Defending Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Championing Holmes’ Mouse Incarnate (with slightly more emphasis on the Mouse bit of it)

January 5, 2010

Time Magazine’s recent article “Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide” stimulated a lot of food for thought but because of the  seriousness of yesterday’s topic, I am postponing such thoughts for something more light-hearted.

My brother and I, during road trips in the back of our family Nissan van, voraciously feed the old VCR included with the vehicle with our old VHS tapes.  Most usually we end up turning the volume all the way down and dubbing over the script ourselves.  (This may be too much information for some, but bathroom humor and Lord of the Rings go surprisingly well together).  A few of our favorites, however, are watched in honorable silence.  For The Empire Strikes Back, for example, we clasp shut our potty mouths. Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (remember back in the day when he used to star in movies that were actually worthwhile watching?) deserves the same treatment but for the animation department, we have only one nominee for Honorable Silence: Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, quite arguably one of its underappreciated materpieces (The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, and The Sword in the Stone also run in this same vein).

Having seen the Robert Downey Jr. version of Holmes quite recently (and having enjoyed it, despite criticisms from A.O. Scott and others), we felt inclined to take The Great Mouse Detective to our family reunion in NY.  Seeing that we had to suffer through Jennifer’s Body while we were there (oh, the cousins.  And their taste), Basil of Baker Street eased and assuaged our brains during the ride home.

Before I rave about the movie, I’d like to go over and lightly rebuke some critic reviews in regards to Holmes.  It seems as if many of the critics have never cracked open an anthology of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes.  Many reviews I have read — both on the part of professional critics and on the part of audience members — lament the same questions.  Where is his deerstalker hat?  Where is his curved pipe?  Why is Holmes protrayed as a fist-wielding James Bond-ian action hero instead of the intellecutual crime-deducing superhuman in the original stories?

The 2009 film was actually quite faithful to Doyle, moreso than the public imagination pertaining to his supersleuth.  Never does Doyle say Holmes sports a deerstalker cap and a curved pipe.  That image of Holmes was forged courtesy of the illustrators of Doyle’s stories in The Strand magazine, where serialized short stories of Holmes were published.  In addition, illustrator Sidney Paget only capped off pictures of Holmes with the deerstalker hat whenever Holmes had a case out in the country — never when he was out in London public.

As for Holmes’ brawling skill, Doyle does write not only of Holmes’ impeccable strength (in one case, Holmes shows Watson he can bend and unbend an iron poker) but also of his fighting prowess.  According to Watson, Holmes was an expert fencer.  In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes boasts to Watson of his boxing skill and explains to the good doctor that he found a means to use boxing to aid his sleuthing in that case. 

I may be incorrect if I say Doyle never really gave us a clear description of Dr. Watson, save for in Charles Augustus Milverton where Watson was generically described as being of medium height, medium build, and possessing a square jaw.  These descriptions, however, were ascertained by the police when it was dark outside and when Watson was on the run.  Unfortunately, in adaptations and illustrations, Watson is portrayed to be a bit stupid.  In Guy Ritchie’s Holmes, Jude Law proves to make Watson an intelligent sidekick — and who could imagine — a Watson with character!  That rendition was actually very refreshing. 

Some have criticized the supernatural aspect of the plot.  What about the famous Hound of the Baskervilles where Watson and Holmes pit their brains against the supposedly hound from hell?  Were complaints lodged against that masterpiece?

Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Holmes was refreshing, removed from the stoic portrayals in the tv adaptations and though, arguably, many claim he cannot top renditions by actor Jeremy Brett, Downey’s Holmes is not as far removed from the original Doyle vision as is largely believed by those who can only claim to know their Holmes.   I felt that A.O. Scott’s belittlement of Guy Ritchine (and here I quote from the celebrated film critic: “intelligence has never ranked high among either Mr. Ritchie’s interests or his attributes as a filmmaker.”  Ouch) was put out of line as Ritchie was, for the most part, faithful to the stories and even to the little nuances that detailed Doyle’s works (the pit bull, the shooting of the Queen’s initials into the wall, Lestrade and Holmes banters, Watson complaining of Holmes’ mess, Holmes’ wacked chemistry experiments, and I could go on).  Even the inclusion of Irene Adler, The Woman as dubbed by Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia, was not as distracting as I had assumed.  In fact, I felt that Ritchie handled her part tastefully without making the love story excessive or overboard.

As for The Great Mouse Detective, the story follows the expeditions of a mouse named Basil (named after Basil Rathbone, one of Holmes’ portrayers) who lives under 221B Baker Street.  As Holmes and Watson attempt to solve The Case of the Red Handed League (the hint is subtle but Holmes readers will pick up on it), in the mouse universe a toyshopkeeper by the name of Flaversham is abducted and his young daughter Olivia comes to Basil for aid.  A doofy old mouse Dr. Dawson (obviously a parody on Watson) and evil Professor Ratigan (mousedom’s Moriarty) round out the main cast of characters.

For those of you who have loved the original stories of the Grimms’ brothers for their ingenuity and all their resplendant creepiness, no doubt you were disappointed by some of the waterdowned Disney versions of the stories, and annoyed by those who championed the Disney versions but have never read the original stories (some people to this day are still actually unaware that the movies are derived from original stories).   Take Cinderella, for example.  In the Grimms’ brother version, blood is easily shed as Cinderella’s stepsisters, in an effort to fit their feet into Cinderella’s slipper, take a knife from their stepmother to saw off parts of their heels and toes.  In the end, as an act of retribution, birds flurry down to peck out their eyes — a Disney no-no.  Happy endings have been unabashedly substituted for sad ones (The Little Mermaid most crassly of all) and character deaths written completely out (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Suffice it to say that if you are reading these original stories for class, never use the Disney renditions as a form of Cliff Notes to help you.  They won’t. 

But where they fail is where The Great Mouse Detective excels.  It is unafraid to be intense, dangerous, and a bit lewd at times (even going as far as to incorporating a semi-queasy stripper scene in the midst of a bad guy bar).  Professor Ratigan, fabulously voiced by the late Vincent Price, can possibly wipe the dojo floor from under the feet of every other Disney villain — combined.  Yet in spite of that, he sizzles with elegance, for no one else can be as gentlemanly as Ratigan when he is abducting the mousedom Queen or feeding his henchmen to his overgrown cat.  His character has both evilness and class, and the two serve to complement each other beautifully.  There is a finesse there that few other Disney villains — and even mainstream movie villains — have mastered.

The Great Mouse Detective was based upon the novels by Eve Titus but here is an example where a Disney movie actually improved upon the book (another example that comes to mind is The Rescuers).  Titus’ writing is a bit wooden at times and her Basil is too stoic and noble.  The Basil in the Disney version is invariably more rounded.  He tends to be a bit of a scallywag at times — that is, he is often excessively pleased with himself and his prowess but at the core, presents a solid heart of heroism that leaves us forgiving of — and even charmed by — his shortcomings.  Also, in no place in Titus’ series does she present a villain of the same caliber as Ratigan.  Top that with Vincent Price’s superb voice acting and the ingenuity of Basil (using balloons and the British flag to quickly make a flying contraption?  Sweet!).

The movie is not afraid to be gritty, even presenting some scenes of intense violence that may be somewhat Family Unfriendly but in all honesty, if Ratigan and Basil didn’t duke it out as hard as they did, one would take the movie less seriously.  There is a pent up hatred that reverberates with such intensity between Ratigan and Basil that to resolve it in a fluffier manner would greatly damage the story quality.  The sleuthing scene in the toy shop is no less than eerie, but the eerieness lends to its ingenuity.  Atmosphere is at its finest here, the darkness of the scenery a serious reminder that Basil is battling forces diabolical and unrelenting.  The fight scene in the Big Ben tower is…frankly, still hard to watch years later, all 3 long minutes of it, but the outcome is one of the most satisfying of all Disney films. 

The movie actually once saved Disney’s behind as after the flop The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective proved that yes, Disney CAN put together a satisfactory story.  It took CGI and animation on its first tottering steps — the clocktower scene exhibited CGI effects we would now poo-poo but at the time, it was revolutionary.  Even now, viewing it with 21st-century eyes, the result is aesthetically satisfying.

There is no love story, which is a personal plus, as Disney love stories tend to be over-milked (Robin Hood would have been excellent, save for the gigantic romance that managed to eat out the rest of the film).  The songs are not distracting (like in Oliver and Company where that poodle just wouldn’t stop singing) and are in fact, in one word, AWESOME.  Price’s singing is simply priceless, no pun intended.  With distractions aside, there is only brains — both Basil and Ratigan are frightfully ingenious and try to out-maneuver each other, resulting in a cat-and-mouse — or rather, rat-and-mouse — battle for control.  There is always a solid hold on the plot.  At stake amidst the battle are the lives of Olivia, her father, the British mouse Queen, and the future of all mousedom — a lot of fodder for one mouse to chew on.  At the outset of the film is the satisfaction and appreciation one feels after viewing a film well worth the time.

The reason for this pimpery is because, watching The Great Mouse Detective again recently, I still have no idea why it is buried under the more well-known (but less deserving) Disney films — The Little Mermaid, Cinderella (and pretty much every Disney movie touting a princess save for Sleeping Beauty), Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland …   Basil and Ratigan definitely deserve their fair dues in the masterpiece circle but, alas, that has not happened. 

I am hoping this movie gets its fair share of love.  But maybe I just take my children’s animation too seriously.

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One Response to “Defending Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Championing Holmes’ Mouse Incarnate (with slightly more emphasis on the Mouse bit of it)”

  1. jwakeham said

    Hi – thanks for your note on my Holmes review, nice to see that you remembered the poker bending too! Now I’m going to have to rent Basil TGMD, can’t wait! Best wishes jw

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