The Iron Mask 2019 ****

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What Did I Just Actually See? would be a good title for Oleg Stepchenko’s crazy-ass epic, which gets released in whatever’s left of the US and UK on April 10th 2020. Alternative titles include The Mystery of the Iron Mask, The Dragon Seal and most significantly, Viy 2; Journey to China, because this is, in fact, the sequel to Viy, a Russian hit from 2014. Much in the way that the Fast and Furious universe pulls into stars from other cinematic franchises, the Viy brand has pulled in two recognisable crowd-pleasers in Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom have producer credits here. It sounds mad as a brush, but if approached correctly, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. There’s fake dragons, black witches, real dragons, flying monkeys and loads of sub-Pirates of the Caribbean CGI of 18th century locations; with no actual blockbusters on the horizon, we’ll just have to make do with this mind-boggling but endearing effort. Did I mention that this film claims to be based on the writings of Gogol?

Some have carped that there’s only a few minutes of the stars here; that’s fake news to be sure, because there’s a good forty minutes or so of wild action featuring Chan and Schwarzenegger; what’s odd is that they feature heavily in the opening of the film and they don’t return until the last couple of scenes. Chan is in his element with some intricate physical comedy; his character, Master, is chained up in the Tower of London by James Hook. Hook is played by the Austrian muscleman-turned-politician, and it’s one of the more oddball efforts of his remarkable career. With his red tunic, mutton chop/moustache combo and bug-eyed silent movie acting style, Schwarzenegger really gives this his all in a highly amusing piece of burlesque. Also locked up with the Master is a mysterious man in an iron mask, and it’s him that we follow on his gaol break, leaving the Master and Hook to fight it out. Did I mention that Hook is using King Arthur’s sword to fight the master? Just one more eye-brow raising detail in a film packed with them.

You’d better enjoy seeing Chan and Schwarzenegger’s Tom and Jerry routine while you can, because the film decides that’s quite enough of that for now and launches into something completely different. The rather charming Jason Flemyng is the actual star here, and this perennially underrated actor shines as Jonathan Green, a cartographer who invents a unique way of measuring distance involving a wheel attached to his carriage. A royal commission puts Green head-to-head with all kinds of computer-generated creatures, with real and fake princesses, dragons and a flying monkey that, once again, resembles boastful bat Bartok from the cartoon Anastasia, a character who seems to be living rent-free inside my head for the last few weeks. Did I mention that there’s musical sequences here?

Ok, so there’s a bit of bait and switch going on here, but be honest, would you be reading this if I’d led with Jason Flemyng and flying monkeys? If you’ve been carried along by the unfamiliar energy of such fanciful expensive international epics like 47 Ronin or The Great Wall, you’ll get the same kind of rush here; lots of strange creatures and eye candy, all the weirder because it’s highly unlikely that you’ve seen the first movie so there’s no context at all. That’s a strength here; with no idea what’s happening and no chance to find out, you can just sit back and enjoy the show, with everyone from Charles Dance to Rutger Hauer roped in to mumble about dragon’s eyelashes and wear silly costumes. Those of us who enjoy brainless entertainment with find that The Iron Mask is pretty much the only show in town this Easter; it’s a daft, family-friendly romp that’s sold on the back of two big names, but provides plenty of silly fun for those keen for a fix of fresh-air escapism. As William Hurt’s character says in The Big Chill; ‘Sometimes you just have to let art wash over you…’

Signature Entertainment presents The Iron Mask on Digital HD in the UK from 10th April 2020.

At home with Seth Meyers and Steven Colbert circa March 2020…

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“Give us your politics, Elvis!’ demanded a voice at an Elvis Costello concert circa 1989. ‘Why, have you none of your own?’ caustically replied the beloved entertainer. This blog isn’t about politics, it’s about entertainment; no political party, in this writer’s view, has a monopoly on common sense.

In the early months of 2016, I was living in Manhattan’s First Avenue, buying scallops in the local supermarket and frying them up while watching the nightly news as the Trump vs Clinton combatants crystallised. It seemed obvious that Trump would win, despite panel after panel of expects denying the notion, or perhaps because of it; speaking without notes, for hours at a time, he projected underdog, fighter spirit that belied his reputation as a reality tv host/real estate entrepreneur and somehow suggested that he, rather than his opponent, was a man of the people.

As president, Trump’s every move is subject to analysis, and there’s a legion of chat-show hosts and commentators to pick apart his every move. Some, like Jimmy Fallon, mix commentary with party host duties, amusing singing and improv games with gags thrown in, But the big two are Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, the former a graduate of SNL, the latter of The Daily Show, and both reaching an audience of millions with their fragmented YouTube shows alone. Meyers sits at a desk, as he did on Weekend Update, while Colbert has an old-school stand-up technique, complete with a house band led by the jovial Jon Baptiste. Meyers leans into the comedy of repetition that made SNL’s Stefan such a hit; the same intros, plus topical gags, regular furniture of lists, writer contributions and the admirable Closer Look, where he dissects a political topic of the day, sometimes, but not always Trump. Meanwhile Colbert dances and pirouettes around his stage with a veterans timing, whipping up his audience with lengthy, skilfully delivered monologues; both men enjoy high calibre guests, usually with something pressing to promote.

The arrival of the pandemic has sent both men home; sporting previously unimaginable informal outfits, Colbert initially appeared in his own garden, then his barbecue, and now retreats into a spare room where he tussles with his dog on the floor. Meyers, who candidly admitted that he’s now in awe of how well YouTubers record their microphone sound, seemed bedevilled with technical difficulties as he recorded from his own hallway, but seems to have found a regular gig in his library, where his copy of The Thorn Birds seems to be an object of some family pride.

The show, for both men, must go on; with Trump giving nightly state-of-the-nation addresses, there’s a wealth of material to consider, even if the grim times make comedy an uphill struggle. But does their commentary make any difference, or does it only preach to the converted? Both have a weakness for falling back on flubs; here’s Trump mispronouncing a name for the umpteenth time! Look, he’s slurred some words! Look, here’s Trump dropping an umbrella for the hundredth time! Trump exists in the now, his movements and speech are constantly filmed, and such mistakes are just trimmings. Given that Meyers and Colbert’s shows are carefully edited, it seems to miss the point of critique to focus on such crowd-pleasing but meaningless groaners rather than the crucial policy decisions that the nation currently hangs on. Some of these clips need retired.

With the 2020 election set to be held in unprecedented circumstances, Meyers and Colbert will need to sharpen up their game if their goal is going to make a difference in the political world rather than just entertainment. In Britain, the daily virus briefings are populated by unknowns, sombre-minded, discussed and dissected by no-one. There is no mechanism to analyse to discuss the foibles of leaders, and America leads the way in this kind of cultural commentatary. The eyes of the world are on this great nation in peril; this is the time for great men to step up to the plate. Twitter may be obsessed with Andrew Cuomo’s nipples, but we don’t have to be; in 2020, there are lives at stake, and the trivial is yesterday’s news, fish and chip paper as well call in in the UK.

 

 

 

The Masque of the Red Death 1964 *****

masqueYou have to be careful what you wish for; the universe has a way of conspiring to give you what you want in a way that you don’t. It’s a staple theme of the horror, from the EC Crypt-keeper to Amicus, and the key text is probably WW Jacobs’ short story The Monkey’s Paw.  With streaming becoming the opiate of the people circa 2020, the audience for this blog has swollen, rising over 50 per-cent this year so far, but at some unwelcome cost; cinemas lie closed worldwide, the schedule of hotly anticipated gems abruptly emptied, the future uncertain.

Shot by the great director Nicolas Roeg as a gun for hire, The Masque of the Red Death is based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe and was originally published back in 1842. Poe knew all about cholera and tuberculosis from personal pain, but the Red Death featured is a fictional disease, as befits a writer’s fantasy. Writer/director Roger Corman and Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont shift the story to Italy, where the plague ravages the country, and the rich seek to protect themselves by building a wall to keep the victims of the pestilence out of their reach, as well as their sight. The amoral Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) plans a feast to celebrate their good fortune, little imagining that the barriers he’s created to keep the disease out will in fact seal it inside the palatial compound he’s constructed. Although his actions have made the plight of the locals considerably worse, Prospero is in denial; he forbids anyone to wear red to his party in case is evokes thoughts of what he seeks to keep outside. Instead, Prospero creates opulence, hoping to distract with his own wealth, a series of rooms in different colours, leading to the Black Room where Prospero will eventually confront the red-cloaked figure that pursues him.

Producer Sam Arkoff thought the result was ‘too arty farty’ but this is the best of Corman’s many and varied body of films, providing a ingenious gloss on Poe’s story, with lots of cruel action to demonstrate how the lack of a moral compass in a leader leads to physical decay. Genre fans will enjoy seeing Hazel Court and Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Nigel Green, while Roeg’s vision brings something unique to Corman’s well-upholstered series of Poe-inspired works. Price makes a perfect Prospero, a Satanist wrongly believing that money will prove his salvation; no matter how elaborate his castles and parties are, the corruption he imagines that he can escape is baked into his very soul, wriggle on the hook as he might.

There is nothing new under the sun; fictional plagues run from Greek tragedy to Contagion, but Poe’s dark imaginings, borne from personal experience, are worth reviving in these troubled times. Horror provides a healthy look at what scares us, so we might make a better job of the lives we lead. The Masque of the Red Death is a classic story, with a clear message that Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities brilliantly appropriated to consider the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. But like most great horror stories, the terrifying notion here is a timeless one; that the die is already cast, and we, in our hubris, just don’t know it yet. At the end of the movie, we return to our lives, and strive to make sure that Poe’s dark fantasy does not become our unwanted reality.

Downhill 2020 ***

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Swimming against the tide is one thing, but I’ve not found many takers for my opinion of Force Majeure, critical darling and Golden Globe nominee; I hated it. A humourless, one-note, sneering portrait of an unsympathetic couple of a skiing holiday, Ruben Osland’s film struck me as a load of pretentious, self-satisfied twaddle with only cinematography to commend it.

So it’s fair to say that I wasn’t champing at the bit for an American remake, but here it comes, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and starring two comedy greats in Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Ferrell’s cinematic work is a mixed bag, for every Anchorman, there’s a Get Hard, but he’s shown signs of the dramatic chops required to make a restrained comedy drama like this work; Louis-Dreyfus is a US national treasure on the back of Seinfeld, but while her filmography is far more selective, her excellent performance in Enough Said demonstrated that she could create a complex and empathetic character on the big screen. The downside of casting these two beloved performers as unsympathetic twonks is something of a dissonance that led Downhill to slide off the piste at the box office, but it’s far from the catastrophe that many critics suggested.

Billie and Peter arrive in Austria with their two kids, and immediately get into a drama when an unexpected wave of snow engulfs the open-air seating area at their resort. Sitting on one side of the table, Billie hugs the kids until the dangers has passed, but Peter disgraces himself by grabbing his phone and stepping away; because he drops behind the camera position, we’re left to imagine how far this might be. This was something of a flaw in the original film, and isn’t resolved here; it’s not physically possible for Peter to protect his children, and the consequent judgemental ramifications feel schematic and contrived in both versions. Billie is disillusioned in her husband, humiliates him in front of their kids and his friends, and has an illicit tryst with a hunky ski-instructor. Meanwhile Peter nurses his damaged self-image with some abortive flirting, a drunken scuffle with an alpha male, and some self-pitying monologues. Neither of their plotlines could be described as feel-good, and the chipper finale doesn’t quite alleviate the sour, cynical feel of the original film.

But as an upgrade on American abroad comedy, Downhill offers some laughs that the original doesn’t, a National Lampoon’s Skiing Vacation with trash-talking sexed-up locals, toilet mishaps, and enough low-shots to offer some entertainment value. These antics punctuate the pretentions of Force Majeure, and render the story watchable; if anything, it’s an improvement that offers a little more humanity and self-deprecating soul than the self-regarding film it imitates.

 

Standing Up, Falling Down 2019 ****

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Timing in comedy is, as both comedians and audiences will attest, everything; the release of Standing Up, Falling Down in the US came at a point at which cinemas and streaming services were positively groaning with new products. The UK release in April 2020 comes at a time of drought; there’s precious few new releases and even fewer which might be attractive to a mainstream audience. So it’s pleasant to report that Matt Ratner’s debut film is an enjoyable star vehicle for old favourite Billy Crystal, as well as a nice calling card for the lesser spotted Ben Schwartz.

Schwartz has had a prominent role in Parks and Recreation, although his misguided entrepreneur never seemed to be the right fit for the sitcom; he’s a stand-up too, and on paper, Standing Up, Falling Down sounds like a straightforward passing-of-the–torch number between old and young. Rarely seen of late, Crystal is a legend in the business, a nine time Oscar host and legit movie star whose work on films like Running Scared or When Harry Met Sally demonstrated he could handle the leading man role with aplomb. So when struggling comic Scott (Schwartz) finds Marty urinating in the sink of a comedy club, we kind of feel like we know where we’re going. But Marty isn’t actually a comedian, he’s a doctor, of sorts, and gives Scott some useful advice about a skin complaint. Marty is a kind of Patch Adams character, a naturally funny guy with a large Twitter following for his gags, but family issues which make him lonely. The two become friends, and Marty encourages Scott not to give up on his dreams so easily.

There’s some funny scenes here for sure; a pot-smoking escapade that goes wrong is delightfully played by all concerned. But Peter Hoare’s screenplay has more nous than just a simple gag-fest; when Scott finally arranges his comeback gig, he’s broken-hearted that it’s his beautiful ex girlfriend that turns up, not his dermatologist pal, a lovely twist on the conventions of the be-all-you-can-be genre. Standing Up, Falling Down stays true to the hard edge of the title, and the sentiment is earned by the bitter-sweet behaviour depicted here.

There are so few comic films made today that Ratner’s film deserves some attention; in the way that Danny Collins was a serviceable late-period vehicle for Al Pacino, this is a nice chance to see that Crystal can still shine, with Schwartz supporting nicely with a self-deprecating, wry performance that shows he’s more than a one-trick pony. Something of a relief in troubled times, Standing Up, Falling Down might just have arrived at the right time to warm up an increasingly chilly room.

Signature Entertainment presents Standing Up, Falling Down in the UK on Digital HD from 30th March 2020.

Ghost World 2001 ****

ghost worldNobody’s planning much right now circa March 2020, but it would be nice to think that the 20th anniversary of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World next year might bring some attention to a neglected film. Adapted from a comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World managed the difficult trick of getting Academy Award recognition (in the adapted screenplay category) and yet barely making a dent in the collective consciousness. A cult movie was born, and while Ghost World nimbly ducks accusations of ersatz geek chic, it’s still hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong and right here.

Clowes admitted that the last twenty pages of the script ended up not making the final product, and Ghost World is front-loaded plot-wise in a way that probably didn’t satisfy casual customers. But the route forward is paved with snark, and an off-kilter view of modern life that doesn’t feel dated at all. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) graduate from their Californian high school without much fuss; they’re underwhelmed by the experience, and by pretty much all aspects of life around them. Rebecca has the usual crushes to content with, but Enid strikes up an unconventional friendship with a shew-ish middle aged man (called Seymour, inevitably, and played by Steve Buscemi, even more inevitably). Enid and Seymour bond over 78 records and distain for mainstream culture, but the experience tests the bonds between Enid and Rebecca.

Aside from a striking visual aesthetic, with empty streets and simple, effective frames, Ghost World has plenty to commend it, not least decent supporting roles for Illeana Douglas and Bob Balaban. And while Rebecca gets short shrift outside of her badinage with Enid, Enid herself is a three-dimensional creation, a role-model for malcontents, capable of great cruelty and kindness at the same time, without a firm notion of where these emotions are coming from. The perennially under-used Birch does a great job here, creating something iconic from Enid’s vacillations, and she’s the X factor that makes Ghost World worth another look.

Teen movies are ten-a-penny to be sure, but Ghost World’s dissection of teenage restlessness is even more prescient now than it was at the time. Viewers may be attracted to see Johansson in an early role (she’s fine), but Ghost World’s attitude is a one-off; John Malkovich produces, Todd Solondz visited the set, and it’s one of the best films made by middle-aged men about what women might feel when confronted by the comic, tragic un-loveliness of middle-aged men themselves.

Lady and the Tramp 2019 ***

lady-and-the-tramp-224a4ccAndrew Bujalski is something of a mercurial figure in American cinema; his Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation created a new genre ( mumblecore) and launched him towards such surprising indie fare as the alarming Computer Chess, a seemingly genial look at retro-computing style the concludes with a final scene which is genuine nightmare fodder. 2018’s Support The Girls was his best to date, a humanist account of women fighting a hard-scrabble existence in a Hooters-style eatery, leading critical figures such as myself to sign up for daily updates as to what Bujalski was up to.

Somehow, that next project is the live action version of Lady and the Tramp that appeared with a remarkable lack of fanfare on Disney+. There is form for this kind of decision; Noah Baumbach brought considerable wit to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Bujalski’s aspirational, working class heroes are a good fit for the original 1955 animation. Some have suggested that Disney have dumped this $60 million project on their streaming service like a tv movie, but that’s no more accurate that saying that Netflix ‘dumped’ The Irishman; these are loss leaders. On watching Lady and the Tramp, it’s hard to imagine it doing the business of Lion King, Aladdin or other 2019 hits, but it’s still a prestige project with points to commend it.

Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Jim and Darling; he gifts her a dog, Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, who falls for Tramp, a diamond in the rough voiced by Justin Theroux. Tramp’s back-story, as to how he was abandoned by his owners, is genuinely heart-breaking, and chimes with Lady’s understanding that when the baby comes, the dog goes. This is a bitter-sweet thematic for a children’s film, and Lady and the Tramp balances both worlds, with angry dog-catchers, nasty-minded dogs (Clancy Brown) and restrictive mussels like the one Tramp sorts out for Lady. Other retro-items like the Siamese cats which stitch up poor Lady have been altered to avoid accusations of racism, but the less said about Ashley Jensen’s stereotyped Scottish terrier the better; some forms of racism die harder than others.

Lady and the Tramp’s reputation hinges largely on the animation, and the designs for the dogs here are the problem; neither Lady or the Tramp look quite as good as their animated selves, and the musical elements are inconsistent compared to Lion King or Aladdin’s full scores. But there are points to relish, like Ken Jeong, Adrian Martinez and Arturo Castro, all of who project exactly the right larger than life quality for live-action Disney. And the classic restaurant scene still works, with Lady and the Tramp sharing a spaghetti dinner under the auspices of master-chef and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham. For Bujalski, co-writing with Kari Granlund, it’s a time-passer, hopefully on the way to more personal projects, but there’s enough elements consistent with his other works to make this worth a look for fans of his downtrodden style.

https://www.disneyplus.com

The Company of Wolves 1984 ****

Featured-180401-CompanyOfWolvesThe Britbox streaming service has a way to go to convince the public that it can be an alternative to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney + in the UK. A joint BBC/ITV venture, it is, like early Netflix, reliant on existing content, but tv content is not as timeless as the best movies are; the result feels like a pacifier for the elderly, rather than a new force in streaming. And with so many great films turning up on You Tube, it wouldn’t be hard to gather up the rights to a better selection of movies than the paltry last-turkeys-in-the-shop offered here.

And the exception that proves the rule is Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, a rather striking riff of werewolf myths and mythology based on a script and story by Angela Carter. Jordan feels that this is not a horror film, and certainly it doesn’t adhere to most of the clichés of the genre. It also doesn’t match the description on Britbox; ‘starring Terence Stamp’ reads the blurb, but Stamp has roughly twenty seconds of screen-time, playing the Devil, and says precisely one line.

Instead, the star of the film is the attitude of the author, Carter’s take on fairy-tales could be nicely summarised by the phrase ‘don’t bet on the prince’. Alive to the way that traditional stories re-enforce male dominance, Carter turns the hymn-sheet upside down and depict exactly how the werewolf legend might inform and inspire womanhood. Thus the stories told by Rosealeen (Sarah Patterson) by her granny (Angela Lansbury) deal with men who are hairy on the inside, with Stephen Rea undergoing a memorable transformation as a groom who comes home years after his wedding night.

Lansbury is not the only name here for genre fans; Brian Glover is a perfect villager, David Warner a father determined to protect his family, and Graham Crowden, a veteran of Lindsay Anderson’s sci-fi satire, plays the local priest. Micha Bergese, the choreographer, also has a striking scene. Their faces are right for a low-budget yet creatively imaginative production that evokes a dream-world that might have forerunners in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The influence of The Saragossa Manuscript is evident in the episodic structure, but the curious narrative form allows Jordan to be true to the spirit of Carter’s work.

This was a hard X at the cinemas, and seeing at as a schoolboy circa 1985, The Company of Wolves for, for sure, a horror movie for me, right up there with Alien. The gruesome effects haven’t dated at all, and there’s also some striking moment where wolves burst through the airs and graces at a costume dinner party, or Lansbury gets casually decapitated. The horror is real, but comes from a different source that other films; the imagery is re-set from a feminist POV, and that gives The Company of Wolves a unique flavour. Goodness knows what casual Britbox viewers will make of it, but The Company of Wolves is a neglected classic well worth tracking down.

https://www.britbox.co.uk/ or

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea 1954 *****

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A good few decades have passed since I first saw this at my local flea-pit, and now the Disney+ catalogue provides a chance to look again at Richard Fleischer’s robust adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story. I saw this on a revival at my local fleapit at the age of six, and was impressed by the Gothic design of the Nautilus ship, by the dynamic lead performances, and the impressive physical effects, not least the giant boggle-eyed squid that was worth the price of admission if paying to see fighting squids is your thing.

Disney’s adventures in live-action haven’t always been successful, but with an expensive, state-of-the-art Technicolor/Cinemascope pedigree, this is one old movie that comes up looking pretty spruce. Sure, there’s a few dated process shots, but there’s also some stunning glass paintings, notably Captain Nemo’s volcanic base, and lots of well–integrated hydraulics and clever model-work. When I was a kid, this movie was all about the monster, but the plot and character development still made an impression, and while the submarine effects are still cool, it’s the acting that really seals the deal on classic status here.

Was there ever a better leading man that Kirk Douglas? Often shirtless, resplendent in his earring, never short of a sea-shanty (A Whale of a Tale!) or a cheeky rabbit-punch in the melt for those who annoyed him, his Ned Land is a rambunctious creation, and the fore-runner of many inferior action heroes to come. He’s perfectly matched in James Mason’s Captain Nemo, who comes on all saturnine charm, but the veneer soon gives way to intense philosophical wrestling about the current state and vexed future of mankind. Nemo is an ambiguous character, the very opposite of Ned’s two-fisted, straight-up heroism, and yet the two men play off each other perfectly.

Ned eats with his hands; he’s ‘indifferent to utensils’ and unimpressed by Nemo’s sophisticated, evolved diet, which serves up ‘milk of a sperm whale’ and ‘sauté of unborn octopus’. Their struggle, narrated by the wonderfully bug-eyed Peter Lorre, is that of the heart and the brain, yet both men have each quality in abundance and this isn’t a shallow story of good and bad but does justice to Verne’s loftier ideas. Ultimately, 20,000 Leagues is the yardstick by which Disney/family films should be judged; yes, there are attractive carnival elements like Douglas serenading a seal or fighting off cannibals, but 20,000 League Under the Sea delivers when it comes to story, dialogue, acting and overall bonhomie; it’s a cinematic game-changer of its day that still comes up fresh as paint today.

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.