Don Bluth’s career has a rather tragic trajectory. Upon realizing that Disney, after its founder’s death, was a chicken running around without its head, the animator left the studio to found his own – Don Bluth Productions. And for much of the 80s, he seemed like a force in animation that could hold his own against the older institution – particularly after partnering with Steven Spielberg. But then Disney temporarily regained its footing and the whole 90s animation Renaissance took place. The resulting rise in competition effectively pushed Bluth out of the ring, his final film being 2000’s rather eh sci-fi action flick, Titan A.E. In a way, his demise neatly marks the ascendancy of our contemporary era of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation
But while his films nowadays seem mostly treasured by animation aficionados, back when I was a little kid, he was still big enough that I was exposed to virtually all of his films, including his first, 1982’s The Secret of NIMH.
Adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, NIMH is about a widowed mouse called Mrs. Brisby who has to save her children. They live in a farmer’s field which is about to be plowed, and moving out has been suddenly complicated by one of the children catching pneumonia. This leads her to seek help from the nearby, unusually technologically advanced rats, who have something to do with the titular secret of NIMH. It seems that the rats also are planning on moving, and this doesn’t sit well with the villainous Jenner, who would rather stay and mooch off of the farmer’s house. So he decides to use Mrs. Brisby’s predicament to assassinate Nicodemus, the rat elder who is spearheading the move.
The first thing to note is that NIMH doesn’t shy away from the dark and scary aspects of this story. The various banal features of the farm – the tractor, the cat, an owl – take on a monstrous appearance when seen through the eyes of Mrs. Brisby, and the film is more than willing to underline just how precarious her existence, as a mouse, is. Even the more anthropomorphized elements get used to indicate fears of a human sort; someone takes a knife to the back, for instance. Then there’s the secret of NIMH itself.
And I’m not being sarcastic when I say that this makes for splendid children’s entertainment. Over the past few decades there’s been a trend towards what I suppose you could call softness in children’s works, a tendency to completely whitewash things for fear that children won’t be able to handle it. You can’t imagine books like The Jungle Books or The Hobbit getting published today without at least a minor moral panic.
The problem with this is that it paints a false picture of the world for kids. The world can be a dark and scary place, and most kids already realize this – probably moreso than adults, as they’re also that much smaller and dependent (consider the connection here with Mrs. Brisby’s diminutive perspective). There’s a difference between themes which are grossly inappropriate for children, and something which is merely a bit scary. It’s ok to respect kids enough to let them get a little scared.
This is reflected in the visuals, which are more phantasmagoric than anything Disney put out. Most scenes are drenched in either orange-red or blue, giving the world a feeling of a permanent, alien twilight. The backgrounds, drawn in rich, painterly detail, often have a surreal, fantastic quality to them which I find difficult to describe – it’s not the cheerful fantasy of Miyazaki, certainly – but which is in keeping with the low fantasy stylings of the plot.
While the character designs are superb, the animation itself can be a mixed bag. It’s fluid, for sure, but also has a slightly annoying feature which Bluth’s films are notorious for: the characters like to make dramatic gestures and movements all the time. The reason for this is that it’s easier to animate big movements than it is to do subtle gestures, and it seems that Bluth’s studio could never quite get over this hurdle the way that Disney could at its best. But at least in NIMH I never found it to be too distracting; we’re still a far cry from the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings.
Musically things are aided by the late Jerry Goldsmith, one of my favourite film composer’s. His score for NIMH in particular seems indebted to Debussy’s Nocturnes (with a good helping of Goldsmith’s typical spacey, soaring strings), which is not a bad debt to have if you’re aiming for eerie phantasmagoria. I can live without the one song sung by Paul Williams, but fortunately it remains quarantined in the closing credits.
One of the details that struck me upon watching NIMH recently was that Mrs. Brisby has four children. You don’t often see large families represented in relatively modern entertainment, in part because they’re becoming increasingly rare, in part because they’ve picked up a social stigma of irresponsibility. Bluth is a Mormon, a religious tradition which stresses fruitfulness, and I wonder if some of that is showing through here. Then again, he’s also adapting someone else’s material, so there’s a good chance I’m reading too much in here. Incidentally, look out for an early performance by Star Trek: TNG’s Wil Wheaton as one of the kids.
I do have some quibbles about the plot, but can’t get into them without spoiling it, so let’s get started on that.
The titular secret is that NIMH stands for National Institute of Mental Health, and that the rats are actually escaped lab animals from the institute who received experimental drugs enhancing their intelligence. This, in and of itself, is a pretty cool twist, but aside from literacy and greater technical know-how, the rats don’t seem too different from the rest of the animals. So the creepy explanation of why this is a talking animal film only goes so far. I recognize that the plot would be rendered impossible if Mrs. Brisby were a plain old dumb mouse, and that the movie isn’t going for sci-fi realism. But it bugged me, and I can think of an obvious solution: just put in a line about how some of the drug accidentally contaminated the water supply.
My second gripe is that the actual magical element largely serves as a means of giving Mrs. Brisby a Checkov’s Gun to use at the end. It comes across as a bit lazy.
But this is nitpicking at what is otherwise an excellent movie. Buy hey, did you know that NIMH got a non-Bluth DTV sequel in 1998? And that it’s available on Netflix? I think I can see what’s coming; pass the whiskey, please.