Does The Great Mouse Detective have the greatest story ever? I wouldn't say so, but it's spritely and fun enough to make up for it. The film opens with a somewhat disturbing kidnapping of a young girl's father by a disfigured bat. There's tonal dissonance right from the opening title card, as cheerful music bounces along while the ground is still wet with the young girl's tears. I should mention that these are mouse people, and that all the characters are anthropomorphic mice, rats, and other small creatures, scurrying about London in 1897. The now parentless mouse girl, named Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek), needs an ace detective to find out who took her father and why. She seeks out the famed Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham) to solve the mystery, bumping into Dr. Dawson (Val Bettin), a former soldier, along the way. When Basil and Dawson meet, there's an obvious Holmes/Dr. Watson dynamic that works surprisingly well. Basil can determine exactly who a person is by the minute details of objects they own, scents they carry, and mannerisms they exhibit (just like the "real" Sherlock Holmes, who incidentally lives directly above him). Basil has no interest in helping Olivia find her father, that is until he realizes that taking the case could help him take down his arch rival, Ratigan.
Ratigan is a fantastic villain. Hammy, sinister, funny, and voiced by the late, great Vincent Price, Ratigan always elevates the movie when he's onscreen. I won't spoil the mystery plot (for those that haven't seen this thirty-year-old film), but I will say that it's a touch silly and clashes with the more grounded tone the rest of the film carries. But it hardly matters, because Ratigan is so enthusiastic about it. He's cruel to his subordinates, killing one in the middle of his vanity song by having his obese cat Felicia (Frank Welker) devour them at the ring of a bell. The rest of the character interactions are great, with the strong personalities of Basil, Dawson, Olivia, Ratigan and his bat henchman Fidget (Candy Candido) bouncing off each other and clashing throughout the story. I do wish that there had been a more emotional bond formed between Basil and Olivia, but there's still some solid character development. The Basil/Dawson dynamic, however, is spot on.
A few things irk me about Aside from the aforementioned goofiness of the villain plot, there's also a sense that this is the first in a series of adventures for Basil and Dr. Dawson, which of course never came to fruition and probably was probably never supposed to. The end result is a little unsatisfying given how much of the film is devoted to exposition and peeking into this mouse's-eye-view of London without letting us fully explore it. Basil and Dawson disguise themselves as gruff sailors and head to a seedy bar called The Rat Trap, which is full of dynamic characters. There's a full song and dance number that appears to function as an introduction for a new character, but when it's over, she's never seen again. What a waste! At times it feels like a good pilot for a television series, wherein we meet characters and see locations briefly that will be important later on, but that isn't the case. At least it's all aided by a very good score from Henry Mancini (who also created the Pink Panther theme). It's very fun and playful, taking me back to a time when action/adventure movies had warm, memorable music.
Now this is all well and good, but I came here for the animation, so how does it hold up? Tremendously well, I would say. The character animation is what grabs you from the start, with Glen Keane's work on Ratigan emerging as the clear standout (though Basil's mannerisms are delightfully energetic). The backgrounds never reach the meticulous heights of the Golden Era (a scene that echoes Geppetto's workshop from Pinocchio calls attention to his), but they do capture the foggy, dreamy, and dark atmosphere of 1800s London. I would have liked to see more shading on the characters, which would have helped bring out even more of that dark atmosphere and make the film look more dynamic. It's also kind of a shock to my 2010s eyes to see so many Disney characters casually smoking cigarettes and pipes, drinking beer, and firing real guns. It's more edgy than the typical animated family film, and I love every ounce of that.
Speaking of which, the climax featuring the internal gears of Big Ben is surprisingly intense, aided by some of the best computer animation mixed with hand-drawn characters I've ever seen. See, the trick back then was to animate something like the gears from all the angles you want in the computer, print every frame out on REAL paper, color them with REAL ink and paint, then composite them with the hand-drawn characters on REAL celluloid, who are inked and painted the same way. The result is animation that blends together better than digitally-composited elements ever could. Although the Deep Canvas effect from something like Tarzan is more versatile, the eye still senses that there's a disconnect between the CG objects and the hand-animated ones. But that Big Ben chase? It's visceral, exciting, full of striking visuals, and it all looks seamless.
Don Bluth had left the Walt Disney company by this point (and coincidentally released his own mouse-centric film An American Tail the very same year), and while The Great Mouse Detective certainly has its own charm, I have no doubt that the story would hit harder emotionally if he'd been involved. After the financial travesty that was The Black Cauldron, all Disney needed The Great Mouse Detective to do was not bomb horribly. The company got its wish; the film made a little money, and more importantly, gave the incentive for the studio to continue with its animation department. While The Little Mermaid takes all the credit for reviving Disney animation (and rightfully so), it would have never gotten that chance had Detective been yet another major failure. The film itself is a slight thing; by all accounts cute and a bit padded despite its short runtime, but thankfully it doesn't play things too safe. I actually wish Disney had turned this into a film series (it bizarrely never got one of those godawful direct-to-video sequels, despite being tailor-made for them). It works as a good introduction to Sherlock Holmes, looks great, and has the scene-chewing Ratigan to keep things entertaining. I still wish Disney was making new hand-drawn theatrical content, but if it means I can discover hidden gems like this one, then I guess that's not so bad.