With "The Black Cauldron" dealing a huge blow to Disney's feature animation, things did not look good, especially in the eyes of new head honcho Michael Eisner and new head of animation Jeffrey Katzenberg. This led to a fair share of executive meddling, and though the Disney Renaissance occurred under their power, it would eventually lead to the degradation of Disney feature animation, with Eisner more concerned over raking in the dough than creating quality films. But I could go on about this for a while. The fact is that "The Great Mouse Detective," a modest success from an even more modest budget, helped keep Disney features afloat during this troublesome time.
It's like Sherlock Holmes... but with mice! Absentminded but en genius detective Basil of Baker Street takes up a case in recovering a little girl's kidnapped toymaker father, with the assistance of a well-meaning come-along Dr. Dawson. Turns out the culprit is Basil's arch nemesis, the fiendishly flamboyant Ratigan, who uses the toymaker to create a masterful invention for his evil plot to take down the Queen (mouse Queen that is) and control all of mousekind. So, Basil must stop him of course, and they have a stupendous final battle in the clockwork of Big Ben. Epic!
Going from "Black Cauldron" to this is a complete left turn in terms of its tone and visuals. This film is a detective story, but a decidedly more light-hearted romp than anything. As for the animation, it's a lot more simple and limited, and almost has the feel of a Disney television special than a feature film. But while its visual style is not quite as extravagant, it serves well to the madcap nature of the film, and is kind of a delight to see in a smaller scale film. Although, this is the first Disney picture to make extensive use of computer graphics, in its final scene featuring the churning gears of Big Ben. Sure it looks a bit rough, but it's a landmark nonetheless, and because of their geometric shapes work pretty well in the scene. The character dynamics are pretty amusing to watch in action, with Basil's ever-active detecting mind working at a speed faster than Dr. Dawson can keep up with. Their interaction, particularly early on in their investigation, are the best moments of the movie. While they may not be timeless Disney characters, they're certainly interesting for what they are.
The more playful tone this movie embodies would continue throughout the films to come, such as where it is revealed that Basil lives right below the actual Sherlock Holmes. The light touch even applies to our villain, Ratigan, but whether this is very effective is questionable. He's a big showman, incredibly self-confident, completely in control, and voiced by Vincent Price. However, as fantastic and legendary Mr. Price is, for some reason I wasn't fitting him with the character. In appearance he's very bold and brash, but his cocky voice and delivery didn't fit to me. He has the best character animation in the film and is enjoyable in every scene he's in, but for some reason the pieces of his character weren't put together enough. This is even more evident toward the end where in his utmost frustration he goes completely feral and brutally attacks Basil, but it seems he only does this because the dramatic finale needed him to act that way.
The light tone also robs the film of most of its drama, which you kind of need in a detective story. While the elements are all there, some scenes seem to fare better than others. For instance we get a bit side-stepped in a seedy dockside bar which Basil and Dawson go to in disguise to find leads. It goes on for quite a bit, and we're treated to a striptease from a saucy mouse (um... yeah), but it feels a bit like padding to me.
Verdict? While it has a few problems, a bit nit-picky, but problems regardless, I liked this movie for the most part. It's clever, it's engaging, and it's consistently amusing and charming, though this is another Disney film that seems mostly forgettable. However, I would say it's certainly worth a watch, as it does reach a bit of an underrated status. Cheerio, gov'nah.