It pains me to see that The Great Mouse Detective (1986) often falls under the radar of Disney fans. The film is really quite important to the history of animated film: after the debacle of The Black Cauldron (1985), Disney’s animation department was at serious risk of being eliminated. But the great success of The Great Mouse Detective the next year proved to the powers-that-be that Disney could still find success in animation and because of this, a little film called The Little Mermaid was given the green light (paving the way for the Disney Renaissance).
Based on a series of children’s books entitled Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, the film follows the adventures of the titular “great mouse detective” Basil, who lives in a tiny home at 221B Baker Street (sharing his residence with Sherlock Holmes and Watson).
When Basil’s eccentric life is interrupted by the retired Dr. Dawson and a little girl named Olivia whose father was kidnapped, Basil finds himself thrust into the greatest case of his career: stopping that master of crime, Professor Rattigan!!
Rattigan might just be one of the greatest animated Disney villains of all time, as he was brought to sinister life by the master of horror himself, Vincent Price. Of course I didn’t know that for many years, to me Vincent Price was just another name. But knowing what I know now, I can appreciate the performance all the better. Price had always wanted to be a Disney villain, and in an interview he gave, he called his performance as Rattigan as one of his favorites. In fact, Price’s acting influenced how the character was animated. Originally, Rattigan was going to be this rather weak-looking and snivelling character, but Price’s unforgettable voice changed all of that.
Rattigan, as his name implies, is a very large rat; but in a world where mice make up the majority of the population, he has taken great pains to pass himself off as a mouse, and won’t stand to be referred to as a rat by anyone. “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” serves as Rattigan’s introduction to the audience, as well as highlighting how evil and devious he is.
The song begins with a spoken prologue, where Rattigan informs his gang that the time has come for his greatest plan to be put into motion, “the crime to top all crimes.” All we know for now is that it will take place on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and that it will be “a night she will never forget” (it is heavily implied that he’s going to harm/kill her in some way) and that he will be “the supreme ruler of all Mousedom!!” This declaration begins the song proper, as Rattigan brags about all the crimes he’s done before: robbing the Crown jewels, drowning widows and orphans and robbing many other places based on the amount of treasure laying around.
During this part of the song, one detail that sticks out right away is Bartholomew, the really, really drunk gang member who is more interested in lapping up the champagne instead of listening to Rattigan’s plan and song. In fact, he gets so drunk, that as the gang is preparing to toast Rattigan mid-song, Bartholomew pipes up “To Rattigan the world’s greatest rat!!”
Of course Rattigan is not amused, not one bit. And as the rat in mouse’s clothing tells his drunken lackey “…I’m afraid you’ve gone and upset me. You know what happens when someone upsets me…” he pulls out a bell and gives it a ring, and as this very action causes the rest of the gang to squeak in terror, you know something bad is coming.
As it turns out, Rattigan has a rather fat cat at his beck and call. As the overfed kitty stalks up for her next meal, the oblivious Bartholomew launches into a spine-chilling refrain of “Oh Rattigan, Oh Rattigan, you’re the tops and that’s that…” This use of the song is what we musicologists call “musical irony”, in that the lyrics praising Rattigan are contrasted with the increasingly sinister sounds that are building to the mouse’s death by cat. To further add to the suspense, you don’t actually see the moment happen: all the audience see’s is the shadowy profile of Bartholomew suspended above the cat’s mouth and then….*GULP* Now thoroughly cowed, the gang hysterically launches into the final verse (lest Rattigan summon the kitty again) and the status quo in Rattigan’s lair is re-established.
Seeing how casually Rattigan can dispose of anyone who “upsets” him (though we don’t really get to see him upset until the climax), this one sequence has made it clear that Rattigan is very, very dangerous (a lot more dangerous than even Basil is aware of). And also because of this scene, Rattigan remains one of my favorite Disney villains.
*all images are the property of Walt Disney Studios
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