How 'The Great Mouse Detective' Helped Save Disney Animation During Its Darkest Hour

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. Today's column both serves as an introduction to the series, and tackles the first film of the Renaissance, 1986's The Great Mouse Detective.)

The future of animation at the Walt Disney Company was bleak in 1984. It was a transitional year for the company as a whole, in which Disney narrowly avoided being the victim of a hostile business takeover, welcomed new blood into its executive suite to right the ship, and expanded into making more mature films with the Touchstone Pictures subsidiary. But when Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells all joined Disney from rival studios, their arrival didn't initially suggest a new era of filmmaking and theme-park development that laid the foundation for the corporate behemoth that now owns Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Hulu, and 20th Century Fox.

Their arrival suggested doom and gloom for the studio that served as the true foundation for the company. Because Katzenberg in particular, soon after starting at Disney, was shown a rough cut of the studio's next animated film. And he wasn't happy.

A Phoenix From the Ashes

When Katzenberg requested a test screening of Walt Disney Animation Studios' in-production 25th feature film, The Black Cauldron, what he saw was a disaster of such large proportions that it was possible that the animation studio would be gutted entirely. The film's high budget, murky characterizations, and grim storyline was intended to appeal to teenage boys, never a common demographic to show up at the studio's animated fare. Katzenberg's response to the rough cut was so fierce that he demanded to edit the film the way he would a live-action film back at Paramount Pictures, where both he and Eisner had previously worked.

Though Eisner and others were able to convince Katzenberg not to edit the film himself (an arduous process for animation compared to live-action), the damage was done. Moreover, few people outside of the older-guard animators who worked on the project could truly defend what Katzenberg had seen. The version released in the summer of 1985 wasn't quite as grim or bloody as the version first shown to the executive. But the expensive film performed poorly at the box office and primarily alienated its audience, serving as a nadir for the House of Mouse from which the animators had to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

Mercifully, Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) avoided the axe after The Black Cauldron. Instead, WDAS began one of the most important, influential and creatively fertile periods in modern cinema. The era known as the Disney Renaissance represented nothing less than a new Golden Age of feature animation from a studio that had revolutionized the form in the 1930s and 1940s. The success of the Disney Renaissance led to competition from other studios, and eventually an entirely new form of animation usurping the hand-drawn style.

Compiling the Disney Renaissance

The term "Disney Renaissance" is widely assumed to encompass the years 1989 to 1999, starting with the release of The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan. But here's the thing: the demarcation point, as well as the term itself, are entirely fan-created. Per a tweet from a Disney character artist, though WDAS and the Walt Disney Archives do have self-imposed eras, none of them use the term "Renaissance", and none of them encompass the entirety of the 1990s. Calling it the Disney Renaissance may not be official, of course, but it's still appropriate. That said, at least to this writer, the common grouping of Disney Renaissance films doesn't tell the whole story.

2019 marks a number of notable anniversaries for Disney's animation studio, specific to the Renaissance. It's the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid, the 25th anniversary for The Lion King, and the 20th anniversary of the releases of Tarzan and Fantasia 2000. Add to that the fact that the Walt Disney Company is in the middle of mining its own animated films for live-action and/or fully computer-animated remakes — Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan will all be released in remade form in the next 12 months — and there's really no better time to revisit the Disney Renaissance in its fullest form. Over the next few months, I'll be revisiting 13 films that truly incorporate the rise and gradual fall of the Disney Renaissance, released over a nearly 15-year period, culminating with Fantasia 2000.

The Little Mermaid is the first out-and-out smash hit from the Renaissance, but it wasn't the opening salvo. We'll get to that classic soon enough, but to begin this bi-weekly series, we need to go back a few years. Though The Black Cauldron didn't serve as the grim finale of Disney's feature-animation studio, the future of Disney feature animation was still in jeopardy.

Appropriately enough, the studio's hopes rested on the shoulders of a mouse.

Staving Off Mediocrity

The human savior of Disney Animation in the 1980s wasn't Michael Eisner, or Jeffrey Katzenberg, though the latter became more heavily involved in the studio's fortunes throughout his tenure. The studio's first white knight was Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Walt, who convinced Eisner and Katzenberg to let him serve as the animation studio's chairman and hopefully guide the animators back onto a successful track. WDAS had, even before the ignominious release of The Black Cauldron, begun to move forward with an adaptation of Eve Titus' children's book Basil of Baker Street, following a mouse named Basil (so named after British actor Basil Rathbone) who lives directly underneath Sherlock Holmes' London abode and solves miniature crimes of his own.

But the failure of The Black Cauldron, coupled with Eisner and Katzenberg's frustration at, and lack of understanding of, the state of affairs in WDAS as a whole, expedited the process of future animated films. As detailed in James B. Stewart's book DisneyWar, when Eisner and Katzenberg were shown storyboards for The Great Mouse Detective, a common practice for all animated films up to that point, they were both baffled as to why there wasn't a written script already. For animators, story work was collaborative, though that would soon change.

Since the 1950s, Disney's animators had rarely worked so tirelessly on a film that new releases could be unveiled in consecutive years. During the 1940s, Disney released a film each year, but those were packages of short films strung together to feature length, not full-length stories. Once films like Cinderella and Peter Pan hit big with audiences, Disney's animators could move at a more leisurely pace, even when their films weren't massive hits. Since the release of Cinderella in 1950, almost all of the studio's animated features were released with at least one gap year in between, if not more.

But a slow-and-easy pace for animation was about to change. The Basil of Baker Street adaptation was originally scheduled to be released during the 1987 Christmas season, at a $24 million budget. Eisner mandated that the film be released in 1986 (what would end up being just under a year after the release of The Black Cauldron), at a $10 million budget. At the time, per a New York Times article written by eminent Disney historian John Culhane, the combination of a compressed timeline and tightened budget was seen critically by one of Eric Larson, one of the fabled Nine Old Men of Disney animation who'd worked at the studio since the early days. Larson said, "When money is the first thing on the docket, it can only lead to mediocrity."

Fresh Blood

Though Larson's fears were understandable, they were partially founded on how the studio's previous films had come together more gradually by older animators. For various reasons, the years leading up to 1986 at the Animation building included something valuable and long-overdue: fresh blood. The 20 years between the death of Walt Disney and the release of The Great Mouse Detective had brought with it a series of animated features that had been mild successes, retreads of previous glories that have, at best, cult fanbases. The sole exception of this period is the 1967 release The Jungle Book, on which Disney had offered plenty of guidance before his passing in 1966.

After Disney's death, many of his Nine Old Men stayed at the studio, some of them directing or leading animation on films like The Rescuers, Robin Hood, and The Aristocats. Larson's comments in the New York Times were made with good intentions towards the newer, younger animators, many of whom he had recruited. The recruitment program he had overseen since the mid-1970s at Disney brought many modern masters to the studio. Everyone from Brad Bird to Tim Burton to the now-exiled John Lasseter was brought up thanks to Larson's program. Many of the male animators Larson recruited were at the forefront of the Disney Renaissance (animation has sadly always been a male-driven industry, often to its detriment), their ideas fueling the studio when it needed them most.

They were brought on board to make sure the studio's legacy lived beyond the Nine Old Men (whose very moniker suggested their imminent mortality). Their arrival was desperately needed, too, in the early 1980s. One of Larson's 70s-era recruits, Don Bluth, had staged a walkout in the middle of production on 1981's The Fox and the Hound, starting his own rival studio.

Bluth, who had served as animation director on Pete's Dragon and the short The Small One, and a couple handfuls of animators would go on to produce films like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time. Even before the failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney had serious competition in the feature-animation game. They had to raise the stakes, and pinned their hopes on Basil of Baker Street.

Seven Little Men Help a Girl

Midway through production, Eisner demanded that the title Basil of Baker Street be changed, due to a perceived sense that audiences weren't interested in Sherlock Holmes. This perception was thanks to the middling box-office numbers for Young Sherlock Holmes, a film Eisner had been involved with developing when he still worked at Paramount. This title change — not too far away from what occurred 25 years later as Disney renamed its Rapunzel adaptation to Tangled, in the hopes that boys would want to see it — inspired rancor among Disney's animators.

Famously, it inspired an interoffice memo where one animator, Ed Gombert, sarcastically suggested some alternate titles to the studio's prior classics, like Seven Little Men Help A Girl, The Little Deer Who Grew Up, and Puppies Taken Away. (In one of his invaluable essays at Cartoon Brew, Disney story writer Steve Hulett took responsibility for having sent the memo anonymously to the Los Angeles Times, inspiring that article.) The eventual title, The Great Mouse Detective, is perhaps too nondescript but also doesn't misrepresent the film.

Two of the most instrumental figures in the Disney Renaissance, John Musker and Ron Clements, made their directorial debut with The Great Mouse Detective, duties shared with Burny Mattinson and David Michener. Musker had originally been involved in a directorial status on The Black Cauldron, before being elbowed out, per recollections from Hulett. Hulett also clarifies that while Mattinson got the credit as director, he functioned more as a producer on the project.  

At first, the choice to have so many directors was made to alleviate the amount of work that had to be completed in 12 months' time. The Great Mouse Detective was a film that was essentially do or die for a studio whose legacy was rooted in the past; they had to get it right. But requested title changes from Eisner, and other ideas of the sort, were concerning to animators whose livelihoods may have depended on this film's success.

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship

The presence of Clements and Musker as co-directors is most fascinating, if only because it's easy to become a Basil-like sleuth in watching their debut. Knowing what Clements and Musker would accomplish over the next three decades at Disney almost makes The Great Mouse Detective something of a pleasant letdown. By the end of the 1980s, any sense of combativeness between the younger and older animators at Disney Animation — which had inspired Bluth to walk out of the studio and start one of his own at the tail end of the 1970s — had vanished because youth won out. The Great Mouse Detective, at least, is one of the final gasps of how the older guard approached storytelling even as they were transitioning to retirement.

When we think of the Disney Renaissance, it's fair to think of youth. Many of the lead characters of the Renaissance-era films are themselves young (teenagers, give or take) and/or on the cusp of adulthood: Ariel, Belle, Aladdin, Simba, Pocahontas, etc. Though there is a child in The Great Mouse Detective, she serves as a damsel in distress much in the same way that the helpless orphan Penny did in Disney's 1977 film The Rescuers. As in The Rescuers, the helpless child is overseen by a brutish villain with a boneheaded henchman type. And as in The Rescuers, only a duo of mice can save the damsel in distress.

This time around, the story is much more about one of the two mice, the debonair Basil of Baker Street himself (voiced by Barrie Ingham). Basil, in The Great Mouse Detective, embarks upon his first case with the bumbling but well-meaning Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), as they butt heads with the nefarious Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Though The Great Mouse Detective is not without its charms, it's notable that the film is one of few in the Renaissance whose heroes are old and male. (The actors in this case are, natch, also white.)

From a design standpoint, The Great Mouse Detective has a gloomy visual palette, both out of necessity for its low budget and to fit the mood of its location. Set in London 1897, the story kicks off when a confederate of Ratigan's kidnaps a kindly Scottish toymaker mouse (Alan Young, also known as the 80s version of Scrooge McDuck). The toymaker, Flaversham, is abducted so he'll forcibly build and maneuver a version of the mouse Queen of England that Ratigan can use to dominate all UK mice.

With the film being set at the tail end of the Victorian Era, The Great Mouse Detective is full of greens, grays, and browns, color schemes that didn't feel as exciting or dynamic as what was to come from the studio throughout the rest of the Renaissance. The design was achieved quickly in part because of the expedited timeline — and with some animators on board who were part of the studio's newer, cheaper, faster methodology, making quick animation instead of detailed animation. In a lot of ways, The Great Mouse Detective feels like an offshoot of the prior era if not something out of the Don Bluth handbook. Its gloomy style and intense action feel appropriate to the man behind An American Tail.

A Villain You Love to Hate

Nothing outright fails within The Great Mouse Detective, though the element that is the absolute strongest is its villain, thanks in no small part to the voice behind the character. The state of animation in the mid-1980s, not just at Disney but everywhere, was such that it was rare for legitimate, A-List stars to appear in animated fare. It wasn't entirely unheard of for recognizable performers to step behind the microphone for animation — Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor were the leads of The Rescuers, and Kurt Russell and Mickey Rooney both appeared in The Fox and the Hound — but it was not the norm.

Most of the cast of The Great Mouse Detective is full of working actors more than anything else. Ingham was a touring British performer, and Bettin an American actor whose British accent was so good that it could conceivably fool anyone listening. The sole, obvious exception in the cast was Vincent Price as Professor Ratigan. Even as written, Ratigan is a fascinating character — he is a sewer rat who desperately wants to be seen as a mouse, and loathes whenever anyone calls him a rat, whether they do it out of spite or simply, as one mouse does, because they're drunk. Price brings his signature oiliness to Ratigan, whose nattily dressed but beefy exterior, supposedly partially inspired by ex-Disney CEO Ron Miller, belies a sense of insecurity that's rare among villains.

Also rare, at least in the 1980s, was the fact that Ratigan gets not one, but two villain-centric songs. The Great Mouse Detective, unlike just about every other film in the Disney Renaissance, isn't really song-heavy. It includes two songs either about or sung by Ratigan, "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" and "Goodbye, So Soon". The third song, "Let Me Be Good To You", is utterly superfluous.

Songs With Little Purpose

As written and sung by Melissa Manchester (a decision spearheaded by Katzenberg, who felt the earlier version of the same song was too old-fashioned), "Let Me Be Good To You" is both unnecessary and kind of weird. In the song, a mouse who's also a burlesque-style performer in a dockside London bar for rodents sings a come-hither tune. (Imagine Jessica Rabbit's big number in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but sung by an animated mouse to other animated mice in a film ostensibly for children.) We don't see Manchester's character again, never learn her name, and the song doesn't further the story at all. Cut the scene, and the movie would not change.

Admittedly, all three songs occur in a vacuum for our heroes Basil and Dawson. The two mice are literally subjected to listening to "Goodbye, So Soon" while trapped in a do-or-die situation, they're among the audience for "Let Me Be Good To You", and they're not even present for "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind." The frequent critique levied at musicals is that it feels weird to watch actors bursting into song in the middle of a story. The Great Mouse Detective, as Disney approached its Broadway-influenced Renaissance, chose to employ just a trio of songs in its 74-minute length in such a way where the lead characters themselves could be equally baffled at the use of such music.

What does work about both "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" and "Goodbye, So Soon" is that Vincent Price's oily charm snakes through each one. As curious as it is, these two songs represented something fairly uncommon in Disney music: they're villain songs. When The Great Mouse Detective was released in the summer of 1986, we were a few years away from "Poor Unfortunate Souls" in The Little Mermaid or "Gaston" in Beauty and the Beast (a song whose DNA seems mildly present in "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind").

Price dives into both songs with unctuous brio, a fitting match for music that's meant to build up an insecure baddie. Up to this point, though many Disney animated films up to that point had terrifying villains, they had very few songs sung by the villains themselves. (Arguably the best villain song of the studio's first half-century, "Cruella De Vil", is sung about her, not by her.) Getting Price to do it for two different numbers, and to give every ounce of effort to the role, feels like the film's biggest win.

The Promise of the Future

Price aside, what The Great Mouse Detective represented was not Walt Disney Animation Studios at its highest quality. The film simply proved the viability of feature animation at the studio that survived for so long thanks to the medium. With production sped up so much, it's impressive how the low-budgeted film manages to not feel terribly low-budget. The "Goodbye, So Soon" scene, in which Basil and Dawson have to escape a seemingly impossible mousetrap lest they get killed, has an impressive, Rube Goldberg-esque quality to its heightened suspense. The scene's wry punchline, in which Basil has Dawson and their kidnapped charge Olivia smile for a camera meant to capture them in death, is the best kind of laugh line.

And the climax, in which Basil faces off with an unleashed and unhinged Ratigan on and inside Big Ben, similarly achieves a consistent sense of tension. Even in a rushed production like this, the next phase of modern animation is represented during the finale. The inner workings of Big Ben were created as wireframe computer graphics, a first for Disney. The characters themselves, primarily animated by younger animators like Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, and Glen Keane, are well-defined and brought to life with such vitality. The story they're working within doesn't come to the same level of life, but you can see the promise of these animators within each second of footage, each grimace or heroic look or villainous sneer.

That, in essence, is what makes The Great Mouse Detective such an important film for Disney. It is not their best film, and not even the best film they released in the 1980s. But this film, which wound up making nearly $40 million domestically off a budget roughly three times smaller than that, proved to the men who had joined the Walt Disney Company that animation still had a place in their portfolio. Roy Disney's ability to convince Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner to let the animation studio refocus its efforts may not have seemed seismic at the time. But that plea, and The Great Mouse Detective, helped usher in a new era of animation. This movie was merely a testing ground for the future of feature animation, and passed enough to let the studio live another day. And it was just a hint of the groundbreaking success yet to come.

Next Time: Disney Animation embraces its inner street savoir-faire with Oliver & Company.