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The Great Mouse Detective: Mystery in the Mist Edition DVD Review

The Great Mouse Detective (1986) movie poster The Great Mouse Detective

Theatrical Release: July 2, 1986 / Running Time: 74 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements, Dave Michener, Burny Mattinson / Writers: Pete Young, Vance Gerry, Steve Hulett, Ron Clements, John Musker, Bruce M. Morris, Matthew O'Callaghan, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, Melvin Shaw; Eve Titus, Paul Galdone ("Basil Of Baker Street" book series)

Voice Cast: Vincent Price (Professor Ratigan), Barrie Ingham (Basil, Bartholomew), Val Bettin (Dr. David Q. Dawson, Thug Guard), Susanne Pollatschek (Olivia Flaversham), Candy Candido (Fidget), Diana Chesney (Mrs. Judson), Eve Brenner (The Mouse Queen), Alan Young (Hiram Flaversham), Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Laurie Main (Dr. Watson), Shani Wallis (Lady Mouse), Ellen Fitzhugh (Bar Maid), Melissa Manchester (Miss Kitty Mouse)

Songs: "The World's Greatest Criminal Mind", "Let Me Be Good to You", "Goodbye, So Soon"

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Few people would dispute that Disney experienced an animation renaissance from the end of the 1980s to at least the middle of the 1990s. Most credit The Little Mermaid, released in the final weeks of the '80s, as the start of it. It is implied, then, that prior to that period of Broadway-esque blockbuster musicals, Disney animation was in a bit of a rut. The consensus seems to be that a dark age for the treasured popular art form began soon after Walt Disney's 1966 death.
Whether or not you cite Walt's extensive participation on the project, you'll likely agree that the first posthumous cartoon, 1967's The Jungle Book, avoids dark age classification. The animated films made in between Jungle Book and Little Mermaid aren't as fortunate.

Those works, debuted in the '70s and '80s, do not enjoy the popularity and promotional support of the beloved ones from before and after. Certainly, aside from the anthology features Disney spent most of the 1940s making, the post-Jungle, pre-Mermaid cartoon films tend to rank among the studio's lesser-known ones. That's true as far as the general public is concerned, but then the general public probably hasn't given too much thought to reputation, rankings, and eras within Disney's animated canon. These are topics known to enter the minds of Disney fans. The serious Disney fanbase is familiar with all the animated films currently considered canonical (the recently-renamed Tangled will become #50 this fall) and well aware of where each stands in the public consciousness, at least as the company's marketing division sees it.

Disney fans can also find something interesting and redeeming about nearly every one of the studio's animated films. I know this because I am one. With that fan's perspective, it is easy to consider each of the films in the so-called dark ages and dispute the criticism. The dark age in question consists of The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh*, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company. Now a typical person, especially one who experienced neither childhood nor parenthood in the 1970s and '80s, might not have opinions on many or any of those titles. We Disney fans are different. There may be one or two in there we're not crazy about, but I'd bet that most of them have charmed us to some degree.

Basil of Baker Street is reluctant to help Dawson and Olivia, until he learns that the case involves his evil genius nemesis... Professor Ratigan, who has royal aspirations and loyal followers (who are fed to Felicia the cat, if they err or call him a rat).

The "dark age" designation isn't entirely about inferior quality, however. Productivity had somewhat slowed. And the returns just weren't what they used to be, at least in proportion to the rest of the movie industry. The 1985 dark fantasy The Black Cauldron has the reputation of hitting rock-bottom for Disney. Released the following summer, The Great Mouse Detective didn't sell many more tickets and probably isn't much better-known, but this, the film we now turn to, has come to be considered less a failure and more an underrated, underappreciated work.

The Great Mouse Detective is Disney's adaptation of the Basil of Baker Street children's book series. From 1958 to 1982, five Basil stories were written by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone. None of the five tales is refashioned, but three of the series' central rodent characters feature in the film. To say that the personalities were created by Titus is a bit much, since each is closely modeled after figures from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The eccentric Basil actually lives in the cellar under Holmes' residence, and he has many interests in common with his upstairs neighbor, including pipe-smoking, violin-playing, and a remarkable eye for critical details.

In the film's 1897 London, Basil gets hired by Olivia Flaversham, a young mouse girl whose only parent, toymaker father Hiram, has been kidnapped before her eyes by a peg-legged bat. The bat, named Fidget, is the henchman of Basil's evil nemesis, Professor Ratigan. On the mission to find and stop Ratigan, Basil and Olivia are joined by Dr. Dawson (the Watson of this universe), an army physician back home from an assignment in Afghanistan, and Toby, a reliable olfactory-gifted Basset Hound. Ratigan, meanwhile, is working his abductee hard to come up with a mechanically sound way to overthrow the (mouse) Queen of England.

Peg-legged henchman Fidget the bat takes a moment to enjoy Olivia Flaversham's predicament being trapped inside bottle. Basil carefully holds Fidget's list by a corner, believing its chemical contents could be useful.

There is really nothing about The Great Mouse Detective to take to task. This animated, animal, family-friendly variation on the Sherlock Holmes mystery is enjoyable. It's also low-key; whereas today's lesser cartoons bombard the senses in hopes of keeping viewers alert, this film doesn't seem to mind whether you drift off or pay close attention. The latter route is in everyone's best interests.
But while you shouldn't be disappointed, you probably might not be overly impressed. Everything about this production -- the story, the characters, the animation, the music, the comedy -- is fine. It's all no better or worse than that.

That would be sufficient to qualify most films as a success. And had another animation studio made this (which in the 1980s would have meant Don Bluth, who was then finishing up his second less than riveting rodent feature), I think the quality would be easier to notice and celebrate. But as a Disney animated feature, you wish Great Mouse Detective would do something more to stand out. Even if you, like many seem to, hold this in higher regard than the canon entries that surrounded it, you're bound to remember more about Black Cauldron and Oliver & Company for their bolder, broader strokes. Maybe regular viewings are necessary to distinguish this film, but after several over the years, I still find it pleasant but forgettable.

There are a few fun facts worth sharing about Detective. This, Disney's 26th animated feature, marked the feature directorial debut for four men who had risen from the studio's animation and then writing departments. While two of them have yet to direct any additional films, the other two are John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo that has since helmed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, and, most recently, The Princess and the Frog.

Titus named Basil after Basil Rathbone, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes in more than a dozen films from 1939 to 1946. Although deceased for almost twenty years then, Rathbone briefly gets to portray Holmes one last time, through the use of archived audio from one of his films. Among the actors who actually recorded their lines for this film are macabre legend Vincent Price as the fiendish villain Ratigan and "Mister Ed" co-star Alan Young (using the same Scottish accent he had brought and, at age 90, continues to bring to Scrooge McDuck). Basil is voiced by British stage actor Barrie Ingham, whose few filmed roles include the Thal leader in Dr. Who and the Daleks and Carl the Butler in TV's The Jerk, Too.

One final fact that Disney likes to share in discussions of computer-animation: Great Mouse Detective is actually the first of the studio's movies to implement computer-generated imagery. CGI is used on the gears inside Big Ben, the clock tower featuring climactically.

While I've accused The Great Mouse Detective of being forgettable, Disney has remembered this 1986 film and next week treats it to a new Mystery in the Mist Edition DVD. With a moniker like that, you might think the studio was running out of names to attach to the film, but this actually marks its first DVD release since its untitled July 2002 debut. Where does this disc rank among animated Disney films deemed worthy of re-release but not fixed series branding? Is it on par with Robin Hood's Most Wanted Edition or Dumbo's Big Top Edition? Perhaps Winnie the Pooh's Friendship Edition or maybe even Alice in Wonderland's recent Un-Anniversary Edition? Read on to find out.

* - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is largely comprised of three 25-minute shorts, two of which were released in 1960s with Walt's name attached. Its dark age membership is, therefore, less than absolute.

Buy The Great Mouse Detective: Mystery in the Mist Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled and Captioned
Release Date: April 13, 2010
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
Black keepcase in Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
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VIDEO and AUDIO

A slipcover sticker touts that The Great Mouse Detective has received an all-new digital restoration. Even if typical overscan renders the slight aspect ratio change from anamorphic 1.66:1 to anamorphic 1.78:1 barely noticeable, you soon confirm the presentation is different because here the film actually displays its original title. (The former DVD used "The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective" title screen applied to the film's 1992 theatrical re-release.)

Picture quality is quite satisfactory. The element remains clean and sharp, while colors stay vibrant. The biggest shortcoming we encounter is some faint flicker or grain on a few scenes. While the film isn't so old, it also isn't a spring chicken and thus it's nice to get such a pleasing presentation on such an unassuming re-release.

Just when the throne appears to be his, Ratigan is bothered by what he hears from the mouth of the mousedom queen's mechanical double. Still from 2002 DVD - click to view in 720 x 480. Just when the throne appears to be his, Ratigan is bothered by what he hears coming from the mousedom queen's mechanical double. Still from 2010's Mystery in the Mist Edition DVD - click to view in 720 x 480.

Screencap from The Great Mouse Detective's 2002 DVD

Screencap from 2010's Mystery in the Mist Edition DVD

Comparing The Great Mouse Detective's two DVDs, the color differences are more pronounced than dimensional ones.

There is noticeable difference between the transfers on the film's two DVDs. Here, the colors are darker and richer; tans become copper, salmons are a more solid red. Character lines are bolder. There is much less of the grainy look that marked the 2002 DVD.
The difference in picture quality isn't extreme, even viewing on a decent-sized 16:9 HDTV, but the new presentation does narrowly improve upon the previous one. As for the aspect ratio change, this new DVD gains a few pixels of width and loses a few of the animation's height. On most shots, more is gained than lost, making it less a slight matting of the previous presentation and more of a horizontal expansion. In any event, the film is closer now to its presumed 1.75:1 or 1.85:1 theatrical exhibition. The slightly cockeyed end credits are mildly windowboxed.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seems identical to that of the old DVD and barely makes use of the 5.1 channels. If you stick your ear up to the surround speakers, you'll hear slight musical reinforcement at times, but otherwise this plays largely like a basic stereo or 2.0 surround mix. It's sufficient and clear, just not extremely involving or dynamic.

In "So You Think You Can Sleuth?", you've got to figure out which of Fred's four family members took the cookies from the cookie jar. Voice actors Barrie Ingham (Basil) and Val Bettin (Dawson) read some lines for the camera in 1980s promotional featurette "The Making of 'The Great Mouse Detective'." Bar singer Miss Kitty Mouse makes an appearance on the DVD's main menu montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Extras begin with the only all-new inclusion of note. "So You Think You Can Sleuth?" (4:40) offers a brief history of crime and detectives, touching upon such institutions as Scotland Yard, the Pinkertons, and Sherlock Holmes. It benefits from the use of many clips from Disney cartoons and old public domain things.

Clip from "So You Think You Can Sleuth?":
After explaining the origins of the word "sleuth", the piece shifts gears and lets you try to solve a hypothetical cookie theft, re-enacted with black & white photographs and familial suspects. It's slight and kid-oriented, but more enjoyable than the "game" the package leads you to expect.

Two recycled "Original DVD Features" are given a menu to themselves. "The Making of The Great Mouse Detective" (7:50) is a promotional featurette from the time of release. About half of its brief runtime is devoted to the voice cast, paying special attention to Vincent Price and singer Melissa Manchester. We also get sound bites from Roy E. Disney, Glen Keane, composer Henry Mancini, and animator Phil Nibbelink, who explains how computer animation complemented the standard methods. While it may have been meant to sell the film to journalists, an old piece like this is of greater interest than a new retrospective. Still, it's unfortunate we couldn't get both here.

"The World's Greatest Criminal Mind" sing-along (2:00) presents Ratigan's song in fullscreen. It gladly retains its old Disney Songbook intro and outro (with Sing-Along Songs volume plug digitally edited), although the bouncing Mickey head and animated lyrics have been replaced by purple player-generated subtitles that turn yellow when sung.

Back to the new content, we get the now-standard Blu-ray promo (4:45) by Cole & Dylan Sprouse and their "Suite Life" mom Kim Rhodes and DisneyFile digital copy explanation (1:00).

Sadly, not all of the original DVD's special features have been preserved here. The thematically kindred animated shorts Clock Cleaners (1937) and Donald's Crime (1945) are gone and not replaced by any other classic Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck cartoons. (Clock Cleaners apparently accompanied Detective in theaters.)

More objectionable, a scrapbook holding Great Mouse Detective concept art, storyboards, production photos, and a poster is also lost. I can understand a studio not wanting to invest time or money into digging up or producing supplemental material, but failing to drag and drop a worthwhile file from an old DVD is rather inexcusable. It's not as if the 47 images were life-altering or the reason to make a purchase, but even those who disregard extras would surely prefer getting the tiny behind-the-scenes gallery over not.

The DVD opens with promos for the family memories provided by Disney Blu-ray, Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition, Toy Story 3, and Disney Movie Rewards. To these, the elaborately-introduced Sneak Peeks menu adds ads for Genuine Treasure, The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story & Toy Story 2 on Blu-ray, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, The Black Cauldron: Special Edition, recent Studio Ghibli releases, and D23.

The animated main menu plays clips in a screen among Basil's laboratory supplies. With a Comic Sans font, it seems as if menu design is another place where Disney is cutting costs. Submenus are static but scored.

The Mystery in the Mist Edition comes with a cardboard slipcover that's given holographic embellishments on front and back. It's a touch that neither the film nor this DVD seems to call for. Inside the black keepcase, across from the artless disc, one finds a code for 100 Disney Movie Rewards points and a new insert extolling Blu-ray and Disney's new DVD-to-Blu-ray upgrade coupon program.

Better at staying in character than Dawson, Basil orders them two pints from a seedy bar they visit incognito. After an extremely close call with Ratigan's death trap, Basil smiles and squeezes Dawson and Olivia in for a photograph.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Great Mouse Detective's biggest shortcoming seems to be that it's not very distinctive.
It is a perfectly adequate production, but that's not exactly a cover quote even for something emanating from a period not considered Disney's finest.

While there are enough charms to recommend owning this film (watch regularly to recall them), Disney's goofily-titled lackluster new release hardly deserves much enthusiasm. Its meager supply of bonus features even pales next to the original disc's average menu. However, picture quality is markedly improved, the price is low enough to not greatly mind the missed opportunities, and the film's relatively obscure status ensures it won't likely return to DVD or premiere on Blu-ray anytime soon.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy Original DVD / The Books by Eve Titus

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Related Giveaway: Win The Great Mouse Detective: Mystery in the Mist Edition!

Related Reviews:
New: Sherlock Holmes Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel The Princess and the Frog Fantastic Mr. Fox Toy Story 2
1980s Theatrical Disney Animation: Oliver & Company The Fox and the Hound The Little Mermaid Mickey's Christmas Carol
1980s Disney TV Animation: Adventures of the Gummi Bears: Volume 1 DuckTales: Volume 1 Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers: Volume 1
1980s TV Animation: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The ALVINNN!!! Edition The Jetsons: Season 2, Volume 1 Transformers: Season 1
1980s Movies: The Secret of NIMH The Brave Little Toaster Follow That Bird Return to Oz The Chipmunk Adventure
Robin Hood The Aristocats The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh Mr. Toad's Wild Ride The Nightmare Before Christmas

Related Interview: writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker | Related Page: Disney Villains Countdown (featuring Ratigan)

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Reviewed April 9, 2010.