The rumours are false.
I did not, repeat, did not, panic when the editors of the Review suggested that I choose a film that reflected on the warmth & cheer of the yuletide season. A family movie in keeping with the tone of the Christmas issue. In other words, Something Nice.
As if they didn’t trust me.
So, what exactly is it about Christmas that makes I Walked With a Zombie seem so appropriate? Just kidding. Mind you, the type of film that I’m reviewing this month—high-quality, family-oriented, feature-length animation—is almost as rare a species nowadays as the aforementioned Living Dead. But rare is better than extinct. The Secret of NIMH (1882) was the very loving product of a group of idealistic “rebel” Disney animators who, working out of director Don Bluth’s garage, tried to bring back the standards of the Golden Age of Walt Disney magic.
Based on an award-winning children’s book by Robert O’Brien, The Secret of NIMH is both a marvellous cliff-hanger and a wonderland of eccentric characters. As the heroic house-mom Mrs. Brisby attempts to save her home & children from the farmer’s plough, she must brave meetings with the Great Owl (eyes like suns and voice like thunder coming down) roosting like a cobweb-enshrouded stone eidolon in the blackness of a bone-strewn cavern, with the brilliant rats of NIMH (rodent Einsteins, refugees from a science experiment gone awry who’ve built an electric Eden under an enormous rose bush), and with Jeremy, the most endearing character of all—a crow with two left wings and two left feet.
Jeremy’s a hero whose well-intentioned gallantries inevitably run afoul (pun intended) of an invincible klutziness. What we have here, folks, is a genuinely heroic lack of coordination. Ever ready to aid a damsel in distress, Jeremy’s glorious gift for bumbling usually leaves the damsel wondering if distress might be safer than rescue. If, as one of the rats says, they are prone to take themselves too seriously, Jeremy’s presence ensures that Don Bluth’s film has no such failing.
Along with an excellent story line and vivid characters, animation this ambitious needs to have a couple of other things going for it. The voices of the characters must be as memorable as the way they are drawn. Dom DeLuise as Jeremy, John Carradine as the Great Owl, Derek Jacobi as the Nicodemus, and Paul Shenar as the demagogic Jenner are all outstanding.
As for the second “must have,” those of you who watch Saturday morning cartoons with your children have probably noticed that background detail in such cartoons is about as rich as that on generic cat food cans. Although computer-assisted animation may change this situation, almost all the finest design work still goes into the production of animated short films that the general public, outside of International Film Festivals in large cities, never sees. The Secret of NIMH gives us a chance to feast our eyes on some astonishing backdrops—the owl’s cavern, a dilapidated old water mill, the rats’ high-tech sanctuary, Mr. Ages’ workshop, the farmer’s fields. My single favorite image is the absurd one of a long file of silhouetted rats carrying a stolen electrical extension cord from the farmhouse to the eerily glowing rose bush.
As so often and so rightly in fantasy, the abiding message in Mrs. Brisby’s story is the transcendent power of love over all. Even Jeremy finds a compatibly accident-prone companion. For a holiday treat, let your children (and yourself) be caught by the kind of spell that can be cast when 17 craftspeople with a palette of some 600 colours, a million and a half drawings, the support of some fine actors, and a great story to tell do animation the way it’s ‘spozed to be done.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Doing my due diligence for this movie might have been a mistake. I thought I’d read Robert C. O’Brien’s novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, before I watched the film again. I hadn’t looked at the book when I wrote my first review. For a story about rats and mice that may be smarter than we are, the book has a surprisingly realistic tone. The shadow of death and danger hangs over it, but without going out of its way to be fashionably grim. This is farm, field, and forest, but not “nature red in tooth and claw. O’Brien neither talks down to his audience nor goes out of his way to have his characters be more than good-hearted, brave souls trying to do their best in a world that’s not always kind. Here’s the way Nicodemus, the leader of the rats of NIMH, describes their lives after their escape from the lab that was using them as test subjects:
“And now began a journey that was to last, with some interruptions, for almost two years. Parts of it were pleasant (i8t was a joyful feeling, at first, just to be free again and to get those laboratory collars off), and parts of it were terrible. I have made notes about all of it, and if the time ever comes when rats publish books of their own, I intent to write a book about it. It would be a long book, full of trouble and danger, too much to tell now. It was in one of the dangerous times that I lost my eye and got the scar you see on my face.
But we did have some happy times, and some pieces of great good luck, two in particular, that help to explain how we got here and what our plans are now.”
There’s a kind of nobility mixed with sadness and wonder here that’s reminiscent of another character in an experiment gone awry—Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. It’s also the one finds in the best animated work of Hayao Miyazaki.
How much of this tone has survived in Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH? Precious little. There is some superb background work and set design,”and the animation of all of the main characters (with the exception of the cat, who looks more ursine than feline) is excellent. The scene with the Great Owl is splendid. There’s also a firs-rate voice cast, including Derek Jacobi, Elizabeth Hartman, Dom DeLuise, Aldo Ray, Shannon Doherty, Hermione Baddeley, Wil Wheaton, John Carradine, Paul Shenar, and Peter Strauss. I think the problem is Bluth’s long apprenticeship with Disney Studios. He began working at Disney in 1956, and was intensely involved there from 1972-79. In 1979 he quit his job and set up his own company, taking 18 Disney employees with him. Bluth felt that his former employer was no longer living up to the high standards that had been previously set. The Secret of NIMH was his first feature-length attempt to raise the bar. And strictly in terms of quality of animation, he succeeded. It wouldn’t be until 1989 that Disney reasserted itself with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Unfortunately, along with Disney’s original obsession with quality, Bluth seems to have inherited a fondness for certain predictable Disney tropes: (1) there have to be in-your-face comic relief characters; (2) there has to be a super villain; (3) there has to be some magical mumbo jumbo. None of these are in the book. None of them needed to be added to the story. None of them help the film. By spending so much time on comic relief and on the villain, Bluth sidelines the rats that are integral to the original story—rats that are actually working on building a new civilization to set beside our own. By adding mystic mumbo-jumbo to the climax, the film makes it impossible for the viewer to empathize with, and admire, the characters’ abilities to meet their own challenges with creativity, cooperation, effort, intelligence and pluck. By making the central conflict personal rather than situational, the film ramps up the level of violence. I’ll take the book’s final gesture of heroic self-sacrifice over the movie’s literal knife in the back any day.
That said, I’m now going to go back and look at what I wrote in my original review. I expect that this will be the first time that I’m arguing with myself.