The Secret of NIMH (1982) / Animation-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running Time: 82 min.
Cast (voices): Elizabeth Hartman, Dom DeLuise, Derek Jacobi, Arthur Malet, Hermione Baddeley, Shannen Doherty, Wil Wheaton, Peter Strauss, John Carradine, Ed McClurg
Director: Don Bluth
Screenplay: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy (based on the book, "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert C. O'Brien (aka Robert Conly))
Review published December 30, 2017
Directed and co-written by Don Bluth, who, in the 1980s, sparked his own independent full-fledged animated family film studio to compete with his old employer, Disney, at their own game, frustrated that they were more concerned with skimping on quality in order to make more profit. Enlisting the services of many other defectors from the House of Mouse, The Secret of NIMH, is Don Bluth's first full feature effort, in an attempt to bring animation back to the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s in terms of quality and ingenuity. Though in keeping with the style of Disney designs, this is certainly more sophisticated efforts to come out in this period, offering good storytelling and rich, mature themes underneath the comical characters and fantastical situations. Bluth and company had been frustrated that Disney had been growing away from the quality they once showed in their animation studios, and The Secret of NIMH promised a return to the level that many felt they should always be striving to achieve.
The Secret of NIMH relates the story of a widowed mouse, and mother of four young mice, Mrs. Brisby (changed from 'Mrs. Frisby' in the 1971 Newbery Award-winning Robert C. O'Brien novel due to potential lawsuit from Wham-O, the trademark owners of the popular toy, the Frisbee) the youngest of whom has come down with a nasty case of pneumonia that requires as much rest and warmth as he can get if he wants a chance to survive. Due to the illness, the Brisby family is not yet able to make their migration from their home in a field in order to avoid the threshing of the farmer's machinery, which is starting earlier this year, leaving Mrs. Brisby the tough choice of what to do with Timmy if the family needs to move, but he can't. With the help of a wise Great Owl, Mrs. Brisby beseeches the ultra-smart rats of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), the escapees from a radical experimental laboratory that gave them their insight, in their elaborate underground city they created themselves, in order to help get them out of harm's way.
While the style of animation is familiar, The Secret of NIMH is beautifully detailed, especially in its rich use of backgrounds. Though the characters are cute in design, there is an overall eeriness to the environments and visual animation that keeps the tone darker and more unsettling than one might expect from animation of the era, which were often built in order to sell toys more so than to inspire children to think creatively. The level of detail into aspects of the animation that Disney had been growing further away from -- the backgrounds, the lighting effects, the color palettes -- are a crowning achievement in The Secret of NIMH, which has a level of texture rare to find in any era of animation, and most certainly in the 1980s. It's also beautifully scored by Jerry Goldsmith, in one of his finer compositions (some cite similarities with his score for Poltergeist, which he composed the same year), despite his difficulties due to the tight production schedule, leaving him to have to score scenes that had yet to be completed, and were being tinkered with constantly.
The somewhat complicated plot may be a bit too much for younger kids to fully grasp, and a bit on the dark side, which is one of the reasons that Disney passed on the project when it had been initially pitched to them in the early 1970s. In addition to the back story regarding human experimentation on the animals we come to know and like, there is also the fact that there is dissension among the rats, embodied in the scheming and power-mad rat named Jenner, as to which direction they will go -- will they break from human society and start their own, or will they continue to rely on humans for their livelihood. The rats, with the help of their wizard-like leader Nicodemus, harness a kind of spooky magic in order to observe and control their environment, which further adds to the eeriness of the film's mysterious visual potency. Then, there's also Dragon, the farmer's cat, who lurks about ready to consume any of our heroes he can get his claws upon, including Mrs. Brisby's deceased husband, she comes to learn. And, lastly, there is NIMH, the hospital of experimentation, who determine that the only way to deal with the problem now is to exterminate all of the rats.
Character models are very much in the Disney tradition, which is not a surprise given the amount of animators who had previously worked for the company before joining with Bluth on their quest to do things their own way. One can see within the story the attraction of Bluth and company for the story, given that there is a group of super-talented entities that have escaped from a madhouse where they have no free will, hoping to eventually have to stop relying on their captors in order to have freedom and independence to do as they choose. Just liked the rats of NIMH, so too do these creative forces among the artists wish they could stop relying on working for Disney on the side for their sustenance and be able to make it on their own, doing things they feel will be beneficial, rather than mechanical and clinical in a way that sucks out their very souls. Jenner is the representation of those who feel like the status quo of relying on their former captors is better than starting up a new and independent life, willing to sabotage the pack's efforts to advance beyond their existence.
The themes explore the values of family, friendship and of the perseverance in courage, despite overwhelming odds, in order to protect what you value most. In a more minor sense, the story also suggests that human experimentation on animals is not a good thing, as they are all living, thinking, loving creatures that all serve a greater role in the community, even if we can't see their importance in front of our eyes. This point is emphasized more in the novel the film is adapted from, which is more science based, whereas the film introduces the harnessing of magical forces as part of its reason why things have changed among the animals. Bluth explained the changes in stating that the work of animating is akin to magic, still in keeping with the themes of artists who use their skills in order to bring drawings to life.
The Secret of NIMH is a top-notch, professional production that is perhaps more admirable than it is compelling for the younger set, but, if one is patient and diligent with the story and its characters without growing restless that it's not always engaging in the moment, it is a film that is full of rich developments and surprisingly mature themes. It's a film told with refreshingly unusual underlying subtlety and grace, showcasing what artists can create when art comes above profits. Sadly, despite impeccable quality, the film would prove to be only marginally profitable for Bluth's vanguard venture, making only a quarter of what the mostly forgettable Disney film, The Fox and the Hound, earned at the box office the year before. Distributor MGM pushed its release date forward to compete with other summer releases, then did little to advertise its release. In the wake of such films as E.T., released less than a month prior, The Secret of NIMH found only a very small slice of the family film-going pie awaiting them. Steven Spielberg would make it up to Bluth by producing his next two films, An American Tail and The Land Before Time.
This must have been very disappointing for all of the artists and animators involved, given that they worked very long hours to get the production done of a very short 30-month schedule for little to no pay, some working over 100-hour weeks to make sure they made their deadline, other than having a share of the profits on the back end that weren't really there. Luckily for some, the film has earned as cult following in video sales, becoming a beloved favorite for many who missed its theatrical run the first time around, and where repeat viewings offer greater rewards. In part due to the defection of animators like Bluth and company, Disney did return to making its artistry a priority not long after the release of The Secret of NIMH, and especially Bluth's An American Tail and The Land Before Time (both of which out-grossed every traditionally animated Disney film released since 1967's The Jungle Book), culminating in The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, kicking off the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s.
©2017 Vince Leo