Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

This one was a huge favorite when I was younger. I rediscovered it when I picked up the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, and it brought back a ton of memories. I resisted seeing the actual film for a while, but eventually I saw in on Netflix download and I gave it a watch. Was it as good as I remembered?

Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) is a field mouse living in a farmer’s field with her two daughters and two sons. She discovers that her son Timothy has pneumonia and at the worst possible time. The spring thaw has arrived and she must move her family to safety before the farmer’s tractor destroys her home. With the help of a goofy crow named Jeremy (Dom DeLuise) she contacts the mysterious Great Owl (John Carradine) who tells her to seek out Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), an ancient rat who rules over a colony of his kind in the rose bush. But these mysterious rats have a dangerous past, one that ties directly to her husband. Will The Secrete of NIMH help or hinder our brave little mouse?

Good Points:
  • The animation and direction creates an amazing atmosphere
  • Goldsmith’s score is masterfully executed
  • A strong female main character 

Bad Points:
  • Gets very dark and scary in many places
  • The animal experimentation my disturb some viewers
  • Many changes from the original book 

All in all, this movie really held up. Visually it is certainly impressive, with a quality to the animation that was certainly equal to what Disney was doing at the time. The darkness of the story as well as the settings really gives it a unique feel, and Goldsmith’s cinematic score adds to the excitement. DeLuise and much of the supporting cast add a dash of humor. The result is a well-balanced family adventure.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Some people call this Bluth’s best film, and I’m inclined to agree with them. While his later films like An American Tail and The Land Before Time were more popular, The Secret of NIMH really feels like a complete world unto itself. The merging of vivid color with darkness creates visuals that hadn’t been seen in American animation prior to this, and were never really delved into again. In fact I’ve only seen this type of coloring used in Japanese anime and nearly a decade later. From an animation perspective, this film is a fine example of how effective hand drawn style can be.

The voice acting is also handled extremely well. Hartman just nails the role of Mrs. Brisby, making her warm and caring as a mother and passionate and brave as a hero. Without her excellent voice work the film would not have the effect it does. She’s on screen for nearly the entire film and never drops the ball. Jacobi is nearly unidentifiable as Nicodemus, adding a weakness to his voice that fits the ancient rat perfectly. He is the old wizard of this hero myth and plays the part perfectly.  Even DeLuise who does his same shtick here, is given just enough time on screen to provide some laughs and fun without derailing the film. Carradine as the Great Owl adds the perfect mixture of menace and wisdom that the role requires. Paul Shenar makes the wicked rat Jenner a nice mustache-twirling villain.

This is one of the first American animated movie scores that did not focus on mimicking the actions in the music. Up to this point, most of Dinsey’s scores accentuated comedy scenes and action scenes by having the orchestra provide a kind of sound effect for each movement. Instead Goldsmith tackled The Secret of NIMH like a film, scoring scenes based on the emotions the character is feeling, building dread by creating atmosphere with the music and accenting the heroics with full-bodied statements of the main theme. Most modern animated films are scored this way, but Goldsmith was the first to do it so successfully in this film (and again in Mulan).
If there is anything that doesn’t quite measure up it’s the overall story, which is pretty familiar to anyone who knows the heroic myths. All the beats are there, from Mrs. Brisby refusing the call to adventure, to her being captured and nearly killed, to using her newfound power to save the day. So there are no surprises here. But what makes these stories work is when they do something different with the trappings. Visually and musically the Secret of NIMH manages just that. It might get a little scary for little ones at times (the scenes with The Great Owl and Mrs. Brisby’s first exploration of the rosebush are dark and intense), but a happy ending awaits the viewer. Can’t ask more much more than that.


  1. Good review. I remember watching this movie as a kid.

  2. Thanks! If you still enjoy animation, this one is well worth the revisit.