Friday, February 17, 2012

The Films of 1982: The Secret of NIMH

Mainstream animated films, though often designed for children, don't universally shy away from real life problems. 

Many of us, of a certain generation, in particular, remember being traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother in the Walt Disney film, Bambi (1942).

But Don Bluth's 1982 animated feature The Secret of NIMH is perhaps a bit darker and more intense than the average animated fare.  On several occasions, the film showcases spilled blood, and it deals with, in straight-forward, open-eyed fashion, our very mortality.  Also, the movie features a message about the way that humans treat animals...and how animals, in fact, might feel about it.

As you may recall if you followed this riveting story in the early 1980s, Don Bluth and his team (including John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman) left Walt Disney Studios during production of The Fox and the Hound (1981) because the artists felt that too many creative shortcuts were being taken in terms of the animation.  

And Disney, in fact, had already dismissed the NIMH property as too overtly dark.  They already had a mouse in their stable, named Mickey, and saw little need for more.  Therefore, Bluth went rogue and produced the film under his own auspices at his Don Bluth Studios.  In creating The Secret of NIMH, Bluth hoped to usher in a "second age" of quality movie animation, following the passing of Mr. Disney.

Made on a small budget of seven million dollars and created in the exceedingly short time frame of roughly two years, The Secret of NIMH is based on an award-winning 1971 novel by Robert C.O. Brien entitled Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

NIMH, by the way, stands for National Institute of Mental Health, an American organization devoted to basic and clinical research into the issue of mental health.  In particular, O'Brien based the core idea of his novel -- intelligent rats -- on the work of ecologist John B. Calhoun, who studied rodents in the late 1960s, and in 1968 created a "mouse universe" for one separated population of mice to inhabit. 

There, he observed that in the absence of predators, other dangers, and day-to-day survival pursuits, the mouse society procreated and reproduced for a long time, but then began to break down.  Rodent society collapsed without the struggle for survival...and headed for extinction.  Reproduction stopped.  Social interaction ceased.  Calhoun thus concluded that the same thing could happen to man in an overpopulated, impersonal world, and his experiments caught the eye even of Pope Paul VI.

In keeping with the wisdom gleaned from that "mouse universe," Don Bluth's 1982 film doesn't shy away from contending with life's dark or disturbing qualities.  In the film, there are discussions of mortality, death and mourning, even, as they regard to a cute-as-buttons mouse family.  The film's central character, a widower named Mrs. Brisby, also learns, however, that she can cope with these abundant difficulties...and she emerges stronger.   Thus, for all the admittedly dark moments in the film, Secret of NIMH concerns the idea that we are all more resilient and resourceful than we believe, and we can cope with a sometimes scary world. 

It helps, of course, to possess a pure heart...

The Secret of NIMH  proved a moderately successful competitor at the summer box office of 1982, a real accomplishment given the competition, which included E.T. and Annie.  By-and-large critics also appreciated the film, especially Bluth's dedicated efforts to resurrect an age of animation that was more lush, more fully-realized, and, perhaps, more reflective of life's ambiguity.  

Writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby regarded NIMH as "something of a technical and stylistic triumph. The anthropomorphic animal characters are, for the most part, charming to look at....The backgrounds, the colors, the perspectives, the soft differences in shades of light are extraordinarily lovely."

Similarly, Variety opined of NIMH that it was "certainly an homage to the best of an age ago. Every character moves fluidly and imaginatively against an extravaganza of detailed background and dazzling effects, all emboldened by fascinating colored textures."

The only complaint some critics had of this 1982 film was that there was no strong "anchor" for the film (in terms of their being a Dumbo or a Bambi, for example, as the central hero). Today this seems like a strange and off-the-mark criticism, since Mrs. Brisby -- a heroic Mom -- functions more than ably in this regard, at least speaking from the perspective of a parent.

Although perhaps not ideally suited for the very youngest of children, Secret of NIMH remains a stunning and deeper-than-normal animated achievement, one buttressed by abundantly gorgeous visuals and an affecting story that doesn't surrender to schmaltzy sentimentality or easy and safe platitudes.

"Courage of the heart is very rare."

The Secret of NIMH takes place on a small family farm in rural Pennsylvania, where a family of mice faces impending tragedy.  It's almost harvest time, and the Brisby house is going to be destroyed by tractor tilling.

But Mother Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a recent widow, can't relocate her family because her youngest son, Timothy (Ian Fried) is ill with pneumonia and requires several weeks of bed rest.

Mrs. Brisby seeks help -- with the help of a clumsy crow named Jeremy (Dom Deluise) --  of a local scientist rat named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet). He provides medicine for the ailing child, but suggests that Mrs. Brisby seek the counsel of a Great Owl (John Carradine) in saving her family.  After a visit to the fearsome Great Owl, Mrs. Brisby earns the admiration of the rats of NIMH, who have escaped from captivity after being experimented upon; their very intelligence altered and augmented.  The rats of NIMH think fondly of Mrs. Brisby because her late husband helped free them from captivity in the lab, and wish to help, even as they commence "The Plan," a strategy to move their own home, in a rose bush.

The aged leader of the rats, Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) agrees to help Mrs. Brisby move her house, but a rat rebellion brews when Jenner (Paul Shenar) sees a way to kill thisleader and gain power for himself.   With the help of a heroic rat, Justin (Paul Strauss), Mrs. Brisby fights to save her sick boy, and keep the super-intelligent rats safe when the forces of NIMH threaten to return and capture them. 

In the end, Mrs. Brisby is aided by a magical amulet, one that recognizes her courage of the heart.

"You can unlock any door, if you only have the key."

Perhaps the most wondrous quality of film is the medium's almost unlimited capacity to transport audiences to new and different worlds.  The more detailed, the more credible, the more affecting that world, the greater our sense of "belief" and engagement.
On these terms, The Secret of NIMH is a remarkable success. 
Accompanied by an evocative score from Jerry Goldsmith, the imagery of NIMH is meticulously detailed and almost unbelievably rich. 
This is a world of spectacular golden hues and also of dark, moody blackness.  This world is created from a mouse's perspective, so that objects that we take for granted -- a fallen log, for instance -- take on a new luster and dimension.  More than that, perhaps, they take on exquisite texture, and as viewers, we feel that we are seeing this world for the first time.  The film pays remarkable attention to how the world might appear from the perspective of a mouse, or a rat, or a crow.
It's clear that no short-cuts were taken when crafting the film's special effects and seemingly impossible backgrounds. 
Just as impressively, the characters are also remarkably crafted, especially -- in my opinion -- Nicodemus and the Great Owl.  These are characters of tremendous individuality who radiate dignity, and even, at times, some sense of fear.  Gorgeous creations all around.   Also, John Carradine gives a great performance as the Great Owl.  His aged but still strong voice is pitch perfect for the character.
Nicodemus and the Great Owl, plus a villainous cat featured in an early scene, in conjunction with some of NIMH's dark imagery (finely detailed spider webs, craggy trees, and so forth), create the impression of a world that is not only real...but fearsome. 
This visual approach fits in well with the film's thesis about the challenges of a difficult world.  Early in the film, we are told at least twice that a child mouse may die from pneumonia. We learn of the father mouse's recent, untimely death.  We see a monstrous tractor threaten to smash the family homestead.  We learn of cruel animal experimentation (with long hypodermic needles, no less...) in a laboratory setting.  We see the family home sink into the mud -- disappearing below the surface -- with three mouse children trapped inside...drowning.  We see the good leader mouse, Nicodemus, destroyed by an evil strategy.  When the good rats and Jenner clash, we see the bloody wounds and cuts on their bodies.  It's not all hugs and puppies. 
But through it all -- driven by her love for her children -- Mrs. Brisby never surrenders.  No matter the setback, no matter the challenge (like meeting the Great Owl), she keeps fighting.  In the end, when she takes the mystical amulet and it amplifies her "heart," it's a wondrous special effects moment, but also a moment of terrific emotional impact.  As parents, we love our children and would do anything for them.  Sometimes it feels like our very hearts could pound out of her chest to help them and keep them safe from life's darkness.  The amulet amplifies Mrs. Brisby's strength and love...and you just how she feels.
The Secrets of NIMH attempts an awful lot in 82 minutes.  It is ambitious.  The plot line is very complicated.  And yet, the movie is also rewarding because it doesn't spoon-feed you platitudes, or talk down to children.  It imagines a beautiful (if dark) universe, and reveals how an individual of courage, endurance and love can master it.  If Mrs. Brisby's odyssey were an easy or simple one, the story would lose much meaning.
Also, NIMH clearly boasts a sort of animal-rights message.  I don't want to get on a soapbox about this, but it's all too easy to assume that people or animals who look different from us have no feelings, no souls.  I challenge anyone who has looked into the eyes of a beloved pet dog or beloved pet cat to believe that is actually so.  Animals, though of a different order of intelligence, deserve dignity.  I always remember Spock's line from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) about the whales.  He says that if the Enterprise crew "assumes" that the whales are "theirs" to "do with" as they please, they are as guilty as those who caused their extinction.  I'm not saying we shouldn't observe animals, study them, and attempt to learn more about life on our planet from them, but it seems a moral imperative that we always do so with...humanity and even respect. 
I love the "growing pains" of the intelligent rats as they are presented in The Secret of NIMH.  These animals have come to realize that "to be rats" is no longer sufficient given their brain boost.  Their super-intelligence requires a new way of living...a new set of laws and responsibilities.  Just as our intelligence means we have certain responsibilities too.  But of course, it's not always easy to accept that responsibility.  The law of the jungle is difficult to eradicate, even amongst the most civilized of us, and that's the quality I believe Jenner represents in the film.
The Secret of NIMH may not have spawned that glorious second age in quality animation that Don Bluth hoped for, but it is certainly a film of wondrous imagination and execution.  It's a high-point for the genre during an age when the trend was towards cheaper, quicker, and less morally complex. 

The "secret of" NIMH, perhaps, is that mice and people aren't that different at heart.


  1. Thanks for tackling this film. I am a lifelong fan of animation, and this is right up there with those of the classic Disney films, even surpassing them in terms of the willingness to address adult themes. I'd recommend adding this to the library of any animation fan.

  2. Now this is weird. I was thinking about this classic the other day.

  3. Personally, I've always felt that the "swordfight" between Jenner and Justin at the film's climax is one of the most tense in movie history; first because of the stakes and the characters, but equally because the movie has already established a sense that characters can die (the flashback flight from the lab where most of the mice are killed is nightmarish) and we recognize that, though heroic, Justin is not the film's "hero" (which is Mrs. Brisby) and is expendable even by kids' movie standards. Though the film does have a few problems (the fact that the non-NIMH animals are almost as intelligent as the rats and the existence of the 'magic amulet' undermine the strong science-fiction themes; and there's an exaggeration about the way characters emote in Don Bluth films that I have never liked)it is certainly one of the best animated films of its era and better than many (most?) Disneys of any era. Thanks for the analysis, and for reminding me of this minor classic, whose scenes are still strong in my mind after seeing it just the one time, back in '82. Off to Netflix!

  4. Hi, everyone!

    John: I absolutely concur. The Secret of NIMH is old-school Disney quality in terms of animation, and absolutely daring in terms of adult, serious themes. I love the film, and think it is a real classic of the form.

    Hi David: Great minds think alike! :)

    DLR: You bring up some great points about the film, all right on the mark as far as I'm concerned. The swordfight is scary, and serious, just for the reasons you enunciate. We realize, given what's already happened, that anything could happen. I knew the little mice weren't going to drown in the muddy water, but jeez...there are a few moments there where you entertain the thought that it could happen.

    I agree that the amulet thing is a little weird in a film ostensibly about science, and not magic. It doesn't quite fit. I love the message -- the power of the pure, courageous heart -- but it could have been voiced in some other fashion, I think.

    You're also spot-on about the un-altered mice and other creatures seeming just about as intelligent as the altered NIMH mice, which has the effect of lessening the important distinctions between them.

    Great comments!


  5. Anonymous2:42 PM

    Definitely a classic animated tale with a rousing musical score by the late and the great jerry Goldsmith. Like you and DLR, I enjoyed the swordfight between Justin and Jenner. Both Peter Strauss and the late Paul Shenar did an excellent job in voicing their respective characters. Especially the violent verbal exchange between the two during the swordfight. I'm still amazed that Shenar never appeared in a Star Trek film! The late John Carradine and Derek Jacobi are also to be commended for their voicework(The Great Owl and Nicodemus). This film certainly had some powerful moments in the realm of fantasy.

    Thanks again for a wonderful review, John. As always, they are a delight to read.