Being a child of the Nineties, I got to experience the classic animated films of Don Bluth, being exposed to such notable titles as The Land Before Time, Rock-a-Doodle, and The Pebble and the Penguin. But there’s one movie I’ve heard so much about that I never got to see until very recently. It happens to be the major triumph of Don Bluth, a heroic and heartwarming film called The Secret of NIMH.
Based on the 1971 children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien, The Secret of NIMH is the story of a field mouse named Mrs. Brisby, who risks life and limb on the farm in order to protect and provide for her children after the death of her husband Jonathan. After befriending a very clumsy crow named Jeremy, Mrs. Brisby seeks help from the rats of NIMH and their leader Nicodemus for help in moving her family before the human farmer plows through the field where they make their home. From Nicodemus, she learns about the terrible truth behind NIMH and how the rats became more intelligent than any other creature living on the farm.
Putting aside the incredibly fluid and in-depth animation of this film–which alone makes it a classic–the film happens to have an excellent script and voice acting. Elizabeth Hartman brings the heroine Mrs. Brisby to life, carrying on the tone of a concerned and desperate mother even while she’s jumping through the innards of a farmer’s plow or learning about her husband’s exploits. This makes her an excellent contrast to Dom DeLuise’s performance as Jeremy, a crow who perpetually crashes and thinks of himself as a ladies’ man. More often than not, Mrs. Brisby humors him like a mother with an exuberant child than acting like a woman fending off an awkward admirer.
As for the rest of the cast, I was surprised to learn that Derek Jacobi was the voice of the wise Nicodemus, but it’s a well-suited role for someone of his gravitas. I also didn’t expect to see that Mrs. Brisby’s son Martin was voiced by none other than a very young Wil Wheaton, but he makes the kid’s role strong. The other voice actors were all fine for their parts, helped out by the very strong and colorful script. It’s a nice blend of the mundane and the mythic. In one scene, you have Auntie Shrew complaining about “Moving Day” and Brisby’s habits, and in another, you have Nicodemus musing over lost heroes and the history of NIMH.
Thematically, there’s a lot in this movie. For a film that’s roughly 90 minutes long, I was amazed at many archetypes and motifs they could fit into the story. You’ve got rats given enhanced intelligence and dexterity from a lab, the classic debate between trusting elders like Nicodemus or listening to firebrands like Jenner, and the power of courage from tiny individuals like Mrs. Brisby, which can produce miracles. It’s a bit like reading through The Hobbit (the original book by Tolkien, not the CGI epic films by Peter Jackson); you follow a small, everyday person through wondrous lands, watching them grow wiser and become a hero when faced with the worst evils.
As Don Bluth films go, this remains one of the very best, even decades later. The animation is detailed and subtle, the voice acting is strong and colorful, and the story does a good job of mixing together one family’s struggle to survive a crisis with the mythical backdrop of NIMH. It’s a wonderful film for audiences of all ages.
Bibliography: The Secret of NIMH. Directed by Don Bluth. Produced by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy. Screenplay by Will Finn, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy. Based on Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. Perf. Elizabeth Hartman, Dom DeLuise, Hermione Baddeley, John Carradine, Derek Jacobi, Peter Strauss, Arthur Malet, and Paul Shenar. Aurora Productions; Don Bluth Productions. United Artists; MGM Studios; Warner Home Video; 20th Century Fox. Original release date: July 2, 1982.