The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Secret Of NIMH

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 The Secret of NIMH, then, was a collection of expensive and, even at the time, outdated animation techniques.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?

11 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: The Secret Of NIMH”

  1. Nikki Says:

    Oh man, I used to watch this movie all the time! One of my favorites for sure. Thank you for posting! Eerily I was just telling a friend about this movie.

  2. Freya Says:

    This movie terrified me as a child, and re-watching it as an adult I now know why. The rats are terrifying, and horrible things just keep happening. Nothing “fun” or “adventurous” happens at all. I really appreciate it now, but I hate it for scarring my childhood.

  3. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    The NIMH movie (AND the book) have held up so incredibly well over the decades. It’s so nice to watch it again.

    Also, YAY, baby WIL! Pre Stand by Me, pre STTNG… and I think this might even have been pre D&D discovery. Awww.

  4. Erin Says:

    It was an odd movie, to be sure. Interesting to hear more about it. I knew it wasn’t just me when I heard Frisby sometimes and Brisby others!

    An aside on the book: I was actually more fond of the writing style of Robert C. O’Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, who wrote a few other NIMH books. O’Brien was a National Geographic writer and it showed in his style; her books were a bit livelier and engaging. The sequel to the movie, however, was a big bowl of straight-to-video musical milktoast.

  5. Ashbet Says:

    Oh, I *adore* this movie — I just bought it on DVD, in fact! Wish they’d do a Blu-Ray edition . . . for something so visually ambitious, it would be fantastic to see it in the highest possible quality :)

    I originally saw this in the theater and was absolutely enchanted!!

  6. Danica Says:

    OMG YAY!!!

    Super happy crazy childhood flashbacks.

    And no, I can’t watch this in Canada, which just means I’m going to have to go “rent” it. heh.

  7. Michelle Says:

    I actually just watched this the other night! I remembered finding it engaging and intriguing and somewhat scary as a kid, so I wanted to rewatch it. It’s definitely intense for a kid’s movie. Although, Bluth did that a lot – Land Before Time & All Dogs Go to Heaven, anyone?! Hell, even Fievel has its parts.

  8. Jenny Says:

    This is one of my very favorite films. I was afraid of movies for a long time — as a kid, I knew there would always be something frightening or sad, or both, so I guess I was really afraid of grief. This one left a hard ache that was still somehow wonderful. I watched it again recently and was overwhelmed by its beauty.

    That her love was powerful enough to move the stone, that’s something that I carried around. That’s something I always believed was absolutely real. I still do.

  9. heatherina Says:

    i absolutely LOVED this film as a child, and still do. I rewatch it every once in awhile. I always wanted her to fall in love with Justin, although now, as an adult, I understand her mourning for her husband. thanks for posting :)

  10. Francois Jordaan Says:

    This movie came out just when my brother and I were starting to become disenchanted with Disney, yearning for something less predictable and formulaic and upbeat (we were 11/12). This movie was an awe-inspiring hint at what animation could be (another movie of the same era that did this was The Dark Crystal), both in form and content, and was pretty key to my staying interested in animation as a medium as teenager and beyond.

    Unfortunately, it took a long time before I saw anything that built on the promise. Bluth & co’s subsequent offerings became predictable and sentimental (I didn’t like An American Tail.) The next animation to really enthuse me was Robotech around 1987. (How I regret now that Studio Ghibli’s films were unknown and unavailable to us at that time!)

    As you say in your post, the lead character, Mrs Brisby, is perhaps my favourite thing about the film. In scenes of peril, we *feel* her fear and desperation. (Something that hardly ever happens in kids’ films.) Her voice acting is remarkably naturalistic (I later read this was the voice actress’s last work; she took her own life a few years later.) I also love how mouse-like she was animated, not over-anthropomorphised — making a scene like her escape from the cage especially intense. The naturalistic animation in general is remarkable — check the scenes of the crow flying and landing on a branch, for example.

    Rewatching it for the first time over 20 years later, I was happy that it was still as good as I remembered. The only thing that bothers me about it now is the happy ending which feels incredibly tacked-on and unconvincing, involving the amulet macguffin. But I can ignore it as the film had reached its true climax just before.

    With some trepidation I let my daughter (3 and a half) watch it, and it has since become a favourite of hers; she’s seen it half a dozen times already.

  11. Samantha Says:

    One of my childhood favorites! I’m so happy to see it here.