How ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ Saved Disney Animation

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) © The Walt Disney Company
The Great Mouse Detective (1986) © The Walt Disney Company

In the latest instalment of our ‘Changed Film Forever’ series, Libby Jennings tells the story of Disney’s lesser-known mouse: Basil of Baker Street.

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) is an often-overlooked Disney classic, but behind the scenes, it is recognised as the film that saved Disney.

Disney had struggled with animation since 1940, when Pinocchio and Fantasia underperformed at the box office and plunged the studio into debt.

It took a decade for Disney to regain its animation reputation, with hits including Cinderella (1950) and Peter Pan (1953). In the meantime, the company survived by diversifying into new ventures; its first live-action film, Treasure Island, was released in 1950, and the first Disneyland was opened in 1955.

Treasure Island (1950) © The Walt Disney Company

After Walt Disney’s passing in 1966, and his brother Roy O. Disney’s in 1971, the studio’s animation output declined and it entered what is now known as Disney’s Dark Age—1981-1988.

The dramatic-sounding era is labelled so because the last of Walt Disney’s ideas had effectively run dry. During this period, the studio lost key animators and shifted focus away from animation. During this time, the studio’s most expensive film to date, The Black Cauldron (1985), grossed less than half its budget at the box office.

At this point, Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, was succeeded by Michael Eisner as CEO. Eisner relocated the animation studios from Burbank, California to Glendale, California, and mandated full scripts for all animated films, replacing the existing storyboard approach and streamlining productionThe overhaul paved the way for the well-beloved Renaissance Era, 1989-1999; a fitting name for a period of fresh animators, storylines and characters.

While The Little Mermaid served as a turning point for the studio in 1989, Disney’s resurgence all began with a mouse: Basil of Baker Street.

The Mouse Who Saved Disney

For those who haven’t seen the 1986 film, it follows the tale of a little mouse, Olivia, whose toymaker father has been abducted by criminal mastermind Professor Ratigan. To find her father, she turns to Dr David Q .Dawson and Basil of Baker Street, “the rodent world’s answer to Sherlock Holmes.” As the story progresses, Basil uncovers Ratigan’s scheme to steal the Queen of England’s crown and become King.

Based on Eve Titus and Paul Galdone’s Basil of Baker Street book series, the film grossed around $40 against its $14 million budget and received positive reviews from critics. 

[In an interview with Jim Korkis] Roy E. Disney said of The Great Mouse Detective: “It turned out to be a good little movie, but it proved not only to the outside world but to ourselves that we could still do it. Then we began to dream bigger.”

The success of The Great Mouse Detective reassured Disney’s new management about the viability of their animation department. Had the film failed, it could have spelt the end for Disney‘s feature animation division under Eisner’s leadership, who saw it as too costly and time-consuming.

[In an interview from 2000] Former Disney animation chief Peter Schneider highlighted Roy E. Disney’s pivotal role in advocating for the animation department, stating: “The single most important thing in the history of animation at the company was Roy Disney’s persuasion in 1984.”

The Great Mouse Detective showcased the talents of animators John Musker and Ron Clements, who later worked on iconic Disney films such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Moana (2016) and many others.

The inclusion of celebrity voice actors, like Vincent Price as Professor Ratigan, greatly expanded the film’s appeal to wider audiences, and set a precedent for big names to appear in animated features.

A New Method

Perhaps most impressively, The Great Mouse Detective stands out as one of the pioneering Disney films to incorporate computer-generated imagery (CGI) alongside 2D hand-drawn animation.

While The Black Cauldron was the first to use CGI, The Great Mouse Detective truly showcased the potential of this new technology in its grand finale. Set inside the intricate clockwork of London’s Big Ben, the tense battle commences between Basil of Baker Street and Professor Ratigan remains a personal favourite of many Disney fans.

Inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Disney animators embarked on personalised tours of Big Ben to gain real-life references, recreating it on screen through a combination of hand-drawn and computer animation. 

Additionally, a new computer colouring process revitalised the rich, jewel-toned colour pallet reminiscent of classic Disney animation.The integration of CGI marked a turning point for Disney animation, complementing the film’s box office success and propelling the company into a new era of innovation.

A Lasting Impact

Although The Great Mouse Detective may not be the most well-known Disney classic, it doubtlessly played a pivotal role in Disney’s animation history, serving as the penultimate film of the Dark Ages and paving the way for the Disney Renaissance and box office success.

Through a combination of visionary leadership, innovative technology, the infusion of fresh ideas and the inclusion of celebrity talent, the film captivated audiences and revitalised Disney’s animation department.

It’s only fitting that since Disney all began with a mouse, another mouse should save it. While Basil of Baker Street and his fellow mice friends may never outshine Mickey, their contribution remains a key part of Disney’s enduring legacy.

Words by Libby Jennings

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