Mrs. Brisby is a rather shy and timid mouse, widowed and living with her four children. One of her children, Timmy, is suffering from pneumonia and she tries all she can to make sure he will be fine. This however isn’t easy as ploughing season begins, and in order to get out of harm’s way, her and her family needs to move, despite the fact that Timmy can’t go outside. With the help of Jeremy, a clumsy but friendly crow, Mrs. Brisby seeks advice from the Great Owl, who leads them to a group of rats that lives in a rosebush. The rats, which were lab experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, became intelligent from experiments, and with the help Mrs. Brisby’s late husband, Jonathan Brisby, escaped from NIMH and live in a highly crafted society. They plan on leaving so they don’t have to steal human resources to live, on the advice of their eldest member Nicodemus, but recognizing the plea from the wife of whom they considered their greatest hero, they agree to help Mrs. Brisby move her home. This whole plan isn’t going to move easily however, as not everyone in the rats agrees to Nicodemus’ plan and it’s clear that NIMH hasn’t forgotten about the escapees.
To talk about The Secret of NIMH is to talk about Don Bluth. He was an animator from Walt Disney who worked on such classics such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers and Sword in the Stone. However, due to the lack of credit in his work and his dislike in Disney procedure, he and ten other animators including Gary Goldman left Disney in 1979 during the production of Fox and the Hound to set up Don Bluth Productions, working in Don Bluth’s house. After working on a few short projects, they were able to make a deal with Aurora Productions and acquired the film rights to Robert Leslie Conly’s original book. However there were a few problems, the film had to be made on a tighter budget and in a shorter amount of time than normal productions, and since Bluth preferred older and more labour intensive animation techniques, it meant that the entire crew had a very extensive work period, even working at home for some people, and a group of people including Bluth and Goldman had to mortgage their homes to get the rest of the money to complete the film. Another interesting issue that occurred is that the main character in the original book was called Mrs. Frisby, not Brisby. The production team had to change the name, which meant lines had to be rerecorded and edited, because toy company Wham-O refused them to allow them to use the original name as it sounds similar to their product the Frisbee. The film had a theatrical release on July 2nd 1982.
Considering this was a low budget release from the early 1980s, the animation is surprisingly good. There are a lot of lively and vivid movements, and some really creative imagery. Even if it can’t be as good as Disney at the time, the amount of effort really shows and there are some really creative scenes such as when Nicodemus explains what happened at NIMH, I can’t really describe it but it’s really engaging and slightly disturbing. What excels in this film is its art direction. The film has some really creatively painted backgrounds and environments and the characters themselves are well shaded, making the film really good to look at.
The music composed by Jerry Goldsmith is really good, consisting of well put together orchestral scores. They all fit their environments ranging from the comedic scores played mainly during Jeremy’s scenes, to the really eerie moments inside the Great Owl’s home and even the creepy scenes in the film. There’s also a nice lullaby sung by Sally Stevens which is beautifully sung and really sums up the relationship between Mrs Brisby and her children.
The voice acting has some really good moments, and has some notable talents in the casting, some of which unfortunately have either retired or passed away since the film’s release, with the notable exception being the child actors such as Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton. The three most notable performances in my opinion are John Carradine as The Great Owl, who shows a really intimidating presence in his lines, Derek Jacobi as Nicodemus, old and wise and has some really engaging dialogue, and Dom DeLuise as Jeremy, who’s clumsy and goofy, and DeLuise’s fun-loving happy performance makes Jeremy really fun to watch and listen too. The voice of Mrs Brisby was the last role Elizabeth Hartman before sadly committing suicide five years later, while she is really effective at showing Mrs Brisby’s fear and her timid personality, it’s mostly underplayed, it’s not a bad thing since it makes her worth listening without being obnoxious or annoying, but it’s not a performance worth giving a really great impression too.
I hate to burst bubbles but I have to be honest about my views on this film, this isn’t the epic and complex fantasy story shown in an animated feature that I’ve heard other people say. It’s a straightforward story told through the eyes of rats and mice which express ideas of animal treatment, animal intelligence, conflicts in societies and facing ones fears. However just because I said that doesn’t make the story bad or worse than what other people say it to be, because I really like this film too. For one thing, this film actually takes its meanings seriously and while it’s an animated feature with a family friendly premise, it clearly doesn’t hold back on what it shows and explores. Despite that the story does have its problems, with the main one being is that its villain is very weak. The character himself, Jenna is menacing and dark, so for Disney standards he’s portrayed as a good villain, but from the very start of the film he is literally written as a suspicious character that not many people trust, and his motives for power don’t really work. There is also magic shown in the film, which I think are out of place since it isn’t really well explained, but it does show a fantasy element nonetheless.
This is a really beautiful film and worth watching for any ages. While Don Bluth hasn’t had much going in his career recently, it doesn’t stop the fact that for American animation, he did bring something special which people thought only Disney brought to the table, and this film clearly is a key example of that fact.
The Secret of NIMH is available from MGM. The original novel titled Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, written by Robert Leslie Conly, best known as Robert C O’Brian, is available from Puffin Books. Two sequel novels written by Robert’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, titled Rasco and the Rats of NIMH and R-T, Margaret and the Rats of NIMH, are also available from Puffin Books. A sequel to the film which Don Bluth wasn’t involved with and was directed by Dick Sebast, subtitled Timmy to the Rescue, is also available from MGM, but if you want to know what that film is like, then look up the Nostalgia Critic’s Film Review.