Thursday, May 10, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Long ago I rented the 1982 Don Bluth animated classic The Secret of the NIMH from Blockbuster Video to see it a second time, since I had seen it on VHS tape as a child in elementary school and been quite frankly scared to death by it. As an adult I didn't find it scary, but I did think it was very well-done. When I first began pondering "blast from the past" movie reviews, it was The Secret of the NIMH I had in mind.

Years passed. I eventually met Bluth and his cohort Gary Goldman while reporting on the 2011 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in Johns Creek, learning about the back-story behind NIMH and how it paved the way for An American Tail. Eventually the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood was born, and I awaited the day we could watch the film once more.

Well, that day has come. Here's the podcast. And now for the review.

The Plot

Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) is the widowed mother of four little mice, and she has very good reason to be worried. Every year she must move her family's home to avoid the oncoming plow, but her son Timothy has been bitten by a spider and then developed pneumonia. To move him risks killing him, but if they don't move, they'll all die. Aided by the annoying crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), she ultimately seeks out a mysterious colony of intelligent rats, only to be swept up in the machinations of the evil Jenner (Paul Shenar).

The Good

*Bluth and his allies left Disney because they were upset the company had become too cheap to produce good animation and set out to create quality art in hopes of competing with Disney and pushing the company back to its former glory. It shows. This is quite frankly a beautifully-made movie. The animation is incredibly detailed--for example, there's a scene where Mrs. Brisby slips through a hole into a lighted room and her body cuts off the light for a couple seconds.

*Per my above comment, even the smallest details are important. In a flashback scene we meet Jonathan Brisby and he bears a strong resemblance to his children, particularly Timmy. That would have been something easy to overlook, but the creators didn't.

*There are subtle details in the narrative that are well-done as well. Mrs. Brisby says she can read a little because Jonathan taught her, but the children are better. This makes quite a lot of sense--she's an ordinary mouse, but her children were fathered by a mouse deliberately altered to be human-level intelligent. If his genes bred true, and it seems they did, then her children would be more intelligent than she is. And she's always addressed as "Mrs. Brisby" or "Mrs. Jonathan Brisby"--according to some fan theories I reviewed after watching the film, it's possible she might not have even had a name before she met Jonathan. After all, Auntie Shrew is called by her species and an honorary title rather than a human name like Martin or Teresa (the Brisby children), Jenner, Justinian, and Nicodemus (the NIMH rats), etc.

*Some of the characterization makes a lot of sense. I remember reading in a high school psychology book that an only boy in an otherwise female household (say a younger brother of several sisters) might either act exaggeratedly masculine (as "the man of the house") or more "effeminate" (in the context of the book, more sensitive and emotional). Martin seems to demonstrate the former--although he had a father and has a younger brother, Jonathan Brisby has been dead for some time and Timmy seems so much younger that Martin might as well be the only boy. And of course, he loudly insists he's not even afraid of the Great Owl and he's not very respectful to Auntie Shrew or to Jeremy, despite both of them being significantly bigger and Auntie Shrew apparently being a secondary mother-figure to them besides.

*The characterization of the Great Owl as a kind of god-like entity makes sense as well. Owls are associated with wisdom, but at the same time, to mice, rats, and even crows like Jeremy, an owl is a terrifying predator. To Mrs. Brisby, the Great Owl is awesome in the same sense God is--something that could bless or destroy. And just how the Great Owl demonstrates his power is subtle and clever.

*Elizabeth Hartman does a great job as the voice of Mrs. Brisby. I'd always thought Mrs. Brisby had a beautiful voice, and though it's not so nice the third time around, it's still well-done. And she does a good job showing the character's feelings--her fear for her children, her desire to be brave, her irritation with Jeremy.

*The dialogue is often extremely clever. I particularly noted how Mrs. Brisby is good at playing on Jeremy's various fixations and flattering him to get him to do things for her.

*Although Jenner is a little too obviously manipulative in places, he's very good at it. I can't go into details about how he uses Nicodemus's own words and desires for his own schemes without going into spoilers, but he's pretty smart about it.

*It's rather violent for a children's movie and it did scare me as a six-year-old, but that's not a bad thing. C.K. Chesterton said children already know dragons exist; the importance of fairy tales is that they tell children dragons can be killed. Evils like the overpowering force of NIMH or the farmer's plow, the selfish ambition, manipulation, and brutality of Jenner, or the cowardice and gullibility of Sullivan exist, but they can be beaten. I saw the original Land Before Time (also a Bluth film) in theaters at age four and it scared me, but I doubt it was particularly traumatic. This might be fine for kids a little older--first/second-graders rather than kindergartners like I was.

The Bad

*Subtlety is not the film's strong suite. Jenner is pretty obviously a bad guy--he looks distinctly lupine, far more overtly predatory than the other rats who escaped from NIMH. And when he's trying to persuade somebody, he's really quite oily in his body language and mannerisms.

*The books are very pro-science, with the rats using human technology or equivalents they can make from local resources. The film brings magic, or at least something that appears to be magic, into the equation, and it's that which ultimately proves more important. Now, one could simply claim this was some kind of more advanced science devised by Nicodemus (who also has a machine that allows him to scry/remote view) rather than anything overtly supernatural, but I shouldn't have to stretch that much for something that happens in the film to make sense.

The Verdict

It's not as good the third time around, but the fact it terrified me as a child and was a great movie in my 20s shows its quality. 9.0 out of 10.

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