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.

The Rescuers (1977)

Did my son wake you this morning? Today, we watched what he pronounced as his all-time favorite movie. He went all Spinal Tap on it. I asked him how much he enjoyed Disney’s The Rescuers on a scale of one to ten, and he replied, “If ten is my absolute favorite movie ever, then this is a ten! No! It’s an ELEVEN!” This was after the longest, loudest fit of laughter I can remember. From the bit where the albatross, Orville, gets his tailfeathers singed by a firework to the destruction of the old organ on the rotting riverboat a quarter of an hour later, he was in stitches.

He’s seen a few Disney cartoon films before, most recently Robin Hood, but he’s never loved one quite as much as this. I agree completely. You, dear reader, almost certainly enjoy Disney cartoons more than I do – I just scrolled down the list and maybe find about five tolerable – but there are two that I adore: this and 1970’s The Aristocats.

But actually, looking over Disney’s animation work, I see that The Rescuers was made at a really curious time for the company. For some weird reason, they were only releasing a new cartoon feature about once every four years. I think that they all at least looked splendid – The Rescuers in particular is blessed with some amazing painted backgrounds – but, in the sixties and seventies, these were all taking a back seat to their far superior live-action films.

And I think that this corporate malaise and disinterest in cartoons is what cost Disney their best asset at the time: Don Bluth. He was apparently the lead of four credited “animating directors,” working under three other credited as “directed by,” and, sick of the bureaucracy and wasted time, set up a rival studio with about 20% of Disney’s staff, and then spent a decade kicking the mouse’s rear at the box office. I’m also deeply disinterested in almost all of Bluth’s output, with only Secret of NIMH and Anastasia of any note, but I find the history fascinating. And I think it’s really neat that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, on which Bluth also worked, both came out in 1977. Good year for for a talent like Bluth to flex his muscles. I can believe that had Disney not turned things around in ’89 with the successful Little Mermaid, they probably would have retired their feature animation unit entirely, and our popular culture would be radically different today.

The Rescuers features Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as two employees of the International Rescue Aid Society, whose office is in a mousehole in the UN building. Gabor plays Miss Bianca, an agent from Hungary, and Newhart is Bernard, a brave-but-shy janitor who is assigned as her co-agent. Other voice work is provided by people who had some more history with Disney, like Bernard Fox and John Fiedler. Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire would come back to do voice work for Disney’s next cartoon, The Fox and the Hound.

The movie is paced brilliantly. It’s a lean 77 minutes, with songs at the appropriate moments, and the action is really funny. Madame Medusa admittedly may not be in the upper tier of Disney villains, but she’s amusingly vulgar and violent. I love the scene where she’s threatening Penny while removing her false eyelashes before bed. She’s so garish and hideous.

Sure, there’s a lot about The Rescuers that falls into standard tropes, like all the heroic animals being capable of speech and the big mean henchbeasts (here a pair of alligators called Nero and Brutus) mute and stupid, but it’s a movie which is funny when it needs to be and nail-bitingly dramatic when it’s called for. The scene where Penny and the mice find the missing diamond and only have moments to extract it before the tide comes in is just remarkably tense, a downright perfect little scene.

I think that The Rescuers came at an interesting time in animation. I don’t believe this film was shown on HBO, but I still group it, emotionally, with some other favorites that were shown on that channel in 1979-81 or so, movies like The Mouse and His Child (which I’d love to see again), The Water Babies, Dot and the Kangaroo, that Raggedy Ann movie with the blue camel, and, of course, Watership Down. I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but Galaxy Express 999 and the Lupin III film everybody knows, Castle of Cagliostro, which are both excellent, also came out during that period. It was a good time for good cartoons, I think. Maybe we’ll watch some for the blog down the line, and see whether any of them get rated as high as eleven.

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

This morning, we sat down to watch another very long Disney film with our son. Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, this is a movie that has been recut and edited several times in multiple releases. We watched the current cut, which is pretty long at 129 minutes. There are longer and shorter versions in circulation as well. It really did test Daniel a little bit, but he was very brave. I was afraid, given his history, that the scene where the villagers and fishermen of Passamaquoddy try to capture the dragon, whose name is Elliot, would frighten him, but he did just fine.

Pete’s Dragon is a collaboration between live-action director Don Chaffey, who was behind all sorts of interesting stuff, from Jason and the Argonauts to some late-in-the-run episodes of The Avengers, and Don Bluth, who had just finished work on Disney’s fantastic The Rescuers. That’s actually one of my favorite Disney films of all time, by the way, and we’ll definitely watch it for the blog some time in the future. The main human stars of the film are Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and newcomer Sean Marshall, and they’re opposed by the villains played by Carry On star Jim Dale and Red Buttons. Jim Backus and Shelley Winters also appear in smaller roles.

But the real star of the movie is Elliot, who is just terrific. I’m aware of the remake that will be released later this summer, and as much as I pretend to judge films on their own merits, that movie will sink or swim based on how well they do all the tics and grumblings and oddball little grunts that Charlie Callas gave the original Elliot. All things being equal, it’s actually a pretty strange little vocal performance, but I just adore it.

Daniel was completely charmed by the movie, as hoped. He loved all the slapstick comedy and Elliot’s funny facial gestures, and most of the songs – good gravy, there are a lot of ’em – and while he’s been on better behavior and still wanted to roll around on the sofa a lot, he did mostly very well. His favorite part was when Shelley Winters and her hillbilly gang get dumped in tar. “I love it when people get covered in tar!” he tells us.

I was surprised to learn that this film isn’t better remembered. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a lowly 48% at present, which is a real stunner. Many writers agree that it runs too long, but here’s the thing: I think it’s at least a song and a half too long, but nobody’s going to concur what should be cut. I’d be tempted to edit away the hillbillies’ first number, but watch with a kid and see how well that plays with the child. The very first shot of the movie is Pete somehow floating into a wooded clearing, instantly establishing the magical premise, and that first musical number starts inside of two minutes. I don’t know whether Don Chaffey was actually given a document entitled “How to Immediately Hook a Five Year-Old,” but it sure feels like it.

I’d also cut “Candle on the Water,” regardless of it being nominated for an Academy Award. Like “Cheer Up Charlie” in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, it stops the movie dead in its tracks. It’s a nice little song, I suppose – it wouldn’t be out of place between Steely Dan and Michael McDonald on the soft rock radio in your doctor’s waiting room – but quite fast-forwardable in a picture this long.

So while it’s certainly flawed, it’s nevertheless a very good film. Jim Dale is a really entertaining villain, and Helen Reddy is a great emotional anchor. Sean Marshall isn’t great, but the list of most aggravating kid stars has many dozens of names before you reach him, and Elliot, all pudge and funny expression and tic-tic-tic burbles, would have been watchable and impossibly charming regardless of who was in it.

And no, those weren’t tears streaming down my face when Elliot tells Pete goodbye. You stop that slander right now, you hear?