THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE – Henry Mancini
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Looking back from the vantage point we have now, thirty years into the future, it’s difficult to picture just how much trouble Walt Disney’s animated feature film department was in during the 1980s. A world away from their heyday of Snow White, Bambi, and Cinderella, Disney’s output in the late 1970s and early 1980s comprised some of their most forgettable works, ranging from The Rescuers in 1977 to The Fox and the Hound in 1981, The Black Cauldron in 1985, and Oliver & Company in 1988 – a year before everything changed with the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989. Released right in the middle of this lackluster phase, The Great Mouse Detective was Disney’s attempt to capture the essence of Sherlock Holmes in an animated film. Based on the popular children’s books by Eve Titus, the film is set in a version of Victorian England populated by anthropomorphic mice and rats, and follows the adventures of the famous detective Basil of Baker Street, who is hired by a young mouse named Olivia to investigate the disappearance of her toymaker father, who has been kidnapped by the evil Professor Ratigan as part of a fiendish plot involving robot clones and the Queen of England. The film was directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, and John Musker, and features the voice talents of Barrie Ingham and Vincent Price, among others.
The other thing to remember about this period in Disney history is that, by and large, the music is as forgettable as the films were. Before hitting the jackpot and entering Alan Menken’s golden period in the wake of The Little Mermaid, Disney bounced around many different composers: The Rescuers was scored by the little-known Artie Butler, The Fox and the Hound by Buddy Baker, and Oliver and Company by JAC Redford, who is better known these days as an orchestrator. The only two which stand out from this crowd are The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective, both of which were scored by Hollywood legends branching out into new territories: Elmer Bernstein on the former, and Henry Mancini on the latter.
Excluding the numerous Pink Panther shorts, which were scored with variations of his theme for the original live action Peter Sellers film, The Great Mouse Detective was the first animated film Mancini ever scored, although initially he was brought on board just to compose a Victorian British Music Hall-style song, which was to be sung by Shani Wallis. His song was nixed by the then Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg, who felt it was too old fashioned, and instead suggested both Michael Jackson and Madonna as replacements. When the two pop megastars proved to be unavailable they finally settled on middle-of-the-road vocalist Melissa Manchester, who wrote and performed the song “Let Me Be Good to You.” However, despite his song being rejected, Mancini stayed on the project to write the score, as well as two other songs – “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind,” and “Goodbye So Soon”.
Throughout his career Mancini had proved that he could write staggeringly beautiful, memorable themes, as well as vivid and almost balletic action music, such as that which he wrote for Lifeforce the previous year. Unfortunately, for The Great Mouse Detective, Mancini apparently felt that more traditional sounding ‘cartoon’ music was required, and as such much of his score is – pardon the pun – somewhat mickey-mousey. It’s still good music, but it’s a world away from the sophisticated and emotionally powerful music for animated films we often hear today. The score is anchored by two main themes – one for Basil, one for his nemesis Ratigan – around which the rest of the music is built, with several direct variations, as well as some allusions within the caper-like action music.
Basil’s theme is first heard in the “Main Title,” a lively fully-orchestral piece for playful brasses, scampering strings, and trilling woodwinds, which has that appropriate but indefinable Englishness to it. A secondary theme, for sonorous bassoons and clarinets and a bank of tender violins, is introduced in the cue’s second half, seeming to represent the actual act of investigation, Basil’s intellect, and thoughtfulness. Subsequent performances of Basil’s theme in the jolly and mischievous “Enter Basil,” during “Unusual Foot Prints,” and in “Cat Nip,” keep the great mouse at the center of the score’s musical vision, and ensure that it is the main takeaway from the score as a whole. Conversely, the theme for the evil Ratigan is a menacing undulating motif for muted brass, minor-key woodwinds, and step-wise strings which oozes malevolence, and which receives prominent placement in “Enter Ratigan” and “Ratigan’s Plan”.
“Dawson Finds Olivia” features a truly gorgeous violin solo as the core element of a piece which captures the sweetness and innocence of the young rodent whose father goes missing. Olivia’s theme is reprised on a delicate celesta in “Crushed Box,” appearing contrapuntally with hints of Ratigan’s theme, while the recapitulation of Olivia’s theme in “Reunion,” in combination with further of performances the Investigation theme and Basil’s theme, is sublime, one of the thematic high points of the entire score. Its final performance, again in combination with Basil’s theme and the Investigation theme in the conclusive “Wrap Up,” is also a melodic delight.
The moments of action and tension, such as the end of “Enter Ratigan,” in “Unusual Foot Prints”, and later in “Check Mate” and “Big Ben Chase,” tend to be rather chaotic, pitting frantic xylophone runs against swirling string writing, and flashy brass fanfares. Occasionally there are hints of the action stylings Mancini brought to scores like Lifeforce, and one or two moments of compositional or instrumental interest, but often more than not these cues just tend to come across as being muddled and unfocused, with a lack of real thematic specificity or consistency in the rhythmic ideas. The best moments include the last minute or so of “Check Mate,” with its almost Goldsmithian scales, and during “Big Ben Chase,” especially when Mancini uses piano riffs to underpin the excitement, or re-works Basil’s theme as an action motif. Unfortunately, with the exception of these fleeting highlights, the action music is by far the weakest part of the entire score.
Moreover, cues such as “Here’s Toby” feature a pretty but buffoonish bassoon solo which seems to foreshadow parts of James Horner’s An American Tale, and more than has a hint of Carl Stalling or Scott Bradley in the instrumental phrasing. It’s in cues like this that the limitations of the score emerge, with slurred ‘drunk music’ and prancing melodies that seem to be trying to be intentionally ‘funny’, and which were already clichéd in the 1940s. Elmer Bernstein always said that writing intentionally ‘funny’ music under an amusing scene more often than not undermines the comedy and telegraphs the joke, and unfortunately Mancini falls into that trap more than once on this score.
Worst of all are the three songs, all of which are genuinely awful. Melissa Manchester’s “Let Me Be Good to You” is a perfect example of everything that can be bad about Broadway, as well as being a clear rip-off of Kander and Ebb’s “All That Jazz” from Chicago, while the two in-film songs, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” and “Goodbye So Soon”, co-written with Mancini by Ellen Fitzhugh and Larry Grossman, are performed with oily menace by Vincent Price, but have terrible lyrics and completely forgettable melodies. Price’s vocal inflections in “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” are incomprehensible, while “Goodbye So Soon” has the skin-crawlingly cheesy characteristics of a cruise ship variety show crossed with the world’s worst barber shop quartet.
It feels very strange to be giving a Henry Mancini score such a middling review, but there are so many things about The Great Mouse Detective that don’t feel quite right, from the too-light tone to the un-focused action music, the poorly-conceived comedy music, and the truly terrible original songs. It’s a shame, because the main theme for Basil, and the secondary Investigation and Olivia themes, are genuinely lovely, albeit rather paling in comparison to some of Mancini’s more memorable and enduring works. It’s interesting to see how a composer like Henry Mancini tackled a project like this, from an intellectual perspective, and it will likely be better appreciated by fans of the film, but if you’re planning on making some moves to acquire older Disney soundtracks, I would recommend making a priority of the others first.
Buy the Great Mouse Detective soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title (1:40)
- Dawson Finds Olivia (1:20)
- Enter Basil (2:12)
- Enter Ratigan (2:17)
- Crushed Box (1:30)
- The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind (written by Henry Mancini, Ellen Fitzhugh and Larry Grossman, performed by Vincent Price) (5:09)
- Unusual Foot Prints (1:40)
- Here’s Toby (3:53)
- Check Mate (2:41)
- Reunion (2:38)
- Let Me Be Good to You (written and performed by Melissa Manchester) (3:01)
- Ratigan’s Plan (2:01)
- Goodbye So Soon (written by Henry Mancini, Ellen Fitzhugh and Larry Grossman, performed by Vincent Price) (2:55)
- Cat Nip (1:44)
- Big Ben Chase (5:33)
- Wrap-Up (3:08)
- End Title/Goodbye So Soon (1:51)
Running Time: 45 minutes 15 seconds
Varese Sarabande VSD-5359 (1986/1992)
Music composed and conducted by Henry Mancini. Orchestrations by Henry Mancini, Jorge Calandrelli and Jack Hayes. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Jack Wadsworth. Album produced by Henry Mancini.