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.

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