Thursday, August 13, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXXIV: The supreme ruler of all mousedom


Directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker

Spoiler alert: moderate

The Great Mouse Detective brings us to one of the most pivotal moments in Disney history, namely the directorial debut of Ron Clements and John Musker, who were the best thing to happen to the animation studio in... probably ever, really, and certainly since Walt's death.  The argument to the contrary would go, "actually, the best thing to happen to Disney animation since Walt was Howard Ashman losing his shirt on Smile," but, honestly, you're proving my point.

So let's meet the guys whose names are routinely mistranscribed as "John Clements and Ron Musker," because man, is it ever easy to get that mixed up.  But then, that's only the natural outcome of a being the twinned parts of a creative team who have, as far as I can tell, never worked separately since 1986.  It's been one of the most productive partnerships in cinema: I don't hesitate to say that the two men are my very favorite directing duo—not just "in animation," where that's more common, but in motion pictures period, and, no, I'm not forgetting the Coens, or Powell and Pressburger, or anybody else.  The Coens didn't make The Little Mermaid, but Clements and Musker did, and soon they would be the shapers of the Disney Renaissance still to come.  Beyond that, there's always been something special about their work, and of all of Disney's animation directors, they are the ones most readily recognizable as legit, real-deal auteur filmmakers.  The Renaissance would wind up much more director-driven than the animation studio had even dreamed about being before, but it was Clements and Musker alone who ever really developed a substantial body of directorial work over the years, let alone a truly coherent one that explored a mostly-consistent set of themes in a mostly-consistent style.  But the main thing is this: when it comes to the thirty-two Disney canonical features made after their directorial debut, the films of Clements and Musker aren't just overrepresented amongst the ones I'd call "masterpieces"—they're responsible for the straight-up majority of them.

For now, though, we're still in 1986.  Detective certainly isn't one of those masterpieces.  It isn't even "major" Clements and Musker—for starters, they share their directing credit with Burny Mattinson and Dave Michener.  And yet it's possible to draw a line between the stuff they were getting up to here and the radical reorientation of Disney animation that would take place under their guidance.  The question then would be, "is it fair to treat Detective as a dashed-off make-work project where a pair of future Disney giants cut their teeth?"  Let's say it would not be unfair.  It isn't all that much more than a Disney Bronze Age programmer; its most distinctive quality is that it was plotted out with a great deal more structural integrity than was usual.  And it's even less unfair when we recall that "dashed-off make-work project" was explicitly how it was perceived by the executives in charge of it, namely Disney's new CEO Michael Eisner, its new head of films Jeffrey Katzenberg, and its animation wing's new president Peter Schneider, who permitted the project to go ahead, but mostly because they had nothing else ready and they were paying these people anyway.

Indeed, production had already gotten well underway during the prior regime, Detective being the very last feature cartoon begun by Ron Miller, who in 1982 had greenlit Clements and Pete Young's pitch for an adaptation of Eve Titus's kid's book series about her mouse Sherlock Holmes, Basil of Baker Street.  And I have to say, I have no idea how any of this stuff managed to avoid the famously zealous lawyers of Arthur Conan Doyle's estate.  I can imagine the "parody" excuse being tried, but like Gene Roddenberry's incorporation of holographic Holmes fan fiction into the Star Trek universe, it simply isn't; it's a blatantly derivative work, to the point of featuring a vocal cameo from Basil Rathbone, our hero's obvious namesake as well as the screen's most famous Sherlock, which was lifted from the Universal archives and imposed upon Holmes's very recognizable, violin-playing silhouette.

Copyright law wasn't what troubled Eisner and Katzenberg when they were confronted with a hallway full of storyboards, however.  Ultimately, they had three major complaints.  First, it was too slow, and needed rewriting; on this count, the team readily obliged.  Second, the title Basil of Baker Street was too obscure (or too reminiscent of the recently-unsuccessful Young Sherlock Holmes), and they changed it to the more generic but more striking The Great Mouse Detective.  Third, and most importantly, they saw that it had been budgeted for $24 million, and scheduled for the Christmas of 1987.  The Black Cauldron had hurt, and Eisner and Katzenberg were determined that Disney's next cartoon wouldn't have so much as the chance to not make money: they cut the budget to $10 million, cheaper even in nominal dollars than a Disney cartoon had been in almost a decade, and "nominal dollars" isn't the half of it, given the decade I'm talking about.  In the same stroke, they accelerated the production schedule by a year and a half, and while I expect this was partly because they were already in the midst of planning their new grand vision for Walt Disney Feature Animation, I also assume it was mostly because they desperately needed something—anything—to wash the stink off the company in the aftermath of The Black Cauldron's failure.  In either case, while Musker, Michener, and Mattinson were already in place at this point (Musker had established it as something of a life raft for those able to flee The Black Cauldron's sinking ship), as a result of the compressed timeframe, Clements was elevated as a fourth director for the film.  Thus was their legend born.

I'd be lying if I said that Detective manages to hide its production realities completely, and there's an unmistakable larkiness about it that belies even more of its origins, as a refuge for people who didn't necessarily want to work on this, but just hated working on the other thing.  And yet there's a lot to like about it anyway, for that larkiness works largely to its benefit, channeled into an easy functionality by its directors (and by its storymen, who clearly took Eisner and Katzenberg's criticisms to heart, the first stirrings of a whole new way of doing things at Disney).  What we wind up with is the most productively playful thing Disney had made since The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and while it's hardly without its flaws, somehow pretty much none of those flaws have anything to do with its sense of humor, maybe literally the first time that had ever happened in a Disney movie.  Maybe it helps that while Detective is not a parody, it is a comedy.  That's a distinction that makes more sense if you've seen it, as our story is very much a straightforward Holmesian riff, albeit one with the mystery mechanics ratcheted way down, so as not to confuse the tots, and the zany action punched way up, to give it a more filmic sense of adventure.

So: we find ourselves in London in 1897, on the night that Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), a mouse formerly in her majesty's service as a military surgeon in Afghanistan, has finally made his way home—and, okay, less than four minutes in and this movie has already lost the thread, and it'll be several more minutes before I can even really start paying attention to it again, because, however quietly it goes about it, this shit is bananas: far more than just the central conceit of "mouse Sherlock Holmes," Detective goes all in on a whole scale model society that inexplicably mirrors our own in every detail, and for all that they make references to it throughout (there is a mouse Queen Victoria—hell, there is a mouse United Kingdom in the first place), this is the bit that just jars me out of the film entirely, because apparently this mouse Britain has, like its human counterpart, engaged with mouse Russia in a mouse Great Game, hoping to bolster its mouse empire in mouse India, leading—I guess—to the bloody mouse colonial conflict known as the Mouse Afghan Wars.  And while you shouldn't be forced to think about this at all, you should absolutely not have to start pondering its implications before the title character has even been introduced.  Also it apparently took this particular veteran of the Second Mouse Afghan War seventeen years to get back after it ended in 1880, but clearly the timelines don't quite mesh; perhaps in 2018, mouse al-Qaeda finally made their move.  Yes, I do realize that the reason Dr. Dawson is an Afghanistan vet is because Dr. Watson was one first, but all this means is that Detective's copyright infringement really is that cavalier.

Well, on this rainy evening, Dawson makes the acquaintance of Olivia Haversham (Susanne Pollatschek), a young female mouse who's spent the last however many hours walking London in search of the famed detective Basil (Barrie Ingham), who lives on Baker Street in a hole in the wall beneath the office of another famed detective.  Olivia is in dire straits, and we've already seen why she needs Basil's help: out of the night a bat named Fidget (Jonathan Candido) burst into her home in the middle of her birthday celebration, kidnapping her toymaker father Hiram (Alan Young, providing an extremely recognizable duckish, I mean Scottish accent for Hiram).  Dawson, moved by her plight, takes her to Basil, who—presently plumbing a mystery of his own—has no time whatsoever for her problems until he suddenly realizes that her father's kidnapping is indeed a vital part of his own investigation, for the mastermind behind it all is the very same villain, the (ahem) "Napoleon of crime," Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price), a rat of great and malign intellect, with neurotic pretensions towards the gentility of the mouse elite.

Plotwise, it hits the beats you'd more-or-less expect: Dawson follows his new pal Basil into the underworld, whereupon his character becomes almost expressly useless except as a sounding board; their first confrontation with Ratigan's scheme ends with failure, with Olivia also becoming his captive.  The film was written to link the setpieces the animators wanted, and while the storymen relied on a very basic formula to provide the connective tissue, the formula goes down smoothly enough.  I said it's a comedy, but it's a comedy that's calibrated so well for the needs of its story that you don't necessarily even notice that anything different is happening when it shifts into a graver register, only that it's still working.  This would become Clements and Musker's signature skill—nobody else in the studio's history has managed as well as they the difficult tonal tightrope that the Disney process invariably demands, and while their future films usually married their comedy to vastly richer melodrama, they (and Mattinson and Michener, to give credit where it's due) maintain Ratigan as a very serious threat, even when he is being funny.

Not that this was entirely their doing, as Detective wound up featuring what might just be the most apt celebrity casting in an animated film to date.  They stumbled onto Price by accident while trying to find an Old Hollywood model for Basil—but once the idea was put into their heads, they couldn't not ask Price to play their villain.  The result (pretty inevitably, I'd say) is one of the best Disney antagonists so far, Price's performance in the recording booth bending the character to his will, and supervising animator Glen Keane was happy to follow his lead.  Between the two, Ratigan becomes a larger-than-life force of affable evil, constantly amused by his own "delightfully wicked" acts, and possessed of a wounded dignity that he compensates for with Price's trademarked scene-chewing hamminess.  But he is, always, dangerous—no matter how overenunciated Price's performance or Keane's animated acting become, Ratigan's muscular design alone would make him a beastly presence.  The overly top-heavy caricaturing that attends the character for most of the film maybe defuses this a little, rendering him slightly too comic, but fortunately the writers give him things to do that emphasize his nastiness, particularly his penchant for feeding disagreeable henchmen to his pet cat.  All in all, it's a wonderful balance between silliness and actual stakes, and, when Price brings his voice down, I do believe that this rat would use a little mouse for kitty chow.

But of course such violence is simply what it takes to get to where Ratigan is going, as he explains in his incongruous musical number.  "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind," if decidedly B-tier Disney music, is still pretty important.  It's another Cluskery novelty: the very first Broadway-style showstopper from a studio that had never before indulged in such a brand of bombastic animated dance for its musical numbers.  (There's a fully-diegetic performance later in the film, "Let Me Be Good To You," that is notable mainly for including a frankly-sexual mouse striptease, but "Criminal Mind" is the only really proper number here.  The songs and the choreography in Clements and Musker's movies would increase and improve, soon enough.)   Anyway, if Ratigan is also maybe more of a flamboyant Bond villain than he is a Moriarty, it's an agreeable tweak: one of Detective's coolest aspects is its reveal of the absurd megalomaniacal ambition of its villain's master plan.

Meanwhile, I'm not convinced that Ratigan is even the best-drawn figure throughout: Basil, supervised by Mark Henn, winds up cutting an awfully charismatic figure himself.  On a scene-by-scene basis, our hero is the most adeptly-animated of the cast—as the genius of the film, he's going to be the locus of an almost constant series of shifting expressions as he ratiocinates his way through the plot.  Indeed, as a general rule, Detective is a surprisingly well-animated piece of work (Dawson and Olivia might be boring, but at least they're a nicely-animated boring), and when confronted with the limitations that Eisner and Katzenberg imposed, it seems the artists decided to use them rather than resist them.  Thus Detective comes off as one of the rarer things in Disney animation, a Warner Bros.-style cartoon done with Disney resources (or, more accurately in this case, some approximation of what the phrase "Disney resources" implies).  The animation is good but never remotely subtle, pushing the characters exactly as far as they can go before you stop being able to take them seriously, especially in Ratigan's aforementioned Warnersy build, but also in Basil's Duck Twacyesque detective business; the storytelling is always broad as a barn, with the visuals uniformly erring on the side of quick and easy readability even at the expense of Disney's usual illusion of life; and it isn't always able to avoid even the most reality-breaking cartoon gags.  (E.g., a friendly dog's ear transforms into a set of airplane steps to welcome Basil aboard.  Wow.)  It's a good style for this material, however: fundamentally, it is just a couple of self-absorbed dicks who've gone to war with each other to see which one's the smartest, and whose means are not always constrained by physics.  As that describes 90% of all of Warners' classic cartoons, there you are.  Well, rare as the phenomenon is, this still wouldn't be the last time Clements and Musker oversaw the importation of some Warners anarchy into a Disney production, either.

Of course, if "Warner Bros.-style" sounds like I'm trying to avoid having to say, "for Disney, it also looks cheap," you caught me.  The limitations do make themselves extremely apparent.  At times, Detective can look alarmingly cheap, with backgrounds that one suspects were rushed to get to animation faster, only to be populated with simply-colored held frames.  On the plus side, for a xerographed film, it looks wonderfully clear of debris and scratchiness—and maybe that's faint praise, but it's sincerely meant.  One's tempted to say instead that Detective simply had its priorities, then, and it saves the best for last, in a flash of newly-deployed technology and startling spectacle such as the rest of it hasn't even slightly prepared you for.

That's when Basil and Ratigan's duel takes them right into the guts of Big Ben, in a sequence that is undeniably inspired by (or stolen from) The Castle of Cagliostro, but I assume it also remains the most famous thing about Detective: a life-or-death struggle fought on the surfaces (and between the grinding teeth) of a panoply of moving gears.  Rendered as digital wireframes and mechanically traced onto animator's paper, it's more phantasmogoric than realistic, despite a trip to the real Big Ben for reference (Disney is known for letting its animators waste money on such vacations, but for some reason, given the final result was "a hell of impossible gears suspended in a black void," this one feels especially egregious).  Still, it paid off: it allows Detective to become for about two minutes one of the most superbly and ambitiously animated cartoons of the 1980s, permitting the kind of dynamic camera movements around Basil and Ratigan that would have been all-but-impossible with traditional animation, thereby selling the visceral thrill of their final battle in ways that the old techniques could never have accomplished.  (And, thanks to being traced, it's more of a piece with the characters than the CGI backdrops in any Disney film until, at least, Deep Canvas.)  It benefits, more subtly, from more and finer effects animation than anything else in the film—because of course a storm brews up right on cue—and Keane, channeling his terrifying bear from Fox and the Hound, reveals the sewer rat beneath Ratigan's genteel fa├žade, as our villain devolves into a savage animal right before our eyes.  It's a great ending, to a cartoon that is otherwise fun but fairly trifling, and so The Great Mouse Detective is one of those movies that I never forget I like, but somehow always forget that I like this much.

Score: 7/10


  1. Childhood burned this one into my brain, especially Henry Mancini conjuring all the late-period London-philia of "Lifeforce."

    1. Oddly, even though I am 100% sure I saw this more than once as a kid, I didn't have any specific memory of it--even the finale--and wouldn't form one till I rewatched it as an adult a couple of years ago. I assume it got crowded out by the Renaissance fare, though that didn't happen with Robin Hood or The Jungle Book. We must never have had it on VHS, I suppose.