The curious paradox of Basil: The Great Mouse Detective is that it is not particularly well known compared to the films that followed it, yet it is the reason they exist. After The Black Cauldron, Disney was in dire straights, low on money and seemingly out of favour with critics and audiences. Along comes Basil, a Murinaen version of Sherlock Holmes, which is successful enough at the box office to convince Disney that the animation branch of their studio was viable and worth pursuing. So they greenlit The Little Mermaid – to be directed by two of this film’s directors, Musker and Clements – and the studio’s renaissance began. That’s right, this small film beloved by a few but unknown by many (it was the first time I’d seen it, for instance) is the reason that The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast exist, and the reason that the animation department endures to this day. Which is strange because, although the film bears many of the hallmarks of an excellent Disney film, it’s not quite got the flair and emotions that make up their best works. It’s the stepping stone to their masterpieces, even if it can’t quite claim that title itself.
The film opens moving through the streets of Victorian London, fog clinging to the dark cobbled stones familiar to us from stories like Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula. This is a Gothic, sinister, cinematic world. The camera moves into a cosy toy shop where a father and daughter happily celebrate the wee girl’s birthday before being rudely interrupted by a hideous peg-legged bat who kidnaps the toy maker. This sends the young mouselet to Baker Street where she finds the fiercely intelligent, somewhat self-absorbed detective named Basil to help her find her father again. So the scene is set for a showdown between our rodent Rathbone and his arch-nemesis Ratigan, culminating in an airborne chase and a fight inside Big Ben.
As a pseudo-Sherlock, Basil (voiced well by Barrie Ingham) ticks all the boxes you expect from Conan-Doyle’s iconic character: he plays the violin; he explains his methods after impressing new people with his deductions; he even wears a deerstalker. As a protagonist he’s as enjoyable as the best of the Sherlocks, charismatic yet also frustratingly disconnected from reality; more Benedict Cumberbatch than Robert Downey Jr. The main issue is that there isn’t much of a mystery here for him to solve, it’s more a simple case of ‘catch the baddie,’ which is disappointing for a story about the world’s most famous detective. However, there is still a lot of fun to be had from his escapades, thanks largely to the film’s two great successes: the villain, Ratigan, and the amazing action set-pieces.
Ratigan, the film’s Moriarty, is a rat in denial, a fiendishly intelligent villain who wants to rule the mouse world by replacing Queen Victoria with an elaborately mechanised doppleganger. Voiced by Hammer horror legend Vincent Price, he’s snivelling, campy and monstrous. That distinctive high pitched drawl is put to excellent use by the animators here: Ratigan is one of the studio’s most memorable monsters, with a particularly impressive method of minion killing – he feeds them to his pet cat who he summons with a sinister ring of a bell. Also, like many of the best Disney villains, he falls to his death. His sidekick, Fidget, is equally enjoyable. Importantly, the big name casting of Price and the significant focus on the villain – he possibly gets equal screen time here to Basil – became an important precedent for the Second Golden Age films; think Jeremy Irons as Scar in The Lion King or James Woods as Hades in Hercules. He is also – if memory serves me correctly – the first villain to get a song about himself, just like Ursula, Gaston, Scar and even Dr. Facilier in The Princess and the Frog. Ratigan is the original.
The second strength of the film is the action, which is, at times, dazzling, particularly as it uses fairly new technology. There’s a midway set-piece in a toy shop when Fidget sets a series of clockwork toys on Basil and Dawson, which they have to dodge in order to save Olivia. The advantage of a mouse-eye view of the shop is that everything is scaled up to an intimidating size, and the mice’s way around it is consistently inventive and funny. The real standout, however, is the final sequence in Big Ben, where Ratigan and Basil have their final show down. All the cogs in this scene are CG, but as the technology was fairly new at this point, the backgrounds are just black and the metal has no texture. This works to the film’s advantage, as it give the setting an almost abstract, nightmarish quality – a feeling that is heightened by the dramatic, minimalist score that accompanies it. It’s a superb blend of new and traditional animation styles that paved the way for the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast and the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King. This is also the sequence when Ratigan becomes truly terrifying, lightning bolts lighting up his yellow eyes and pointy nose.
Disney’s relationship with CG animation is a troublesome one. For starters, it was the cause of a rift with John Lasseter, whilst their track record of fully CG films is patchy at best (Chicken Little, anyone?). What’s worse, however, is that they recently gutted their traditional animation department in favour of CG films, as that’s where the market is heading. This is an artistic tragedy, one that I’ll discuss more when I reach the late 90s. Basil, their second film with integrated CG, shows that the technology can be used superbly within traditional animation, but it comes with a sad irony that as the film that saved animation for Disney, it also heralded the distant future death of a large part of what made that department great.
Basil: The Great Mouse Detective didn’t just lay the groundwork financially for the Second Golden Age, it prepared the studio creatively, too. With its foggy London setting, dramatic action set pieces and celebrity voice casting for the villain, Basil took a studio that was down in the dumps and made it cinematic again. Drama, villainy and music all come together brilliantly, and the audiences flocked to it. I’m very grateful they did.