If The Black Cauldron was the film that almost destroyed Disney feature animation, then The Great Mouse Detective was the film that saved it.
The film, which is a Sherlock Holmes-like story that follows detective Basil as he helps the young Olivia find her toy-maker father who had been kidnapped by the evil Ratigan, marks the start of the now-famous Disney Renaissance. Junior animators found their footing, the new executives found their courage and new technology was integrated into the process. Film making had finally returned to Disney.
The Great Mouse Detective is by no means perfect. The budget cuts ($12-million down from $44-million for Black Cauldron) and time squeezes (the whole thing needed to be completed in only 18 months, compared to four years, on average, for many previous projects) meant corners were cut.
Michael Eisner, the company’s new chief executive, felt the new constraints on the project would be a good lesson for the team to learn after the utter failure that was The Black Cauldron:
“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,” Eisner said. “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.”
Entire scenes were shot with no actual animation, just voice-overs while a camera panned over a background painting. A key scene in which Basil and Dawson walk through a seedy bar shows them as the only ones moving. While the background noise would suggest a raucous tavern, the background characters are simply still paintings. Continuity errors are everywhere (hats appear and disappear off some characters, for example) and the pacing of the film was hampered do to entire scenes that had to be cut for the sake of budget and deadline.
But for a group of animators who had learned from the best, this film was actually an escape from the devastation of The Black Cauldron.
Michael Peraza was a New Orleans-born student at Cal Arts, where many Disney artists had studied, when Jack Hannah took him under his wing at Disney as part of a recruitment program to bring in young talent to replace their rapidly aging work force. Hannah was so impressed by Peraza that he made sure Disney scholarships would fund his education. When Peraza graduated, he found a note in his locker inviting him to come work for the Walt Disney Company.
Peraza cut his teeth on smaller projects, and found himself as a conceptual artist and animator on The Black Cauldron. When that started to go south, he joined a small group of animators who were leaving the project for something newer and more exciting.
That excitement had been watered down. I wasn’t alone. There were others too who wanted to work on something else. That something else became, “Basil of Baker Street.”
It was a good decision. Peraza became one of the key personalities and visionaries that made The Great Mouse Detective a success. He gained access inside Big Ben to film stock footage that the climactic closing battle would be based on, he travelled with his wife across London to take pictures of key locations from a mouse’s perspective and even modelled Basil’s apartment after the area beneath his own home’s floorboards.
In a massive three-part blog post (which begins here), he explains much of the nitty-gritty of how the film came together and what made it special. Key for the future of the company, though, was getting a handle on how computer animation could be used effectively with hand-drawn characters on top of it.
As Phil Nebellink, another animator on the Big Ben portion of the film, noted in an interview:
“A computer is adept at creating precise, geometric shapes or inanimate objects. If an animator tries to draw a gear or a car or a house, it’s imperfect. What we do best is fluid organic character animation. By combining the two, we get the best of both worlds and hopefully create a more believable and exciting world for the characters to interact in.”
The team created the entire gear-filled room inside the clock tower, printed out one picture of it, drew characters on top of it, and converted it to a film cell. They repeated this process 24 times per second of film. It was arduous, but it was going to change the future of animation forever.
The technique was replicated on cars and buses in Oliver and Company and then again on schools of fish and Prince Eric’s carriage in The Little Mermaid.
It was Peraza’s sketches on his office wall, which Roy Disney saw on a tour of the animation studios one day, that ultimately cleared the way for computer animation to move forward in a big way at Disney.
The Great Mouse Detective is also where animators started to have more fun, and re-engage with the long-time Disney tradition of paying homage to earlier works in the film. With more talented writers, the confidence of the artists improved, too. The toy shop includes some creations that also appeared in Gepetto’s toy shop in Pinocchio, one of the carved toys is Dumbo, and there’s even a brief scene when Basil holds up a map that reads “Burbank,” where the animator’s studio was located in California.
They even started to have more fun in the studio. Upset that the film’s original title — Basil of Baker Street — was being changed to The Great Mouse Detective, the animators staged a minor coup and sent a memo to the entire company, as well as the LA Times, suggesting new names for tons of animated classics. While Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of the film division, was incensed at the stunt, the animators thought it was all in good fun and protected the real name of the author. No harm was done, of course. The stunt even garnered the film some free publicity when the memo appeared as an entire category on the game show Jeopardy.
The film was a roaring success upon release in July, 1986. It made $24-million within a year and has a lifetime gross of $38-million.
The New York Times said, “What a treat it is to see an animated feature that doesn’t moralize or patronize young children, or drown them in bathos.” The reviewer praised the filmmakers for going back to basics, using the Disney formula where it worked and producing exciting new characters that were at the same time familiar. The reviewer went on to say that “the Disney Studio’s gift for creating really nasty bad guys means that they are scary — but they will love the cute, brave mice and cheer their triumphs. Adults will enjoy the wit and style.”
The Great Mouse Detective is a return to risk-taking and tradition for the studio, while pushing the boundaries of new technology and indulging in some inside jokes at the same time. It was a new crew of animators and directors, a new set of executives at the top, but Walt’s magic had returned.