The year is 1897, and one night in a mouse's toyshop, Mr Flaversham (Alan Young) the toymaker is presenting his daughter Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek) with a new clockwork toy for her birthday. Suddenly, there is a rattling of the front door handle and Flaversham tells Olivia to hide in the cupboard - a sensible idea, for in bursts a shadowy figure who struggles with Flaversham and abducts him... Later that night, Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin) has arrived in London after a spell in Afghanistan, and is looking to settle down there, but first he must find a place to stay. Wandering around the streets, he stumbles upon little Olivia who tearfully tells him she is searching for Basil (Barrie Ingham) of Baker Street, the great mouse detective; Dawson knows where Baker Street is and agrees to help.
Disney animation in the nineteen-eighties wasn't the most memorable of prospects, with most of the success being awarded to the live action movies and the likes of The Black Cauldron and Oliver & Company failing to win the place in the hearts of cartoon fans that the studio's classics had. And so it is that The Great Mouse Detective fell through the cracks, barely thought of today, which is a pity as while it is rather lightweight in comparison with Snow White or Pinocchio, it is handsomely conceived and thoroughly charming, an attractive addition to the list of films paying homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
We only see Holmes in silhouette, although, in a nice touch, he speaks with the voice of Basil Rathbone (who we must presume the mouse detective was named after) in a sample from one of his old movies. But his influence is felt throughout as the team of writers, basing their work on the books by Eve Titus and illustrator Paul Galdone, make sure to have the story be a mystery for Basil to solve rather than simply an adventure to muddle through. When Dr. Dawson and Olivia reach Basil's home, he isn't in but they are allowed to wait for him by his housekeeper. When he does turn up, he's in disguise and so caught up in his latest case that he barely acknowledges his two guests.
Every Holmes needs his Moriarty, and Basil has his in the shape of Professor Ratigan, richly voiced by Vincent Price. Price said that this was one of his favourite roles, and hearing him making the most of his ripe dialogue you can understand why. Ratigan, who believes himself to be not a rat but a large mouse and woe betide anyone who tells him differently, has schemes but we are kept in the dark as to what exactly these might be; he tells his henchmen that he will soon be taking over the whole of "Mousedom", and the kidnapped toymaker will help whether he wants to or not. Interestingly we see just how ruthless Ratigan is in this scene when he feeds a hapless minion to his pet cat: he may be a comcial figure, but he has his sinister side.
Basil and Dawson are our Holmes and Watson, and when Olivia is kidnapped by Ratigan's peg legged bat assistant too, the chase is on to hunt down their foe and foil his nefarious plans, whatever they may be. The characters here are vividly and skillfully drawn, and excellent voice work, not just Price, ensures they are colourfully brought to life. The directors, also including producer Burny Mattinson of Mickey's Christmas Carol fame, don't shy away from macabre thrills either, as can be demonstrated in the toy shop sequence where Basil and Dawson are tracking the bat, or the exciting finale where Ratigan grows steadily more beast like. And while the aloof but enthusiastic detective is made more sympathetic by the influence of the innocent Olivia, this isn't laboured into treacly sentiment. Overall, it's a pity sequels weren't made, and I don't mean one of those Disney straight to DVD things that would show up over a decade later. Music by Henry Mancini.