The Animation Corner: The Secret of NIMH

BENJAMIN K. PAPLHAM | ENTERTAINMENT COLUMNIST

Imagine eating a delicious cupcake, but then you hit the last bite and discover somebody placed a burning hot jalapeño there. Will some people still swallow? Certainly. Does the jalapeño make sense? No. And that’s the best way I can describe “The Secret of NIMH”—75 minutes of deliciousness followed by 5 minutes of disappointment.

“The Secret of NIMH” (1982) has the honor of being the first film by acclaimed animator Don Bluth (“Anastasia”), and is based on the Newberry-Medal-winning novel by Robert O’Brien. The story follows the adventure of Mrs. Brisby (a name change from the book’s Mrs. Frisby to avoid trademark liabilities with Frisbee discs), a recently widowed field mouse living on the Fitzgibbon farm. Mrs. Brisby’s youngest son has pneumonia, and she’s desperate to move him to safety before Mr. Fitzgibbon plows his fields for the summer. Her only hope rests in the aid of the secretive rats of NIMH, a colony of escaped rats who were once subjects of human scientific experimentation that gave them extraordinary abilities.

Before I go into the metaphoric “jalapeño,” I want to give the film the credit it’s due. For one, there’s something pure about cel animation. Sure, the frame rate can sometimes be a little rough and a character’s expression isn’t captured quite right, but Bluth always manages to create detailed landscapes and a color palette that matches the emotional intensity of the moment. The voice acting also fits perfectly, led by Elizabeth Hartman (Mrs. Brisby was her last role, due to an unfortunate decline in mental health) and one of Bluth’s mainstays, Dom DeLuise (“American Tail,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven”).

My personal favorite element of “NIMH” is how menacing it is. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Mrs. Brisby, because she’s this timid yet courageous figure dealing with the absolute worst possible outcomes—her husband recently died, her son is dying and she keeps getting tossed into imminent death situations like a vicious cat, a sinister owl, a deranged rat with a sword and her children drowning in mud.

Which leads me to my next point. The film has enough danger, but they still add an “exciting” new element (NOT in the book): magic. The focus of the book is the rats of NIMH, while the movie is about Mrs. Brisby’s personal struggles. But the movie tosses in the rats’ backstory like an afterthought, and, in an already anthropomorphized universe, fails to deliver on why the rats are more significant than other creatures. For example, the rats’ leader Nicodemus makes a big deal about how he learned to read after the scientific experiments, but then Mrs. Brisby—only a normal mouse—is able to read from a book Nicodemus has. So to try to separate them, the film gives the rats mystical powers such as a glowing portal and a red amulet.

In all honesty, this is one of Bluth’s better productions, save for a ridiculous deus ex machina moment at the end. What makes the magical element aggravating is that it was completely unnecessary and could have been easily removed without depriving Mrs. Brisby of her heroic moment. Despite that, “The Secret of NIMH” is thrilling and emotional with the right balance of humor and seriousness to keep people of all ages entertained.

Just avoid the direct-to-video sequel.

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