A landmark of feature animation, The Secret of NIMH (1982) was the work of former Disney animators dissatisfied with that that studio's creative stagnation and who through movies like this aspired to create an envelope-pushing rival. Adapted from Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH the picture has many attributes and is certainly unlike the usual Disney movie, though it also has problems Walt and his "Nine Old Men" (Disney's core team of animators) might have solved.
The Blu-ray, from MGM via Fox, is an excellent transfer of an inherently muddy-looking movie, the mud partly director Don Bluth's rough-hewed signature style, and partly because this modestly-produced film ($7 million, vs. Disney's $25 million The Black Cauldron, released a few years later) has a more rushed look, with dirtier animation cels and even a few out-of-focus shots. Extras consist of a trailer, an audio commentary, and a behind-the-scenes featurette, all previously included in a June 2007 Family Fun Edition DVD.
Field mouse Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) is desperate when her youngest son, Timothy, becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. She gets some medicine from Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), but the boy remains bedridden just as plowing time approaches, when all the local animals must migrate to safety.
With the help of a clumsy, talkative crow, Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), Mrs. Brisby reluctantly visits the Great Owl (John Carradine), this despite knowing that mice are a favorite food of such creatures. The Great Owl advises Mrs. Brisby to visit Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), the wise old leader of rats that live in a vast, ornate palace beneath a thorny rosebush.
The screenplay is awkwardly structured. It begins as a compelling tale of a mother mouse, recently widowed, trying to protect her family, and the little odyssey she takes to make that happen. But along the way the story gets muddled and becomes highly repetitive, though always interesting. The first half of the film repeatedly places Mrs. Frisby (and Jeremy) in a series of frightening encounters: first with the family farm's cat, Dragon; then with a tractor threatening to turn the Brisby children (voiced by, among others, Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty) into mulch; then she pays a visit to the Great Owl's spooky home; then more mystery as she enters the rats' domain. Though these scenes are impressively more frightening than anything found in Disney's movies of the 1960s and '70s, it plays like a series of moody set pieces, with Mrs. Brisby's characterization lost in the jumble.
Once in the rats' kingdom, the already mystical screenplay takes a really bizarre turn. (spoilers) In an extended flashback, it's learned that the rats, along with Mrs. Frisby's late husband, were laboratory animals that had escaped from NIMH (an acronym for the National Institute of Mental Health) after being subjects of intelligence-boosting experiments, blessing/cursing them with human-like abilities. If that weren't enough, the oracle-like Nicodemus gives Mrs. Brisby a magical amulet, mixing the already overloaded film with science fiction and fantasy elements.
Along the way the core story of a mother trying to protect her children gets rather lost, along with most of the audience's emotional investment in the characters. The business with the rats, while interesting and atypical for an American animated feature (particularly the laboratory flashbacks, very disturbing), shifts the focus too far afield. More the pity as actress Hartman (A Patch of Blue, The Beguiled) gives a superbly expressive vocal performance as the mother mouse.
Indeed, the voice casting is inspired with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) and horror-movie icon John Carradine excellent as Nicodemus and the Great Owl, respectively. Dom DeLuise is a more obvious choice in the standard comic relief role, a character more frenetic than funny. Another unusual move is the choice of composer Jerry Goldsmith, who contributes one of his all-time best film scores, one unlike any other animated feature to that point.
The look of the film is also more experimental, with for example a gritty use of rotoscoping for shots of the moving tractor, shot from striking, dynamic angles. Despite its faults The Secret of NIMH was a personal project made with indisputable passion. The filmmakers reportedly worked insane hours to get it done on its tight budget and schedule. Moreover Bluth, along with co-writer/co-producers Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy, also former Disney animators, mortgaged their homes to see the film to completion.
The picture was not a great success, alas, grossing about $14.6 million - more than double its budget but it still lost money once the cost of prints and advertising were factored in. Undeterred, Bluth and various collaborators enjoyed bona fide hits in the years that followed: An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and Anastasia (1997). The Secret of NIMH, meanwhile, remains something of a cult film, and its following is deserved.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection, this 1080p, 25GB single-layer and region "A" encoded disc seems to accurately reflect as ideal a presentation of the film as is possible, given the budgetary limitations that resulted in those previously described dirty animation cells and a couple of out-of-focus shots. At times the image is very impressively sharp while elsewhere it's soft and murky, and never does it approach the best-looking Disney Blu-ray releases, though it reproduces the theatrical experience well. The English 2.0 DTS-HD surround is generally good, with some nicely directional effects, and it serves Jerry Goldsmith's scoring well. Spanish stereo and French mono tracks are available, as are optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Supplements are limited to previously released material in standard-def: "Secrets Behind the Secret" featurette, an audio commentary track with Bluth and Goldman, and a trailer.
One last word of caution: The MPAA goofed yet again, awarding The Secret of NIMH a "G" rating when it clearly deserved a "PG" for its many scary scenes and laboratory flashback. It's not a movie for small children, despite proclamations to the contrary by Rex Reed and Newsweek on the Blu-ray packaging. But older children should find it compelling, and it's a must-see for animation buffs and historians. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.