It’s interesting the way nostalgia and distant memory can so re-write plots of films, but more interestingly re-write the emphases of them. Often scenes we recall taking five minutes are incredibly brief, but were emotionally affecting to young minds. I don’t think I’ve seen The Secret of NIMH for over a decade, but I know some images from it have been stuck in my mind forever, generally as disturbing in some fashion–but not the elements most think of. The hands of Nicodemus brought back instant recall of finding them creepy and visually “evil” to my young mind, while more firmly I recall the image of Mrs. Brisby reduced to caged mouse, cape-less and stuck in an environment more “real” (that is, less “cartoonish”) than her previous ones, and the brave escape she makes to get out of this. Perhaps the involvement of water mixed with my own aquaphobia is responsible for the heart-stopping fear and general sense of disturbance these scene gave me, though.
Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) is a mouse who lives on the land of Farmer Fitzgibbons (voiced briefly by Tom Hatten), her husband Jonathan having recently died. Her four children remain with her in a home made from a cinderblock, with the feisty Martin (voiced by a young Wil “Wesley Crusher” Wheaton), bossy Teresa (the first big screen appearance, auditory at least, of Shannon Doherty), precocious Cynthia (Jodi Hicks) and the ill Timothy (Ian Fried). When Timothy takes to this illness, Mrs. Brisby seeks out the help and advice of the cantankerous and forcibly solitary Mr. Ages (voiced by Arthur Malet), who bestows upon her a powder to mix with water that will bring down Timothy’s fever. On her way home, Mrs. Brisby stumbles across a crow named Jeremy (voiced by Dom Deluise, setting a precedent for his continued work with Don Bluth studios, though he also worked for Disney on Oliver and Company), who is poor at listening and worse at physical movement–he’s gotten himself tangled in string while trying to take it out to nest with. Mrs. Brisby works to free him but they are interrupted by the farmer’s cat Dragon and run for their lives. Ages has no solution for the need to move Mrs. Brisby’s family before the farmer begins plowing (and would thus destroy their home) without exposing the sickened Timothy to the cold, so at the suggestion of Auntie Shrew (voiced by Hermione Baddeley) she goes to see the Great Owl (voiced by John Carradine, to my great pleasure). The Great Owl refuses her help until she reveals the name of the man to which she was married; at the revelation of this, he sends her to the rats in the rosebush near the farmer’s home. These are the Rats of NIMH, led by Nicodemus (voiced by Derek Jacobi), whom she is to see, but his age has lead the power-hungry Jenner (voiced by Paul Shenar) to seek his overthrow and the prevention of a plan to move their society to other lands. The youthful advocate of Nicodemus is Justin (voiced by Peter Strauss), who tries to help to move her home while endorsing Nicodemus’ plan.
As a longtime foe of mis-credits, I know that one of the biggest (to my mind, at least) is that of Don Bluth’s studio. Of course, I don’t mean that Bluth’s studio gets too much credit, so much as many young minds–some never learning more–assume that animation is equivalent to Disney, and thus these animated films must also be the work of that studio. This is unfortunate, because it was a group of dissatisfied former Disney employees that founded both Don Bluth Studio (Bluth himself, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy) and Aurora Productions, one of the financers behind this particular one. Bluth felt animation was being cheapened by cost-cutting measures and wanted to prevent this, and coupled with the work Disney did not credit him for, it’s a great affront in my mind that that studio–with which I have a number of problems already–is given credit for work it does not deserve credit for (as it has more than enough of its own, some of that probably not even so deserved, at least in more recent decades). Bluth’s studio has elements that set it distinctly apart, or at least managed to do so in the first decade and a half of its existence. Many recall the primary films from this studio as exceptionally dark or scary, sometimes even depressing or bleak–I’m speaking of this one, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven, generally, though An American Tail is also high up in terms of awareness. This is definitely true: Bluth’s studio never shies away from a few drops of blood (never gratuitous) as when Mrs. Frisby scratches her arm in an escape attempt or swords are drawn on other living beings, and death is not ignored, glossed over or sanitized as a concept (though it’s still not, understandably, shown in great detail either).
What often stands out to me, though, are the differing character designs and animation styles that Bluth’s studio is set apart by. Often bumpy or warty skin is used to represent age or certain animal types, in this film Nicodemus’ hands and the Great Owl’s talons have the greyish-blue-green skin and uneven bumps that mark this approach. Teeth are often present, and more importantly gums, with jagged and uneven teeth appearing in many animal’s mouths, not out of laziness or poor drawing but in a clear decision to make them just such–Auntie Shrew has much of this. Anthropomorphic animals still carry a fair amount of their animal origins, with many a mouse-like motion from Mrs. Brisby and the odd crow-like flap from Jeremy. Then, beyond that, we have muddy and gritty environments, gloppy and less-than-pleasant mud appearing in all three of the films I know best (named above, including this one), which fits with the less “clean” approach to animation and design that this studio had over its contemporary competition from Disney. Certainly the influence and background shows, but the less carefully and evenly proportioned characters are a far cry from even the distortions of, say, The Rescuers–which Bluth was even involved with. These set the film apart as one that is taking animation less as an art form to differentiate from reality and instead as one to distort but visually endorse reality, with the varied elements holding themselves out more prominently in the contrast. The animation, of course, is masterful, especially with the limited time and budget involved, with transparent shadows through double exposure and backlit moments for the “mystical” eyes of characters like Nicodemus, or his fantastic magical pen that builds words from settling golden dust. Reflections are more real and less carefully planned, and this approach to the minutiae mixed with a careful eye for colouration of characters based on lighting, as well as a kaleidoscopic approach to colouring itself is an absolute pleasure to watch.
What I definitely did not have pointed out as a child or an adult is the presence of a Jerry Goldsmith score, which does not disappoint as always, using a chorus that recalls many of the familiar tropes of Disney film but then transcends them through use of a composer with a distinct spirit and sound, but one even willing to donate a piece to be turned to a song, which, to my surprise and delight, was worded and sung by Paul Williams, who I’m quite a sucker for. My lack of memory for this was just further proof of how little of this movie I really recalled–it is just as much a masterpiece of animation as is often said, and has just the right tinge of intelligence and darkness to hold a viewer of any age.