wilbur on the classic TV series Mr. Ed, but he's also the voice of the Scottish miser Scrooge McDuck. For this film he adopted the same Scottish accent for the role of Hiram Flaversham.
Despite excellent work all around, the film garnered no Academy Award nominations, and the film was a bit of a disappointment at the box office. It was, however, profitable, thanks to its relatively small budget. Coming just one short year after the disappointment of The Black Cauldron, this was a great morale boost for the company. Using the new techniques of animation, using a popular composer for the score, and learning how to create a fine movie quickly and inexpensively all were enormously important lessons for the company to learn. Clearly ending a long stretch of mediocre films, The Great Mouse Detective contained many important first steps on the way to the runaway success of the 1990s.
But first... there was one more learning experience for Disney animation before the Big One hit...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.