The Secret of NIMH (1982)

24 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Don Bluth’s animated movie “The Secret of NIMH” recalls the joy of some of the earlier Disney features. In fact, I think Walt Disney himself would’ve been impressed by the chances this animated movie takes and how unusually thought-provoking it is.

If you think the NIMH in the title is the acronym for the National Institute of Mental Health, you’re right. We learn that a group of NIMH laboratory rats and mice were injected with a secret serum that made them smarter. They could read, reason, and became so smart that they escaped from the lab and made their own secret home and society in the backyard of a farmhouse. They were able to create lights, electricity, and other mystical elements that the movie doesn’t explain, but to be fair, I’m not sure the altered rats themselves can explain them either.

That’s the secret of NIMH that the title suggests, discovered by the story’s heroine on her own adventure. This is Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman), a field mouse/widowed mother who has a deeper connection to the rats of NIMH than she thinks.

Mrs. Brisby is an unusual leading character for a movie like this. Usually, it’s the plucky young children (like Brisby’s own children) who go out and embark on the incredible journey (in fact, in most Disney movies, parents end up either dead or separated). But not here—Mrs. Brisby also isn’t a wisecracking action hero that races to save the day. She’s a concerned mother with a real bravery to her that forces her to go out and do what she does in order to protect her family. She’s kind and likable, and serves as an appealing heroine.

Mrs. Brisby’s ill child is sick of pneumonia, as a mouse named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) declares, and must stay in bed for about three weeks. But “moving day” is approaching fast, meaning that a tractor will come along and plow the field. Mrs. Brisby can’t take her child away from home and risk him dying, so she must venture into the farm for answers.

After an encounter with a visionary, intimidating Great Owl (John Carradine), Mrs. Brisby finds the home of the NIMH rats, meets their wise old leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), discovers their secret, and enlists their help to move her home to safe location. At the same time, the rats are trapped with the ethical dilemma of whether or not to keep stealing supplies from the humans or to move out into the wilderness to set up a new society for themselves.

For that matter, what is needed for the rats of NIMH to continue to survive together? Is it discovery? Is it science? Is it logic? Is it intelligence? Maybe it’s all of those choices. This helps make “The Secret of NIMH” into a deeper social commentary. What all do we need to survive in this world, when you really think about it?

“The Secret of NIMH” has a complicated but intriguing story that is distracted only by the unnecessary antics of an annoying talking crow named Jeremy (Dom DeLuise). Kids may enjoy this character, as he is constantly mumbling nervously and acting clumsily, but he really did nothing for me. He doesn’t really have a payoff either—he doesn’t wind up helping to save the day (he returns too late)—so the only reason he’s there is so Mrs. Brisby can ask him to look after her children while she’s gone, and the kids tie him up and torture him.

The animation from Don Bluth and his followers is nicely done. Body language is expressed for the characters, the animals range from cute to frightening, the backgrounds are interesting, and the settings are good-looking. There’s a real sense of depth here.

“The Secret of NIMH” moves at a brisk pace, is delightfully drawn, and carefully constructed. It’s a well-done family film that will entertain adults as well as kids, because they can probably see more than just cute little mice and an inviting look. They can see something deeper within the story.

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