Monthly Archives: March 2010

March 13, 2010

Disney Canon #26: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)


BROOM I think this movie should have been called The Mouse Detective. That’s my line that I planned to say.


BROOM Because it’s not that great.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM I have other things to say.

BETH Go ahead.

BROOM I think that it was bad principally in the music and timing departments. I think a lot of what we saw and had to think about would have been bearable had it been done tightly, but it wasn’t. It also looked slick in that chintzy 80s way, which really detracted from one’s ability to get into the atmosphere. But again, I think the music and timing were the most at fault. There was a certain amount of flair in some of the animation — surprisingly so: Ratigan went into some crazy, over-the-top postures — and there was a lot of fast-beat stuff with Basil. But it wasn’t serving any greater cause, so it didn’t add up to anything good.

ADAM It’s true. The end, when he was in the gears of the clock, that was pretty flashy and sort of abstract, and they fairly reveled in it, but

BROOM Famously the first use of CGI in traditional animation. [ed. not so sure about that…]

ADAM Well, it looked good.

BETH It didn’t look like a Disney movie, the same way that The Black Cauldron didn’t.

ADAM It looked like a Don Bluth movie.

BETH It looked like an 80s kids’ cartoon. Does it have a lower frame-rate than other Disney movies? Did they switch to 24 for a few movies and then go back?

BROOM I don’t know. I thought they were all 24.

BETH That was Disney’s point of pride. The reason they looked so lifelike is because they used 36 frames per second, and most studios used 24.

BROOM I don’t know! It didn’t look low frame-rate to me.

BETH It did to me, a little bit. Maybe I was just trying to find a reason for why it looked chintzy.

ADAM It definitely had that thing where objects in the foreground have brighter outlines, which make them look like they’re Shrinky-Dinks on a painted background.

BETH I liked a lot of the backgrounds. I thought the street scenes, the outdoor backgrounds, were nicely done. The indoor backgrounds I didn’t really like, but whenever it was nighttime outside I thought they did a nice job.

BROOM I didn’t. I thought the backgrounds looked over-airbrushed, over-textured in a way that’s not of value to me.

ADAM I would have liked this as a child because I liked anything that was lavishly about travel to a foreign city. This had a queen and Big Ben and Sherlock Holmes and all of the things that England is.

BETH This was way too scary for me as a seven-year-old.

ADAM That’s true, it was very scary.

BETH I don’t think I saw it when I was seven, but parts of it did seem familiar, especially when they were in the toy shop.

ADAM The concept of an evil toy shop is pretty scary.

BROOM As we were saying during that scene, though, the music was not at all scary and didn’t seem to support the atmosphere, and Adam suggested that probably it had been intentionally dialed back from something that had been deemed too scary. I’m not so sure, since several times the movie did things that were definitely too scary. What I remember from seeing it in the theater at the age of seven was that once the bat had stuck his face into the camera in the second minute of the movie…

ADAM The movie had three terrifying bat reveals! That, and then in the baby carriage, and then when he’s dressed as Olivia.

BETH I think that one was the worst.

BROOM The one at the beginning where the face filled the screen was the worst for me then — anyway, once that had happened, I was on edge for the rest of the movie.

BETH And rightfully so!

BROOM Because you know what they’re capable of: something ridiculously cruel.

ADAM And they do it over and over.

BETH And the dolls were very scary to me, too, so any time the dolls broke, or parts of dolls came off… ugh.

BROOM The reason the movie feels bad is because that kind of evil, that kind of eerie, otherworldly scariness, had nothing to do with this plot. Ratigan is basically a comic character, and his plot is to build a robot queen that looks obviously like a robot; there’s nothing scary actually going on.

BETH Well, he’s a kidnapper, and I was so afraid of being kidnapped, as a kid.

BROOM Well, then that opening scene, with a home invasion, is pretty brutal.

BETH That was like my worst fear as a child, that some bad guy was going to come and take away my family.

ADAM I would like to propose that we read this, as a text, alongside The Naked Gun. Because… I don’t know, the monarchism, and, uh…

BROOM They both involve juxtapositions of The Manchurian Candidate on to the Queen of England.

ADAM That’s right. But also… they both have a sort of quintessential 80s feel that’s hard to put your finger on. I don’t know — is there more to this than that, or am I just… ?

BROOM I really don’t know, but I would love to hear it if there is!

ADAM I hadn’t really worked it out — it just occurred to me. It’s been a while since I saw The Naked Gun, so it’s hard to say.

BROOM Which is also ostensibly a detective movie but not really. When I was a kid, the appeal of this movie was that it was going to take place in fog and be about following clues around. I loved “mysteries,” any Encylopedia Brown-type stuff. But the clue-following in this movie doesn’t really gratify that.

ADAM There’s just that there’s that hound, which is not really clue-following, and then just silliness, like “oh, this note comes from Ratigan…” That’s not really a clue that you could be expected to follow.

BROOM But I probably did enjoy that, because a note is clearly “a clue.” Pick it up, it’s “a clue!”

BETH There’s also the chemical stuff.

BROOM Right, where he discovers that the paper has salt water in it, although that was a little bit obscure for my taste. “There’s only one place where the sewer meets the river!” That seems unlikely. What I do remember enjoying as a child is the great escape sequence, when they’re in the Rube Goldberg trap toward the end. I liked the humorous touch of that cheesy song going while they’re about to die, though the movie sort of cried wolf by already having given us some other cheesy songs that weren’t intended to be “cheesy songs.” But it was still effective as a comic touch. I remember appreciating, then, that the logic of how they stop the machine — by closing the trap on the marble — was within the terms of the mechanical possibilities that I’d been given to imagine, when my mind was racing thinking “what should they do?” It was very satisfying that the solution was a thing I genuinely could have thought of, but hadn’t.

BETH The cabaret dancer was a little too sexy.

BROOM That was a gratuitous sequence. That woman was not a character in the movie. And yes, her ass was inappropriate.

BETH That she took her clothes off was completely inappropriate. And then saying “I will do anything you want.” Of course kids won’t get that, but — what? That has no place in this movie.

BROOM The two other songs were by Henry Mancini. That song was written and performed by… someone else.

ADAM Melissa Manchester.

BROOM It was totally extraneous to the movie. It didn’t even add to the atmosphere, because it didn’t belong in that atmosphere. At a sleazy sailor’s bar?

ADAM It was interesting that there was sort of a female burlesque, because this movie was a lot about vamping and camp. There was both a vampy evil and a vampy good at the same time. You know, Dawson with his little gold hoop earring and dry sherry is kind of like Smee.

BROOM Oh, yes — I think that was supposed to be a sort of Smee costume that he was wearing. This movie had more in-house joking and self-love than we’ve seen yet.

ADAM It had that Dumbo doll.

BROOM Bill the Lizard, from Alice in Wonderland, was in Ratigan’s entourage.

ADAM Anyway — Ratigan is pretty gay, too. “Oh, I love you in disguise!

BROOM Vincent Price was not in fact gay, right?

BETH No, but he acted pretty gay.

ADAM I don’t really have a thesis here either, but… given that around the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Robert Downey Jr. joked on a talk show that they were homos…

BROOM I heard the joke was also sort of in the movie.

ADAM Well, there’s just a lot of homo-eroticism that sort of gets teased to the surface. Now in this, they were pretty studious about making Basil of Baker Street not gay. He’s very masculine and just sort of a grump, as opposed to a fussbucket.

BROOM I appreciated that, given the Disney standards, they tried to make him at all unstable in a Holmesian way, instead of just a standard-issue hero. It didn’t add up to very much, but at least they tried. But I’m really scrounging to try to see it on its own terms…

ADAM I probably would have enjoyed this just fine as a kid, but it’s just a nothing. There’s nothing here.

BROOM I don’t think it’s right. I wouldn’t show this to my kids.

BETH Yeah, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it and I don’t think I would show it.

BROOM It gets a lot of things wrong. Those song sequences are so wrong-headed.

ADAM You’re really hung up on the music. Is this the first Disney movie where we’ve seen a murder?

BETH I thought that too!

BROOM No, because we commented on this in Peter Pan, when Captain Hook shot one of his underlings offscreen and he falls from the rigging.

BETH Well, that was a long time ago.

ADAM Yes. They’ve been few and far between.

BROOM The drunken mouse here was pretty harsh.

BETH It was upsetting.

BROOM Pointlessly so.

ADAM I remember how stunned I was as a kid when the villain in Roger Rabbit puts the poor shoe into The Dip.

BROOM I think that was a tough scene for a lot of people.

ADAM Kids didn’t have to look at that in the 40s.

BROOM It seems so obvious that it’s not worth saying, but I want to say it: there’s something more cruel about 80s stuff for kids. There’s an insensitivity — an inhumanity in it.

BETH I like “insensitivity” more, because I think the people making this stuff were just not sensitive to the fact that their ideology wasn’t acceptable for kids.

BROOM But it was “acceptable” for kids!

ADAM Is that because we’re coming out of the Kramer vs. Kramer, Paper Moon era, where childhood wasn’t venerated the way that it was 15 years later?

BROOM I don’t think it’s so much about childhood; I think it’s about the coarsening of culture.

ADAM But it dials back in 10 years. You won’t see this kind of insensitivity in 90s movies. And indeed children today are sort of coddled by comparison.

BETH The kids who were teenagers in the 70s are the people making these things.

BROOM Well, first of all, consider that it’s the same people making this who are going to make the Disney Renaissance movies after The Little Mermaid. It’s the same team. And in fact you can see a lot of their gestures here.

ADAM But the culture shifts. You know, Park Slope mommies wouldn’t let their kids… I feel like there’s a coddling of children today that wasn’t as present in the 70s and 80s. There was coddling in the 50s, and then there’s a change around our childhoods, and then it changes back.

BROOM Well, you’re right that there’s a coddling, but I’m not sure I’m willing to accept that there isn’t still an unkindness in movies now. I think that in Mulan or whatever, the most willfully PC movie, you’re still going to see bad guys slicing up good guys, as a way to up the stakes. And of course in Snow White the queen sends the huntsman to cut out her heart — of course that’s also cruel and difficult to take, but…

ADAM But you don’t see this in Cinderella or Alice or Sleeping Beauty, in that period.

BROOM I think the key for me is that in Snow White when she sends him to cut out her heart, or in Cinderella when she takes the key and cruelly locks her in her room, or in Sleeping Beauty where she’s completely terrible, the point is that they’re terrible, and you’re supposed to be horrified by it. Whereas here it’s sort of serving the plot explication, like, “then we’ll show he’s a bad guy by having him kill someone.” It’s not part of the main emotional journey of the movie, and it’s the casualness of it that feels less sensitive. Like in The Black Cauldron, at the end, the bad guy’s body is graphically torn to shreds by the evil power — that was just there as, like, coolness. Our horror at that doesn’t serve the story — the kids aren’t even necessarily supposed to experience horror at that. It’s that kind of rough-play without expectation of any particular emotional reaction that is saddening to me. And I don’t think that that’s gone away. Though I do think there has been a response — when you say that there’s coddling now, I guess that’s right, and it’s in response to what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t actually see it for what it is and address it directly.

ADAM Have we seen a rash of child-napping in these movies that will later go away? Like here, and in The Rescuers, and in… uh… well, the pig gets kidnapped in The Black Cauldron. There isn’t that same theme in the recent ones, as far as I’m aware.

BROOM There is in The Rescuers Down Under, I believe, because it’s another Rescuers movie. Another example of this direction I’m talking about: in Bambi, when Bambi’s mother is killed, it’s the turning point in Bambi’s emotional life, and the movie and you have to sit and deal with that. In The Fox and the Hound, when his mother is killed similarly right at the beginning, it’s like “… okay, so, his mother is killed, and now what’s this little guy gonna do?”

ADAM It doesn’t have the same kind of gravitas.

BROOM They don’t believe in emotional gravitas anymore, so when they do this stuff… When Snow White’s in the woods, it’s scary because that’s the scariest moment in her life! It’s not just like “let’s do a scary toy shop sequence.” The toy shop didn’t have to be the scariest scene in this movie — it was arbitrary. It wasn’t actually a doomed or haunted toy shop. It was just a toy shop, and someone just decided that would be the “scary” scene.

ADAM I appreciate what you’re saying. The horror has become casual and atmospheric and just a device, as opposed to being part of your emotional maturation as a viewer.

BROOM I think that what the Disney movies have lost, and what I’m curious to see whether I feel that they do get it back — because I’m not sure they’re going to get it back as much as they want us to think — is that emotions are at the heart of it.

ADAM As opposed to caper and sequence…

BROOM Just “makin’ a movie work.” Even in Cinderella that I accused of being totally materialistic, it is clearly about your hopes for Cinderella, that she should get what she wants. Will she get what she wants? Why does she have to deal with this injustice?

ADAM Wait for Lilo and Stitch, my friend!

BROOM I’m not sure! I’m really not sure whether those will seem more superficial or not.

ADAM Well, Hercules and The Emperor’s New Groove will strike you as more superficial.

BROOM Those aren’t in the running. Those are the equivalents of The Three Caballeros.

ADAM I’ve said my piece.

BETH Me too.

BROOM So, next up is the end of the line for the shitty ones: Oliver & Company.

ADAM That’s not true: The Rescuers Down Under follows The Little Mermaid.

BROOM That’s right, but I don’t know that The Rescuers Down Under is as bad as this.

ADAM And this was not as bad as some other things that we’ve seen.

BROOM I think that The Fox and the Hound was a real low point, despite having a more interesting story than this. This story was really stupid — stupider than The Rescuers, I daresay.

BETH I was pretty bored watching this.

BROOM I think the main thing that this didn’t have that they will get their groove back about was a sense of…

ADAM Panache?

BROOM Yes! I think that if they had rescored it and cut out extra frames… there were places where we’d see reaction shots and they’d go on twice as long as they needed to and ruin the pacing of the scene. Like at the beginning, when the girl says “My daddy’s gone missing!” and Basil says “No time for that!” and then we see her look sad for like three seconds. That mistake was made many times over. I could picture an animator at his desk with an assignment: “dejected look,” and then he works all day at the “dejected look” shot in and of itself. It’s someone else’s responsibility to make that flow with everything else, and that flow was not there. And Henry Mancini really sucks. It’s hard for me to say that because he’s a great, and I love that Touch of Evil soundtrack.

BETH He was old by this time.

ADAM Yes. This was like seeing Van Cliburn in 2000.

BROOM Right, when I saw him at Tanglewood. Oh, were you there too?

ADAM YES! You always say that!

[The original Times review is read]

ADAM That was awful. That was bad and wrong. That was an embarrassment. It just goes to show you: probably we all could get jobs as writers if we wanted.

BROOM In the 80s.

ADAM It was like it was written in an hour.