What could be more Steampunk than a robotic Queen Victoria? In Disney’s lesser known, but brilliant, movie The Great Mouse Detective, one such clockwork duplication figures prominently in the villain’s plot.
Created in 1986, this movie was based on a series of books. As many movies do, this animated feature has very little in common with the books it came from. That is perfectly fine. This movie is just as delightful now as it was when I was a child (which can by no means be said about all movies). It features a tight storyline, excellent characters, and one of the best Disney villains ever.
The movie begins with a bat (who has a face which gave me nightmares as a little girl) kidnapping a Scottish toymaker named Hiram Flaversham. His plucky little daughter Olivia knows she cannot find him alone, so she seeks out the help of the Great Mouse Detective, an eccentric named Basil of Baker Street. Basil is a tiny version of Sherlock Holmes. He even plays the violin and forgets to explain things, just like his human counterpart. She gets lost on the way, and this is where the narrator comes in. Dr. David Q. Dawson is a tubby mouse full of compassion and heart, just the sort of Watson Basil needs to balance his, er, brusque mannerisms. Basil realizes that the bat who kidnapped Olivia’s father is none other than the henchman of his archnemesis, Professor Ratigan.
Professor Ratigan is the epitome of an excellent villain. He is a rat in a tuxedo (no, really). He dreams of ruling all Mousedom and takes extreme offense at being called what he is – “a slimy, contemptible sewer rat.” In his introductory song, he feeds one of his own men to his pet cat, simply because the inebriated mouse slips up and sings about Ratigan being a rat. He covers his “genius twisted for evil” with a façade of fine airs, but he is really a monster underneath. All civility tears away from him in the smashing climax which takes place amid the gears of Big Ben.
Every element of this movie comes together in a cohesive whole. No image or line of dialogue is wasted. Even the humor is vital to the plot. The movie’s rainy Victorian aesthetic tells the story practically by itself.
This movie also features the seediest bar ever to appear in an animated Disney feature. Gaston’s tavern in Beauty and the Beast is a safe and wholesome place compared to the cabaret where the heroes track Ratigan’s men. This movie also features a good deal of drunkenness and a burlesque dancer. This is complete truth. Disney would never put such things into an animated movie today, and I think they’re a little poorer for it.
Victorian mice and Sherlock Holmes parodies are all very well, you say, but they are not Steampunk. Well, I tell you they are when they involve such a great deal of clockwork and a bicycle-propelled zeppelin. And mad science (Basil owns quite a chemistry set). And a clockwork monarch. And an overly complicated death trap involving a gramaphone, a camera, and an anvil. Yes, my friends, Disney has made Steampunk movies, and The Great Mouse Detective is far from the only example.
The Great Mouse Detective remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I give it five gears out of five. A version of this movie has been released on DVD and Blue Ray. There’s not a moment to lose!
Your Correspondent from the Moving Picture Show,
Penny J. Merriweather