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Dissecting the Classics – The Secret of NIMH

January 7, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Secret of NIMH

Happy 2019! Well, at least I hope so. Honestly, this is one of those times of the year where I’m less focused on movies because I’m super hyped for WrestleKingdom, but I still wanted to make sure I put out content. I’ve also been trying my hardest not to get sick with the flu, so wish me luck on that front.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Secret of NIMH

Wide Release Date: July 2, 1982
Directed By: Don Bluth
Written By: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, Will Finn & Ken Anderson
Produced By: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman & John Pomeroy
Cinematography By: Bill Butler
Edited By: Jeffrey C. Patch
Music By: Jerry Goldsmith
Production Company: Aurora Productions, Don Bluth Productions & Mrs. Brisby Lmtd.
Distributed By: MGM/UA Entertainment Company
Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby
Derek Jacobi as Nicodemus
Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the Crow
Hermione Baddeley as Auntie Shrew
John Carradine as The Great Owl

What Do We All Know?
Don Bluth and the other producers of this movie were animators at Disney when they were first introduced to Robert C. O’Brian’s 1971 novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Disney was uninterested in making another mouse movie after The Rescuers, but Bluth wasn’t planning on staying at Disney for long. If you were a kid in the 1980s, you probably know his studio for films like An American Tail and The Land Before Time. If you were a kid in the 1990s, like me, you probably know him for such disasters as Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park. (Or maybe Anastasia, if you’re lucky.)

Don Bluth Studios is a really interesting story to me. I respect the hell out of them for stepping away from Disney during one of their absolute worst periods and stepping out to do something different. While most of their movies do not hold up, I often find myself wishing that they had. They provided legitimate competition for the Disney company and helped push them to get out of their rut. And while Dreamworks has certainly taken up those reins, there was something special about the darker, almost mystical tone that Bluth and company liked to employ. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this excellent film from the early 1980s. Oh, and, a full spoiler alert is in effect, as I can’t talk about this movie’s themes as a whole without spoiling.

What Went Right?

In case you’ve never seen Secret of NIMH or simply need a recap, the plot is relatively small scale. Mrs. Brisby is a field mouse who needs to move her family before it’s time for the farmer to start plowing. Unfortunately, the situation is complicated by her son Timothy getting deathly sick with pneumonia. Faced with the choice between saving Timmy or saving the rest of her children, Brisby bravely seeks out the Great Owl for his wisdom. Upon learning she is the widow of Jonathan Brisby, the Owl sends her to the rats who live under the farmer’s rose bush. Brisby discovers that the rats are hyper-intelligent due to experiments at NIMH (The National Institute of Mental Health) and that her husband helped facilitate their escape. They’ve been building an advanced society by stealing electricity from the farmer, but are planning to leave and make a society of their own. Brisby has to see if she can persuade them to move her house before they leave.

Mrs. Brisby is an excellent main character with a sympathetic main goal. The story really takes advantage of the fact that she is a mouse and therefore small and kind of helpless. Simply going to see the Great Owl to ask for advice is an act of extreme courage, given that he is just as likely to eat her as to help her. The story gives her plenty of chances to give up and go home, but she has great resolve and inner strength. Fittingly, one of the film’s major changes from the source material is designed to show this strength of character through the mysterious red amulet. Where the rats ultimately fail to save her house because of the infighting with Jenner, Brisby’s courage and resolve powers the amulet and her house is moved by more mystical means. The mechanism is definitely a little contrived, but it serves the theme that it was Mrs. Brisby’s will to act that ultimately saved her family and not the genius of the rats.

Speaking of theme, this is an area where this film excels. Don Bluth’s scripts have always been less bombastic about their central ideas than most Disney movies, trusting children to figure out the messages for themselves. Most of this film’s more adult concepts comes from the rats, who are the result of human experimentation, shown in a rather grisly flashback. While they are secondary characters, their backstory and culture provides the film with a lot of its unique flavor. Indeed, I’m sure this was the aspect of the book that most inspired the creation of the film. Their big issue is trying to decide whether to live off of the scientific advancements of man, which is helpful to their society, or to escape to the woods and live by their own means. This is a question of ethics and unusually mature for a kid’s film. The addition of the amulet adds a new wrinkle to the idea – that the power of the unknown, the mystical, the spiritual is also something to consider when building a society. Where science and nature fails Brisby, the unknowable power of the amulet succeeds, suggesting that a balance of all three is necessary for a society to truly thrive.

Lastly, it would be careless of me to talk about what makes this good without talking about the animation. The film looks very good, and Bluth and company’s style is quite distinguished from Disney. The character designs are impressively detailed, especially busy designs like the Owl and Nicodemus, the leader of the rats. The backgrounds and especially the lighting help create a mood that is creepy and foreboding, but not oppressively so. Quality animation was always a hallmark of Bluth’s movies, but where The Secret of NIMH is special is that it has a story that lives up to the effort put into the animation.

What Went Wrong?

While I think this is easily Don Bluth’s best film, it still struggles with some of the problems that would sink his later films. None of these sink the film, but they do stand out. Jeremy the Crow’s role is greatly expanded from the book in order to justify casting Dom DeLuise, but his comedy is not funny and often drags. He serves one important purpose (flying Brisby to the owl) but I could have done without him after this. There’s also a song that plays when Brisby is taking care of Timmy early on that tries to be emotional and it doesn’t really get there. Bluth always seemed to think that cartoons were supposed to have comedy and music because Disney did them, but he rarely implemented them well. Lastly, there is a very large cast of characters and aside from Mrs. Brisby, I think many of them are kind of weak, especially Justin and Jenner. It’s hard to invest in their sword fight when we barely care about either.

And In Summary…

The Secret of NIMH is a really good movie that is worth going of your way to see, especially if you love animation. Don Bluth and his team were an interesting alternative to Disney in their early years, with movies that were a little darker and quieter, more respectful of their young audience’s intelligence. Outside of Laika, I can’t think of any studio that really captures that specific approach to their animated movies today. While it has a few rough edges, I think this film holds up really well today.

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