Friday, October 21, 2016

Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective" At 30

I remember watching The Great Mouse Detective when it premiered when I was a kid. For those who haven't seen it, this Disney animated film from 1986 is about a mouse named Basil who lives in a mousehole at 221B Baker Street in London - the home address of Sherlock Holmes. Basil is an anthropomorphic cartoon mouse who solves mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. He even has a sidekick - Dr. Dawson - who is the anthropomorphic cartoon mouse counterpart to Dr. Watson. Basil's archfoe is Professor Ratigan (voiced by horror icon Vincent Price), who is the anthropomorphic cartoon rat counterpart to Professor Moriarty. The film is excellent. It's still available in stores as part of a Blu Ray-DVD combo pack, so I highly recommend that you see it.

And...you might want to check out the children's book series of novels that inspired the film. Eve Titus created Basil, Dawson and Ratigan. She wrote five books in all, beginning with Basil of Baker Street, which I remember was brought back in print to coincide with the release of the film. I remember thinking that I didn't enjoy Paul Galdone's illustrations because the characters looked too much like real mice, whereas the Disney version reimagines the cast as pure cartoon characters. Cut to 2016, the 5 books are back in print, with new cover illustrations by artist David Mottram - these I like! Basil and Dr. Dawson have a bit of a Chuck Jones style to them...a literary Hubie & Bertie, ready to meet the cricket in Times Square  (if you got that reference..thank you)..or a wizened Pixie & Dixie. Unfortunately, they didn't have Mottram contribute new interior illustrations, so you get to stare and compare with Galdone's stuff.

As for the stories..I got a confession to make: this month will mark my first time reading the books. I remember owning the reprint of Basil of Baker Street that had the Disney version of the mouse on the cover, but being put-off by the Galdone drawings and the fact that the story had little to nothing in common with the plot of the film. You won't find prose/illustrations of balloon races across the Thames, no escapes from Rube Goldberg-esque deathtraps or clock tower showdowns or bats with peg-legs. Ratigan isn't in it - he appears in the 2nd book! You will find a similar scene of Basil deducing a location by analyzing a piece of paper, along with the disguises Basil and Dawson wore in the film. The book's plot is about Angela and Agatha - two little girl mice twins who are kidnapped by a group of mice called "The Terrible Three". Angela and Agatha have little to do, but are the likely inspiration for the character of Olivia Flaversham from the movie.

I did enjoy the book now because I appreciated reading a new story with these characters and I've got four more to go. I'm curious as to why Disney never thought of cranking out some direct-to-DVD sequels during their "cranking-our-some-direct-to-DVD-sequels-of-our-movies" phase, but there was material there. Plus, in the wake of Geronimo Stilton and Sherlock, these books seem perfect for a chance at being rediscovered by new readers.

One notable difference in the books from the film that's never addressed is the idea of anthropomorphic animals co-existing with humans in secret communities/colonies that escape the humans notice. Basil gathers a group to live in the basement at 221B Baker Street and forms Holmestead, a literal mousetown with houses and shops..kind of like the Aardman movie Flushed Away..or the "city" scenes in A Bug's Life...this might've been the forerunner to that kind of thing.

I'm about to read about Basil and The Cave of Cats..pygmy cats, huh? This would make a cool idea for a CG sequel..

One last memory: does anyone besides my old 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Vogel, pronounce "Basil" like "Bay-zil"? Y'know - like the herb? Or "Bah-zil", as in "Basil Rathone" or "St. Basil"? I remember when I ordered Basil of Baker Street via Troll - the school book order catalog. The books for the students would be delivered to the respective classrooms, then the teacher would sort out who ordered which books. She insisted that Basil's name was pronounced Bay-zil. It was a losing argument: she wasn't going to see the film, but she had to be right, because it was her classroom, so this cartoon mouse was clearly named after an herb she owned in her spice rack...

In retrospect, her intelligence was...elementary.

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