There are many animated films out there that people love. Whether it's the ones from Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, Sony Animation or Illumination Entertainment, everyone has an animated film from at least one of those studios that they just love with all their hearts. As you all know, my all-time favourite movie is an animated one. There's something about animation that just captures audience's attention and stays with them even into their adulthoods. In fact, animation is such a beloved story-telling medium that you even get animated films that are really beloved despite not being as well-known as others. And I'm talking about one of them today. That movie...is Don Bluth's cinematic masterpiece The Secret of NIMH.
Released in 1982, The Secret of NIMH was based on the Robert C. O'Brien novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and was directed by animation legend Don Bluth, whom spent a few years of his career working at Disney before he went on to make his own animated movies. Some are beloved classics like The Land Before Time and An American Tail, some have cult followings like Titan A.E. and some are considered the low-points of his career like A Troll In Central Park and Rock-A-Doodle. But one thing Don Bluth fans unanimously agree on, and even Don HIMSELF thinks this, it's that The Secret of NIMH is unquestionably his best movie he ever made. Sadly, the movie wasn't a hit when it came out and bombed at the box office thanks to competition from E.T. and the movie ended up becoming one of those more obscure animated films with a cult following. But thanks to internet reviewers like the Nostalgic Critic and the nostalgia people have for Don Bluth's movies these days, the movie has grown in popularity over time. And now I'm here to give my own thoughts on the movie, and just in time to celebrate its 40th anniversary no less!
But such an occasion shouldn't be celebrated alone. Hence why I'm inviting a friend of mine to join in on such a big occasion. It's time to welcome back my good friend, Thomas whom you may remember from my Lightsaber Fights countdown earlier this year. Ready to celebrate another big occasion, buddy?
Thomas: "That's rhetorical, right? ;) Hi guys, I said you'd see me again in a couple of months and, well, here I am!
"Whatever Doug Walker has done, I will say 'thank you' since it's because of him that I know the Secret of NIMH as I do now. It's one of my favourite movies of all time, not just in animation!
"But I'm not the only one here to sing NIMH's praise. I've brought a surprise guest with me, whom you may remember, Media Man: my girlfriend, Beatrice Anderson!"
(Beatrice enters, smiling warmly.)
Beatrice: "Hello, Media Man."
Media Man: Nice to have you both here. It's a pleasure. ^^
So is the Secret of NIMH worth discovering? Or is this movie just a dirty rat that NIMH needs to exterminate? Let's find out. I'm the Media Man...
Thomas: "I'm Thomas."
Beatrice: "And I'm Beatrice."
Media Man/Thomas/Beatrice: And this is our review on the Secret of NIMH!
Section 1: The Story
This film is the story of a field mouse named Mrs. Brisby (changed from the book's name so they wouldn't get sued by Wham-o, the makers of the Frisbee Disc) who is the widowed mother of four children living in the field of a farm who has a big problem on her paws. Her youngest son, Timothy has pneumonia and he can't leave his bed until he recovers and there's the tiny insignificant problem that THE FARMER'S PLOUGH THREATENS TO DESTROY EVERYTHING! So yeah, big problem like I said! However, help is at hand when Mrs. Brisby is directed to the Rats of NIMH, a group of intelligent rats whose abilities have been cranked up by science and they might have the answer to Mrs. Brisby's problems. But our heroine may discover more than she expected when she steps into the rose bush they reside in...
Thomas: "So what makes this movie so amazing? Well, for starters, it came during a time when family movies were more openly ballsy with their content. This is not your typical talking animals movie at all. Befitting Don Bluth's direction with his early movies, The Secret Of NIMH mixes cute character designs with terrifying visuals and mature themes."
Beatrice: "There are many moments that would give children nightmares, like a scene where Mrs. Brisby tries to stop the plough, knowing it could kill her; facing a creepy owl that could eat her; and scenes where characters are shown to bleed on-screen and even die!
"But it's not dark for the sake of it: like any good movie, there's a reason for it. And that leads us to this movie's mature themes."
Media Man: Indeed so. Our protagonist is a widow for starters and she's a single mother who's not only very timid, but has four children to raise by herself with one of them close to death from pneumonia. That already is pretty heavy stuff for a movie about talking mice, but all that just makes the movie more engaging and even relatable as a result as these mice are given very human struggles.
What makes the story so engaging is that Mrs. Brisby is not only a very sympathetic protagonist, but the lengths she's willing to go through in order to save her sick son are honestly really damn admirable. We're so invested in her plight that we just can't take our eyes away and a good story should your attention well. It also helps that with how high the stakes have been established here, it only makes the story more exciting and nail-biting to watch as we root for our heroes to succeed and hope they'll make it through to the end. It's so admirable of Don Bluth and his team to give us a story about talking mice that can be more than what you'd typically expect and prove that even talking animals movies can tell darker and more mature stories while still being engaging for children.
Thomas: "Another area this movie delves into is nature vs ethics. The Rats are shown to be stealing from the farmer to survive, yet their evolution has enabled them to realise that stealing is inherently wrong. As such, they plan to move away to Thorn Valley to create a self-sufficient society. But they face opposition from a Rat named Jenner, who refuses to run from the humans or shed his bloodthirsty nature."
Beatrice: "There's also a mystical element in this movie that wasn't in the novel. This primarily comes in the form of a mysterious stone that Mrs Brisby is given towards the end of the film that is said to have magical powers tied to courage. Don Bluth himself said that he added it because he felt animation calls for a certain fantastical nature. Moreover, it adds a spiritual aspect to the movie, reflecting Mrs. Brisby's overall growth as a character.
All that being said, the movie still manages to have some funny moments without being tonally inconsistent. Most of this comes courtesy of Jeremy, though the other characters manage to have some playful banter that always manages to feel natural and compelling."
Media Man: Yeah, the movie does manage to have some funny moments for the younger people in the audience watching. While I wouldn't call it a hilarious movie, it does have some amusing moments and whenever the comedy is used, it's used well and doesn't interfere with the darker tone of the movie or feel out of place. In fact, Jeremy's even written out of the climax just so we know that this isn't the time for fun and games anymore and now things get serious.
Another thing I always enjoy about the movie is the atmosphere. This film LOVES to show off its pretty visuals and give the viewers long shots of the places where Mrs. Brisby explores like the Great Owl's lair or the Rats of NIMH's hideout. This is something more to talk about in the animation section so I'll go into more detail there, but I just thought I'd mention it here to say the story relies a lot on atmosphere to tell itself and set up the mood and scenes for the audience, which is how a story should use atmosphere.
Thomas: "Indeed, Media Man. Always great when filmmakers rely on the 'show, don't tell' concept.
If there are any problems storywise, and we don't say that lightly, there are perhaps a few scenes that are rather superfluous to the overall story, most notably the scene where the Brisby children tie up Jeremy. While it is amusing, it doesn't really surmount to anything meaningful."
Media Man: I'll say. What even was the point of that part? Nothing was accomplished and Jeremy gets away off-screen at that so the whole scene felt even more worthless as a result. In fact, Jeremy as a whole just becomes irrelevant to the story after he takes Mrs. Brisby to the Great Owl to the point where the movie essentially just wrote him out of the climax as mentioned earlier. I'll cover this more when we discuss the characters.
One problem I personally have is that the plot didn't really need to happen the way it did. What do I mean? Well Nicodemus can see Mrs. Brisby's in need of help, yet he never once considers sending one of the rats to direct her to the rosebush so they can help or even going himself. Why did Mrs. Brisby have to go to the Great Owl to be told to do this when one of the Rats of NIMH could've been sent to fetch her? It just makes Nicodemus seem extraordinarily lazy if you ask me. Imagine how much faster they could've solved Mrs. Brisby's problem if they didn't waste time just hoping she'd be brave enough to visit the Great Owl. I mean what would've happened if she was too timid to go to him? Were they just going to sit around and do nothing for the rest of the movie? For intellectually enhanced rats, that's not particularly bright of them.
Also this movie didn't need a villain. Once again, I'll go into more detail when we cover the characters but to sum up here, this is one of those movie's that feels like it needs a villain...because. I think the threat of the farmer's plough and trying to save her sick son from dying is enough conflict guys, we don't need a villain to add more conflict.
Beatrice: "Bluth made Jenner the villain to add more drama to the story, and as Tommy mentioned, he adds to the 'nature vs ethics' theme, but we respect your views."
Thomas: "And seeing the Great Owl was likely to ensure the Rats would take Mrs. Brisby's plight seriously, given how respected the Owl was. But that's just my speculation.
"One thing worth praising is the music, courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith. It is BEAUTIFUL, ranging from calm and soothing to dramatic and suspenseful. The best music is of course 'Flying Dreams', the film's overall theme song."
Media Man: Absolutely agree there. It's easy to see why this was his favourite movie he worked on as the soundtrack is some of the best music ever put into a film, animated or not. It always fits the scene perfectly and it's pretty memorable at times.
With an engaging story that has some dark and mature themes that make a simple talking animals movie feel bigger and more unique than most other movies of its kind, The Secret of NIMH is a captivating watch from beginning to end and is one of the most thrilling journeys that viewers can ever partake in...
Section 2: The Characters
This film likely became a cult following for its incredible story, but I also think the characters may have played a huge part in why it's remembered so fondly.
Let's start off with our main heroine, Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman). She will forever stand as one of THE crowning examples of how to write a strong female character, as well as a strong character in general! Mrs. Brisby not only has an endearing personality with her timid yet sweet and motherly nature and her unfailing politeness to almost everyone she meets (even when they're being rude to her like Mr. Ages) but she is also the prime example of true courage. It's easy to make a list of the bravest heroes in media, but I don't think anyone ever comes close to how brave this mouse is. I mean when you're willing to go through all the things that pretty much terrify you just to save your sick son like flying or visiting a huge owl or braving unfamiliar territory to find help, that to me is what true courage looks like. Putting aside your own fears in order to save your child is honestly the bravest thing I think anyone can do and to think it's this skittish little field mouse that pulls it off!
I do like how she has more sides to her character than just being meek and mild though. While it's rare, she is able to show anger at times, namely when she gets irritated at Jeremy at one point and also shows that she may have learned some of her husband's intelligence in some way as she proves to be quite smart herself. The sly way she gets Jeremy off her back with him none the wiser or figuring out how to escape the mouse cage when she's caught by the farmer's kid shows she's got a good head on her shoulders, which just makes her even cooler as a result.
Thomas: "They made the right choice in not having Justin help her.
"I think Mrs. Brisby's character can be summed up by this line she says to the Great Owl…"
Mrs. Brisby: "Please, sir, I'll do anything to save Timothy… anything!"
Thomas: "The delivery, the tone and the determination… it moves me every time I hear it." (Sniffs) "Sorry…"
Beatrice: "It's okay, Tommy. It makes me tear up as well. It's no wonder that Mrs. Brisby makes so many lists for best animated mother, mouse and heroines.
All this is brought remarkably to life by Elizabeth Hartman, who, similar to Mrs. Brisby, was timid and shy in real life, thus allowing her to truly capture Mrs. Brisby's sweet and loveable nature. Sadly, though, this film was her final role before Elizabeth took her own life in 1987 by self-defenestration. May she rest in peace...
Then, there's Jeremy the Crow, played by the charming Dom DeLuise. He's the comic relief of the film and the main source of its humour. Jeremy is goofy, clumsy and at times a bit annoying, but you can tell his heart's in the right place, and he does want to help, even if he doesn't always do a good job."
Media Man: As I said, Jeremy loses all relevance to the story after he takes Mrs. Brisby to the Great Owl and is responsible for some of the film's filler moments that don't really go anywhere or do anything to help the plot. As is, I don't mind him whenever he's onscreen and at least he's used well in the first act of the movie. And of course, you can't ever go wrong with the irreplaceable charm that Dom DeLuise gives with his performance. That guy can play the biggest douchebag you could ever imagine and still be likeable. XD
Another major player in the movie is Nicodemus (voiced by the legendary Derek Jacobi). He's the Leader of the Rats and serves as the wise old mentor who oversees the plot as it happens and also provides Mrs. Brisby the stone that she would later use to save the day with. While he's not the most complex character ever, he does have that air of mystery to him that makes him intriguing and you have to wonder how much power is really at his fingertips, plus how he seems to know so much.
And then there's the villain of the film, Jenner (voiced by Paul Shennar). Jenner is a smooth character who has that feeling of menace to him whenever he's onscreen. The unfortunate thing about him is that he's so wasted in this movie. He barely has any screen time whatsoever, he kinda feels shoehorned into the story and ultimately, the movie would've just been better without him as again, the film didn't need a villain. At least he makes the most of his screen time when he has any and gives us a cool sword fight with Justin so I wouldn't say he's worthless at least.
Thomas: "Speaking of which, Justin, voiced by Peter Strauss, is another great character. He's the Captain of the Guard for the Rats. He's charming, kind, brave and badass with a sword, as shown in his duel with Jenner. But he's also funny, as shown in his introductory scene where he sneaks up on Mr Ages, and pretty suave, given the way he acts like a gentleman to Mrs Brisby. Justin even gets some character growth, as he has to take up the role of leader after Nicodemus is killed by Jenner. It's not much, but it's there. ;)
Beatrice: "There's also the Great Owl, played by horror actor John Carradine. Though he has only one scene, Carradine's performance and his incredible design instantly makes a strong impression. The Great Owl's imposing and even terrifying, yet he also resonates wisdom, and somehow, you can trust his word. Notably, like Nicodemus, he has glowing yellow eyes, which hints at a possible connection between them…"
Media Man: No kidding there. Just adds to the mystical nature that the film has alongside its science and nature themes. What kind of mystical power do Nicodemus and the Great Owl have exactly...?
The only other characters left to mention are Mr. Ages (voiced by Arthur Malet), Auntie Shrew (voiced by Hermione Baddeley) and Mrs. Brisby's children Theresa, Cynthia, Martin (voiced by a young Wil Wheaton) and Timmy. The former two are cantankerous supporting characters where they maybe grumpy, but they have a heart so they manage to avoid being hateable. The kids are also likeable characters in how they're clearly well-raised kids but they still act like kids whether its Cynthia's adorable innocence or Martin lacking in manners or Theresa being the big sibling of the bunch. It's easy to tell they're Mrs. Brisby's children and even if they're not in it much, they make Mrs. Brisby's situation that much more sympathetic, especially regarding Timmy's situation. How many parents have been there when they're having to do anything to save their sick children? And come the climax, we're as desperate for Mrs. Brisby to save her children as she is too.
The characters are a memorable bunch for a variety of reasons. Not all of them hit a home run, but the ones that do will go down in history as some of animation's greatest characters ever drawn on paper...
Section 3: The Animation
It's a Don Bluth movie. Is it even worth pointing out the obvious that the animation is really friggin' good? XD
Thomas: "Don Bluth and this team opted to use traditional methods of animation, wishing to harken back to the Golden Age of Animation. As such, they experimented with various unusual methods, such as rotoscoping, multiple camera passes, backlit animation and multiple colour gels. Despite being rather labour-intensive, it still paid off, for the result was a gorgeous movie."
Beatrice: "The animation is so full of life and character. It's fluid, expressive, and remarkably varied, ranging from warm and friendly to dark and gritty."
Media Man: No mistake there, guys. I especially find the lighting effects to be really damn impressive and an example of an old technique still being very effective, even to the eyes of modern audiences. The glowing eyes of Nicodemus and the Great Owl are noticeable highlights (no pun intended) of the effects here with how brightly they shine and make the two look even more mysterious and magical as a result. In the Great Owl's case, his eyes shine so brightly that you even feel it in your own eyes as you watch as if you're looking at an actual bright light switched on in your house.
Back onto my comment about the movie being very atmospheric, the animation plays a large part in that atmosphere too. The animation gives us long lingering shots of the backgrounds in some scenes to truly feel where we are, be it following Mrs. Brisby through the Great Owl's lair or exploring the rosebush with her. It takes its time for us to drink in the visuals and see everything while also feeling the emotions of our characters in whatever moment they're experiencing. Speaking of emotions, this animation is VERY expressive. Everyone's feelings can be read like a book with how expressive they are in their body language or their facial features. One particular note is the look of agony on Mrs. Brisby's face when she cuts herself trying to escape the cage. Who knew a cartoon mouse could look to be in so much pain? And let's not forget Jenner's infamous "BONES!" face he makes. I swear he's trying to rival Disney's Coachman in terms of slasher smiles there!
As for the character designs, they have that distinctive look to them that Don Bluth's animation is known for where they look Disney-esque but with Bluth's own flavour of style added to the designs to make them his own. The mice look cute and cuddly, the rats are depicted with more humanoid movements to fit with their enhanced intelligence, the Great Owl looks suitably huge, old and imposing and any animal that's a threat to our heroes is depicted with a scarier and more monstrous look to them like Dragon the Cat or the spider that stalks Mrs. Brisby at one point. Everyone has a distinctive look to them that makes every character easy to identify and nobody blends in with the other. Jenner ESPECIALLY always stood out to me with his large appearance compared to most rats and his smart appearance combined with a large cape that only makes him look even bigger. He even pulls off the best cape swish I've ever seen animated with that thing!
But the big animation highlights for me include Justin vs. Jenner in where it's animated like a real sword fight and the climax with Mrs. Brisby saving her family that looks very bright and almost godly to watch when she uses the stone's power for the first time. That scene especially really gives off the feeling that we've just witnessed a miracle and it's so awesome to see!
Thomas: "Beatrice And I couldn't agree more.
"Another highlight for me is when Mrs. Brisby is shown how the Rats and Mice gained their intelligence. The rodents (no offence) are seen flashing, surrounded by red, apparently falling into a dark hole, before we see darkly psychedelic images of DNA, which kinda emulates a drug trip. And I don't think it was by accident...
"I'd also like to again mention Mrs. Brisby's vow of saving Timothy. The animation really helps that scene with the subtle glistening of her eyes as she slowly looks down."
Beatrice: "You really like bringing up that scene, don't you, Tommy?"
Thomas: "What can I say? I love it so much!"
Beatrice: "Of course. :)
"All that said, not all aspects of the animation are perfect. The rotoscoping on the tractor during the plough scene doesn't really blend well with the rest of the animation and is kinda dated."
Media Man: Yeah, the tractor does kinda stick out like a sore thumb I agree. There's also a particular bit of Mrs. Brisby looking down in sorrow that gets recycled in another scene and the colours might look a little muted to some people but aside from that, there really is little to criticize about the visuals here.
The animation was more than enough to prove that Don Bluth was more than ready to make his own movies and needless to say, all that time spent working for Disney paid off for him and his team as the animation made for a VERY solid first impression of what they could do...
The Secret of NIMH is one of the finest non-Disney animated movies out there, is Don Bluth's greatest work and is INSANELY underrated. I only hope more and more people come to discover and love the movie as we have as time goes on. The story is gripping, unique and not afraid to get dark at times, the characters are memorable, Mrs. Brisby is one of the best animated protagonists ever to appear in a movie, the soundtrack is epic and the animation is nothing short of gorgeous. For Don Bluth's first movie, he really did put his best foot forward and gave us a movie I doubt even HE thought he could top.
Thomas: "In my opinion, it's the perfect example of a family movie: striking a perfect balance between kind and dark, charming and scary, cute little creatures and mature themes, and so on. The Land Before Time, An American Tail, Anastasia and Titan AE would manage to accomplish a similar goal with varying success, but none to the same degree as The Secret Of NIMH. Most notably, The Secret Of NIMH manages to stand on its own without any sequels or spin-offs."
Beatrice: "Yeah, we know what some of you are thinking, and it's not a sequel.
"Anyways, we have Internet critics like AniMat and, as much as it pains me to say, the Nostalgia Critic to thank for The Secret Of NIMH achieving its cult status. Hopefully, that recognition will continue to grow over time. Just as Mrs. Brisby will treasure the Stone always, we will always treasure this masterpiece."
Media Man: That we shall, my friends.
And that's it for this review. I would like to thank Thomas and Beatrice for joining me for this review and thank all of you for reading. As usual, feel free to share your thoughts down below. Do you like the movie as well? Do you not like it? Do you consider it underrated? Has this review tempted you to check it out? Do tell.
Join me next week as I review everyone's favourite cat and mouse comedy duo in their first full-length feature film.
Thomas/Beatrice: "Bye-bye for now everyone!"