Ink & Paint: The Great Mouse Detective | SWITCH.
Keep up-to-date on your favourite artists and movies, track gig and release dates, and join in the conversation.
Ink & Paint
Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

Episode 29: The Great Mouse Detective
Daniel is joined by Blake Howard, film critic and producer behind the incredible podcasts of One Heat Minute Productions, to look at the full-throttle adventure mystery 'The Great Mouse Detective', its relationship with the original Sherlock Holmes novels and its place within crime cinema.

Daniel Lammin
Blake Howard - Film critic and podcast producer

Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek

Show Notes
In early 1986, the future of Disney animation was, once again, in serious doubt. The failure of ‘The Black Cauldron’ was not unprecedented; classics such as ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’, ‘Bambi’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had all been box-office failures on their initial theatrical runs, and while there had been consequences, the department had always bounced back. In the past though, they had Walt to protect them. Under the new company management of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, and the watchful eye of Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, that protection wasn’t so assured. Not only had ‘The Black Cauldron’ been a commercial and critical failure of considerable scale, but the live-action films being produced by the Touchstone division were also bringing in higher revenue than Disney had seen in over a decade. As far as Eisner and Wells were concerned, Disney animation wasn’t a financial necessity.

They did have champions in both Katzenberg and Walt’s nephew Roy, who had been made chairman of Disney animation. The two men believed that animation was the cornerstone of the Disney brand, feeding into all aspects of the company’s output and intellectual property. Even so, there was no question that a disaster like ‘The Black Cauldron’ needed to be avoided at all costs. Once again, the fate of Disney animation was on the line. Once again, resources had to be cut and sacrifices made, often in demoralising ways. And once again, the future of one of the great American art forms would be saved at the last second by a film whose creation would be as breakneck and breathless as the film itself. The game was afoot, and it needed a mouse of intelligence and daring to solve it.

There's always a chance, Doctor, as long as one can think.
Basil, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ (1986)

In London in 1897, young mouse Olivia Flaversham (Susanne Pollatschek) finds herself in trouble when her father, toymaker Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young), is kidnapped. With the help of Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), an army doctor mouse recently returned from Afghanistan, Olivia seeks the help of famed mouse detective Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham), who happens to live below the apartments of Sherlock Holmes. With the help of Holmes’ dog Toby, they deduce that Hiram has been kidnapped by the dastardly villainous rat Professor Rattigan (Vincent Price), but Olivia is kidnapped herself by Rattigan’s henchman Fidget (Candy Candido), a peg-legged bat with a broken wing. Basil and Dawson track Rattigan to his lair in the sewers by the Thames, but are themselves captured by Rattigan, who reveals his plans to replace the mouse monarch Queen Mousetoria (Eve Brenner) with a robot built by Hiram and rule as supreme leader of all Mousedom. With clever skill, they escape Rattigan’s trap and thwart his plans, but Rattigan snatches Olivia and, after a battle with Basil within and upon the face of Big Ben, Rattigan falls to his death. With father and daughter reunited, Basil invites Dawson to work with him as his assistant, paving the way for further cases and adventures.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ has obvious roots in the beloved Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, among the most adapted literary works in history, but the film is more directly based on another series of novels by American writer Eve Titus featuring a mouse equivalent to Holmes. The series consists of five books, all illustrated by Paul Galdone, with the first book, ‘Basil of Baker Street’, published in 1958. It was one of the many works by Eve Titus featuring anthropomorphised mice, along with the ‘Anatole’ children’s series. Titus chose the name of Basil for her protagonist as a reference to Basil Rathbone, the beloved British actor famous for his iconic betrayal of Sherlock Holmes, and possibly in reference to the Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of Black Peter”, where Holmes uses the alias of “Basil”.

‘Basil of Baker Street’ illustration by Paul Galdone © Simon and Schuster

During the making of ‘The Rescuers’, the idea was floated within the Disney animation department of doing a project based on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with one suggestion being a dog character based on Holmes. It was Joe Hale, layout artist and future producer of ‘The Black Cauldron’, who brought Titus’ books to their attention, but despite some enthusiasm for the story, it was decided that a film centred around mice was too close to ‘The Rescuers’ and the idea was put to the side.

In 1981, the idea of adapting ‘Basil of Baker Street’ was revived by animator Ron Clements. By this time, ‘The Black Cauldron’ was already entering troubled waters, and many of the artists were looking for alternate projects to work on, if only to escape the difficult production. Working with story artist Pete Young, Clements presented a pitch to Disney CEO Ron Miller. In the past, it had been standard practice to work on one animated project at a time, but it was decided to put ‘Basil of Baker Street’ into active development and production at the same time as ‘Cauldron’, with the release date set for Christmas 1987, giving them ample time after the December 1984 release of ‘Cauldon’. In early 1982, a number of artists used ‘Basil’ as a means of escaping the troubles on ‘The Black Cauldron’ and asked to join the project, among them ‘Cauldron’ co-director John Musker, who had been all-but excluded by the veteran Disney directors he was working with on that film.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ concept art by Mel Shaw © Disney

With the department distracted by the mounting problems on ‘The Black Cauldron’, the artists assigned to ‘Basil of Baker Street’ ended up enjoying a lengthy pre-production period. They could take their time developing the characters and the story with the knowledge that they had until Christmas 1987 to deliver the film. Little did they know that, within a few years, that time would be drastically cut short, and the steady pace to bring the film to the screen would become a mad, frantic dash.

As development began on ‘Basil of Baker Street’, the directing responsibilities were handed to Burny Mattinson, who was completing the short subject ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’, along with John Musker. Dave Michener, who had been with the studio since 1956, was later added to the team. As was the case with ‘The Fox and the Hound’ and ‘Cauldron’, Ron Miller would be executive producer.

Ron Clements and John Musker during the making of ‘Moana’ © Disney

Though he wasn’t initially part of the directing team, Ron Clements quickly became an integral component in the making of ‘Basil’, due to his strong friendship and working relationship with John Musker. The two men were both born in 1953, Musker in Chicago, Illinois and Clements in Sioux City, Iowa. Musker had studied English at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, where he also began drawing cartoons for the student paper ‘Daily Northwestern’. After graduating, he became part of the first graduating class from the Character Animation Program at CalArts, and when he joined the Disney animation staff soon after, apprenticed under Frank Thomas. Clements had begun his animation career at Hanna-Barbera, but only a few months into his time there, he was accepted into Disney’s in-house Talent Development Program, and after his own apprenticeship under Thomas, began working as an animator on The Rescuers.

It was while working as a supervising animator on ‘The Fox and the Hound’ that Clements first worked with Musker, who worked under him as a character animator. The two men established a strong bond, and moving onto ‘The Black Cauldron’, they worked together as story artists before Musker was promoted to a directing role. Clements’ enthusiasm for ‘Basil’ rubbed off on Musker, and became the first project on which the two would collaborate.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ concept art by Mel Shaw © Disney

One of the first artists to assist Clements and Young with their adaptation of ‘Basil of Baker Street’ was Mel Shaw, whose work on ‘The Black Cauldron’ had led that film to production. Shaw had been working on a number of projects that never came to fruition, including ‘The Little Broomstick’, a follow-up to ‘Fantasia’ set to world music called ‘Musicana’ and yet another attempt at ‘Chanticleer’. With all three shelved, he turned his eye to Basil, working on a number of character designs and story concepts before retiring in September 1981.

Mel Shaw’s moody, textured approach to ‘Basil’ was in stark contrast to the film Clements and Musker were trying to make. “[What Ron and John] had done was a very farcical approach to the story”, remembered Mattinson. “It was really all done for laughs, and I didn’t care for that style that they were working with… Then I had these setups that Mel was doing and everybody liked Mel’s stuff. It was beautiful stuff, but they were persistent.” Mattinson eventually went to Miller, asking which direction they should take. To Musker and Clements’ surprise, Miller chose Shaw’s approach, and the tone for the film was set.

As well as determining the tone of the film, Shaw would also influence its most iconic sequence. “Mel had drawn this picture of Big Ben in England”, recalled story artist Vance Gerry, “... you were way up in the sky and looking down on it. But you were close enough to see that two mice, Basil and his archenemy Rattigan, were having a fight to the end. Much like Sherlock Holmes had a fight with Moriarty at the falls… Now, that picture was so powerful and suggested an image that you could do anything but keep that in the movie… I don’t think it was in the book; it was just something that occurred to him.”

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ character concept sketch © Disney

Apart from the central characters, the story team deviated entirely from Titus’ novel, instead developing their own story. During the development process, Olivia had initially been older, set up as a love interest for Dawson, but Miller suggested that changing the character to a little girl would be stronger, giving the audience someone to sympathise with. There was also the character of a stool pigeon who lived near Buckingham Palace, placed in the story to help tip off Basil to Rattigan’s plans, but it was decided that the story would be stronger if Basil had to figure the case out for himself.

The artists looked for a number of visual references for Basil. They initially considered modelling him off Bing Crosby or Ronald Colman, but eventually leaned more towards classic Hollywood actor Leslie Howard. Their approach to the character was cemented with the casting of Royal Shakespeare Company actor Barrie Ingham as the voice of Basil. A number of British actors auditioned for the role, but within six minutes of Ingham’s audition, they knew he was perfect for the part. His audition was so successful that portions of the recording even ended up in the final film. Very soon, the character began to emerge as a more sympathetic, good-natured counterpoint to Sherlock Holmes.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ character concept sketch © Disney

In her books, Eve Titus describes Rattigan as an unusually large mouse. For the film adaptation, it was decided that Basil’s arch-nemesis should be a rat instead. Their initial concept for the character was thin and weasley, but during an early story meeting where Ron Miller was in attendance, animator Glen Keane decided to take the character in a completely different direction, using Miller’s big, burly footballers build as a reference instead. The final piece of the puzzle came when the artists watched the 1950 comedy ‘Champagne for Caesar’. They were interested in Ronald Coleman as a reference for Basil, but were immediately struck by the voice of his co-star, legendary actor Vincent Price.

John Musker and Vincent Price during the recording sessions for ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ © Disney

Disney asked Price to audition for the role, an unusual request for one of the most recognisable actors in American cinema. “If anybody but Disney had asked me”, he told the ‘Bangor Daily News’ in May 1986, “I would have been offended.” Price had a wonderful time working on the film, delivering one of the most delicious vocal performances in a Disney animated film. Rather than being incongruous with Rattigan’s hulking build, Price’s smooth, high-pitched voice was its perfect complement. “I loved doing this part,” said Price. “I was absolutely in a state of terror because I didn’t know what they wanted. Ratigan was a great challenge because I was part of the creative process. The filmmakers showed me hundreds of drawings and gave me the freedom to expand on that. It was a reciprocal experience. They enjoyed my interpretation and I thought theirs was brilliant.”

Rounding out the rest of the vocal cast was American actor Val Bettin as Dr Dawson (Clements’ first choice for the role), veteran voice actor Candy Candido as Fidget and, after a search through hundreds of applicants, eight year old Susanne Pollatschek as Olivia. Basil Rathbone also makes a cameo in the film reprising his iconic role as Holmes, even though the actor had died in 1967. A year before his death, Rathbone had recorded a number of the Holmes stories for Caedmon Records. The snippet used in the film came from his recording of “The Red-Headed League”, though legal issues meant that permission wasn’t granted to use the clip until the last minute.

Henry Mancini

For the music in the film, a high-profile Disney outsider was once again approached. By the 1980’s Henry Mancini was one of the most acclaimed film composers in Hollywood, having won four Oscars and twenty Grammys. Though he had composed the iconic Pink Panther theme for the animated titles sequences in that film series, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was his first score for an animated film. “It’s different working with these little figures up there rather than people,” Mancini said at the time. “Everything goes so fast. The pacing, the story, just zips along.” As well as the rambunctious score, Mancini also composed three songs for the film, two for Rattigan and another for the bar scene.

The long development period on ‘Basil’ gave the story team and artists plenty of time to experiment with plot and character. As production on ‘The Black Cauldron’ continued to spiral out of control, more and more artists found their way to the production, including animators Mike Gabriel and Michael Peraza. They had also brought on Eric Larson, one of the legendary Nine Old Men, as a consultant on the film. He had been responsible for teaching and mentoring many of the artists working on the film, and in many ways, his advice on ‘Basil’ would be his final lessons to them. The artists even modelled Dr Dawson after him.

As the production moved into 1984, there was an expectation that ‘The Black Cauldron’ would soon begin to wind down in preparation for its Christmas release, and that focus would soon shift squarely to ‘Basil’. Within months, Ron Miller would be gone, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells would take over and the fortunes of Walt Disney Productions, and those of ‘Basil of Baker Street’, would change dramatically.

Despite public assurance from Eisner and Wells, the security of Disney’s animation department was not entirely secure when they took over control of the company in September 1984. The same issues that had worried the board of directors for decades persisted, that the films took too long to make and consumed too many resources. Disney animation had certainly been consistently successful since Walt’s death, but so had the theatrical reissues of many of the animated classics. In 1985, ‘Pinocchio’ would earn $25 million at the box office, more than ‘The Black Cauldron’. There was also the newly launched Disney Channel and the burgeoning home video market, which despite some internal hesitations, had the potential to be lucrative for the company. Just as Roy Snr had argued after the failure of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the studio now had enough films for a consistent and potentially profitable re-release schedule.

The major line of defence for the animation department was his son, Roy E. Disney, who Eisner had given the role of chairman of Disney animation. He wasn’t an artist himself, but understood the process and, more importantly, the artists themselves. “Roy was the hero”, remembered Don Hahn. “He believed in animation, he understood and fought for it.” It was Roy that convinced Eisner to keep feature animation at Disney alive, using the clout he had accumulated by getting Eisner the job in the first place.

In the wake of the management change at Disney, Roy became a de facto face of the company. It helped enormously that, though he didn’t have his uncle’s gregarious showmanship, Roy bore a striking resemblance to Walt. Many dismissed him for this reason, that he was nothing more than a famous family name. “People always talked about Roy as ‘The Idiot Nephew’”, remembered Peter Schneider, who would work with Roy to revive Disney animation. “That was his nickname. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was smart, unassuming and powerful. You could easily underestimate him, but you did so at your peril.”

As ‘The Black Cauldron’ was being re-edited, the first blow against the animation department was dealt. The Touchstone division was growing in strength, surpassing animation in terms of box-office success. Adult-oriented entertainment was also a field Eisner and Katzenberg were more familiar with. Katzenberg began drawing in high-profile personalities such as Bette Midler and Robin Williams, and needed new office space for his incoming talent. It was decided that the animation department should be moved off the lot to accommodate for this, so that the animation buildings could be used as the Touchstone offices.

When Roy was told, he immediately objected. These buildings had been designed by Walt in 1939 specifically for the animation staff, with industry-standard desks, equipment and facilities. It was inconceivable to imagine Disney animation being created in any building other than the one it had lived in for 45 years. Roy knew though that one of the ways he would be able to preserve the department was to accommodate Eisner and Katzenberg, and after assurance from Eisner that a new facility would be built for them at Burbank, he agreed to the move.

Memo to animation staff from Roy Disney, 17th December 1984 © Disney

After weeks of rumours circulating, most due to casual comments from Eisner, a memo was circulated by Roy to the animation staff. On February 1, 1985, the animation department would move to a new facility within the Toluca Lake-Burbank area. While Ink and Paint artists and the camera department would stay on the lot, some 120 artists would be moved to the new facility over the course of a number of weeks. In the memo, Roy assured them that the relocation would only be for two to three years.

A facility at 1400 Flower Street in Glendale was chosen, across the road from the WED offices. A series of warehouses, office spaces and trailers, the Glendale studio was in an industrial park and not at all suited to the needs of animators and artists. For many of those relocated, it was a crushing moment. They had dreamed of working in the hallowed halls of the great masters of American animation, crafting new animated classics at the desks on which ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had been made. The Glendale studio was as far from the Burbank animation buildings as they could imagine.

They were also less than impressed with Katzenberg as a new boss. As well as spearheading the editing of ‘Cauldron’, he brought a strong corporate energy to the department. His first meeting with the animation staff was set for 7am on a Sunday morning, a time even Roy found problematic. He would talk of commercial interests being above artistic, loudly dismiss or criticise ideas and insist on Diet Coke being available for him at all times. Roy became the intermediary between the animators and Katzenberg, but even he found Katzenberg’s energy abrasive. After complaints from Roy, Eisner asked Katzenberg to defer to Roy, and give him the respect the Disney name deserved.

Peter Schneider, Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg © Disney

It soon became clear that Roy would need assistance with the day-to-day operations in the animation department. Katzenberg encouraged Roy to hire his “own Katzenberg”, and after seeking recommendations from CalArts president Bob Fitzpatrick, Roy approached theatre producer Peter Schneider. Born on November 10, 1950, in Wisconsin, Schneider had worked in the New York theatre before collaborating with Fitzpatrick on the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival attached to the Los Angeles Olympics. After approval from Eisner, Schneider was named president of the animation department.

“The lesson to be learned from The Black Cauldron is an economic lesson. If you are going to fail, don’t fail at such a high cost. I am a big believer in allowing the people that work for you to know that they can fail and it’s not going to be a problem. But if they fail without any sense of economic responsibility, I’m going to be a little upset.” - Michael Eisner

Around the time that Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the nearly-completed ‘Cauldron’ in 1984, he joined Roy and Michael Eisner at a presentation to assess the work done so far on ‘Basil of Baker Street’. Though the project had been approved by Ron Miller, the team now needed to pitch the film again for the new management. If they liked what they saw, ‘Basil’ could move into production. If not, the project would be shut down.

Burny Mattinson, Ron Clements and John Musker during the making of ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ © Disney

For three hours, the three executives were guided through the extensive storyboards for the film by Musker, Clements and Mattinson. For Eisner and Katzenberg, this window into the animation process was a baffling one. They were used to the live-action process, where a film began with a screenplay. Eisner in particular couldn’t understand why they would start with this storyboarding process instead. Regardless, the two men listened attentively while the artists talked through the complicated, convoluted plot, finishing the presentation of over fifty storyboard set-ups with a leica reel presentation. At one point, Eisner made the suggestion that the bar song Henry Mancini had written could be replaced by one by Michael Jackson. Musker and Clements were so shocked, they didn’t know what to say. To break the awkward silence, Eisner said to them, “Part of your job is to talk me out of bad ideas.”

Eisner and Katzenberg finished the meeting confused. They certainly liked the idea of a Sherlock Holmes-style mouse, but they didn’t understand the storytelling process and thought the film lacked dramatic tension and clear structure. Roy was insistent that they give the film the green light. Back in Eisner’s office, he asked Kaztenberg what they should do. “We have 175 people and we are paying them everyday to come in to work”, he said. “We are going to pay them whether they make the movie or they don’t make this movie so I guess we ought to make the movie.”

Katzenberg went back to the team and asked them how long they thought the film would take to make and how much it would cost. They asked for two years and $24 million, working from the original release date of Christmas 1987. To their shock, Katzenberg said no. It was already clear that ‘The Black Cauldron’ was going to be a disaster, and they needed to avoid making the same mistake again. Katzenberg also wanted to see Disney releasing a new animated film more often than every three to four years. The film was given the green light, but with only a budget of $12 million, half of what they had asked for… and they only had a year to make it.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ character sketches © Disney

After nearly four years of development, production on ‘Basil of Baker Street’ suddenly shifted into overdrive. None of it had yet been animated, and they now had just twelve months to complete it, at least a third of the length of most Disney animated films. Katzenberg wouldn’t shift - the film was going to be in theatres in July 1986, a year after ‘The Black Cauldron’, and they were going to do what was necessary to deliver it, while at the same time setting up a whole new facility in Glendale.

These kinds of budget reductions had happened before, both in the transition out of the package films and in the aftermath of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, but Walt at least had an understanding of the animation process. By the 1980’s, animation was perhaps even more a staple of television than it was cinemas, especially the works of Hanna-Barbera, and Eisner couldn’t understand why feature animation was so much more expensive than television. The artists were pushed to cut corners where possible, resulting in a film that looks very, very different to the films that had come before it; flatter backgrounds, darker animation lines, more block colours, less use of the expensive multiplane camera. The artists who had been developing the film for years were disheartened, but Roy encouraged them to use their imaginations and think outside of the box to appease Eisner and Katzenberg.

When Peter Schneider was hired as president of the department, he began to advocate changes that would streamline the process, from story development right through to camera. He even began to question the materials they were using. For decades, they had been using large-scale animation paper whose specific dimensions had been designed in-house. In January 1985, it was decided to change to the smaller Acme twelve-field animation paper, 10 inches by 12.5 inches, to save on resources. “If the paper’s 40 percent bigger”, explained Don Hahn, “you’re going to make a bigger drawing, it’s going to take more resources, more paint, more time; so not having such a custom business was really the idea.” This new paper necessitated extensive alterations to much of the animation equipment.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ production cel © Disney

There were also significant changes within the Ink & Paint department during the making of the film. In 1986, department head Betty Falberg retired, and George Gerba stepped into the role. By now, almost all the animation studios in the US had closed their inking and painting departments, outsourcing the work overseas, and concessions had to be made to keep the work in-house at Disney. The department was renowned for its extraordinary paint lab, but while the facilities were initially kept at Burbank, it soon became obvious that keeping them at such a distance from the animators was going to slow down production. The problem was that the paint developed by the paint lab could only be used under the strict atmospheric conditions of the Burbank facilities. “The studio's gum-based paint had already proved to be problematic when we tried to use it outside of its controlled environment”, recalled painter Gretchen Albrecht. “But the commercially available cel paint was not up to Disney standards and the colour range was extremely limited.” Even so, as a cost-cutting measure, the Ink and Paint department decided to transition to the commercially-available paints.

In the stress of the production, Burny Mattinson approached Roy about transitioning out of his directorial role. He had been the third director to join the project after Musker and Dave Michener, but had also been assigned the producing role on the film by Ron Miller. He now asked to work solely as the producer, despite the fact that he had already made significant directorial contributions. For this reason, Mattinson would still be credited as one of the directors, but it was decided to add a fourth member to the team to fill the gap Mattinson would leave. After instigating the project in the early 80’s, Ron Clements was picked as the new member of the team, marking the film as the first directorial collaboration of John Musker and Ron Clements.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ character sketches © Disney

The appointment of Peter Schneider as president was proving to be an unpopular one with the animation staff. Frustrated by the move to Glendale and the degree to which cost-cutting was affecting the quality of the film, they directed their frustrations at him, often caricaturing his mannerisms and personality behind his back. Schneider was at his best in story meetings where his theatrical background was of greater use, but his pushy approach was still a long way from the gentle nature of the Nine Old Men.

For Eisner and Katzenberg, it was important that the film be as commercial as possible. The Touchstone films often had a celebrity name attached to them, so it was thought this could help ‘Basil of Baker Street’. Eisner went back to his original idea of replacing the bar song with one from a popular artist. They eventually chose Melissa Manchester, who had performed two Oscar-nominated songs in 1979 for ‘Ice Castles’ and ‘The Promise’. “Writing a song for a character in a film like this is a wonderful and delightful departure from writing an anonymous love song for a record,” she said at the time. Animation on the sequence was already underway using Henry Mancini’s song, so it needed to be reshaped and re-edited to accommodate Manchester's song, “Let Me Be Good To You”.

Eisner continued to worry about the commercial possibilities for the film. In early 1986, he was given a report from the studio’s marketing department. They had tested the name ‘Basil of Baker Street’ and had found it didn’t test well with audiences, who found the title too “English”. This was an issue that had plagued the Steven Spielberg-produced adventure film ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’, so Eisner asked them to come up with a new name. They eventually settled on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ as a replacement, a name the animators thought was ridiculous. On February 13, 1986, an inter-office memo was circulated, announcing new titles for many of classic animated films. It claimed to be from Peter Schneider, but was in fact a joke from a disgruntled Disney employee falsely signing it with Schneider’s name.

Fake memo announcing the retitling of classic films, 13th February 1986 © Disney

The memo included titles such as “Seven Little Men Help A Girl”, “The Girl with the See-Through Shoes” and “Puppies Taken Away”, a comment on how unimaginative a title ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was. A copy of the memo was even delivered to Eisner and Katzenberg. On June 29, 1986, the ‘Los Angeles Times’ ran a story about the memo, which had since leaked out to the public. Robert Levin, the head of marketing at Disney, was interviewed for the story. “‘Basil’ was a film they had been working on for a long period of time,” he said. “For us to come in late in the process and say ‘We want to change this thing you’ve been working on’ was difficult to take. We have all agreed that on future releases, we’ll work closer together earlier.”

Though many found the memo funny, Peter Schneider was furious. He demanded to know who had written it and signed his name without his permission, but the animators closed ranks and wouldn’t reveal the author. Exacerbated by the antagonism, Schneider called an all-staff meeting and reprimanded them for their behaviour. His frustrations though were less with their treatment of him and more the way in which it was affecting the team dynamic. He called for greater unity, greater cooperation. He believed they could make terrific films together. Following that meeting, attitudes towards Schneider changed. The artists found a new respect for him, and he soon became an integral part of the process.

On the 27th of July 1986, journalist John Culhane published a profile of ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ in the ‘New York Times’. As well as all the major players, Culhane had also interviewed Eric Larson, who was acting as animation consultant on the film. When asked about the prospects for the film, Larson was surprisingly blunt. “When the new management sets such a schedule and such a budget,” he said, “is the animator going to have enough time to explore and study, to do research on the characters and experimental animation, time to throw away something he or she feels doesn't work and try again? Are they going to allow time for that? Walt always figured that if we had a good product, somehow or other, we'll get our money. But when money is the first thing on the docket, it can only lead to mediocrity, and that's what I worry about.”

In many ways, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was a square peg being refashioned to fit into a round hole. Enthusiasm for the film was starting to wane, even with the great characters and terrific vocal performances. And yet, there was no doubt that the future of the department was on the line once again with the film, and it wasn’t just the public they needed to win over. They had to convince Michael Eisner, an even harder critic to please.

While production on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ had been compromised in a number of ways to control budget and meet the looming release date, it was still a revolutionary production for its use of computer animation in an animated film. Though it was released earlier, the rudimentary use of computer animation in ‘The Black Cauldron’ was only added after use of the technology was well underway in ‘Detective’, making the latter film the first true application of computer animation in an animated feature.

Clearly, computers are going to change a number of things. The first major change will be in the post-production area where we can go directly from the pencil drawings to colour film by way of the computer. Background and Scene Planning are other areas where the computer might help us.
Roy E. Disney, in the 1980s

The idea began with animator Mike Peraza, who had been one of the artists transferred onto the project from ‘Cauldron’. ‘Detective’ had been set-up in the traditional model of animation units, with each director leading a small team in charge of different sequences in the film. Peraza was one of the artists assigned to the climax, a battle between Basil and Rattigan on the face of Big Ben. At some point during production, animator John Lasseter, who was still at Disney at the time, hosted a screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1979 film ‘Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro’. Peraza was blown away by the film, particularly the finale set on the turning gears of a giant clock, and thought that same concept could work for Detective.

“I went into John Musker's office,” he later recalled, “and told John I had a new idea for the climax. Knowing John, I expected a devastating but witty retort but instead he listened as I explained my idea of having the fight break through the face of Big Ben and continue inside amidst the menacing gears as a sort of homage to the Miyazaki film. John liked the idea and told me to develop it. Now all I needed was a way to make it all come together.”

The camera moves required for such a sequence were far more complex than what was possible with hand-drawn animation, so Peraza began to collaborate with WED engineer Lem Davis. Peraza and Davis worked after hours plotting gear shapes into the computer to create wire-frame images. They used gears especially made in the machine shop and plotted the images point-by-point using only a keyboard. The idea was to print each frame and apply the traditional ink and paint techniques to transfer the image to a cel. Peraza completed a short test for the sequence and showed it to the directing team. They were enthusiastic about the possibilities, but ultimately decided it would look incongruous with the rest of the film. The idea of using computer animation in the film was shelved.

The idea was revived in 1984 when Roy took Eisner and Katzenberg on a tour through the studio. Peraza had some of the printed gears pinned to his board in his workspace, forgotten amongst the pastel and charcoal drawings. Seeing them, Roy remarked, “Glad to see we're putting some computer images into the mix.” With this endorsement, the sequence was revived and Peraza had the go-ahead to continue developing the computer animated sequence.

Reference image of the gear room inside Big Ben © Mike Peraza

Reference material of the interior of Big Ben was gathered, but it mostly proved unhelpful. The images had been taken at human height, making it difficult to approximate the view from a mouse’s perspective. A fact-finding trip to London was quickly organised, and after significant negotiations, Peraza and his wife and effects animator Patty were given permission to take photographs and video inside the iconic clock tower. Thanks to the frequency of the bell chimes every fifteen minutes, they were able to complete their survey in only an hour. Using the material, Peraza constructed a scale model of Big Ben in his office as reference.

Mike Peraza with his scale model of Big Ben © Disney

While Basil, Rattigan and Olivia would be traditionally animated, the environment itself and its monolithic gears would be created within the computer. The task of realising this groundbreaking animation fell to animators Phil Nibbelink and Tad Gielow. The first task was to plot the entire space within the computer, giving them greater freedom with where to direct the image. Once those shots had been established, the computer would then print each frame to be transferred, Nibbelink and Gielow would then layer their animation of the characters over the gear cels.

“With the entire room and architecture and gears and beams and the clock face all in the computer’s mind”, said Nibberlink at the time, “we could then move through the set, just like a live action camera could do, or even more like a helicopter can do. So when the characters are running up the gear, the camera is panning and moving along with them in tremendous shots that aren’t normally possible in an animated picture. This is the kind of cinematography that we’re used to seeing in a Spielberg movie.”

"They actually did it on the studio lot," recalled animator Tina Price, “down in the basement of the building using an old IMI computer, and hand-feeding the paper into the plotter [printer].” The work might have been painstaking, but the effect was immediately evident, enough so that Joe Hale, the producer on ‘Cauldron’, shoe-horned computer animated sequences into his own film.

Computers were also implemented in other ways to help the production process. Observing the traditional exposure sheet system, Jeffrey Katzenberg thought this analogue process could be streamlined. A custom-designed Animation Tracking System was developed as a digital replacement, and was implemented towards the end of production on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’.

‘Oil and Lipstick’ production still © Disney

Another group of animators, including clean-up animator Tina Price, decided to further explore the possibilities of computer animation. They had been inspired by the shorts being created by ex-Disney artist John Lasseter at the emerging computer animation company Pixar, where they had begun producing a series of staggering 3D animation shorts. Working after hours, the small team began crafting a computer animated short of their own, though rendered in the Disney tradition of 2D animation rather than 3D. “We wanted to show that we could tell Disney animated stories with computers,” remembered Prince, who would begin her career as a computer animator on the project, “we wanted to show we could do it, and that we weren’t just a production service department.”

Their short, ‘Oil and Lipstick’, premiered a year after the release of ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ on July 28, 1987 at the SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim, the first fully computer animated work ever made by the Disney animation department.

As ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ throttled towards its release on July 2, 1986, there was little enthusiasm for the film within the studio. For the artists, they had been forced to cut corners on a project they had been carefully developing for years and in a new facility ill-equipped to their needs. For the new Disney executives, it just wasn’t as dynamic a film as the ones they were making through Touchstone. There was a lot at stake, but no-one was sure the film would deliver. Speaking with John Culhane for his July 1986 ‘New York Times’ article, Ron Clements said, “'There is a lot on the line here. We have to show the new management that we can make them cheaper and faster and yet do them in the classic Disney way. If ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ is successful, they may be a little more reassured.”

Theatrical poster, 1986 © Disney

To their great relief, the film would turn out to be a success - a modest success, but a step in the right direction after the disaster of ‘The Black Cauldron’. In his review for the ‘Chicago Tribune’ in August 1986, Gene Siskel called the film the first “truly memorable animated feature in 25 years” and praised its “wide emotional range, taking us from cuddly to scary, from recognition to wonder”. “What a treat it is to see an animated feature that doesn't moralize or patronize young children, or drown them in bathos”, wrote Nina Darnton in the ‘New York Times’ in July 1986. “The heroes are appealing, the villains have that special Disney flair - humorous blackguards who really enjoy being evil -and the script is witty and not overly sentimental.” The film also did well at the box office, easily surpassing its $14 million budget for a final domestic gross of around $25 million. For its release in the UK and Australia, the film was retitled ‘Basil, the Great Mouse Detective’.

‘An American Tale’ production artwork © Amblin

Though the film would be the success Disney animation sorely needed, the celebrations were soon tempered by the return of Don Bluth. On November 21, 1986, he finally delivered his second animated feature and the first in his partnership with Steven Spielberg, ‘An American Tale’. A story of a family of European mice emigrating to America in 1885, the film was an enormous box office success, making a staggering $84.5 million off its $9 million budget, far surpassing ‘The Great Mouse Detective’. To add insult to injury, the film’s song “Somewhere Out There”, performed by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, became the biggest hit song from an animated film in decades, winning two Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, and receiving an Oscar nomination. “Let Me Be Good To You”, the song Eisner and Katzenberg had hoped would be a hit, received no recognition whatsoever. Don Bluth had always posed a potential threat to Disney animation, and now, with this financial, critical and cultural hit, that threat was suddenly very real.

On its only re-release, inexplicably retitled ‘The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective’, the film earned a further $13 million at the box office, and in the decades following its release, has become a beloved favourite among audiences. The breakneck speed in which it was eventually made seems to work in its favour, resulting in a film that throttles gloriously from one set-piece to another. The characters are beautifully realised, the villain is one of Disney’s finest, Henry Mancini’s score is an absolute delight and the years spent in story development pay off with a beautifully structured narrative that, like the best detective stories, remains one step ahead of its audience. There’s also a glorious energy to the film, not just akin to the slapstick traditions of Disney animation but the anarchy of the Looney Tunes. It makes sense that these influences should start creeping into Disney animation; not only had this generation of artists grown up on Mickey and Donald, but also Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. The animation itself may be rough around the edges and lack the depth or specificity of ‘The Black Cauldron’, but one could argue that the film sees the lessons imparted on these artists by Wolfgang Reitherman and the other Nine Old Men coming home to roost, that strong character animation can overcome budgetary or time constraints if done properly. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ is a diamond of a film, a rough yet gorgeous gem made under extreme pressure.

‘The Great Mouse Detective’ concept art by Mike Peraza © Disney

The success of ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ had proven to Michael Eisner that animation was still financially viable at Disney, even under compromised circumstances. For the artists, those compromises were hard to swallow. The new facilities at Glendale were far from ideal. They were cramped, badly insulated and flimsy in design, but they were also open-planned. Artists were able to move easily between each others’ spaces, building a strong sense of community. Collaborations were popping up all over the place, and ideas were flowing freely between them. It may have lacked the grandeur of the animation buildings, but by a happy circumstance none of them realised, it brought them closer to the very beginnings of the artform they revered. Their temporary facility had a lot of the qualities of the Hyperion Studios. ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was also significant as the first major collaboration between directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who three years later, would change not only the fortunes of Disney animation, but American cinema itself.

The fact is, for this company, animation has a value that is way beyond the specific profits that you measure for a film itself. We create new characters, these characters will come to life in our theme parks and in our merchandising, and have a longevity and a value to many other aspects of this corporation that are totally unique.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, New York Times, 27th July 1986

Unbeknownst to the artists, Jeffery Katzenberg was undergoing a transition of his own. He had begun to visit Disney’s vast animation archives in an attempt to educate himself on an art form he had no experience with. He was surprised to discover the detailed stenographic notes taken at all of Walt’s story meetings, recording in startling clarity the process through which the studio’s greatest works had been produced. Katzenberg visited the archives after hours and late into the night, pouring over the treasures he found. He also turned to Bob Thomas’ ‘The Art of Animation’, the authoritative volume on Disney animation written during the making of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in 1958. Every six months, he would return to the book, reminding himself of the lessons written on its pages. It was the voice of Walt Disney, the long dead monarch of this kingdom, speaking across the decades. Little by little, Jeffery Katzeberg became a convert to Disney animation. He had now seen the glory it once had. He saw it as his job to restore that glory.

In 1986, the name Walt Disney Productions, the name the company had held since December 16, 1929, was finally retired. With the company now having extended its holdings beyond film production into theme parks, merchandising and other enterprises, the name was no longer relevant. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells announced the renaming of the corporation to the Walt Disney Company, and that same year, the animation department, which had never had an official title of its own, was christened Walt Disney Animation Studios, with Roy E. Disney as chairman and Peter Schneider as president.

The next film from Walt Disney Animation Studios was already in production, an idea pitched by story artist Pete Young reimagining Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist as a group of stray animals living in New York City. At the same time though, another animation project was in the works, a new film combining live-action and animation. It had been over a decade since ‘Pete’s Dragon’, their last attempt at such a film, but this new production would push this technology to its limits. It would be a collaboration between Disney’s artistic legacy, the most powerful creative force in Hollywood, a boundary-pushing blockbuster director and one of the most talented and uncompromising animators of all time.

So, once again, we’re going to take a detour from the story of the Disney Animated Classics and step into a surreal alternate reality, where the laws of gravity and nature don’t apply, where cartoons are real, where a mouse and a bunny can skydive and two ducks can play a duet, and where a new mystery needs to be solved, a murder involving a millionaire, a beautiful dame and a ridiculous rabbit named Roger.


The 1992 U.S. VHS release, the 1999 U.S. VHS release, the 2002 U.S. DVD release, the 2010 'Mystery in the Mist' DVD release and the 2012 U.S. 'Mystery in the Mist' Blu-ray

© 2011 - 2024 SWITCH.
All rights reserved

Support SWITCH | Disclaimer | Contact Us!