What if Sherlock Holmes was a mouse? It's a question not often asked, but it was answered anyway by Disney's 1986 animated film The Great Mouse Detective. It's a homage not only to the original Sherlock Holmes stories but also to a specific, popular incarnation--Basil Rathbone. The children's books on which the film's based are even more explicit about it, being called Basil of Baker Street. A far less ambitious effort than The Black Cauldron, this Disney film achieves much greater success at being fun and exciting. It even succeeds at having a better villain, a Moriarty pastiche called Ratigan, voiced by none other than Vincent Price. Along with a peg-legged bat henchmen, the villains in this film significantly outshine its heroes.
Vincent Price carries off an extraordinarily manic, bombastic performance brilliantly, especially as it's matched by equally expressive animation. A big fellow crammed into a suit and cloak, he seems a combination of Lon Chaney in London After Midnight and Paul Muni in Scarface. Although he's clearly a rat, we discover at the end of his great musical number that he seeks to present himself as a mouse. He actually feeds a henchman, a mouse, to a cat when he dares call Ratigan a rat. I believe it's the only time I've ever seen a cartoon cat actually catch and devour a cartoon mouse.
Perhaps this is the lasting influence of The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound. For a brief time, Disney was a little more comfortable showing death.
Ratigan's hangup about being seen as a rat takes us back to classism, though, especially since at one point Basil calls him a "sewer rat" in contrast to Ratigan's attempt to pass himself off as royalty. Again, I'm reminded of Paul Muni in the original Scarface, gesturing at the "World is Yours" sign.
As if Ratigan weren't enough, he's accompanied by a peculiar chief henchmen, a bat with a peg leg voiced by the legendary voice artist Candy Candido. The animation matches his inimitable voice well--jittery and aggressive, he also seems a bit like a 1930s gangster or Universal monster.
But what of Basil (Barrie Ingham) and Dawson (Val Bettin), the story's version of Holmes and Watson? They're . . . fine. Really kind of run of the mill, actually. Dawson isn't very interesting at all, not even being a lovable doofus like Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films. He does have one amusing moment where he's carried away by a kick line, something that may have been consciously borrowed from 1970's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Basil is fun when he's energetically solving a problem though, surprisingly, he doesn't come off much like Basil Rathbone. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, his portrayal is based more on Leslie Howard.
The Great Mouse Detective invites obvious comparisons to The Rescuers though I can't say for sure which is the better film. Both have strong villains. The Rescuers has better protagonists but The Great Mouse Detective has better music. After the embarrassingly bad songs in The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, Disney wasn't taking any chances--they got Elmer Bernstein for The Black Cauldron and Henry Mancini for The Great Mouse Detective. In the latter case, they were able to make it pay off for one really good musical number, "The World's Greatest Mind".
Also like The Rescuers, the case on which our protagonists are engaged involves a child in peril, though, in this instance, at least initially, it's the parent that's abducted, not the child herself. Her father is a Scottish mouse voiced by Alan Young, who also voiced Scrooge McDuck and he never quite succeeds at making the mouse sound any different, which is a bit distracting. He's a toy maker, captured by Ratigan so he can make a mechanical replacement for the Queen in a plot reminiscent of the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara.
The book has the mice consciously imitating Holmes while the film simply has Basil living in the same building with no explanation for his aping the human's style. There's a brief cameo by a recording of Basil Rathbone put into the mouth of Holmes, which is charming for those of us who love Basil Rathbone. And I do, though my favourite Holmes is still Jeremy Brett.
The Great Mouse Detective is available on Disney+.