Conventional wisdom holds that Disney’s feature animation department got its groove back with the completion of The Little Mermaid in 1989. I do not quite buy into this. Mermaid is a terrific film, a classic, but I believe that the “Disney Renaissance” actually began 3 years earlier with The Great Mouse Detective, a rollicking Sherlockian adventure that’s honestly better than some official Sherlock Holmes media (looking at you, Moffat). I then believe that this in turn led to the successes of Oliver and Company, a slight but immensely enjoyable slice of 80s New York City in animated form, and the genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (although that was also a collaboration the likes of which would take until films like Wreck-It Ralph or The Lego Movie to repeat), which then led to Mermaid’s success. Detective remains a blast from start to finish, and it’s easy to see why: it has a vibrant energy sorely lacking from other early to mid-80s Disney efforts like the laborious The Fox and the Hound or The Black Cauldron, which tried too hard to be an “epic” in the vein of Sleeping Beauty and fell flat on its face (though both films still have some good moments, such as Glen Keane’s bear fight in the former, and Elmer Bernstein’s score in the latter).
Part of the reason Detective is so successful to this day is because it’s refreshingly simple. It’s a straightforward mystery that turns into an adventure, and the characters are broadly drawn yet still interesting in their flaws and foibles. Basil of Baker Street in particular is allowed to be a real jerk at times with his smugness and pretensions of superiority (though he IS also truly intelligent, and his deductions frequently make a good deal of sense, and Barrie Ingham’s livewire performance calms down at crucial moments). Dawson is the Watson figure, a bit bumbling, but still able to be counted on in a crisis. Olivia is a spunky child who thankfully does not edge into annoying territory, and Fidget is a memorably menacing yet comical henchman. Musically the film is also a cut above some of the previous efforts, with a rousing score from the great Henry Mancini and a few fun songs.
And then we have our villain, one for the ages, in the nefarious Professor Ratigan. Voiced with delicious, hammy menace by the always wonderful Vincent Price, Ratigan was supervised by legendary animator Glen Keane, and his work here really makes me wish he did more villains outside of this guy, Sykes in Oliver and John Silver in Treasure Planet. Though of course his other work is brilliant, just a bit more subtle. Ratigan bursts with energy even when standing almost completely still, and is so in love with his evil deeds that it becomes almost inspiring. He lacks the complexity and cleverness of later Disney villains like Scar or Frollo (although when one examines it, his plan is actually quite ingenious if ludicrous), but makes up for in sheer gusto. Price gets to sing on both of Ratigan’s songs, the bombastic “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” (which was the first great Villain Song from Disney in ages, harkening back to boasts like “The Elegant Captain Hook”) and the jazzy taunt of “Goodbye, So Soon”, and is just as enjoyable there as he is while ranting furiously or threatening in a falsely friendly tone.
The animation of the film is much in the 60s-70s “Xerox” style, but a more refined version of that, with memorable character designs (especially Basil and Ratigan) and a pleasing looseness to the animation. It doesn’t bother to try and be realistic, and why should it? The climax atop Big Ben is terrific, especially with the then-novel CGI gears providing a dangerous arena, and Ratigan’s scary-as-hell feral transformation. The film is also short, so there’s not much in the way of distractions; the pacing moves like a rocket while still having time for good character beats and scenes like Basil determining the location of Ratigan’s lair.
The Great Mouse Detective is still probably one of my favorite Disney films from both the 80s and of their whole canon. I wish they still made movies like this in between their big CGI epics, but c’est la vie.