THE SECRET OF NIMH - Mice vs. The Mouse
“The Secret of NIMH” holds up as a hero’s journey tale set against a beautiful and dark animated fantasy world.
The Secret of NIMH
Realease Date: July 2nd, 1982
Date of My First Viewing: August 13th, 2019
In today’s climate, going against “The Mouse” (That’s Disney if you want to be a specific killjoy), wouldn’t be wise considering their wide reaching ownership of pretty much every popular franchise and intellectual property out there. Things were different in the late 70’s and early 80’s, though. The Mouse didn’t have quite the power that it has in 2019. Animator Don Bluth and some associates saw this and decided to break away from the Magic Kingdom. The results of their split were the likes of “A Land Before Time”, “An American Tail”, and their first entry into the world of full-length animated features, “The Secret of NIMH”. Released in 1982, “The Secret of NIMH” remains a wonderful look back at a beautiful time in animation while also presenting a classic hero’s journey story.
Like most of the films reviewed for “Movies New to Me”, there really isn’t a good reason why I avoided “The Secret of NIMH” for 37 years. This is a film I probably saw parts of as a child. In fact, I’m sure of it. I’m sure it was playing at a neighbor’s house at one point or another, and I caught a few moments before turning my attention elsewhere. As I got older, this was a film I was always aware of but just never found the time to sit down at watch. Well, I found that time as I was exporting hundreds of photos via Lightroom, a process that makes a laptop all but unusable for about an hour and a half… which is basically the run time of the film. You can do the math from here.
The first thing I must say about “The Secret of NIMH” is that I immediately fell in love with the old animation style present in the film. The old Disney style, which Bluth incorporates here, is just such a beautiful look and one dripping with nostalgia. I’m not one to talk about the “good old days”, but I must say the animation style of “The Secret of NIMH, with its detailed backgrounds that are most about establishing the mood than establishing 100% accuracy or perfection, remains impressive. The style really does go hand in hand with the dark fantasy aspects of the actual story and plot. Bluth and his team put on the screen drawings of massive worlds complete with dangers for our diminutive characters.
Those diminutive characters are best represented by the film’s main protagonist, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a widowed mouse and mother of four. As the film opens, we learn from the wise old Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), that Mrs. Brisby’s husband, Jonathan, was recently killed. We also learn that one of the Brisby’s children, Timmy, is sick. Due to his illness and the fact that their home will soon be threatened by the plow of Farmer Fitzgibbons, Mrs. Brisby visits the Great Owl (John Carradine) for advice. The owl informs her to visit the Rats of NIMH, including Nicodemus. The Rats of NIMH are far more advanced than others of their kind. From there, well, Mrs. Brisby starts to learn even more about her husband and herself.
An interesting aspect of “The Secret of NIMH” is that while the film is set in modern times, the lives of the rats and other animals are presented with a mix of the modern and medieval. Electricity is present in the lives of the rats, but things like magical amulets, old mystics, and sword fights, and are also right there. It’s a clever bit of world building by Bluth and the original source material.
The old world elements also go to help strengthen the hero’s journey Mrs. Brisby finds herself on in the film. It’s a hero’s journey, but it’s also a mother’s quest to save her family. The theme and overall message are simple but effective. This film’s basic through-line and plot is something that’s been told a million times, but that’s not a criticism. “The Secret of NIMH” hits all the right points of how to tell this particular story.
A big reason why “The Secret of NIMH” hits all the right points is that it doesn’t pull any punches. This is a film with some harrowing visuals, including a flashback sequence involving animal torture and experimentation. Characters are drawn in a scary way, and characters die violent deaths. Mrs. Brisby is constantly in danger. This is a children’s film that is not afraid to scare children. That’s a classic element of Disney animation because Walt Disney understood the world is a scary place. The world of “The Secret of NIMH” is quite a scary place, especially for a mouse.
I probably would have loved “The Secret of NIMH” had I watched it as a kid. I didn’t scare easily, and I’m guessing I would have found a lot of the visuals appealing and attractive. This is a film that tells a classic and basic story, but it tells it quite impressively and effectively. Don Bluth might have had to leave Disney to make “The Secret of NIMH”, but he still made a classic Disney film in the process.