Directed by Don Bluth
Widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby, in order to save her son, must seek the help of a group of rats with whom she has a connection even she is not aware of.
Disney was and still pretty much is the high overlord of theatrical animation. They hold that place even though quite often other studios come out with stuff that is as good or even better than what Disney makes. This is one of those efforts that is better but was not the mega hit that any old Disney film could be nor is it up there with the animated films of Disney in stature even though it should be.
The Secret of NIMH is an animated classic similar in many ways to what Disney once did (I’m talking hand drawn animation) but with a much darker tone in style and story. The drawing is just beautiful here. Hand drawn animation withstands the test of time. I have said it before. CGI may look good at the time it is done but as technology advances and newer stuff is produced it tends to age poorly.
Disney to be sure had some darkness in their movies for a long time. It was a given in a Disney feature that at least one parent would be dead before the start of the film and someone would get murdered but there were always happy and chipper songs throughout the movies that drowned out that darkness. I am not calling for seriously dark features but if you are going to have murder as part of your plot do not try to cover it up with happy ballads about love or chipper songs about friendship.
This movie does not begin with a murder. Rather it is about the widowed Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) whose husband had a significant secret. Marital secrets are not common in animated films. In fact, I cannot think of one cartoon where that’s part of the story but here it is. Mr. Brisby never revealed to his wife that he had been part of a lab experiment and was more intellectually evolved than other mice.
The whole crux of the problem of the story is because Mrs. Brisby cannot move her ill son without killing him. He has pneumonia and needs to recover but the farmer is getting ready to plow the field and the cinderblock in which the family lives is right in the path. So she seeks out the Great Owl.
The Great Owl (John Carradine) was probably one of the more frightening animated characters I encountered as a child. You cannot see that thing up on screen as a kid and not get a little creeped out. He was something straight out of a horror movie and you genuinely believed when Mrs. Brisby went to see him, she could have been eaten even though that would have pretty much ended the movie right then. Fun fact: originally Mrs. Brisby was called Mrs. Frisby but Bluth and others feared legal issues so during production her name was changed. This required some creativity for the Great Owl as Carradine was available to rerecord his lines.
To heighten this movie’s dark vibe, we have Jenner (Paul Shenar), a self-serving character that attempts to murder his way to power. He is shortsighted and would doom his fellow rats in the rosebush to death since he wishes to stay and continue to rob from the farmer. The rats realize they must leave the farm and live independently otherwise they will be killed or captured but Jenner does not care. Even when he hears the news of the coming bulldozer, he chooses to ignore it because moving would take away his authority. That is dark.
We do get a bit of a romance between Mrs. Brisby and the captain of the guard Justin (Peter Strauss). It never amounts to much and seems to come and go. It felt like a bit of an afterthought. Something that was put in there because someone important felt it needed it.
The magic amulet given to Mrs. Brisby by Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) feels a touch out of place when viewed as an adult but as a child you do not really give it a second thought. Everything these rats do has a basis in the real world but somehow they got a magical amulet that glows that is in a box that floats off. In a world with rats stealing electricity and apparently manufacturing goods from scrap that they find a magical object sticks out but the film is so good that it doesn’t really matter.
I am not too thrilled with Jeremy the crow (Dom DeLuise). For comic relief purposes he is entertaining but as a character he is rather pointless. He does nothing to really move the story along. He is there to give a laugh or two I guess but it all falls short.
Despite these flaws, which are minor, it is a very solid film. It has a great story that will keep adults and children entertained from beginning to end. The Secret of NIMH is a great family film that is equal to if not better than some of what Disney produces. It is a genuine film classic.