It’s one of those vaulted eras in the company’s history: the so-called Disney Renaissance, a period of unparalleled excellence in animated features that that concluded with the adventurous Tarzan in 1999. Most cite The Little Mermaid, in 1989, as the beginning of this period (whose breakout milestones include the Academy Award nomination for Best Picture that Beauty and the Beast scored and the worldwide critical and commercial success of The Lion King). But the groundwork was laid well before the release of The Little Mermaid. The true beginning of the Disney Renaissance can be traced back to 1986, with the release of The Great Mouse Detective.
The film, co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (filmmakers who were instrumental in shaping the Disney Renaissance and are hard at work on their next Disney masterpiece Moana), was based on a series of children’s books written by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone called Basil of Baker Street (which, incidentally, was the original name of the movie). The Great Mouse Detective follows the adventures of Basil (Barrie Ingram), a small mouse who lives in the same flat as Sherlock Holmes and takes on a number of his characteristics (like, almost all of them). With his partner Dawson (Val Bettin) he works to stop the evil Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price, in one of the greatest vocal performances ever) from overthrowing the mouse monarchy.
While no one could have known it at the time, the movie laid the groundwork for the runaway blockbusters to come, in three key ways: it had great music, utter commitment to its concept, and a willingness to innovate technologically. These would be the hallmarks of the Disney Renaissance, in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Mulan, and contributed to their resonance with audiences and critics (a resonance that can still be felt today). They are the elements that helped make these movies into modern day classics. And it all began with The Great Mouse Detective.
Firstly, there’s the music. While the Disney Renaissance was largely defined by big, Broadway-style musicals, with lavish numbers and the kind of inner-monologue-as-outer-sing-along approach that remains to this day (including with Frozen, the biggest animated hit ever), The Great Mouse Detective doesn’t follow that aesthetic, exactly, but it does point towards that direction.
It’s got a lively score by Blake Edwards confederate Henry Mancini, who co-wrote two songs for Vincent Price’s character (including the timeless “World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”), while Melissa Manchester wrote a third song. That’s right: there are only three numbers in the entire movie. But in these early days of the Renaissance, experimentation was encouraged and the formula had yet to be locked down and refined. (The Great Mouse Detective was followed by Oliver & Company, an out-and-out Broadway pop musical, complete with a New York setting but after that was the comparatively dramatic non-musical The Rescuers Down Under.)
In many ways, The Great Mouse Detective, even though it isn’t a full-on musical, captures the spirit of the later Disney Renaissance classic musicals. The “World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” number, in particular, foreshadows similar villain-led musical sequences in Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The fact that Mancini was hired, too, showed a willingness on Disney’s part to think outside the box when it came to musical contributors, a practice that would be commonplace during the Disney Renaissance, when everyone from Hans Zimmer to Phil Collins was tasked with creating music for the animated features. (This was one of only two animated films Mancini ever scored.) You can feel that the animators were starting to realize what could work, really work, further down the line, and they were testing those things out in The Great Mouse Detective.
Another defining trait of the Disney Renaissance is how strictly it adheres to its concept. Beauty and the Beast is an updated take on a classic fairytale; The Lion King is a family drama with Shakespearean overtones; Hercules is a postmodern interpretation of timeless mythology. It was very clear what each of these movies was setting out to achieve (and even clearer how they achieved those goals). In the same way, The Great Mouse Detective is a kind of neo-noir, a fog-draped mystery with an emphasis on procedural elements and atmosphere. Everything about the movie reinstates this–the production design (vaguely steampunk-y, particularly in the finale), the special effects, the characters. Everything is working together to forward a single goal: to make a Sherlock Holmes movie starring mostly rodents.
And then, of course, there’s the element of The Great Mouse Detective that most often gets overlooked but cannot be overstated: its technological developments. From the ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast to the stampede in The Lion King to the zooming, “Deep Canvas” camerawork in Tarzan, the films that comprise the Disney Renaissance are known for the ways in which they push the medium technologically, to new and groundbreaking places. The Great Mouse Detective is similar in this regard and very much a trailblazer. While The Great Mouse Detective was not the first Disney animated film to use computer-generated imagery (that distinction goes to The Black Cauldron), it was the first to use it so extensively. It was primarily utilized for the climactic chase through the whirring cogs inside Big Ben. What makes it even more startling is how seamlessly the animators were able to incorporate traditionally animated characters, who interact with the CGI sets and cogs. (Computers also aided the production, with the layouts all being done with computers and the use of video cameras aiding with pencil tests.) The clock tower sequence is very similar to the ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast in terms of how the computer generated effects were utilized and how genuinely incredible they were at the time.
So while it’s not widely regarded as the film to kick off the Disney Renaissance, The Great Mouse Detective really should be viewed as the one to start it all. This was the beginning of the era, a new classic in Disney animation that told a story clearly and effectively, pushed the envelope technologically and emphasized music in all the right ways, made my filmmakers and animators who would be instrumental in the construction of Disney’s unparalleled winning streak. The Great Mouse Detective might be about tiny little mice, but it certainly casts a long shadow.