The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Directed by Don Bluth. Featuring the Voices of Elizabeth Hartman, Peter Strauss, Dom DeLuise, Derek Jacobi, Hermione Baddeley, David Carradine, Arthur Malet, Paul Shenar, Wil Wheaton, Shannon Doherty.
Hello, my name is Ryan Harvey, and apparently all I do here at Black Gate is review animated fantasy films.
With 1982’s The Secret of NIMH now out on a fresh new Blu-ray Disc. . . .
Wait a minute. Seriously, MGM Home Video? (Or Fox, or whoever actually handled this disc.) This is the best you can do with your new release of The Secret of NIMH onto hi-def? Normally, I would wait until the end of a movie review to discuss the quality of a DVD/BD, but you require me upfront to take you behind the shed with a very large paddle. This is shameful. The Secret of NIMH is an acknowledged animated masterpiece, the film responsible for starting the uphill climb from years of “limited animation” doldrums toward the new flowering of the 1990s. This movie taught a generation of viewers what was possible in the medium. It has fans of freakish dedication, such as myself, a scads of websites dedicated to its deconstruction and analysis. And all you can do is slap down whatever print you had on hand and stick on 1080 lines of resolution?
No, no, this is unacceptable. Disney pours immense work into restoring their classics for Blu-ray release, using the best prints possible and cleaning them up so the films look as fresh as they did on the animators’ table. But your current version of The Secret of NIMH looks far worse than it did on theater screens in 1982. I should know, since I was there as a wide-eyed youngling, and recall how the movie blew apart my nine-year-old mind with its motion, depth of imagery, beautiful backgrounds, and bizarre fantasy effects animation. And yet you give us a Blu-ray slathered in scratches and noise with dulled colors and a washed-out palette. This is hardly a step up from the 2007 DVD release. You couldn’t even bother with an interesting popup menu font! Are you aware that this is a classic?
Ah, clearly not.
I think I have that out of my system. Breathe. Breathe. Okay, now I think I can talk about one of the greatest fantasy experiences ever put on animation cels.
The Secret of NIMH was the first blast from the animators who had finally grown tired of Disney’s apathy toward the art form that had made them famous. A group of the studio’s animators, led by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy, jumped from the Magic Kingdom and formed Aurora Productions to create an animated feature made with the detail and attention that the Disney classics of the 1940s and ‘50s had.
The result was a movie that did capture the feeling of the Golden Age of Animation — but was also something unlike the Disney model. The Secret of NIMH is a strange film in any era, but that strangeness is one reason it holds up so well. Don Bluth’s animators would continue with successful features done with the same craft and detail, such as An American Tale and The Land before Time, but these movies rely more on a looser musical-adventure formula that resembles prominent Disney films. The Secret of NIMH, on the other hand, is often tar-black in tone and filled with levels of fantasy violence and weird science. Don Bluth and Co. took to heart the idea that many classic Disney films were often frightening to young children (“Bambi’s Mother Syndrome”) and made a movie likely to terrify any child under ten in at least one scene. And probably in many more than that. But those same frightened children took the movie to heart and made it into the beloved classic it is today. It is definitely an animated film with room to grown with a young viewer into adulthood.
However, not all is relentlessly grim. The Secret of NIMH balances its moments of fear and danger with a tender theme, a genuinely funny comic relief character, and a wonderful heroine. Both sides of the equation come out equal. On one side is the story of a widowed mother mouse out to save her son’s life. On the other is a plot that rises to a political assassination and then straight into a sword fight — a clattering of longswords with real blood-letting where it feels as if either character could hack off the head or limb of the other at any moment.
This is what I call well-rounded family entertainment.
The Secret of NIMH was adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s award-winning 1971 children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Aside from changing the main character’s name from “Frisby” to “Brisby” to duck Wham-O’s army of lawyers protecting the treasured “Frisbee” trademark, the script added large doses of the supernatural to the story, most notably a magic amulet. The magical elements are left mostly unexplained; Don Bluth has admitted that they were inserted to add shimmer and spectacle to the animation. This ambiguity had created a subgenere of fan fiction dedicated to exploring the magic. The only “fantasy” in O’Brien’s novel is that the animals can talk; otherwise the novel is better classified as science fiction, since it concerns medical experiments that radically increase the intelligence of common street rats to the point that they become as technologically capable as humans.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of the NIMH is actually two equally weighted stories, which the movie pares down to one for the sake of the medium. The first story is the struggle of Mrs. Frisby, a field mouse taking care of four children after the death of her husband, Jonathan. Her youngest son, Timothy, catches pneumonia, which puts the whole family in danger when the farmer plans to start plowing the field earlier than expected. Timothy cannot move to their spring home without dying from the cold air. A desperate Mrs. Frisby goes on a quest to find a way to save Timothy that takes her to a colony of rats living in the rosebush near the farmhouse. The second story enters here. The rat’s leader, Nicodemus, explains to Mrs. Frisby the history of their extraordinary colony and her husband’s role in it. Many chapters of the book are Nicodemus’s first-person narration of how ordinary rats became test-subjects in the National Institute of Mental Health. The tests boosted their intelligence to the point that the subjects were able to outwit their masters and escape. These chapters go into detail about how the rats were trained in the institute, and also covers their wanderings afterward and how they eventually came to settle in the rosebush.
The movie makes Mrs. (B)risby’s story the principle one, and Nicodemus, now fashioned into a sorcerous figure with telekinetic powers, only narrates a short flashback to explain the rats’ history. But what a flashback! It’s the moment of supreme fear in the movie, graphically showing the injection of the test animals and bizarre hallucinations as their minds are changed. The rest of the rats’ history come from the inference of the animation, showing the use of what appear to be children’s toys for technology (this comes from a section in the novel where the rats find an abandoned toymaker’s truck) and signs indicating the division of labor. One scene from the novel, between Mrs. Frisby and one of the female rats in the library, was planned for the film but never animated, and would have explained more about the rats’ history. (The line, “Take Mrs. Brisby to the library,” is the only remnant.)
The movie’s script places a character who only appears in Nicodemus’s narration in the novel, an antagonistic rat named Jenner, in the main story to serve as the villain. Jenner opposes the other rats’ plan, or “The Plan,” to form a new colony in a place called Thorn Valley, where they will no longer have to steal from the farmer to survive. (“My dear, we can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”) With an active villain in play, the movie can fashion a large action climax not present in O’Brien’s book. It’s a corker of an ending, even if the saving power of a magical amulet never receives any explanation.
The amulet deserves some special attention. This magical object is either a stumbling block or a source of ambiguous wonder for viewers. The script never explains where it came from, or why Jonathan wanted his wife to have it, or where Jenner found out about it. It serves a deus ex machine to bring in a spectacular magical ending for the film. It also gives Jeremy more comic banter. (“Ooooooh, a sparkly! You have a sparkly!”) It has a poem inscribed on the back that relates to Mrs. Brisby courage, but it might as well have “PLOT DEVICE” inscribed there instead. But the movie’s end is such a bold and explosive joy that I am willing to forgive it. If the film built around it was saggy and with lazily created characters, the amulet would have been a disaster.
The Secret of NIMH is still one of the most beautiful hand-animated films ever crafted. When it came out in 1982, it was like the explosion of a daisy-cutter. The magnificence of its detail, the smooth movements of its characters, the warm and rich backgrounds, and the vibrancy of the effects animation retain their power to entrance viewers even in our animation-saturated world. Bluth and his team took great efforts to keep the whole film in constant motion, breaking away from the limited animation style of the past two decades. The labor intensive-effort required most of the staff to work in long hours, with producer Gary Goldman putting in 110 hours a week in the final month and half of production. But what a marvel that dedicated work created. Although The Secret of NIMH was not a financial success in 1982 — like two other latter-day classics of that golden genre summer, The Thing and Blade Runner, it was steamrollered by E.T.’s box-office juggernaut — but it was enough of a critical success to shake up many animators and viewers to what the medium could do when love and effort were put back into it.
(In a bit of synergy, The Secret of NIMH makes extensive use of “backlit animation,” the same technology that competitor Disney used to create much of the glowing effects for Tron released that same summer. Another latter-day classic that E.T. crushed.)
But the visual success of The Secret of NIMH comes from more than just making everything appear amazing. It has wonderful character designs that translate into wonderful characters. Mrs. Brisby is the key success here. The character has the “ordinary” power of mother who loves her children. She is not, at first, especially brave, but when the circumstance rise against her, she shows astonishing perseverance. The scene where she makes an almost insane attempt to try to stop the plow as it drives for her home shows what kind of inner reserve she has. Each step of the journey, Mrs. Brisby overcomes such immense obstacles that the adoration powerful characters such as the Great Owl and Nicodemus show toward her is understandable. Great heroes don’t necessarily need swords or guns; Mrs. Brisby is the kind of protector that any child would want to have.
The animated design for Mrs. Brisby is one of the most emotive in hand-animation. Her character has a beautiful presence on film, and her array of facial emotions shows how much “acting talent” needs to go into animation. There are few animated characters that I adore as much as Mrs. Brisby.
Of course, voice acting contributes to the character’s success. Elizabeth Hartman, a superb actress best known for the movies The Group, A Patch of Blue, Walking Tall, and the unfairly ignored Clint Eastwood-Don Siegel film The Beguiled, gives Mrs. Brisby a shaky, nervous voice, making her a believable terrified mother, and that makes her bravery all the stronger. Tragically, Hartman suffered from chronic depression and died from an apparent suicide in 1987 at age forty-three. The Secret of NIMH was her last role.
The supporting cast is wonderful, particularly two birds that mark the light and dark side of the film’s style. Dom DeLuise voices the comic crow Jeremy, a charming bungler who tags along with Mrs. Brisby in the hope of being helpful and picking up tips so he can attract a nest-mate. Jeremy only serves one major plot function — taking Mrs. Brisby to see the Great Owl — but he’s a welcome, fun presence. DeLuise’s timing brings to life bits that might otherwise fall flat as humor.
John Carradine provides the voice of the “dark bird,” the Great Owl. Carradine only spent a day recording his part, but the Grand Old Mad Scientist gives the character enormous authority. The character has a frightening and monstrous design to match that famous voice.
Providing the voices of two of Mrs. Brisby’s children, Teresa and Martin, are a very young Shannon Doherty and Wil Wheaton. I don’t have a joke here, sorry.
I would be remiss to leave out mention of Jerry Goldsmith, the film’s composer. I make no disguise of my hero-worship of this man; I own around a hundred and fifty of his soundtrack albums. The Secret of NIMH is one of his finest achievements, and I don’t say that lightly. It’s a true “high fantasy” score, filled with huge orchestral action pieces and weird and tingly mood music. The music for the plow scene perfectly captures the monstrous menace of the great metal beast, and for the extensive finale driving low strings create mounting tension until the orchestra breaks out into a frenzy of brass for the sword fight. Goldsmith also creates stirring motifs for the amulet and the Plan. The center of the score is a soaring melody, “Flying Dreams,” representing Mrs. Brisby’s love and dedication to her family. Paul Williams provided lyrics for it, and vocal versions appear twice: Sally Stevens performs a soft lullaby for the tenderest moment in the film, when Mrs. Brisby gently feeds her ill son; and Paul Williams himself sings the full version over the end credits. How much do I love this piece of music? In 2004, when I heard that Goldsmith had died, it was the first piece of music that I played. Yes, I picked it over his Star Trek theme.
Goldsmith’s score is the only part of The Secret of NIMH that benefits on this poor quality Blu-ray Disc. the 2.0 DTS Master Audio boosts up the music to wonderful, full levels, even for a two-channel source.
Oh crap, I guess it’s not out of my system. MGM Home Video is invited to try again with their presentation of an animated classic on hi-def. This is a transfer mess-up on the level of Spartacus, Predator: The Ultimate Hunter Edition, and the first release of The Fifth Element. Fans and NIMH deserve much better. I’m willing to double-dip.
Fun name-spotting in the credits: Bruce W. Timm, who later became one of the top men at the DC Animated Universe starting with Batman: The Animated Series, is listed as one of the animation assistants. You were paying too much attention to the Wil Wheaton and Shannon Doherty credits, right?
Ryan Harvey is a veteran blogger for Black Gate and an award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author. He received the Writers of the Future Award in 2011 for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and has two stories forthcoming in Black Gate and a number of ebooks on the way. He also knows Godzilla personally. You can keep up with him at his website, www.RyanHarveyWriter.com, and follow him on Twitter.