Friday, November 6, 2015

Movie Review - The Great Mouse Detective

The Great Mouse Detective
Based on the books by Eve Titus
Release Date: July 2nd, 1986
Starring: Barrie Ingham, Vincent Price, Val Bettin, Candy Candido, Alan Young, Frank Welker, Diana Chesney, Eve Brenner, Melissa Manchester, Barrie Ingham, Basil Rathbone, and Laurie Main
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Olivia Flaversham has a wonderful life, he father loves her dearly and is a talented toymaker. One night a peg-legged bat breaks into their toyshop and kidnaps her father. She determines to ask the greatest mouse detective ever, Basil of Baker Street, to find her father. Only poor Olivia is young and gets lost trying to find Baker Street, let alone trying to find Basil. Luckily for her Doctor Dawson has just returned from Afghanistan and finds the poor mite in an old boot. He hasn't heard of this Basil, but he does know where Baker Street is, so he offers to help the young mouse. When the duo meets the eccentric detective it looks as if their petty affair will not interest him until Olivia mentions the bat. The bat, Fidget, is the henchman of that most notorious of criminals, the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Ratigan! A rat with pretensions of being a mouse. But what could such a diabolical villain need with a mouse known for his clockwork creations? With the help of Sherlock Holmes's dog Toby they track down Fidget to yet another toyshop where he is looting it for uniforms and gears. Yet he is also supposed to kidnap Olivia, as extra incentive for her father's acquiescence. Their arrival at the toyshop gives the wily bat the opportunity to get the girl. Basil feels as if he has let down not just Olivia, but Dawson as well. Yet all is not lost! With his powers of deduction he will rescue Olivia and her father and put a stop to whatever plans Ratigan has! But what are Ratigan's plans? Could they be linked to that night's grand celebration, the diamond jubilee of their great Queen Victoria?

I have been reminded by my mother time and time again how hard it was for her with two small children in the eighties to take us to the movies. Not because we were ill-behaved, more on that later, but because the films we wanted to see were, oh, how can I put this nicely... shit? I don't think I will ever atone for The Care Bears Movie or My Little Pony: The Movie. My mother for years had been trying to interest us in more refined animated fare from Disney, apparently the mice in Cinderella were too much for me, and as for my brother and The Jungle Book, I never got to see the end of that film till I was in high school, and that movie had two theatrical viewing attempts made while younger. I was able to handle Peter Pan, my brother was purposefully left at home. But I'm pretty sure the success of Peter Pan was down to the fact that I knew I'd be in big trouble if I ruined my mom's favorite Disney film ever. Oddly enough all these films came out around 1986. Needless to say my mom was desperate for a movie that she could enjoy with us. That is where The Great Mouse Detective enters. I had since overcome my apparent animated mouse issues, seriously I don't remember them at all, and my mother was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, so this movie seemed to be the perfect remedy, not just for us but for Disney. It quickly became a favorite with all of us and the perfect way to spend a hot summer afternoon after swimming lessons while simultaneously saving Disney's animation department that would go on to make some of my favorite films ever, from Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Therefore The Great Mouse Detective holds a special place in my heart and was logically the first movie adaptation that I had to feature.

Until recently I had never read the book, Basil of Baker Street, on which this film was based. Going back to the movie after reading it's inspiration was a little jarring. The film creates more of a parallel world then a comedic homage to Holmes. In the book it's very amusing and self-deprecating with the way Basil sets out to be his hero, Sherlock Holmes. Whereas here the mice world is a reflection of the real world, with the mirroring not being humorous, just a fact of life. For every human there is a mouse counterpart, Holmes and Basil, Watson and Dawson, Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria. Excuse me? See, this is where my brain struggles with credulity. We have a Queen Victoria mouse who is celebrating her diamond jubilee... so, there's a mouse monarch who has reigned for sixty; yes that is SIXTY YEARS! A MOUSE! Who has lived a minimum of sixty years... yeah, not buying it. But more than this miraculously old mouse if they had actually wanted to stick with this parallel concept then they should have fully committed and made sure that none of the characters behaved against the type of their real world counterparts. For example, Holmes would NEVER actually accept any awards or honors. He is only in his line of work for the game. The solving of the unsolvable. He NEVER takes credit for any of his cases and to stoop to accept an honor? NEVER! If he were given a nice emerald tiepin in secret, that would be fine, but anything else, especially front page news would be unseemly! Plus Ratigan... his human counterpart Moriarty was a pillar of society, a man who studiously kept up his front of respectability in order to cover his crimes. To have Ratigan be instantly offensive to other mice, well, that didn't ring true.

As for Ratigan. The main draw for this film was that Ratigan was voiced by Vincent Price. I personally have issues with celebrities doing voices in animated films. By having a celebrity voice a character it takes you out of the story and makes it more about them. My favorite animated films are my favorites because they are one cohesive whole. I don't know who voices any of the characters in say Robin Hood and therefore that voice IS that character and therefore more believable. While I do really like newer films like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, I am forever distracted by knowing Po is Jack Black or Gobber is Craig Ferguson. Therefore The Great Mouse Detective to me is the beginning of a slippery slope that forever eliminated voice actors and made all films about the star attached. But getting down off my pulpit and getting back to Vincent Price, he at once seems perfectly cast and completely ill-suited. His voice is very distinctive, not one you'd necessarily associate with someone whose main career was in horror films. Yet he brings a refined menace to any character he portrayed. In The Great Mouse Detective the disconnect is in how they decided to portray Ratigan, as more thug like, versus the cultured Napoleon of crime he really was. You can't somehow connect the voice to the image. Much like Richard E. Grant in Corpse Bride, the image of the character is just SO WRONG to the image in your head and you can't reconcile the two. I keep wondering if Vincent had projected more, actually put some rage behind his lines if it would have worked. But it wouldn't, because that wasn't him. He had menace and mocking in the quietest of lines. Which is why his genius only comes out in the musical numbers. In the song "Goodbye So Soon" by Henry Mancini you see the heights to which this film could have reach had they tinkered with it a little more, but sadly they didn't.

But in the tradition of all movies from you childhood there has to be something to traumatize you for years to come. Like The Nothing in The Neverending Story, the pan of bloody oatmeal that made me not eat oatmeal for years in The Golden Child, Large Marge in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, the list could go on and on, this movie has it's own special horror. They might not have meant to traumatize me, but they did. Since I had gotten past my mouse phobia phase at this point, and Vincent Price was somewhat of an ill fit, I turned to Fidget, the evil bat with the broken wing and a peg leg. Now I didn't and don't have a problem with bats, unlike everyone else in my family. In fact, overall, I rather like Fidget. But there are one or two scenes that were, I think, specifically designed to terrify the audience, and in turn me. Whenever he bares his teeth and leans into the camera and his eyes go crazy red... I don't really like this at all. Yet there is one very specific scene that is very traumatic. When the gang leaves Baker Street on Toby's back and follows Fidget to the toyshop, that is when my nightmare begins. Not even taking into account the creepy dolls that are demented to such an extent that you will never want to see a porcelin doll with ringlets ever again, this scene is THE ONE. The one for nightmares. Fidget hides in a cradle and puts on a little bonnet and when Olivia looks in the cradle... there's something about, well, about everything in this scene that just gives me the wiggins. Bats in bonnets? NO THANK YOU! Fidget later repeats this gag by impersonating Olivia, but it's a far cry from this scene. I really am surprised I didn't develop a bat phobia from this...

One thing that struck me while rewatching this film so many years later is how Steampunk it is. Yes, I'm sure someone could find someway of justifying almost anything Victorian as being somehow Steampunk, but The Great Mouse Detective certainly is. Not just the overall look, or the epic Reichenbach moment in Big Ben with all the gears, but one aspect in particular. Hiram Flaversham and his clockwork creations. There's just something so Jules Verne about these creations. But taking it even further, the movie uses a true Steampunk trope, the mechanization of Queen Victoria. Usually she has done it to herself or someone has corrupted her and made her immortal, because obviously the Victorian era lasting forever is at the heart of Steampunk. Here it's Ratigan's plan to make a clockwork Queen Victoria that will be his puppet. So it's a little different than some of the takes, but I can't think of anything more Steampunk than a clockwork queen! Add to that the pomp and circumstance around the diamond jubilee, and seriously, why isn't everyone jumping on this Steampunk bandwagon. In fact, seeing as when this movie came out, I would say that author's like George Mann might have gotten their first taste of Victoriana here and it helped shape their sensibilities and therefore their work. Which brings me to an odd deduction I have never thought of before. While this film obviously helped shaped my sensibilities with regard to Sherlock Holmes and my love of all things British, is there a chance that this is what started the Steampunk germ in me? This is something I'll have to think about... in the meantime, goodbye so soon!


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