Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

Jack the Giant Killer 1962 ***

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Once upon a time, Jack the Giant Killer was something of a staple of Christmas mornings and Boxing Day afternoons on the BBC. Nathan H Juran’s fantasy film is generally dismissed as a rip-off off the producer’s own The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and ended up in a legal nightmare when Columbia successfully sued for plagiarism. On reflection, that award seems harsh; while Juran’s film certainly reworks familiar elements from the first film, from cast members to situations, it has a vibe of it’s own; this spanking new print on Amazon’s streaming service makes it well worth another look.

Anyone who has visited the south westerly area of Britain known as Cornwall will instantly recognise the world of witches, hob-goblins and evil creatures, many of which still populate the area to this day. Kerwin Matthews plays Jack, who kicks things quickly into gear by killing a giant attempting to abduct Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) at the behest of sorcerer Pendragon (Torin Thatcher, never knowingly underselling a scene). Pendragon wants to take over the area, but Jack sets out to stop him with the help of a caged leprechaun who desires nothing more than his freedom and a pot of gold.

The big miss here is obviously the effects which the inimitable Ray Harryhausen brought to the first film, but Jim Danforth’s Project Unlimited, who had just won an Oscar for The Time Machine, did a nice job on the stop-motion for various giants and demons. English fairy-tales, Breton lays and such ancient narratives are rarely filmed, but this Americanised version has a certain cheeky verve around it; it’s fun watching Pendragon ripping stone teeth from his castle’s statues and flinging them at Jack, only to them to turn into advancing warriors.

I think I first saw this film when I was seven years old, and it seemed to have a musty charm even then. The process shots are a mixed bag to be sure, but there’s a few cracking imaginative moments to enjoy here, as well as an unfamiliar narrative source. Jack the Giant Killer apparently had songs added to avoid copyright claims, but this streaming version skips the musical interludes; it’s a boisterous entertainment that comes up fresh despite a muddled pedigree.

Click the link below to see if the film can be viewed in your country!

The Favourite 2019 ****

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There’s a micro-genre of films which are about royalty/aristocrats, but are not biopics. Like Dangerous Liaisons/Cruel Intentions, or Ridicule, they’re about the wit and cruelty of the extreme upper classes, and The Favourite is a prime example. Not many know much about the reign of Queen Anne, so there’s lots of fun in this story about how favourite Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) fights for her place in the pecking order when Abigail (Emma Stone ) joins the royal household. Indulgence and decadence is very much the order of the day, with duck races and general harlotry going on, but the key to the corruption is Queen Anne herself (the wonderful Olivia Coleman) who is suffering from all kinds of physical maladies and easily influenced by those around her. Sarah and Abigail are in an All About Eve festival of bitchiness, and there’s a very fresh and witty script to keep things moving ; ‘Did you come here to rape me or seduce me? Abigail asks an aspiring seducer who arrives in her bedroom. ‘I am a gentleman!’ he replies . “So, rape it is, then.,,,’ is her caustic reply. This isn’t your prestige history lesson, but a smart, bawdy comedy, with lots of nasty behavior and three great female performances. Director Yorgos Lanthimos returns to the black comedy of The Lobster with real success here, and this was an awards front-runner for a reason.

Holmes & Watson 2018 ***

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Some films seem destined to be whipping boys; like Bohemian Rhapsody, Holmes & Watson had Sasha Baron Cohen for a lead for a while, only to be reworked for the established duo of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, from Step-Brothers and Talladega Nights. The public flocked to those films while shunning Etan Cohen’s take on Conan Doyle’s character, and yet it’s probably not that different a proposition. Ferrell plays Holmes as an idiot, Reilly even more so with Watson, and most of the jokes come from anachronisms, like a Make American Great Again hat, a Victorian gym with a 21st century ethos, or the blithe use of cocaine or heroin. Ferrell and Reilly go for it, and the supporting cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Laurie, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden. Comedy is so rare that Holmes & Watson’s old-school gags deserved a better reception; despite the critical obloquy, there’s plenty to amuse here.

Children of Men 2006 ****

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Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film adapts PD James’s novel for a bleak and grimly imagined future of 2027, with Britain crippled by martial law, terrorist strikes and general chaos. The reason is connected to the plague of infertility which has swept the planet; Theo (Clive Owen) finds himself on a mission of biblical proportions when he attempts to help a miraculously pregnant woman to reach some kind of safety. Children of Men is awash with political allusions to turn-of-century events; it’s a decidedly post September 11th film, brimming with paranoia and despair, and spiked with moment of visceral violence. Support from Michael Caine and Julianne Moore, plus Peter Mullan as a refugee-camp supervisor, makes Cuaron’s film a memorable snapshot of modern concerns.