All Along the Watchtower

My new nannying job has of late re-introduced me to a few old Disney movies I had not seen in many years, and also a few I had seen not at all. Mulan and Oliver fall into the latter category… somewhat understandably, I find, as neither are very good movies. Mulan has a couple good moments, neither of which are in the climax, or even concern the main characters. The biggest disappointment was that at the end, Mulan doesn’t even kiss the guy, she just invites him to stay for dinner. Lame. Oliver is interesting if only because it actually IS a re-telling of Oliver Twist, except set in New York, and with an abandoned kitten instead of an orphaned boy. I was not quite aware of this when I sat down to watch it. I was somewhat amused to see both the Artful Dodger and Fagin as good characters, although Sikes remained suitably evil.

I never cease to be amazed by people who insist upon turning great criminals and villains (pick-pockets, pirates, vampires, assassins, etc.) into “good guys.” I am even more amazed by those who don’t even bother with pretense, and choose to become madly infatuated with unapologetically evil characters.

Making the upper tier of good movies I recently saw is Robin Hood. I forgot how much I like the look of hand-drawn animation till I saw it again. Beyond this, it is a fun and delightful movie, and somewhat wittier than Disney’s more recent offerings. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that children were stupid, and wouldn’t like movies with jokes that went over their heads. As Looney Tunes proves to me yearly, jokes I may not entirely understand when I am young can still prove to be outrageously funny at the time, and the best part is, they only get better as you get older. Beyond this, the “Oo-de-lally” song at the beginning is incredibly catching, and Robin has a really fabulous accent.

Last Friday, for whatever reason, I found myself really, really wanting to sit down and watch “The Great Mouse Detective.” So, I went down to the basement, dug up the old VHS tape, and brought it with me to work. Unfortunately, the kids were already busy using up their TV time when I got there, so I didn’t get to watch it, but that evening, while making plans with my usual Friday peeps, I suggested it again and was met with a favorable response. From the very first opening minutes, I knew I had made a good decision. I mean, mensch, but that is a good film.

Growing up, I liked the Great Mouse Detective for a number of reasons. For one, I always liked the clockwork, white mouse with the pink skirt at the beginning of the film. Secondly, the scene where Basil burns up Fidget’s note, pounds it to ash, and runs it through his chemistry set (with all the bubbling liquid, changing colors, hissing, and cork-screwing tubes) was super-nifty-cool. Thirdly, the dancing mice in the tavern scene were pretty. This is a good example of what I mentioned earlier, of things that go over kid’s heads. Watching that scene as an adult, I am surprised by how scandalous it would be, if the characters weren’t mice. The other surprising discoveries I made were that Olivia Flaversham and her father, to judge by their accents, are Scottish. Ratigan, by contrast, does not seem to have a necessarily British accent at all. I can’t really place what it is, as I wouldn’t describe it as American either. Also, Olivia manages to be surprisingly cute, rather than obnoxious and annoying as one usually expects from child characters.

However, the very best part of watching the movie came at the end, when I re-discovered how epic the clock tower battle is. Keep in mind, the rivalry that exists between Basil and Ratigan is fundamentally intellectual. When Basil first makes his appearance in the film, elated by some breakthrough, and then dejected when he discovers his mistake, he laments that he has been outsmarted. When he falls into the trap at Ratigan’s secret hideout, Ratigan gloats at having outwitted him at last. Basil’s following escape from Ratigan’s elaborate execution is again accomplished by an incredible, mind-bending feat of calculation (one which requires calculating the square-root of an isosceles triangle, if you listen closely enough.) Even the showdown at Buckingham Palace, Basil’s great triumph comes when he takes over the controls to the mechanical queen, and uses them to expose Ratigan’s scheme and humiliate him in front of the entire gathered assembly.

All of this changes for the clock scene. As Ratigan’s airship crashes into Big Ben, the sound score is replaced by silence, but for the loud mechanical tick of the clock itself. Basil stumbles to his feet, and looks around him in awe at the massive, turning gears. Behind him, Ratigan looms silently, Olivia tucked under one arm, a mad gleam lighting his eye. The dark, churning gears are silhouetted by the illuminated yellow face of the clocktower. Again, during the initial exchange, Basil uses his quick thinking to catch Ratigan’s cloak in the gears, rescue Olivia from being crushed, and ride off on one of the clock chains. But then the tables turn, as Ratigan, who has flown into a furious rage the entire film whenever someone implies he is a rat, undergoes his transformation. Suddenly, as Ratigan abandons the battle of intellect in favor of brute strength, Basil doesn’t stand a chance. He gets clawed and torn all down the length of the clock hand, and finally kicked off the edge. And that is what I found so interesting. When Basil faces Ratigan the would-be mouse, he can be cocky, arrogant, confident, assured. But Basil the mouse against Ratigan the rat gets kicked off the Westminster Clocktower.

Of course Basil’s wit does win out in the end. He grabs on to the wreck of the airship, and then when the clock tolls and Ratigan falls off himself, grabbing at Basil and pulling him down with him, Basil survives by peddling himself aloft on the airship’s broken off propeller. It is what we expect, of course. Perhaps not down to the very last detail, but of course we want Basil and his brilliant mind to emerge triumphant. He is, after all, the Great Mouse Detective.

But that’s not the reason the scene was so great. It was great because Ratigan became a rat, because there was only the ticking and the grinding gears, because Basil very nearly lost, because Ratigan lost the very moment he won, not through the actual fact of losing, but through forfeiting the battle of minds. It was great because his strength proved to be his downfall, because he forgot to be aware of his surroundings.

And because there were silhouettes, and peals of thunder, and crashes of lightning.

One thought on “All Along the Watchtower

  1. I haven’t seen <>The Great Mouse Detective<> in a long time. We watched it so many times growing up that I became sick of it. Nonetheless, enough time has passed that I’d see it again.

    Like

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