Disney's newest full-length animated feature, "The Great Mouse Detective," did something like $1 million a day at the box office in its first five days of release, according to a studio spokesman.
This is good and reassuring news to everyone who loves animation. The times have not been cordial for animated features. The Disney classics do well in re-release, probably because they now qualify both as nostalgia and art. But new animated features, from Disney and from other makers, have had hard going.
All family films have suffered particularly from the competition of television. Sitcoms and Saturday mornings have kept the moppets (and their parents or grandparents) out of the theaters, even when new family films have appeared.
By now, following the iron law of the marketplace that says that what succeeds is repeated and what fails isn't, there are fewer family films to see. The youngest moviegoers haven't had much to go to. Parents complain, and turn to the tube.
Not that the simplicity of family fare is as simple to do as it might seem. The Disney studio has had trouble recapturing the cheerful magic of its live-action features in the years after the deaths not only of Walt Disney himself but of Bill Walsh. Walsh, who wrote and produced "The Absent-Minded Professor," was to live-action what Walt had been to animation.
The studio also lost, in a tragic car accident, Wolfgang Reitherman, who had been the principal overseer of animation after Walt.
For all the makers of animation, at Disney and elsewhere, the problem is always to find or create stories to match the wonder of the animation itself.
Don Bluth, a Disney alumnus who built a team around a nucleus of other Disney alumni, proved in "The Secret of NIMH" that he could produce animation of a technical virtuosity and excitement to rival the Disney best.
The story, drawn from a prize-winning children's book, borrowed another Disney specialty, anthropomorphic mice, who were, however, placed considerably up the IQ scale from giggling Mickey. The film, which has lately been catching on cable some of the viewers and admirers it ought to have had in the theaters, suffered only from a feeling that its story may have been telescoped at the end as time and money ran short.
For me, the best of the Disney animation since Walt has been "The Rescuers" (1977) which, while not up to the classics, had fine gags, imaginative visuals and perky-voiced characters, especially Jim (Fibber Magee) Jordan as the hero. It did very well abroad, less well at home.
The uneasy question at Disney, I'm sure, has been whether to honor tradition and stay with it, or lead animation into a later, hipper world (with all the inherent risks involved). "Tex" and "Splash" had done that for live-action at the studio, and now the new Disney production team is extending the shift by a change of signature to Touchstone on some of the films.
Animation is less easy to move forward in time, if it's going to retain the Disney label and presume to have the same claims on the wide-family audience. "The Great Mouse Detective" is not a great leap forward, but it is a delicious working-out of the Disney philosophy at not far from its traditional best.
Its central significance is that it is the work of a new, young generation of Disney animators. The animation in "The Great Mouse Detective" is sumptuous and thrilling, dazing in its richness, complexity, subtlety and impact.
The parody on Sherlock Holmes has a strong narrative line, well-paced and eventful, adapted from Eve Titus' book, "Basil of Baker Street."
Its comic villain, Inspector Ratigan, voiced by Vincent Price (who does not attempt a parody of himself but creates a special characterization), is the centerpiece of the film. The other characters, including Basil (Barrie Ingham) are visually well styled, though vocally they lack and need the idiosyncratic crackle of Price's Ratigan. The seven dwarfs are proof you don't need celebrity voices, necessarily, but you do need sharp individuality.
Burny Mattinson, a 33-year Disney veteran, was the producer and one of the film's four directors. The full production credits run to four single-spaced pages. Animation is the most collaborative art-form of all, although in the end it is finally as inspired as the taskmaster at the top of the pyramid.
A rumor got about that Disney had plans to scale back its animation work. But the studio spokesman says not so; the production schedule is blocked out 18 months ahead, a major project is in production, another being readied. The studio may make greater use of computers for repetitive mechanical chores, the spokesman adds, but it is in animation to stay.
You have to hope that the response to the charming "The Great Mouse Detective" will make it seem an eminently sensible decision.