The Secret of NIMH was the first feature film made by Don Bluth and a group of fellow expatriate Disney animators. Disney, they felt, was putting the bottom line first, sacrificing story, character, and visual flourishes like shadows and reflections to save money. With The Secret of NIMH, Don Bluth Productions sought to bring the traditions and techniques of the classic animated films back to the movie screen. The movie was released in 1982 and was Disney’s first serious feature animation competition in a long time. But NIMH was not a box office smash. Why? There are many possible reasons. A lackluster marketing campaign did not help. The film was criticized as being too dark and frightening for a G-rated animated movie. While TRON – Disney’s big release of the year – had its own problems at the box office, a little film called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial pulled moviegoing families away from NIMH in droves. Whatever the reason, NIMH faded into obscurity and is not well known by the general public today. So how does the film hold up almost thirty years after its original release? The answer is somewhat complicated. For while The Secret of NIMH is an ambitious film that sought to bring back classic hand drawn animation while simultaneously exploring new territory in story and theme, it also suffers from narrative flaws that keep it from being a great film.
The film is based on the Newbury award winning children’s novel “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.” (The main character’s name was changed to “Mrs. Brisby” for the movie to avoid a legal conflict with Wham-O over the similarity to the name of their flying disc toy.) Like the book, the movie tells the story of a widowed field mouse whose youngest son contracts pneumonia at the worst possible time. According to the cranky old doctor mouse Mr. Ages, little Timothy requires complete bed rest to recover, but the Brisby family home is in the path of the farmer’s tractor and if they don’t move soon, they will all be killed once the plowing starts. In her search for a solution to this impossible dilemma, Mrs. Brisby discovers a colony of escaped lab rats who have gained amazing intelligence from the experiments performed on them by the National Institute of Mental Health, also known as “NIMH.” Mrs. Brisby’s husband Jonathan was imprisoned at the same lab and aided the rats in their escape. Out of respect and gratitude to Jonathan, the rats agree to help Mrs. Brisby move her home to a safe location.
One of the film’s main strengths is Mrs. Brisby herself. What makes her interesting is not that she is an inherently brave character, but how her circumstances force her to overcome her fears. She loves her children dearly and her need to protect them is what drives her to leave her comfort zone in search of an answer to her problem. But this need does not immediately render her brave. When the farmer start to plow the field, Mrs. Brisby leaves her other three children with local busybody Auntie Shrew and runs off to try to stop the tractor. But she is in over her head and ends up curled up and shaking atop the tractor while the shrew cuts the fuel line and takes the terrified field mouse to safety. “I wish Jonathan were here,” Mrs. Brisby sobs, but of course he is not. Mrs. Brisby must start fighting her fears and if she is going to be able to save her home and her children. But at this early stage, she still needs to be pushed into taking risks. It is Auntie Shrew who insists that she seek advice from the mysterious Great Owl and reminds her that Timmy’s life is at stake when Mrs. Brisby protests that owls eat mice.
It is only through experience and literally reminding herself that she is doing these things for her children that Mrs. Brisby is able to take on the challenges that ultimately reveal a way for her to move her family without risking Timmy’s life. Her real turning point comes after she has met the rats of NIMH and learned of her late husband’s connection with them. The rats have already promised to move her home to the lea of the stone, where it will be safe from the tractor, so she has what she wants. Then, right as she is about to leave, she stops, turns around, and volunteers for the job of drugging Dragon, the farmer’s cat, so that he won’t threaten the rats as they move her home. Her offer seems to surprise her as much as it does the rats. “I must be crazy,” she says to herself repeatedly. It is even more remarkable considering that her husband was killed performing that very same task. But that is exactly why she has to do it herself. Jonathan is dead. The rats intend to leave for a new home shortly. If Mrs. Brisby is to survive and care for her family in the future, she needs to be strong enough to tackle the dangers that come her way on her own.
Much work and care went into the visuals of the film. Techniques such a backlighting to create glow effects and multiple exposures for transparent shadows that the animators had longed to use during their time at Disney make frequent appearances. Mrs. Brisby herself is colored in literally dozens of different palettes to reflect the difference in lighting when she is inside, outside, underwater, in shadow, lit by colored light, or in any other situation. The tractor that threatens the Brisby home is an enormous, clanking metal monstrosity, rust colored from years of use, but still capable of churning up earth and stone as Mrs. Brisby dangles perilously above the blades of the plow. It sakes violently as first Mrs. Brisby and then Auntie Shrew rush about in their frantic attempts to stop it. Intercut with images of little Timmy sleeping away as bits of dirt start to fall from the ceiling of his bedroom, these shots do an excellent job of conveying the tension of the situation. The creepiness of the Great Owl’s home is accented by the small bones strewn about and the translucent cobwebs that cover even the Owl himself, swaying and falling from his feathers as he moves about. Details like these create the lush look that the animators were trying to achieve and make the film a visual treat.
The movie is certainly more violent and outright scariness in it than audiences of the time were accustomed to seeing in a G-rated animated film. Death is a constant factor in the story, from the very first scene where Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, notes the loss of Jonathan Brisby in his journal. The central problem of the film is the dual threat to Timothy’s life: he will be killed by the plow if his mother does not move him, but his pneumonia could become fatal if she does. Death was certainly not unknown to animation before NIMH, but where the film really ups the ante is in the level of violence. Characters fight, shed blood, kill one another, and die onscreen. That, combined with moments like the Great Owl devouring a moth, Mrs. Brisby being chased by a rat guard wielding a spear charged with crackling energy, and the animals at NIMH quaking fearfully in their cages, being injected with various strange chemicals, and contorting in pain as the injections take effect, may have rendered the film too scary for some young viewers. But that really isn’t a flaw. Animation is under no obligation to be safe, scare-free viewing for all ages. The problem is more the comedic parts of the movie, like the bumbling crow Jeremy (voiced by the late Dom DeLuise, who would go on to play roles in several other Bluth films), or Mrs. Brisby’s adorable, bubbly baby Cynthia. While such comic relief moments do not feel completely out of place, some of them do come off as forced, as if the movie needs to stop so the audience can get a laugh in before returning to the real plot. What’s worse, the superfluous comedy takes time away from more important aspects of the film, such as developing the characters of the Brisby children. Timothy in particular should be a tremendously sympathetic character, but his actual role is so small that he might as well just be called “Sick Kid.” He has no lines until the very end of the story and is curiously absent from the movie after the first half hour. Why ignore a character who is so crucial to the plot in favor of pointless side stories like Jeremy’s desire to find a mate and settle down? It is not a huge failing, but unfortunately, the film has bigger ones.
The writers’ biggest misstep with The Secret of NIMH was adding magic to the story. Magic is not part of the original book, but that’s not why I have a problem with it being in the movie. The problem is that the magical elements in NIMH are poorly defined and end up distracting from the core concepts of the story. The thing that makes the rats of NIMH special is that they are highly intelligent due to the experimental injections they were given. But when Nicodemus is able to levitate objects and look into a magical sphere to views events past and present, I stop being impressed by the fact that the rats can read, write, and work with electricity. The reason why Nicodemus can use magic is never explained. He just can and magic just exists, a strange bedfellow for the science that grounds the origin of the rats. Had the writers simply changed the story so that the experimentation done on the rats at NIMH gave them magical abilities rather than super-intelligence, the inclusion of magic might have worked. As it stands, the two elements compete with each other and the more visually impressive magic wins out over the more believable but less showy intelligence of the rats.
The film’s central magical artifact is an amulet with a ruby red stone at its center. It and the idea of magic are both introduced at the beginning of the movie, which is better than bringing magic in as a “surprise” partway through the film. But the amulet too remains unexplained. It seems to have some connection with Jonathan Brisby, as Nicodemus says that Jonathan meant for Mrs. Brisby to have it, but where it came from is never made clear. More importantly, its abilities never get spelled out. It has some kind of power that can only be activated when it is worn by someone with a courageous heart. But since the nature of that power is never defined, the amulet becomes the obvious ace up the story’s sleeve. Once all other possibilities have been exhausted, Mrs. Brisby will be able to use the amulet to do whatever it is she needs to do to save her family. It gets to the point where the only way to bring back the suspense is to have the stone fall into the mud, after which it flies up into the air and returns to Mrs. Brisby for no apparent reason, other than that it’s magical and she needs it at that moment to save her home and her children.
One of the goals of The Secret of NIMH was to focus on character and story. While there are some interesting and compelling characters in the movie, story often takes a back seat to ideas that pack a lot of visual punch, to the point where the writers appear to have forgotten to check their work for consistency and to answer the questions their script brings up. The Great Owl is first set up as both wise and dangerous in a way that makes sense. The implication seems to be that when all other options have been exhausted, the animals of the field will risk seeking the Owl’s council and hope that he has eaten a big meal beforehand. Both Auntie Shrew and Nicodemus, watching from afar with his magical sphere, think it would be a very good idea for Mrs. Brisby to ask the Owl for advice, in spite of the potential danger. But when Mrs. Brisby tells Mr. Ages that it was the Owl who told her to seek out the rats, he is shocked because no one has ever been to see the Owl and lived. Finally, when Mrs. Brisby has an audience with Nicodemus himself, he refers to the Owl as “a dear comrade.” Huh?
This isn’t the only continuity problem. At the start of the film, Nicodemus muses that it has been four years since the rats escaped from NIMH. But later on, the young rat captain of the guard Justin tells Mrs. Brisby that the rat colony has been outfitted with electricity for four years now and Mr. Ages corrects him, saying it has been five years. There are many unanswered questions strewn about NIMH as well. The Great Owl clearly knows Nicodemus and at least knew who Jonathan Brisby was, but how did he come to know either of them? The rats have a plan to live without stealing from the farmer any longer, which is part of the reason they intend to move. So why are they first seen taking an electrical cord from the farmer’s house? Mr. Ages complains that Justin is always tiring out Nicodemus with “his silly nonsense,” but exactly what they talk about is never revealed. Nicodemus does attempt to explain to Mrs. Brisby why her husband never told her about his captivity at NIMH or his friends the rats, but his explanation makes very little sense. The injections that the rats and mice were given by NIMH also made them age more slowly, meaning that Jonathan would have remained young while his beloved wife grew old and died. It is a part of the original book, but in the movie it feels like a throwaway detail, and certainly not a good reason for Jonathan to keep his association with the rats a secret from his family. A few questions without clear answers would not have been such a big deal, but as they start to pile up, the movie becomes somewhat confusing and doesn't seem as well thought out as it should be.
The film runs into some trouble in the villain department as well. Most of the foes that the heroes face – NIMH, Farmer Fitzgibbons and his family, and Dragon the farmer’s cat – do not have any personal grievance with them. Dragon is a cat and although he is portrayed as more of a monster than a normal pet cat, he is still just a predator stalking prey. The Fitzgibbons family poses the most direct threat to Mrs. Brisby and her family, but their actions are driven more by a lack of concern for the mice than actual cruelty or malice. NIMH is a shadowy organization of anonymous scientists. They are always referred to collectively as “NIMH” rather than by individual names. None of this is necessarily a problem; it is entirely possible to have a strong story where the antagonist is not fully aware of the protagonist or the protagonist’s problems. It works in Bambi, a fact which Bluth and his colleagues were obviously aware of, since the scene where the animals abandon the field to escape the farmer’s plow borrows heavily from the scene where the deer flee the meadow in the Disney film. But it can be hard to show the hero as heroic when all of his or her foes are unaware of the hero, completely beyond reasoning with, and ultimately undefeatable. So the filmmakers took Jenner, a dissident rat who has left the colony before Mrs. Frisby arrives in the original book, and made him into a full blown villain, one that the main characters can talk to, argue with, and battle on his own level. It sounds like a good idea, but Jenner ends up hurting the story more than helping it.
The main problem with Jenner is that he does not have any real connection with Mrs. Brisby either. He is not so much her enemy as he is a foe of Nicodemus and Justin, or the rats in general. He does not care one way or the other about Mrs. Brisby so long as she doesn’t interfere with his plans. Before Jenner makes his actual debut, Nicodemus watches Jenner’s image in his magic “crystal ball” and talks about Jenner’s lust for power and his fear that Jenner may do harm to Mrs. Brisby. But since it’s never clear why Nicodemus believes that Jenner poses a threat to the widowed field mouse, it just feels like a feeble attempt to connect the villain to the hero. In Jenner’s first of only two direct interactions with Mrs. Brisby, he offers his services in helping to move her house, though his manner is transparently slimy. His real goal is to stage an accident during the moving of the house that will kill Nicodemus, clearing the way for Jenner to take over as leader of the rats. This would be disastrous for the Brisby family, but Jenner doesn’t care what happens to them any more than Farmer Fitzgibbons does. The fact that he is aware of Mrs. Brisby and knows that she and her children are thinking, feeling, creatures, makes his actions more unconscionable, but the Brisbys are still not his real target. It is only towards the end of the story when Mrs. Brisby warns the rats that NIMH is coming, threatening Jenner’s plan to keep the rats in their rosebush home and challenging his newly won leadership, that Jenner sees Mrs. Brisby as a threat and attacks her. Even then, it is Justin who ends up dueling with Jenner, taking his focus off of the main character once again. During the fight, Jenner notices that Mrs. Brisby is wearing the magical amulet and declares that he must have it. This is almost painfully forced. Nicodemus mentioned earlier that it would be very bad if Jenner were to take possession of the amulet, but Jenner himself has never even mentioned the stone before now. And since the one thing that is clear about the stone is that its power can only be unlocked by someone with a courageous heart, I don’t see how it would be of any use to Jenner at all. On top of that, Jenner is already going after Mrs. Brisby when he notices the stone, so his sudden need to get it from her does not result in any change in his course of action.
One of the issues that the filmmakers at Don Bluth Productions faced when they first started work on adapting the story of NIMH was that the original book is really two stories in one. There is the tale of Mrs. Frisby and her need to move her sick son before the farmer’s plow arrives, and the story related to Mrs. Frisby by the rats of how they gained their amazing intelligence and came to live in their current abode. It was eventually decided that the story of the movie had to focus primarily on Mrs. Brisby and her family. With that in mind, it is a complete mystery why the decision was made to add a villain who brings the focus of the story back to the rats and away from the Brisby family.
The Secret of NIMH was an ambitious experiment that may have tried to be too much. The multiple goals of creating a film to both compete with Disney and inspire Disney to start making high quality films again, returning to the classic style of film animation, crafting visuals to wow a modern audience, telling a strong story with great characters, evoking memories of past animated classics, and exploring dark themes seldom touched on before in animation might have been more than the team of first time filmmakers could handle. There are too many basic story flaws for me to truly consider the film a lost classic that just never got a fair shot at success. But it is not without moments of beauty and even brilliance. There is enough potential in the film to make me wonder how the industry might have changed if NIMH had been a financial success and what sort of strange, dark fantasies might have been a part of the history of theatrical animation.
Fun Fact: Mrs. Brisby two older children, Martin and Teresa, are voiced by a very young Will Wheaton and an almost as young Shannen Doherty respectively. Despite the connection, I still don't think we'll be seeing a Star Trek: The Next Generation/ Beverly Hills, 90210 reunion crossover anytime soon.
All images from this article are copyright MGM/UA/Aurora. The screenshots were kindly provided to me by Thorn Valley after I forgot to take my own before returning my rented copy of the film.