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Why The Great Mouse Detective's Professor Ratigan is one of the great Disney villains of all time

There's a lot of reasons to love this rat

Still image of Ratigan
Image credit: Disney

Ursula. Scar. Gaston. If you were asked to name Disney’s greatest animated villains, these characters and others from the Disney Renaissance—the ten-year period starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and ending with 1999’s Tarzan, when Disney enjoyed an unprecedented run of successful and enduring films—would surely dominate the list, and deservedly so. But every single one of these timeless baddies owes a creative debt to a character that many fans might never have seen before: Professor Ratigan, the “most devious mind in all of London” and the antagonist of the 1986 film, The Great Mouse Detective.

Who Is Ratigan?

Still image of Ratigan
Image credit: Disney

The Great Mouse Detective was based on a series of children’s books by Eve Titus, “Basil of Baker Street,” which in turn were based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. And where there is a Holmes, there must, of necessity, be his most famous rival, Professor Moriarty.

Enter Ratigan, a merciless, well-dressed schemer who kidnaps an unassuming toymaker and his daughter as part of a plot to overthrow the rodent version of Queen Victoria. Ratigan leads a gang of devoted toughs, whom he does not hesitate to feed to his pet cat if they dare to remind him that he is, in fact, a rat and not an overgrown mouse.

Like Moriarty before him, Ratigan meets his downfall at the hands of a detective living on Baker Street. After a climactic battle atop Big Ben, Basil triumphs, while Ratigan, after abandoning his sophisticated pretense and giving in to his most ruthless animal instincts, falls to his death.

What Makes Ratigan So Great?

Still image of Ratigan
Image credit: Disney

To fully appreciate the genius of Ratigan’s character, you only have to look back at the lackluster villains who preceded him. Edgar the butler (The Aristocats), Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound), and Madame Medusa (The Rescuers) aren’t exactly names that echo down the years to send a chill up viewers’ spines.

Films like the ones listed above have their merits, but they just don’t seem as invested in their villains. They prefer to focus on the heroes’ travels or personal tribulations, which results in the supposed antagonists getting shoved to the side where they have minimal interaction with the main characters and, therefore, less time to build up the kind of hero/villain rivalry that the best bad guys all have. Ratigan benefited from a much higher level of detail and attention that allowed him to truly flourish as a character.

In addition, the filmmakers use his screentime wisely, giving Ratigan a personality big enough and entertaining enough to fill every second. He can be as straightforwardly intimidating as any villain, but he can just as easily feign sympathy and leniency before unleashing vengeance on his unsuspecting victim. Played with bombastic glee by the ever-engaging Vincent Price, Ratigan’s goals are simple—gain power and crush his adversary—but they are more than enough to carry the film.

To go along with his outsized personality, Disney gave him a distinctive, expressive design. Dressed in classy attire that completely contradicts his sharp grin and the feral temper forever bubbling underneath the top hat and cloak, Ratigan can express the deepest, most intense loathing for Basil in a gesture as simple as snapping shut a pocket watch: when Basil insults him, his smug leer remains fixed in place for a long, telling second before he closes the watch and moves on. He does not respond to the insult directly because he knows he has the upper hand, but for that one second, he was clearly tempted to retaliate before controlling himself for what would turn out to be the last time before the big battle.

To emphasize his flamboyance, the film devotes not one, but two songs to the evil of Ratigan, even though The Great Mouse Detective is not a musical. The first song, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind,” is a self-congratulatory number, complete with mood lighting, that showcases Ratigan’s high opinion of himself while his terrified henchmen serve as the chorus. The second, “Goodbye So Soon,” is a recording that Ratigan makes to serenade Basil while waiting for Ratigan’s death trap to kill him. (Alas, Ratigan is not immune to the classic villain mistake of pompously leaving the premises before confirming his nemesis is dead.)

Fun to watch, fun to look at, and fun to hate, and with a dastardly plot to boot, Ratigan is as well-rounded a bad guy as a movie lover could hope for.

What Did Ratigan Do for Disney Villains?

Still image of Ursula from The Little Mermaid
Image credit: Disney

Ratigan clearly did not invent the iconic Disney villain. The wicked queen who menaced Snow White, Cruella de Ville, and Maleficent all made fantastic villains, thanks to the same factors that would later make Ratigan so memorable: a deliciously evil personality enhanced by a great look, a great scheme, and well-used screentime.

But by the 1970s and ‘80s, Disney seemed to have forgotten the example set by these characters. It took the relative success of The Great Mouse Detective, which followed on the heels of the disastrous The Black Cauldron with its visually interesting but underdeveloped antagonist the Horned King, to remind them. Not only did the film as a whole start to restore Disney’s reputation after that failure, it provided the company with a model for a strong antagonist that would help them replicate this tenuous success again and again. When combined with the lessons learned from 1988’s Oliver & Company, which proved that animated musicals could be a winning formula, Disney had all the tools it needed to create the game-changing smash hit The Little Mermaid—and all of the amazing films that came after.

In Ratigan, we see echoes of legendary villains past, as well as a roadmap leading directly to the villains of the 1990s and beyond. The best Disney villains of the past thirty-plus years have all had grandiose personalities, unforgettable aesthetic designs, and plenty of time to develop as characters, usually with a villain song thrown in to let them really shine. And for that, Disney—and Disney fans—can thank one oversized mouse with delusions of grandeur.

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Eileen Gonzalez

Eileen Gonzalez: Eileen Gonzalez (she/her) is a freelance writer from New England.


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