Based on the children's book series Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, it draws heavily on the tradition of Sherlock Holmes with a heroic mouse who consciously emulates the detective; Titus named the main character after actor Basil Rathbone, who is best remembered for playing Holmes in film (and whose voice, sampled from the Red-Headed League, was the voice of Holmes in this film, 19 years after his death). Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes also mentions "Basil" as one of his aliases in the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of Black Peter".
The main characters are all mice and rats living in Victorian London. The layouts were done on computers, and the use of video cameras made a digital version of pencil testing possible. The movie is also notable for its early use of computer generated imagery (CGI) for a chase scene that takes place in the interior of Big Ben. The movements of the clock's gears were produced as wire-frame graphics on a computer, printed out and traced onto animation cells where colors and the characters were added. The Great Mouse Detective is sometimes cited as the first animated film from Disney to use CGI; in reality, 1985's The Black Cauldron has this distinction. This film did fairly well at the box office and got warm reviews from critics (including a "two thumbs up" rating from critics Siskel and Ebert), a welcome change after the previous Disney flop The Black Cauldron. Its moderate success after its predecessor's failure gave the new management of Disney confidence in the viability of their animation department. This led to creation of The Little Mermaid, released three years later, which signaled a renaissance for Walt Disney Productions even though this film is usually "underrated" and "underappreciated" by Walt Disney, which focuses more on its original and newer films.