Director: Don Bluth
Release date: July 3, 1982
Dissatisfied with the studio’s policies, Don Bluth left the Walt Disney Studio in 1979, taking some fellow animators with him, thus severely delaying the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).
Bluth set up his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, to make animated features in the spirit of the early Disney masterpieces he admired. In doing so, he became the first serious competitor of Disney in the animated feature field since Max Fleischer, who had made two animated features in 1939 and 1941.
‘The Secret of NIMH’ was the brand new studio’s first feature, and a testimony of Don Bluth’s high ambitions. Like ‘The Fox and the Hound’ it is set in more or less modern times, in a rural era, but here all similarities stop. ‘The Secret of NIMH’ is darker, and more mature than Disney’s film. It’s more akin to the earlier ‘The Rescuers‘ (it’s about mice and a rescue mission), to Disney’s next movie ‘The Black Cauldron'(grim atmosphere, swords and sorcery), and even to the non-Disney film ‘Watership Down’ (rodents grouped in all too familiar societies, a goofy bird helping the heroes). The rich and detailed backgrounds look all the way back to ‘Pinocchio’ (1940) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Despite all its ambitions, the film therefore lacks a forward-looking vision. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful film, and both the voice cast and the Disney-school animation are top notch throughout.
The story is based on the children’s novel ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ by Robert C. O’Brien, and tells about the mouse Mrs. Brisby (a mother, a very rare type of hero in animation films), who tries to protect her sick son from the coming of the field-destroying tractor. In her quest she gets help from the goofy crow Jeremy and by a society of highly intelligent rats, living in a bush nearby.
The whole atmosphere is dark, and grim; the cat, the spider and the owl all look way scarier than anything in any Disney film since ‘Fantasia’ (1940), and there are no less than three deaths in the end. The rats also bring in some misplaced and hard-to-believe fantasy elements, including a magic mirror, an amulet with gravity-defying powers, and an epic sword-fight.
In spite of the great voice acting, the only characters really to come off are Mrs. Brisby (great acting by Elizabeth Hartman), Aunt Shrew (Hermione Baddely), and Jeremy the crow (voiced by comic actor Dom DeLuise). The rats come into the story rather late and one gets the feeling that Bluth wanted to tell too much in too little time, leaving the viewer puzzled after the film is over.
With all its flaws, ‘The Secret of NIMH’ remains Bluth’s most satisfying film, together with one of his last films, ‘Anastasia’ (1997). After ‘The Secret of NIMH’ Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make the more successful ‘An American Tail’ (1986) and ‘Land before Time’ (1988), but after those more commercial and less original films his productions became more uneven and forgettable, never fulfilling the promise he appeared to have made with his firstborn.
Watch ‘The Secret of NIMH’ yourself and tell me what you think: