The Secret of NIMH (1982)

I realized this morning that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is intertwined with Flowers for Algernon in my head. I guess that we read both novels – or, more likely, condensed versions of them – in the sixth grade or so. Except, because I’m a dingbat, I couldn’t remember the name of Algernon, and as we watched Don Bluth’s masterful, albeit very loose, animated adaptation of NIMH this morning, I spent all 82 minutes completely distracted and wondering what the heck that book was. Marie instantly identified it when I asked whether she knew what I was remembering, because she’s usually less of a dingbat than me. Now I’m left to wonder why I thought the protagonist was called Jeremy instead of Charlie. That must have been a third book.

The Secret of NIMH was Don Bluth’s first feature film after leaving Disney, and it’s by some distance my favorite of his after-Disney movies. The only other one I like is Anastasia. This one’s mostly great, with a strong story and engaging characters. There is, however, a completely unnecessary use of magic that distracted me almost as much as half-remembering old books. The climax, during which a magical amulet levitates a concrete block out of a mud pit, even led our favorite seven year-old critic to interject “Oh, come on, that’s not real!” When the rules of the finale jar against the reality of the world presented in a movie’s previous 75 minutes so badly that even a kid makes a comment, you can’t call your ending a complete success.

But NIMH gets it mostly right with its interesting animation choices and some fine voice work by a strong cast of character actors from the period, most notably Hermione Baddeley, John Carradine, Derek Jacobi, and Arthur Malet. Dom DeLuise tried his darnedest to steal the show as a crow called Jeremy, though I’m afraid he mostly sounded like Bluth told him “You know Zero Mostel in Watership Down? We’re doing that.”

Marie was pretty certain that Jeremy would be our son’s favorite character, but he liked Mrs. Brisby best. She’s resourceful and determined and a great protagonist. The movie’s punctuated with some seat-of-your-pants action scenes with just a hint of comedy in their outlandishness, and a truly fine villain in the form of Jenner, a hyper-intelligent rat who schemes to control their colony.

Jenner meets his end in a way that surprised me. You get so used to American animation from the eighties being comparatively tame, thanks in no small part to Bluth’s later, more family-friendly pictures, so the blood and violence of NIMH is a standout for the time. Even though we’re dealing with talking mice, rats, and shrews, it cements that reality that I mentioned above. This farm is a mean, unsafe place, and even though we’ve toughened our kid up with some really frightening monsters and horrors, I could certainly imagine John Carradine’s Great Owl scaring the pants off younger viewers.

On a small tech note, our DVD is a 2003 release and the picture is 4:3. According to a poster in the DVD Talk forum, there used to be a Don Bluth website that was for more than his current projects, and there, Bluth had once mentioned that 4:3 was the originally preferred ratio and it was matted for its theatrical release. That surprised me! Some of the sequences in this film are so visually interesting that I can’t help but wish to see more of them on the sides of the frame.

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