The Secret of NIMH really is something completely different. This was true even more so when it was released 35 years ago. Its creator, Don Bluth, got his start working for Disney, the only game in town when it came to large-scale animation projects. After working on numerous features, including Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and supervising animation on Pete’s Dragon, Bluth struggled in the oppressive big studio environment. After mounting frustration due to Disney moving away from classic style animation, he left with a small number of other animators to create his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions. The Secret of NIMH was his first full-length feature film. Despite it being the introduction to the world of Don Bluth, no punches were pulled. As a matter of fact, it could easily be argued that this is his darkest project.
The Secret of NIMH, based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, stands out from your standard Disney fare in several ways. This film literally changed the way people could look at children’s movies. They did not have to be dumbed down and saturated with sweetness to survive. Children’s movies can be dark and still contain the same heart and uplifting moments that the lighter fare provides. The journey may even be more rewarding because of the difficulties faced by these characters.
The main character, Mrs. Brisby (changed from the book name of Frisby to avoid copyright disputes with the toy company) is a single mother doing her best to help her children thrive, and, in some cases, survive. Now, children’s films are certainly no strangers to parents dying, but usually our protagonist is the young boy or girl finding their way along a hero’s journey. Here, we follow a mouse, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), as she stands up to forces outside of her understanding and control. She is just a mouse, after all. On many occasions, she places herself in danger, not to save the universe, but her world, namely her children and her home. Even now, it is rare to see a film with a female protagonist in which the focus is not on falling in love. And yes, there is certainly flirtation between her and Justin, the Captain of the Guard. But the focus is never fully on that burgeoning romance, because of the mystery of the rats, as well as the possible death of a young child. And, unlike most children’s films, there is a real question as to who will survive this story and who will perish.
Speaking of the children, it would be easy to not make them fully fledged characters. But Mrs. Brisby’s kids, all four, have their own struggles and triumphs. It is an impressive feat that we care about all of them, and not just poor, ill Timothy. The children, voiced by Shannon Doherty, Wil Wheaton, Jodi Hicks, and Ian Fried, have their series of misadventures along with the Crow, Jeremy, featuring the voice talents of Dom DeLouise. These are the true “kid” moments, and are mostly distraction techniques. Despite this, they never feel wholly pointless. Jeremy does come close to being too slapstick for adult audiences, but the director toes that line perfectly, as Jeremy’s fascination with “sparklies” does serve a purpose in the end.
Another clear delineation from standard children’s fare is just how legitimately scary this movie is for kids, and maybe for adults. But do not let that stop you! There is nothing wrong with a movie that can unnerve. The film practically opens with an action sequence involving our protagonist desperately trying to stop the farmer’s tractor from destroying her home. The decision to show this disembodied machine, as opposed to the evil humans operating it, is a choice that narrows the focus in on how small Mrs. Brisby is and how dangerous the world can be. That danger does not let up even after the plow is dismantled. Any child of the 80s will immediately point to the Great Owl as one of the most disturbing memories of their childhood. Every moment, from the vocal performance of John Carradine, to the detail of the scattered animal remains crushed by the Great Owl’s massive claw, is designed to instill anxiety, and eventually terror. This cements Mrs. Brisby as a heroine, and one who is willing to do anything, to face any fear, to save her children. Part of us wants her to flee and a part of us knows that she must stay because the Great Owl knows more than she does and may be able to help. Importantly, even when Mrs. Brisby gets the information she requires, the thick air of danger remains until the scene finally transitions and the anxiety abates for just a moment. Later, the poisonous charm of Jenner, voiced by Paul Shenar, is a wholly different kind of antagonist, especially given the time. In previous animated films, villains were plain and offered no pause for the audience. Jenner, although he is immediately not trustworthy, is strangely alluring and dangerous. Decisions like these show a trust in the audience, regardless of their likely age. Overall, even the characters that are helpful have some definite rough edges. Even Mr. Ages, another mouse who was friends with Jonathan and gives Timothy medicine, is only helpful when pushed. Besides Jeremy, portrayed as a bumbling idiot, every character has their own problems and is just as likely to push Mrs. Brisby aside as they are to aid her in her quest.
One final difference is the puzzling aspect of Jonathan, Mrs. Brisby’s dead husband. Most children’s movies would not dare make a mystery a main plot point. Most of these films are clearly laid out and the audience knows exactly where the plot is headed. Quickly, it is noted that Jonathan, a mouse, was friendly with the rats. This is not the mystery. As the story unfolds and the connection between humans, represented by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), and the rats become clearer, the plot becomes more complicated and peculiar. Later, when we are officially introduced to the rat society, especially Justin and Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), the script hammers home the point that all is not what it seems. Despite his disturbing and gnarled appearance, Nicodemus cares for Mrs. Brisby and, due to his friendship with Jonathan, ultimately has her best interests at heart, even when it puts him at risk. This complexity is true of the majority of characters in the film. Like Mrs. Brisby, we are unaware of their desires and goals. This makes the experience of her danger and concern palpable.
The Secret of NIMH is a great children’s movie that will stick with you. Despite the risks that Don Bluth took to create this film, it remains a noteworthy addition to the annals of animation. It filled a gap in many ways upon release, and these holes still sadly exist today. Not many films are willing to dive into the darkness to show us the power of family and the importance of dedication to your task, no matter what it may cost. The fact that she is a single mother, yet is not defined by her children or her role as a mother, truly makes her stand out as a character. For parents, there will be many questions after young ones watch, but the lessons are more than worthwhile. Mrs. Brisby’s journey gives us hope that we can succeed in a world bigger, stronger, and stranger than we can possibly imagine. This is more rewarding than finding your Prince Charming or defeating a wicked queen any day of the week.
Featured Image: MGM/UA Entertainment Company