I’m not sure how Hulu works in countries outside the US at this point. My apologies if you cannot watch this, it’s one of the reasons I try to avoid sites like Hulu.
It’s Friday, people, which means that there’s only a few more hours until you can stick a fork in another soul-crushing work week. Allow the FAM to help that time pass a little more quickly with this week’s presentation of Don Bluth’s 1982 classic The Secret of NIMH, starring, among others, Mary Elizabeth Hartman (in her last role before her suspected suicide), John Carradine, Dom DeLuise, Aldo Ray, and Wil Wheaton.
An adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the movie tells the story of Mrs. Brisby, a widowed field mouse, whose son falls ill with pneumonia and cannot leave the house for three weeks. At this time, Spring plowing is set to begin on the farm the Brisbys live on and Mrs. Brisby, knowing she cannot stay where she is, visits the Great Owl who directs her to a group of mysterious rats who live in a rose bush and are led by a wizened old rat named Nicodemus. Brisby learns that the rats, along with her late husband Jonathan, were part of an experiment performed at the National Institute of Mental Health which boosted their intelligence to human levels at which point they made their escape.
The Secret of NIMH was a favorite of mine as a child and recent viewings have done little to dampen my enthusiasm for it. Bluth and his partners, most of who had defected from Disney with him, were fixated on what they perceived to be the decline of animation as an art form. The Secret of NIMH, then, was a collection of expensive and, even at the time, outdated animation techniques. The glowing eyes of Nicodemus, for example, were created by back-lighting colored gels. Characters had different color palettes for individual lighting situations (Mrs. Brisby alone had 46). It’s a veritable showcase of animation and it all makes for a beautiful film. Still, it came at a price, and the film came in so over the original budget that Bluth and his co-producers had to collectively mortgage their homes to finance some of it. There was even a problem with their diminutive protagonist’s name:
During the film’s production, Aurora contacted Wham-O, the manufacturers of Frisbee flying discs, with concerns about possible trademark infringements if the “Mrs. Frisby” name in O’Brien’s original book was used in the movie. Wham-O rejected Aurora’s request for waiver to use the same-sounding name to their “Frisbee”, in the movie. Aurora informed Bluth & company that Mrs. Frisby’s name would have to be altered. By then, the voice work had already been recorded for the film, so the name change to “Mrs. Brisby” necessitated a combination of re-recording some lines and, because John Carradine was unavailable for further recordings, careful sound editing had to be performed, taking the “B” sound of another word from Carradine’s recorded lines, and replace the “F” sound with the “B” sound, altering the name from “Frisby” to “Brisby”.
In the end, there are really two things that make NIMH stick out: its tone and its protagonist. The mood of the film is exceedingly foreboding, especially for a G-rated feature intended for children, without crossing into the historical seriousness of, say, Grave of the Fireflies or the political allegory of Watership Down. When I think of it, the images that come to my mind are bleak, eerie, and filled with fire. Likewise, its heroine is unlike anything one would have seen from Disney. Mrs. Brisby is no princess. She is a middle-aged mother and widow. Her quest is not an epic struggle between good and evil, it is to save her family. She doesn’t fall in love with a dashing male lead, she is not even looking for it, the love she had for another is in her past, before we are even introduced to her. Is she one of the great feminist characters in film? No. But she is a refreshing change from the typical Barbie doll pap most peddle.
Watching The Secret of NIMH it is perhaps most evident that it is a labor of love, both for its story and for the medium it is presented in. It is not a stretch to say that they don’t make them like this anymore. After all, who would be crazy enough to try?