“Jonathan Brisby was killed today. It is four years since our departure from NIMH, and our world is changing. We can not stay here much longer. Jonathan was a dear friend. I am lost in knowing how to deal with his widow. She knows nothing of us or the plan.”
When Don Bluth left Walt Disney, he led an exodus of some of the studio’s top talent. They were becoming disenchanted with the product Disney was producing at the time, and it is generally accepted that this was the dark ages of the studio. The group of animators joined Bluth and formed their own company, and the first film to come out of that collaboration was The Secret Of NIMH.
This is the story of a colony of mice and rats. Some have been exposed to a mysterious force at a place called NIMH. It has given them intelligence and the ability to read human writing. The group of rodents that have escaped from the experiments at NIMH have kept their ability hidden even from their own kind. But times are now changing. One of the mice, Jonathan Brisby, is now dead. The field where many have made their home is about to be plowed over. It’s Moving Day.
Mrs. Brisby (Hartman) is frantic. Her son Timothy (Fried) is ill and can’t be moved from his bed. But, it’s Moving Day, and it is just as dangerous to stay where he is. She seeks help from nearly every animal she knows . Finally The Great Owl (Carradine) sends her to the mysterious rats for help. There are secrets galore and deep mysteries, but Mrs. Brisby just wants to move their cinderblock house in time. The power of a mysterious amulet finally saves her son and home from disaster.
Bluth was like Walt himself in many ways. He was always trying to push the envelope on technology and he liked going to tried-and-true stories with a bit of a fairy tale appeal. He found all of these elements in the Robert C. O’Brien children’s novel Mrs. Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH. With quite a few changes in the story by mostly Bluth himself and his fellow producer Gay Goldman, the film hit the box office screens with more of a whimper than anything else. Fortunately, the film did get somewhat of a cult following as the movie worked its way through the home video market. There it found enough of an audience that a direct-to-video sequel was released, but that film paled in comparison to the original.
The animation is actually quite simple but has an elegance that really does remind one of the craftsmanship of the early years of Disney. But it’s not really the animation that sticks out. The story has enough whimsy and mystery to entertain adults while the animals themselves entertain the children. There is a lot of subtext here, and perhaps that explains why it never quite caught on as a children’s film. The cult following it enjoys today is owed most certainly to a decidedly adult audience.
The voice cast includes Dom DeLuise, a Don Bluth favorite, as a crow with a mixed-up love life. He’s intended as the comic relief and is one of the standout characters for the kiddies. Horror icon John Carradine lends perfect authority and mystery to the character of The Great Owl. A very young pre-Beverly Hills 90210 Shannen Doherty can be found as Teresa, a young child of Mrs. Brisby’s. This was one of her first acting gigs and came at age 10. Star Trek’s Wil Wheaton also enjoys one of his very first gigs here voicing Martin. This is a pre-Stand By Me performance. This would be the final project for Elizabeth Hartman, who voiced Mrs. Brisby. She died just a few years later at just 43, killing herself.
Since few people ever saw the film in its original release, the movie is known only by inferior home video releases. Finally, you have a chance to see the film in high definition with this Fox Blu-ray release. Jump on it, because it’s not likely to last in print.
The Secret Of NIMH is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. Unfortunately, the film shows its age. There’s plenty of dirt and scratches to remind you that the film you’re watching is 30 years old. The high-definition image does make up for this somewhat. Colors are pretty solid, and the animation appears quite smooth. Black levels are a bit better than average. The image is a bit soft, so don’t expect incredible sharpness throughout. This isn’t the transfer at all.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is a bit underwhelming throughout. The dialog is just fine, but there is no real dynamic range to the wonderful score. It all falls flat and sounds pretty much just like your DVD sounded. At least it’s very clear, and there is no noise or defect in the actual sound itself.
There is an Audio Commentary by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. It’s very quiet and laid back. There’s lots of information here, but they spend most of the time with little to say.
Secrets Behind The Secret Of NIMH: (14:25) Don Bluth and Gary Goldman reminisce about the production.
It’s a shame that Don Bluth never realized his dream of building an animation studio to rival Disney. I think he often thought of himself like Walt. He certainly put himself in the productions he made. Some of his choices are quite questionable, to say the least. It’s unfortunate that just as he was gathering steam, the studio he left would begin their renaissance. He would end up competing against Disney films like Beauty and The Beast and The Little Mermaid. The Secret Of NIMH was his first and greatest work since he’d left Disney. It’s worth a second, or more likely first look, to be sure. “The bravest hearts live in the meekest mice.”