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How The Great Mouse Detective Kick-Started the Disney Renaissance
It’s one of those vaulted eras in the company’s history: the so-called Disney Renaissance, a period of unparalleled excellence in animated features that that concluded with the adventurous
, in 1989, as the beginning of this period (whose breakout milestones include the Academy Award nomination for Best Picture that
. The true beginning of the Disney Renaissance can be traced back to 1986, with the release of
The film, co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (filmmakers who were instrumental in shaping the Disney Renaissance and are hard at work on their next Disney masterpiece
), was based on a series of children’s books written by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone called
follows the adventures of Basil (Barrie Ingram), a small mouse who lives in the same flat as Sherlock Holmes and takes on a number of his characteristics (like, almost all of them). With his partner Dawson (Val Bettin) he works to stop the evil Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price, in one of the greatest vocal performances
While no one could have known it at the time, the movie laid the groundwork for the runaway blockbusters to come, in three key ways: it had great music, utter commitment to its concept, and a willingness to innovate technologically. These would be the hallmarks of the Disney Renaissance, in everything from
, and contributed to their resonance with audiences and critics (a resonance that can still be felt today). They are the elements that helped make these movies into modern day classics. And it all began with
Firstly, there’s the music. While the Disney Renaissance was largely defined by big, Broadway-style musicals, with lavish numbers and the kind of inner-monologue-as-outer-sing-along approach that remains to this day (including with
doesn’t follow that aesthetic, exactly, but it does point towards that direction.
It’s got a lively score by Blake Edwards confederate Henry Mancini, who co-wrote two songs for Vincent Price’s character (including the timeless “World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”), while Melissa Manchester wrote a third song. That’s right: there are only three numbers in the entire movie. But in these early days of the Renaissance, experimentation was encouraged and the formula had yet to be locked down and refined. (
, an out-and-out Broadway pop musical, complete with a New York setting but after that was the comparatively dramatic non-musical
, even though it isn’t a full-on musical, captures the spirit of the later Disney Renaissance classic musicals. The “World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” number, in particular, foreshadows similar villain-led musical sequences in
. The fact that Mancini was hired, too, showed a willingness on Disney’s part to think outside the box when it came to musical contributors, a practice that would be commonplace during the Disney Renaissance, when everyone from Hans Zimmer to Phil Collins was tasked with creating music for the animated features. (This was one of only two animated films Mancini ever scored.) You can feel that the animators were starting to realize what could work,
, further down the line, and they were testing those things out in
Another defining trait of the Disney Renaissance is how strictly it adheres to its concept.
is a postmodern interpretation of timeless mythology. It was very clear what each of these movies was setting out to achieve (and even clearer how they achieved those goals). In the same way,
is a kind of neo-noir, a fog-draped mystery with an emphasis on procedural elements and atmosphere. Everything about the movie reinstates this–the production design (vaguely steampunk-y, particularly in the finale), the special effects, the characters. Everything is working together to forward a single goal: to make a Sherlock Holmes movie starring mostly rodents.
that most often gets overlooked but cannot be overstated: its technological developments. From the ballroom sequence in
, the films that comprise the Disney Renaissance are known for the ways in which they push the medium technologically, to new and groundbreaking places.
is similar in this regard and very much a trailblazer. While
was not the first Disney animated film to use computer-generated imagery (that distinction goes to
. It was primarily utilized for the climactic chase through the whirring cogs inside Big Ben. What makes it even more startling is how seamlessly the animators were able to incorporate traditionally animated characters, who interact with the CGI sets and cogs. (Computers also aided the production, with the layouts all being done with computers and the use of video cameras aiding with pencil tests.) The clock tower sequence is very similar to the ballroom sequence in
in terms of how the computer generated effects were utilized and how genuinely incredible they were at the time.
So while it’s not widely regarded as the film to kick off the Disney Renaissance,
really should be viewed as the one to start it all. This was the beginning of the era, a new classic in Disney animation that told a story clearly and effectively, pushed the envelope technologically and emphasized music in all the right ways, made my filmmakers and animators who would be instrumental in the construction of Disney’s unparalleled winning streak.
might be about tiny little mice, but it certainly casts a
Tagged as: Basil of Baker Street, Disney Throwback Week 2015, John Musker, Ron Clements, The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
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