Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Secret of NIMH

NIMH, as with An American Tail and very possibly All Dogs Go To Heaven, sits uneasily between being recognised as a classic of animation and falling into obscurity. When Don Bluth directed the successful Anastasia for Fox Animation, it looked like he would be established as the personality in Western cel-based animation, but Titan A.E. was so critically panned Fox Animation shut up shop until The Simpsons Movie, and Bluth has barely been heard of since. Meanwhile, the Disney he abandoned not only maintained their credibility by aligning themselves closely to Pixar but have started to enjoy another return to form with The Princess and the Frog and especially Tangled.

While a generation or two will think back to Anastasia or The Land Before Time and express their admiration, it’s not often you’ll see Bluth celebrated in the media these days, or retrospectives of his films run by the networks. He currently seems to be working on a game for Apple’s iOS, which doesn’t fill me with hope for his return to relevance. His association with computer games is of course rich – his Dragon’s Lair is a quirky but extremely memorable classic, even if a stronger plot and characterisation would have helped – but that was in another time altogether. I truly hope he will get a new film soon, because he ought to be a giant of animation with a few more masterworks in him yet.

The Secret of NIMH was Bluth’s first job as a director, and his first project after leaving Disney, where he had started as an animator on Sleeping Beauty before serving as an assistant director on Sword in the Stone and growing disillusioned around the time of The Fox and the Hound. After animating a short sequence for the film Xanadu, Bluth’s new studio secured funding for this film, which took Disney stylings but with a dark palate and a pleasantly melancholy approach and did fairly good business at the box office – albeit slightly disappointing, directly competing with E.T. It would be Spielberg who later collaborated with Bluth to make some of his best films, but Bluth’s various animation studios would be in and out of bankruptcy negotiations, and while celebrated, he would gain a reputation for missing deadlines and breaking budgets.

The Secret of NIMH was based on the charming book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, with a few extra touches such as the use of a magic necklace and the name change from ‘Frisby’ to ‘Brisby’ to avoid copyright claims – despite ‘Frisbee’ being based on a real name filched from a different company in the first place. It tells the story of a lovely warm-hearted mother mouse trying to get her home moved out of the path of the farmer’s plough to save her sick son, with the help of a clownish but fiercely loyal crow (the first of many performances by Dom DeLuise for Bluth). Her quest takes her to the rats of NIMH, whose intelligence has been boosted by scientific experiments and who steal electricity from the humans, and who agree to help her – but the plan is one she will have to help with, and many things can go wrong…

The film certainly looks of its time, but it is also beautiful, and while at first it seems that the magical elements don’t fit well and have been introduced to make the plot work more easily, reading the book you find out that they were really not necessary and have been added mostly for a bit more visual spectacle - though personally I feel this could have been better-accomplished with more naturalism. Still, there are high emotional points, the ending works and the characters are great.

The first step in an interesting sideline of American animation and a sweet, satisfying film, I feel that The Secret of NIMH should get the attention it always deserved, and one day will be regarded as a flawed but very likeable classic.

Awful sequel impressions here.


  1. I actually just watched this movie for the first time a couple of days ago - I was planning to watch it after I heard Nostalgia Critic praising it so much. I remember seeing it in the video rental stores when I was a kid but for some reason I never had any interest in seeing it.

    I think it was a good movie overall, with likable characters, a great atmosphere, and unique story. The main gripe I did have with it, which apparently others did too, is that the magical elements were totally out of place. I wouldn't mind it if the movie actually explained where the magic came from, especially the pendant, but it didn't, and that just really made it too deus ex machina for me, especially in the end. It explained in a satisfying way how the rats and mice got their intelligence, but scientific injections granting (some of) them magical powers as well? Just an unnecessary plot element with unfortunately hurt my overall rating for the movie, but I still thought it was a good old-school animated film nonetheless.

  2. Yeah, like I wrote,  they were 'added mostly for a bit more visual spectacle - though personally I feel this could have been better-accomplished with more naturalism'. :)