Going back to the 1980s, there wasn’t a whole lot of variety in American feature animation. There were the Disney films, and every now and then a smaller animated feature would pop up. In 1982, one such animated feature was The Secret of NIMH. What was different in this case was that NIMH launched the career of director Don Bluth, who would go on to create a number of “Disney alternatives” during the 80s and 90s. Not all of Don Bluth’s movies have aged gracefully (I would argue that the majority of them are best left to memory) but Secret of NIMH has held up decently, even if it has its share of bumps.
The Secret of NIMH tells the story of a field mouse named Mrs. Brisby. Her husband has passed on, leaving her to care for her four children. One of her sons is gravely ill with pneumonia, and is bedridden. This happens at the worst possible time, as the local farmer has began plowing the field, and Mrs. Brisby and her family must leave their home, but her son could die of his illness should he leave his bed.
This leads Mrs. Brisby – with the help of an obligatory sidekick in Jeremy the Crow – to search for a different means of moving her family. She seeks the aid of “The Great Owl” who in turn tells her to recruit the help of the “Rats of NIMH,” who are escaped lab rats that have gained human intelligence through experimentation. The rats might have the technology necessary to move Brisby’s home without removing her son from it.
It’s actually a pretty interesting setup, and the idea of making the main character of an animated feature a concerned mother is still pretty unique even today. But some problems arise as the movie goes on, as it can never seem to decide on its tone, and an overabundance of characters and story elements hamper an otherwise enjoyable film.
The Secret of NIMH seems to have trouble deciding whether it wants to be an adventurous animated film for an adult crowd, or a darker animated feature for children. It was certainly darker than Disney’s movies of the time, with some scary images and brief moments of blood. But it’s never as dark or sophisticated as it would like to be. Nor is it as whimsical as it thinks it is. There are some elements of magic and fantasy randomly sprinkled throughout, and the plot has some charming elements, but they ultimately feel lost in the rest of the film.
The Secret of NIMH plays a balancing act with its two tones, but in the end it loses that balance, as neither of these two halves mesh together. It wanted to break new ground for animated features by combining the charming aspects of animation with a more mature narrative, but it was never willing to pull the trigger and fully commit to its unique concept.
The story also has more aspects than it knows what to do with. It starts off well enough, as the story of Mrs. Brisby is interesting and she’s an easy character to root for, but as the story keeps adding more and more elements the heart of the story gets lost in all the commotion, and many of these elements end up feeling underdeveloped.
The rats of NIMH, for example, have their own host of characters. The sagely Nicodemus is their leader, Justin is their heroic captain of the guard, and the plotting Jenner serves as the film’s antagonist. Nicodemus gets a fair deal of screen time, but mostly serves to provide backstory and exposition. Justin seems to be built as a potential romantic interest for the widowed Brisby, but it’s a quickly forgotten aspect. And Jenner’s presence in the film is so minor and sporadic it’s not too hard to imagine the film working better if there were no villain.
There’s also Jeremy the Crow, whose never-ending quest to find a mate would have probably been better suited for a more lighthearted movie. And the Great Owl, who at first is built as an important character, is quickly forgotten.
Despite these fallbacks, The Secret of NIMH is ultimately more good than bad: Its visuals rivaled any Disney movie of the time, with detailed character animation and backgrounds. It has an interesting premise that, in its more focused moments, tells a good story. And Mrs. Brisby makes for a good (if maybe not complex) main character.
The Secret of NIMH has earned a reputation over the years as a cult classic. Although it doesn’t quite live up to that reputation due to its fluctuating narrative and too many unmemorable characters, it still provides a fun, unique, visually striking animated film that has aged much better than most of Don Bluth’s filmography.