Don Bluth, a legendary figure in the world of animation, may have, at least in part, come out of the Disney tradition, but looking at his first full length animated feature, The Secret of NIMH, one wouldn’t think Disney. Based on the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Secret is a dark film, much darker than your typical Disney animated feature.
Something of a mystical and convoluted story, Secret is about some of the smaller animals who live on and around a farm. The main character is Mrs. Brisby, a mouse who must prepare her family to move as winter is ending and the farmer’s plow is going to destroy her house. Mrs. Brisby, however, can’t move as one of her children is too sick to go anywhere. She manages to secure some medicine to make her boy better, but he still needs several weeks to recuperate.
In an attempt to find a way to stave off the plow, Mrs. Brisby is told to go visit the rats as they can move things and that’s when the story gets exceptionally weird. The rats are super-intelligent rats who have been given injections by the folks at the National Institute of Mental Health and who then escaped and have been happily living in the rose bush on the farm.
Trust me, it works much better than it sounds as though it might, and once it gets into rat politics it gets even better. Without delving into too many of the specifics, some of the rats are quite happy with their life and stealing from others while a different group of rats, and the rats’ leader, Nicodermus, feel as though they ought to live in a self-sustaining manner.
The Secret of NIMH is a fantastical, dark, interesting, animated feature. However, it is also a movie that raises more questions than it answers and some younger viewers may be frustrated by that. Rather than having a clear opening and closing, Secret drops you off in the middle of a story, a story in which so much has already happened. There is a brief flashback sequence which helps clue the audience in a little more, but which doesn’t lay everything bare. Between that and the distinctly dark nature of the movie—and right up until the closing scene it is a very dark movie—this is not one for the youngest members of the viewing audience no matter how cute the mice might be and how funny Jeremy, the crow, looks and acts.
On the other hand, for those who care to examine it, the story is exceedingly interesting and can truly cause one to think about not the way in which we pursue knowledge as much as the way in which we interact with our environment. It is also, it must be said, a beautiful and brilliantly animated feature. There are not only interesting camera angles and shots that you wouldn’t necessarily see in a typical animated movie, but it is exceptionally well realized and the darker scenes (like the plow going on its run) are mesmerizingly great.
Unfortunately, the Blu-ray release of The Secret of NIMH wholly fails to do justice to the visuals. The movie is full of scratches and noise, and terribly inconsistent in its presentation from one scene (or shot) to the next. You will come across some very clear, very well defined and detailed shots one minute, only to get something far more muddled the next. The titles that appear at the opening of the film look particularly poor, with something of a shadow image underneath and with a trail to the right (almost as if the letters had zoomed in from the right, which they don’t, and arriving at the center of the screen but with a blurry ghost image from where they came on). There is also a flicker from time to time. The audio track is an 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is what the film had upon release and which works far better than the visuals. Looking at the dirty, scratched print one would have thought that the soundtrack would feature the same dirty, scratched nature, but it does not. It is actually a rather good track, well mixed, and features good music and effects.
MGM has again opted to go without a real menu on the release which is something of a shame. As for the special features, there is a previously released audio commentary with Bluth and collaborator Gary Goldman (story adaptation, producer, and directing animator) which delves into this first feature they did outside Disney, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. Neither is a must watch/listen, but both hold your attention well enough and provide a nice sense of background on how the film came about.
The Secret of NIMH is a fascinating animated feature. It is a dark departure from so many other animated movies, but spellbinding. It may not hook everyone, but those willing to go for the ride will be amazed by not just the story and the questions it doesn’t answer, but by the look and way it has all been put together.