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The Secret of NIMH (1982)

March 14th, 2012 by unkle lancifer · 15 Comments

I need to start watching more animation. Movies in general are stellar transportation out of my dilapidated noggin but it seems animated movies have the power to drop me off at a bus stop happily even farther away from my home. Was I just hanging out with a bunch of talking animals? I could get used to that. Inspired by a reader’s comment in one of our posts (Thanks Drew Bludd!), I jumped into THE SECRET OF NIMH, a film I caught back in the day on cable that I didn’t recall too much about. Now, I think anybody at any age should be able to enjoy SECRET but I don’t think I made the best audience at whatever age I encountered it the first time. Back then I was probably thinking animation suited a younger crowd while still being too immature to appreciate the incredible level of artistry present. Currently I’m flattened and floored by the accomplishment that is THE SECRET OF NIMH. What a beautiful thing. Everybody who works in animation out there who keeps the tradition alive, my grateful eyeballs salute you. (You won’t catch me disparaging computer animation though on account of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON alone validates its existence.)

I can’t comment on how good an adaptation SECRET is of the book it’s based on because I have not read it (yet!) but I can say that if I would drink all the colors in this movie if I could. There may be some flaws in that certain story elements are fuzzier than necessary and things are a bit too conveniently mended by magic in the end but I’m starting to believe that flaws are what keep art from becoming stagnant and dull. SECRET is perhaps dark but it’s a beautiful kind of dark and darkness here only serves to brighten the positive light that it frames.

I’m sure some kids could easily get wigged out by the hideous monster spider that appears but without said spider, how could we fully marvel at the bravery of heroine Mrs. Brisby? Brisby is my favorite type of hero. She’s not looking for trouble and she’s in no way on an ego trip trying to prove her pluck. She simply does what must be done. The dilemma here is that there’s a tractor coming that will flatten her house but she can’t move her youngest kid because he’s sick as a dog; harrowing scene after harrowing scene ensue. I’m telling ya, watching Brisby face an assortment of intimidating obstacles to reach her goal makes for some surprisingly suspenseful fare. If it wasn’t for Jonsey, I think Brisby and ALIEN’s Lt. Ripley would make great pals.

Another thing that makes Mrs. Brisby a special rodent is the fact that she is voiced by ELIZABETH HARTMAN and it’s the last film credit of her career. HARTMAN was nominated for an Oscar for her film debut in A PATCH OF BLUE and at the time, she was the youngest person ever to be nominated. I’m most familiar with her due to her work in that exceptional CLINT EASTWOOD flick THE BEGUILED and for the NIGHT GALLERY episode she appears in called “The Dark Boy.” Sadly, mental health issues hounded this great actress and while her popularity declined, she became a recluse and eventually took her own life by jumping out a fifth story window. How’s that for depressing? Other folks that lend their voice talents are DOM DeLUISE as a bumbling crow and JOHN CARADINE as threatening but knowledgeable owl. SECRET is also the first film credit for both SHANNEN DOHERTY and WIL WEATON. Yep, it’s true that this movie is heavier than the usual kid friendly fare but therein lies its power.

I suppose it’s no surprise that I’m all for more challenging, less candy-coated fare for children and it’s not because of a secret self-serving plan to harvest more traumafessions in the future, I swear! Fact is, the world can be a rather horrible place and as much as it would be nice to keep children in the dark about that fact as long as possible, allowing them to safely process that idea before it becomes obvious, I believe, buffers the jolt. I’m no parent but I can readily recall what it was like to be a kid and thank God I had the darker side of cinema to let me know that what darkness was in my life was not exclusively attached to me.

The important thing here is not the level of threat that confronts Brisby but the level of courage and determination she exudes while confronting those threats. Maybe that seems like no big deal but considering the fate of the troubled woman who voiced her, it’s important to remember that the difference between plowing forward regardless of what ugliness appears and giving up is in fact, gargantuan.

Tags: Caution: I break for geniuses! · Repeat Offenders · Trauma-Mommas · Tykes in Trouble

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    …and I forgot to mention excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith!!!!! (Poltergeist, Psycho 2, Gremlins etc.)

  • 2 Drew BluddNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Way to go, Unk!

  • 3 Eric EddyNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Old Don Bluth stuff beats the living crap out of a lot of other animated films. If you want a great animated film, check out “The Plague Dogs.”

  • 4 Eric EddyNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Also, mentioning Don Bluth, some of his other great films include “An American Tail” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” which both feature very dark story elements as well, considering they are both pretty much feel good movies.

  • 5 GrokensteinNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    The book is an exceptionally intelligent children’s read, but pretty unfilmable as-is; the movie’s villain, Jenner, is already dead (his rebellious and fatal adventure in town off the Fitzgibbons’ farm attracts NIMH’s attention to the area), and consequently the house-move goes off without a hitch, and there are no political assassinations, sword-fights, back-stabbing or throat-slashing. The climax, basically, is Mrs. Brisby’s escape from the cage. No sparks between Mrs. B and Justin. No magic. Hell, even the horrifying silent Brutus is just a big, (relatively) dumb rat in the book.

    …I’ll tell you, my heart almost leapt out of my throat when that colander came down.

    God, yes, that score. It wasn’t the first Goldsmith score I’d heard, but it was the one that made me start paying attention to the composer’s names. Jerry Goldsmith remains my favorite composer to this day.

  • 6 arthur teagardenNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    “I always wanted a sparkly of my very own!”

  • 7 El BorakNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    loved this movie as a kid.

  • 8 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Mar 14, 2012 at 9:54 pm


    Thanks for getting me to watch this one again! More proof that 1982 was the best year ever.


    All Dogs go to Heaven is on Netflix streaming too. I’ll be watching that one soon.


    Thanks for the info on the differences between the film and book. I do want to read that. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize how great Goldsmith is. I’ve always had the Psycho 2 album but it seems lately I keep coming across more and more Goldsmith stuff that really stands out. He is awesome.


    I can see why, It’s really something else. I think if I ever have to buy a present for someone’s kid it will be this movie.!


  • 9 Hail AntsNo Gravatar // Mar 15, 2012 at 3:00 am

    Way back in the late 70s while home sick from school I watched a PBS show called ‘Gather Round’ were an artist would slowly draw a scene from a young adult novel while reading it at the same time. One episode featured ‘Mrs Frisby & the Rats of NIMH’. I was very impressed with just the small part of it. Fast forward many years and this movie was on HBO one afternoon. It was neat finding out that this was indeed based on that book (name changed due to Frisbee toy) but also because it was such a wonderful film. Perfect really.

    And for those who don’t know Don Bluth was a Disney animator frustrated at the horrible state animation had reached by the late 70s so he and several others at Disney quit and formed their own production company. Secret of NIMH was their debut project and it truly started a renaissance in great animation, eventually even causing Disney to get back to greatness. Disney, Dreamworks, PIXAR and everyone else all owe a huge debt to Bluth & company for this fantastic film!

  • 10 bdwilcoxNo Gravatar // Mar 15, 2012 at 7:09 am

    To this day, I still consider “The Iron Giant” the finest piece of animated art I’ve ever seen and it, too, has that same element of “animated children’s film more appreciated by adults.”

  • 11 bdwilcoxNo Gravatar // Mar 15, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Hail Ants,

    Was Gather Round the one with John Robbins, the guy sporting the Freddy Mercury mustache? He had a few series with the same theme. I remember “Read It with John Robbins” and “Books from Cover to Cover”. They must have been on in the early 80’s to early 90’s. Wonder what happened to him and the shows? Can’t find a clip anywhere.

  • 12 bdwilcoxNo Gravatar // Mar 15, 2012 at 7:43 am

    This is the only clip of John Robbin’s I could find. His show was usually on the same time as creepy episodes of Slim Goodbody, 3-2-1 Contact, and that other show with the woman with the short hair who would teach you how your body works. Then I would flip over to watch The Magic Garden (which was only aired in the northeastern US, if I remember correctly).

  • 13 El BorakNo Gravatar // Mar 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

    i loved the swords.
    and there’s something about that glowing golden light animation. i’ve never seen anything better than that. really felt magical.

  • 14 Eric EddyNo Gravatar // Mar 15, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Don’t forget to check out “The Plague Dogs” whenever you get the chance, Unk. It used to be on Netflix streaming, but unfortunately it was removed. It is by the same author and animation studio that brought us “A Watership Down.”

  • 15 Hail AntsNo Gravatar // Mar 20, 2012 at 5:17 am

    I think it was actually ‘Cover to Cover’ that I saw NIMH on, with John Robbins. ‘Gather Round’ was a similar show that was hosted by the same guy who narrated the Robbins drawings (I think).

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