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.

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