How Basil Saved Disney Feature Animation: Part Oneby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The first Disney animated feature greenlit for production by the new Disney management team of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg was not The Little Mermaid, but a charming, often neglected little film titled The Great Mouse Detective. It saved the future of Disney feature animation.
The idea of doing an animated film about Sherlock Holmes in animal form was first talked about during the making of The Rescuers (1977). At one point, it was considered making the character a dog detective. Joe Hale is credited with bringing up the Eve Titus book series about a mouse version of Sherlock Holmes, but it was felt at the time that it was too close to The Rescuers since they would both be about mouse detectives.
“Basil of Baker Street” is a children's book series of five books written between 1971 and 1982 by Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone. The stories focus on the adventures of the great mouse detective named Basil (named after actor Basil Rathbone, famous for his film portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, although in one Arthur Conan Doyle story Holmes does use the alias “Basil”) who lives beneath the residence of Sherlock Holmes and solves crimes. He is accompanied by his friend and biographer, a mouse named Dr. Dawson (an homage to Holmes’ Dr. Watson). The primary villain is Professor Ratigan (a tribute to Holmes’ Dr. Moriarty), a bulky mouse sometimes mistaken for a rat.
By 1980, some of the Disney animators were unhappy with the direction The Black Cauldron was heading so it was discussed starting another unit to work on another film. “Basil of Baker Street” seemed the best possibility.
Director John Musker laughed, “We threw out most of what was in the books.” In fact, except for the setting of Victorian London and the three major characters, there is no evidence of any of Titus’s work. Ratigan was transformed into an actual rat who is trying to blend into the mouse community. Basil became an accomplished violin player, unlike his musically challenged literary counterpart. Dr. Dawson instead of being the intelligent, resourceful character of the book became a well meaning bumbler.
The Disney story takes place in 1897 London. Innovative mouse toymaker Hiram Flaversham is kidnapped by a peg-legged bat named Fidget who is the henchman for Professor Ratigan. Ratigan intends for the toymaker to make a clockwork robot doppelganger of Queen Moustoria to replace her as part of his heinous plan to become supreme ruler of all Mousedom.
Flaversham’s young daughter, Olivia, seeks the aid of Basil and Dr. Dawson to rescue her father. After many harrowing adventures, including a trip to the rowdy waterfront tavern “The Rat Trap,” an escape from an elaborate spring loaded Rube Goldberg style mousetrap and a final nail biting confrontation at the top of the Big Ben clock tower, Basil defeats Ratigan, rescues the Flavershams and the Queen and is off on yet another adventure about a missing ring.
The film basically became a simple homage to a traditional Sherlock Holmes story with little touches of James Bond and Alfred Hitchcock. Yet the story floundered for years with ten different credited storymen contributing conflicting ideas in search of solid foundation.
Olivia was going to be older and a potential love interest for Basil (or even the infatuated Dr. Dawson at one point). Producer Ron Miller declared that she be made a little girl to garner the audience’s sympathy. A seedy stool pigeon who hung around Buckingham Palace and would be an informant for Basil ended up being eliminated, forcing Basil to find all the information himself.
Several scenes were dropped, including an early morning return of Basil and Dawson on the back of Toby the bloodhound after the toyshop chase. As a lamplighter doused the street gaslights one by one, Henry Mancini had composed a heartfelt background score where the chimes of Big Ben underscored each extinguished flame.
It is not unusual for scenes and characters to be developed for a Disney animated feature and then later cut, but, for this film, the reason for the eliminations were more financial than creative. Moments of reflection were sacrificed for greater pacing.
Burny Mattinson and John Musker were assigned as the original directors and then Dave Michener came on as another director. Disney President and CEO Ron Miller had been the producer for the film, but when Eisner and Wells came in, Miller was out. Roy E. Disney made Mattinson the producer/director, but Burny was getting swamped by all the work that needed to be done in both roles so he decided to focus primarily on the producing chores. Musker and Michener were the directors, but with all the added work with the shortened production schedule, Ron Clements came on board as yet another director.
Clements remembered, “I was always interested in Sherlock Holmes. That was how I got my job at Disney. I had done a little 15-minute animated film on Holmes.”
Over three years of work had been done on the project when there was a transition in management at Disney and the entire film had to be re-pitched to the new team to get approval for continuation. There were some story outlines, character sketches, a little animation and lots of storyboards. To make matters worse, Eisner very vocally admitted that he found the storyboard process confusing.
John Musker and Ron Clements and Burny Mattinson went through three or four “outline” storyboards pinned with drawings and a story reel at a meeting with Roy E. Disney, Eisner and Katzenberg. Katzenberg asked a lot of questions about the story and especially the relationship between Basil and Sherlock Holmes. Clements stated that this project was “going back to what animation really is supposed to be.”
Eisner suggested that Michael Jackson might do the song in the bar scene. His suggestion was met with an uncomfortable silence and Eisner withdrew the suggestion. Later, Eisner proposed that Madonna do the song.
For the scene, songwriter Henry Mancini had written a parody of a Victorian British Music Hall type of tune titled "Are You the One Who Loves Me?" It was already in rough animation with the song recorded by Shani Wallis, familiar for her work in the musical “Oliver!” (Wallis also supplies the voice for the Lady Mouse at the very end of the film.) Katzenberg didn’t like it because he felt the kids in the audience wouldn’t like it because it was not contemporary enough.
The new management team was looking for songs to break into the popular market to give the film more exposure. Mancini rewrote the song and it was still considered unacceptable. This film marked his debut composing of an animated feature though his earlier score for The Pink Panther movie is closely associated with the animated character in the opening credits.
“It’s different working with these little figures up there rather than people,” Mancini remarked. “Everything goes so fast. The pacing, the story, just zips along.”
Singer Melissa Manchester was brought in and wrote and sang the upbeat “Let Me Be Good To You” (originally titled “Look at Me”) for the pub scene. She was chosen in part because, in 1985, she had become the first artist in the history of the Academy Awards to have recorded and popularized two of the nominated movie themes in a given year for “Ice Castles” and “The Promise” besides being a multiple Grammy Award winner. The rough animation had to be re-timed and sometimes re-animated to fit the new words and rhythm. However, this new song did not result in the desired crossover success.
“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,” Manchester commented.
On the next Disney animated feature, Oliver and Company, Eisner and Katzenberg brought in contemporary musical artists like Billy Joel and Bette Midler.
After the three-hour pitch meeting, Eisner walked back to his office and talked to Katzenberg to get his opinion. Katzenberg said, “We have 175 people and we are paying them everyday to come in to work. 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.”
However, that joy that the film had been approved felt by the animators soon turned to dread when it was stipulated that the film needed to be done by July 1986, not Christmas 1987 as originally planned, and at less than half the budget of The Black Cauldron.
Animation began in earnest in the fall of 1984, meaning there was less than a year and a half to complete the film. Originally it was a 90-minute film but, because of budgetary reasons, it had to be cut to 74 minutes with a simple, tighter story and a smaller cast of characters, as well as some shortcuts in animation.
When The Black Cauldron came out in July 1985, it did not excite an audience and was perceived as a box office failure. In March 1985, the first “Care Bears” animated film was released and made about the same amount of money at the box office as “Cauldron” would but at a minimum production budget. (The Black Cauldron would eventually recover its production costs as well as a tidy profit but even today, it is considered the film that almost killed Disney animation.)
“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.”
At the Disney Studio, animators were scared about the future of Disney animation, especially with rumors that Eisner felt there were enough animated films in the vaults for years of profitable re-releases without producing new material. A Christmas 1985 re-release of 101 Dalmatians (its third theatrical re-release) brought in thirty-three million dollars making it the most successful reissue in the company’s then sixty-three year history.
In fact, within months of production starting on The Great Mouse Detective, the animation staff was moved out of the original animation building on the Burbank studio lot that was designed specifically for animators and relocated to a converted warehouse in an unsavory part of Glendale, fueling more rumors about the forthcoming end of theatrical animation.
“We have to show the new management that we can make them [animated features] cheaper and faster and yet do them in the classic Disney way,” Clements said.
“The Black Cauldron was a lengthy project and cost quite a bit of money," Mattinson said. "Our people realize there’s something on the line about this film and they have responded to that,”
“The foundations of Disney are likeable characters in a good story and The Great Mouse Detective has that,” Musker said.
An early approach to the character of Basil was to mirror the cold-hearted manic attitude of the literary Sherlock Holmes. Miller felt that version was “not likeable” so the animation team attempted a more mellow “Bing Crosby” approach that also was not successful. Rob Minkoff revealed that actor Leslie Howard’s portrayal of Henry Higgins in the film “Pygmalion” was an inspiration as was the voice work by Barrie Ingham who had performed with The Royal Shakespeare Company.
“Playing Basil is just as thrilling to me as playing a lead in The Royal Shakespeare Company,” Ingham said. “I found Basil to be surprisingly sensitive. He is terribly egocentric but in the end, it is his sensitivity that prevents him from being bombastic and overbearing. He has a lot of frenetic energy which made his character quite a challenge.”
“Veteran British actor Barrie Ingham was cast for the voice of Basil because his interpretation of the character established his whole attitude and gave us the perfect timing and movements,” animator Minkoff said.
“We didn’t want to make them simply miniature versions of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce,” Clements affirmed. “Dawson’s not a buffoon. He’s a foil for Basil but also a warm and caring person.”
Dr. David Q. Dawson, voiced by actor and teacher Val Bettin, was not fashioned after actor Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Dr. Watson, but on Disney Legend Eric Larson. Larson was in charge of the animation training program at the studio for years and many of his former students worked on the film. He was an animation consultant on the film meaning that animators were encouraged to bring their scenes to him for review. Mattinson had spent 12 years as Larson’s assistant and was thankful to have Larson’s suggestions in this deadline situation.
“There were striking parallels between Larson and the character of Dr. Dawson,” said animator Glen Keane, “They’re both kind-spirited and have gentle personalities. We used some of Eric’s mannerisms for the character. Even the way Dawson wears his pants pulled-up over his belly came from Eric.”
Eric Larson expressed his concerns about the production to animation historian John Culhane in a July 27, 1986 New York Times interview. Larson stated that in the past, Walt would always buy the animators extra time until something clicked and the characters came to life.
“When the new management sets such a schedule and such a budget, 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.”
“Ratigan was one of the characters we really didn’t have a handle on. Then I remembered this film I always liked, Champagne for Caesar. In it, Vincent Price was this outrageously funny bigger-than-life cad. We knew he was our guy,” Mattinson said.
According to Keane, the lead animator on Ratigan, the animators had first looked at the film to study Ronald Colman’s performance as a possible model for the character of Basil: “Vincent played the villain in the movie and as soon as he came on, we realized that we had found the perfect actor for the role. His expressive voice and attitude inspired us to further redesign the character.”
Keane was in a story meeting for the film when Miller turned up to look at the storyboards. Miller, a 6-foot 6-inch tall ex-football player for the Los Angeles Rams, was a very large, imposing figure and his physical presence tended to intimidate some people. Keane felt this same awesome strength and power mixed with charisma would be a perfect contrast to the smaller Basil. That original caricature was toned down somewhat and the final version also showed influences of Price’s vocal characterization.
“I loved doing this part,” affirmed Price who had done the narration for Disney’s short “Vincent” (1982) directed by Tim Burton. “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.”
The evil Ernst Blofeld in the James Bond movies always stroked a big white Persian pussycat. So, the storymen decided to give Ratigan one, as well, even though it was huge in comparison to the already massive rat. The animators claimed their inspiration for the smug and slightly overweight cat was actress Elizabeth Taylor in her later years.
For the part of Olivia, an 8-year old girl named Susanne Pollatschek was selected over hundreds of other applicants. Because vocal parts are recorded separately, Ingham, who portrayed Basil, still has never met her in person. In fact, the first time Ingham met Vincent Price was at the premiere for the film.
“We wound up finding a little girl in Glasgow, Scotland," Mattinson said. "We recorded Susanne Pollatschek in London. She had no formal training but did a beautiful job."
The role of Olivia’s father, Hiram, was affable actor Alan Young who had recently demonstrated his ability to do an authentic Scottish brogue when he voiced the character of Scrooge McDuck in the 1983 featurette Mickey’s Christmas Carol directed by Mattinson.
Candy Candido who voiced Fidget the broken-winged, peg-legged bat had previous Disney voice experience in films like Peter Pan (the Indian Chief), Sleeping Beauty (Malificent’s goons) and Robin Hood (the Constable). As Fidget, his natural low gravelly tones were sped up to make him less threatening. Candido's original voice can be heard as the mouse shouting "Get off, you eight-legged bum!" at the juggling octopus in the Rat Trap bar.
Cleverly, the film includes a very brief cameo of the famous shadow of Sherlock Holmes. The voice may sound familiar, as well. That is the voice of actor Basil Rathbone from a reading of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League" for Caedmon Records in 1966. He did four volumes of Holmes stories for Caedmon before his death in 1967. There were financial disagreements about using a snippet of this recording so Disney had an actor recording the lines in a Rathbone style of delivery until an almost last minute agreement was reached.
The use of the record is the explanation for why Nigel Bruce’s voice is not heard as Dr. Watson since he regrettably died in 1953. The voice of Dr. Watson in the brief cameo is Laurie Main who was not only the story reader on several Disney Read-A-Long book cassettes but had performed in a handful of other Disney animated and live-action projects (including later providing the voice for the Sultan in the Aladdin television series).
Next Time: The Conclusion to the story, including the challenges of early computer animation with a disastrous computer meltdown, an embarrassing but hilarious memo, why Roy E. Disney had to pay for the costumed characters of Basil and Ratigan at Disneyland, why the film owes a debt to Hayao Miyazkai and much, much more. Stay vigilant until then because the game’s afoot!