In the world of the animated feature film The Great Mouse Detective (Clements, Mattison, Michener, and Musker, 1986), Victorian-era London contains a society of talking mice that mirrors the city’s human occupants. When one of these mice, Hiram Flaversham, a single father and toy maker, is kidnapped by a peg-legged bat named Fidget, Flaversham’s daughter Olivia, along with a recently discharged doctor from the mouse army, Dr. Dawson, find themselves at the doorstep of the famous Basil of Baker Street. As soon as Basil—a brilliant, eccentric detective modeled on his fictional human counterpart, Sherlock Holmes, in whose walls he lives—hears of Fidget’s involvement, he takes on the case. We soon learn that Fidget’s boss, criminal mastermind Professor Ratigan, Basil’s arch-nemesis, plans to kidnap the mouse queen on her diamond jubilee and replace her with a robot clone built by Flaversham, enabling him to take over the mouse empire. With Olivia’s kidnapping by Fidget ramping up Basil and Dawson’s urgency to locate Ratigan’s hideout, the film takes us through the streets, sewers, and palaces of London as the two new partners try to stop Ratigan in time. The film climaxes with Ratigan’s seizure of the mouse imperial monarchy, but with Basil living up to his moniker as “the greatest mouse detective in all of Mousedon,” Ratigan’s plan for totalitarian rule is foiled, and the mouse kingdom is saved.
As is clear in the above description, The Great Mouse Detective consists of two hybridized genres, the animated film and the detective story. The film takes advantage of many of the conventions of the animated genre: talking animals; sight-gags and physical humour; incredible set-pieces (including the moving gears of the Big Ben clock); song and dance. Within the confines of its animated world, however, the film exists in the generic confines of the detective story, borrowing its characters, tropes, and a number of its situations from the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre. Like the Holmes stories, the film is narrated by Dr. Dawson, the mouse-stand-in for Dr. Watson; Professor Ratigan, Basil’s adversary, is a loose adaptation of Dr. Moriarty, and runs a criminal organization from his lair in Mousedon’s sewers; and the character of Basil is modeled on the brilliant, witty, and determined Sherlock Holmes (the film itself is based on the series of children’s stories by Eve Titus, though except for the characters and the fact that they are mice there is very little similarity). An unavoidable outcome of adhering to these two genres—animation and detective mystery—is the film’s happy ending: the mystery gets solved, the innocent get saved, Mousedon reverts to its normal political state, and the major characters live happily ever after. However, as we will see below, the film’s hybridized genres also allow the film to explore the human/animal/machine divide, as well to subtly critique, through its use of mimicry, the political dangers of monarchy, empire, and colonialism.
The most significant aspect of animality in the film is the foregrounding of the human, the animal (which is further divided between those with the power of language and those without), and the machine, all of which is necessary for the film’s hidden political intervention. In the world of The Great Mouse Detective, Basil and Dawson operate as animal mimics of the human Holmes and Watson. In fact, Basil lives in the walls of Holmes’ famous house on Baker Street, and engages in the same activities as his human counterpart, solving crimes, partaking in chemistry experiments, and playing the violin (although, as far as we see in the film, not using cocaine, another outcome of its generic constraints, this being a childrens’ movie after all). Though we never see Holmes and Watson directly, we have short glimpses of their silhouettes, and hear them conversing; in a nod to the adult viewers of the film, their voices are actually the archival voices of Basil Rathbone and Laurie Main, two actors who played the iconic characters in numerous films and radio plays (Basil’s name is a tribute to Rathbone).
Dr. Dawson, Olivia Flaversham, And Basil of Baker of Street
Importantly, the film does not contain any interaction between the mice and humans: though they exist in the same world, occupy the same houses and streets, and belong to the same British empire, the human and animal societies run on parallel tracks, always in sight of each other but never meeting. In fact, the most direct way the mice and humans interact with each other is through the film’s domesticated animals, in particular Toby the dog. Toby is the human Holmes’ basset hound, though he also has a working relationship with Basil, helping him sniff out clues and transporting the mouse detective throughout the streets of London. Significantly, it is these domestic animals—Toby, and Ratigan’s mouse-eating cat Felicia—that not only lack the power of human language, but also retain the highest amount of animality of any animals in the film. The mice characters portray very little of their animal selves, acting as almost pure visual markers voided of any animality; Ratigan’s animal tendencies will only be revealed in the film’s final moments and are tied directly to his hunger for dictatorial power.
Ratigan, in his desire to pass as a mouse, further complicates the notion of animality in the film. Apparently, rats are far below mice in the film’s hierarchy of animality, and even though Professor Ratigan is much larger than his mice counterparts, and has a thick, rat-like tail, he insists his henchman regard him as a mouse; as we see in perhaps the most harrowing scene in the film, those who do call out Ratigan’s ratness are promptly fed to Felicia. When Basil stops Ratigan’s plan to take over Mousedon, he triumphantly calls out that Ratigan is nothing but a “sewer rat,” further infuriating Ratigan, who, thanks to Basil’s detective work, has just been deposed as official consort, a role he so recently commandeered. Moreover, in the film’s final moments, where Basil does battle with Ratigan in the CGI-created clock gears of Big Ben (this is one of the first instances of computer generated graphics being used in a Disney film (Ebert n.pag.)), Ratigan’s animality, always boiling just below the surface, finally bursts through: his clothes get torn off, his hair gets messed, he scurries on all fours, and his eyes pop with animal rage.
Ratigan’s plot to kidnap the mouse queen on her diamond jubilee and replace her with a robot replica who will then make Ratigan her official consort, leaving him virtual dictator of the mouse empire—“This is my kingdom!” Ratigan proclaims in his few successful moments as de facto emperor— introduces yet another level of mimicry into the film’s narrative. This brings us to the crux of the film’s political intervention: Ratigan’s attempts, through the use of a robotic mimic of the mouse-queen, to gain totalitarian control of Mousedon, can be read as a critique of non-democratic forms of government, both absolute monarchy and dictatorship, as well as of the British empire in general. When Basil, trapped and despondent with Dawson in Ratigan’s lair, figures out Ratigan’s plan, he says, “haven’t you figured it out yet, Doctor? The queen is in danger and the empire is doomed.” From this single mention of the mouse empire, we can easily imagine the mouse colonies, the mouse slaves and servants, the mouse exploitation and degradation occurring at the feet of the human British empire.
In a scene of terrific energy and horror, we watch as Ratigan, dressed as a king in medal-adorned robe, cape, crown, and scepter, gleefully reads out a list of new decrees. As Ratigan unrolls a scroll and begins to read his new laws, the scene cuts to Basil and Dawson infiltrating the palace and rescuing the queen; when we return to Ratigan, he is already reading item ninety-six to the assembled citizens of Mousedon, who are looking on in impotent shock. Item ninety-six introduces “a heavy tax [to be] levelled on all parasites and spongers, such as the elderly, the infirm, and especially, little children.” The inclusion of little children in this list brings the dangers of monarchic rule to the film’s intended audience, revealing how none are safe from totalitarian power (notice also how the label of ‘parasite’ further challenges the boundary between animal/human). Viewers are left to imagine what was included in those first ninety-five decrees. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film, “Like so many domesticated cartoon animals, he [Flaversham, and by extension Basil and Dr. Dawson] is the very soul of bourgeois respectability” (n.pag.). What the mices’ ‘bourgeois respectability’ is predicated on is, as we have seen, empire. Since the film is structured in such a way that the mice mimic the human lives occurring literally above them, this critique—that monarchic, imperial power can so easily be perverted into fascist totalitarianism—reverberates outwards, implicating not only the British imperial structure but, through its powerful revelation of how easily monarchic power can slip into totalitarianism, through mimicry, through the machine.
Professor Ratigan, in Full Regalia
In the end, The Great Mouse Detective conforms to the animated-film mold that Disney has perfected, notwithstanding its subtly embedded critique of empire, colonialism, and dictatorship. It’s all there: the ubiquitous happy ending (though viewers are still left with the sense of how narrowly political disaster was averted); the foregrounding of middle-class beliefs (hard-work, the rule of law, rationality); the vanquishing of the enemy, in this case thrown to his death, as in the earlier Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and repeated five years later in Beauty and the Beast. Additionally, there is a striking similarity between the mice in The Great Mouse Detective and the speech-imbued mice in other Disney animated films, most noticeably in Cinderella. A major difference, however, is that the talking animals in Cinderella can communicate with Cinderella, whereas in The Great Mouse Detective, there is zero communication between the species. Moreover, where the mice in Cinderella serve as animalized vehicles for comedy, song, and exposition, with the real narrative played out on the level of the human, in The Great Mouse Detective, as has been shown above, the mice themselves constitute the main narrative trunk of the film, this time with the humans on the periphery (and therefore allowing the film to contain a much more pointed critique of human politics than the more fairy-tale like Cinderella). Ultimately, all this just goes to show that whenever talking animals are portrayed in animation, and in proximity to humans, the boundaries between species (and, in the case of this film, the boundary between biological life and mechanical life) become much more porous, opening the possibility for social and political critique.
Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir. The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. London: Allen Lane, 1981.
“Mousechievious Memo Upsets Big Cheese.” The Los Angeles Times. 29 June 1986. Web. 22 March 2014.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print. 2190-2220.
Korkis, Jim. “How Basil Saved Disney Feature Animation: Part One.” Mouse Planet. N.p., 23 February 2011. Web. 22 March 2014.
—. “How Basil Saved Disney Feature Animation: Part Two.” Mouse Planet. N.p., 2 March 2011. Web. 22 March 2014.
Peraza, Michael. “Basil of Baker Street.” Blog Post. Ink and Paper: Memories of the House of Mouse. 27 March 2010. Web. 22 March 2014.
Wells, Paul. The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2009. Print.
Titus, Eve. Basil of Baker Street. New York: Aladdin Press, 1988. Print.
Beauty and the Beast. Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Disney, 1991. Film.
Cinderella. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. Disney, 1950. Film.
Ebert, Roger. Rev. of The Great Mouse Detective. 2 July 1986. Web. 15 March 2014.
The Great Mouse Detective. Dir. Ron Clements, Burny Mattison, David Michener, and John Musker. Disney, 1986. Film.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dir. William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, and Ben Sharpsteen. Disney, 1937. Film.