Suspended Animation #342
Based on the Basil of Baker Street book series by Eve Titus, The Great Mouse Detective (1986) follows Basil, a mouse detective who operates on the same deductive principles as Sherlock Holmes and lives in a tiny home located under 221B Baker Street, the residence of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.
Basil’s nemesis is the evil genius Ratigan “the Napoleon of crime” who has ambitions of taking over the mouse world. He controls a vast nefarious network of crime under the streets of London.
He himself is a giant rat, but he hates to be reminded of it, to the point that he will have his own henchmen fed to his cat if they refer to him as a rat rather than a large mouse. Just as Basil was meant to reference Sherlock Holmes, Ratigan was meant to be reminiscent of his greatest foe, Professor Moriarty.
Vincent Price who was 75 years old was cast in the role after animators viewed a 1950 film, Champagne for Caesar, at the suggestion of director Burny Mattinson where Price played larger-than-life corporate chieftain Burnbridge Waters.
Ratigan was designed by animator Glen Keane who found Price’s “expressive voice and attitude inspired us to further redesign the character.
“Ratigan was originally a very skinny character. He was a rat and we had him kind of as a weasly-looking guy but his design was too similar to Basil. I was thinking maybe we should be really bigger with him.
“At the time we watched the Vincent Price film and listening to his dialogue I realized that’s the voice for him. He just had this sharp, quick way of speaking and the timing was great. You could tell he enjoyed being a rotten guy.
“Like Ratigan he felt like he was justified in doing whatever he did, which is important for a villain. The villain isn’t bad just because he’s bad, but he’s justified. He feels like he’s right.
“I started doing drawings of a much larger, huge rat character and it fit. So then we actually brought Vincent Price in and headed in that direction.”
Keane got the idea for the design by basing Ratigan’s large stature on Disney’s president Ron Miller who was a 6’6’’ ex-football player for the Los Angeles Rams and whose presence was physically intimidating. It seemed to make sense to have a larger species dominating a smaller one.
Keane recalled, “Originally, the character didn’t have the power or presence we wanted. Then one day, we heard Mr. Miller’s footsteps coming down a long linoleum hallway. You could hear the floor shaking as this 6-foot 6-inch guy with 260 pounds of muscle moved into the room.
“So we started doing caricatures of Miller as a huge rat. It wasn’t done to be derogatory. I sweated it out when I presented the first sketches to him but he didn’t recognize his own face and said, ‘Go with it’.” The Wall Street Journal heard me tell this story and contacted Miller who replied, ‘That’s news to me’.”
Keane also drew some inspiration from a particular photograph he found of a London man in the 1800s, who had a sleazy, fat-cat kind of look about him, wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar.
Keane said, “There was just something about this guy – this Ratigan… this rat sucking the cigar, completely dressed to the hilt, he was sharp and perfect – he’s a sewer rat dressed like a king and he lives as a king!”
Keane wanted to be sure to capture the menace under the polish as well. Keane stated, “That quality was behind the character throughout the whole film, waiting to come out. When he smiled, it wasn’t just an evil grin; there was an intense, tooth-gritting evil struggling to come out as he masked it with the smile. The final shot of him rising up to strike Basil is the climax of the animal side of Ratigan.
“Characters like Ratigan or Willie the Giant, or an animal that has a larger-than-life presence screaming to come out on screen, excite me. I like being the one who brings it out.”
Glen and his assistant Matt O’Callaghan boarded several of Ratigan’s sequences. Ruben Procopio did an impressive maquette sculpture of the character for reference.
While recording the voice, Price was amiable, upbeat, and shared stories of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As Steve Hulett recalled, “Only one moment of testiness happened when he had delivered a four-word line thirty-five times in thirty-five different ways, and the directors asked for a thirty-sixth interpretation. Mr. Price snapped, ‘I don’t have any other way to say it! I’ve said the line every way there is!’”
Here is part of a presentation actor Price gave in 1986 to media reporters to promote the film.
Vincent Price: “It was the first time in 45 years I had to audition. I was furious with them. I had done more than a hundred pictures and if they didn’t know what my voice sounded like then the hell with them.
“After a while I realized I was being very silly and egotistical. They knew my voice but they weren’t sure whether I could adapt to the style of acting required by the role. So, like a kid, I tried out.
“The voice is crucial in the animated film. I guess mine evokes a certain mystery….or horror or melodrama and that’s what they wanted for this character.
If I have added anything to the history of villainy, it’s a sense of fun.
“The trouble with actors now is they mumble and grumble their arts. Everything is understated to the point of absurdity. You expect something larger-than-life, not smaller.
“As I worked on Rattigan, the animators fell more and more in love with him. He began getting more footage. He got a song. They let me go overboard as far as I could go. I would get in the sound booth with the director of the scene.
“The director would urge me on, telling me to make it bigger and bigger. To get that big sound out, I naturally gestured and made faces. I’d come back four months later and see more of the film and find that my gestures and expressions had crept in. The eyebrows especially.
“They told me that they based the part on my performance in Champagne for Caesar (1950). My character was took himself absolutely seriously and yet could see how ridiculous he was. He was Howard Hughes’ favorite character. He gets shot in the arm and says, ‘Oh my god, it’s real blood!’
“Rattigan is the same. For instance every once in a while one of his frightened henchmen call him a rat. He’s furious, because he thinks of himself as merely a large mouse. So he feeds the poor henchmen to his pet cat.
“Rattigan finds himself hystertically funny. He’s in the marvelous tradition of Disney villains. He’s mad, mad, mad! I do adore Rattigan.
“I did it because one should never stop. That’s the first rule. Keep going. Do everything, even cartoons. If you don’t, you stop. And stopping stinks.”