Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia

Oooh, A Sparkly: The Secret of NIMH

Happy almost holidays, Tor.com! Please join me for the last Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia of the year, won’t you?

Today’s entry is by popular request: 1982’s animated classic The Secret of NIMH! Yay!

Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.

And now, the post!

MOM: Which one are you doing next again?

ME: The Secret of NIMH. The animated one? With the rats, and the crow, and—

MOM: Oh, that one. I hated that one.

KATE: What? Why?

MOM: I was horrified y’all were watching it. I don’t care if it was a cartoon, that was not a kids’ movie.

And on watching the movie again, my sisters and I… really had to rather agree with her.

I don’t know how long it’s been since you watched The Secret of NIMH, O My Peeps, but I’m here to tell you: this movie is hella dark. Especially for an animated movie supposedly meant for family consumption. Which shouldn’t have been a shock to us, but nevertheless kind of was. Possibly because none of us had seen it in at least a decade (Kate thinks it was more like two decades for her), and yeah, there were clearly some details we had forgotten in the interim.

LIZ: I remember that it scared me as a kid – especially the owl! – but I thought that was just me being a kid. Now, well, I dunno.

The owl scene was gnarly, y’all. The cobwebs, and the SPIDER (eek), and the owl’s limp, and Don Bluth’s weird thing about showing old age by giving characters boils all over their skin—

KATE: Zits.

Wow, even worse. And that’s not even to mention the straight up double assassination scene at the end, which even shows blood – traditionally a big no-no in any violence under an R rating, animated or otherwise.

LIZ: No, the worst was the scene at NIMH showing the rats getting injected and tortured, and all the sad caged monkeys and rabbits and, ugh.

ME: So y’all didn’t like it?

KATE: What? No, of course we did.

LIZ: This movie is gorgeous. Dark, but gorgeous.

She’s not wrong. Age-zits notwithstanding, the animation on NIMH (Don Bluth’s first feature-length film, by the way) went all out in the “visually arresting” arena, combining the shadowy gloomy backgrounds with amazing blends and pops of color, along with enough sparkly bits to make Jeremy the crow swoon.

Liz pointed out the subdued but beautiful rainbow palette of practically every scene, and commiserated over how long it must have taken to get some of the reflective/shiny/transparent effects properly done. This is old school animation, you guys; everything done by hand, in painstaking layers over layers and multiple camera passes and manual rotoscoping and the whole enchilada to achieve the look they wanted. I love me some computer animation, don’t get me wrong, and really by all accounts it’s just as difficult to make as traditional animation, but there’s something about doing a thing by hand, and how obvious what a meticulous labor of love it is to create something like this film, that resonates.

Even if, admittedly, some of Bluth’s choices made more sense aesthetically than they did, er, sensically. Much later (but still a long time ago), I read the 1971 novel by Richard C. O’Brien that the film was based on, and while I don’t remember too much about it, I do remember being quite surprised to discover that the mystical/magical elements in the film were not present in the source material at all; Bluth had added the amulet and Nicodemus being a magician and the big cinderblock-levitating scene at the end and so forth his damn self. He apparently said at the time that it was to add a “spiritual” element to the movie, but really I think it was just an excuse to have as many sparkly glowy firey badass-looking effects in the movie as possible.

LIZ: …I’m okay with that, really.

Heh. Yes, the magic bits were very pretty, no doubt, but they really made no sense in the context of the story. I mean, supposing that experimental drugs/chemicals from a US government agency end up conveying mystical/supernatural powers to its victims is… well, okay, fine, this is hardly the first time anyone’s ran with that general storyline, but still, it seems pretty random in NIMH.

(Interestingly, in my research for this post I was unable to find any kind of reaction or response, then or later, from the real actual National Institute of Mental Health on the film’s unsubtle depiction of it as a heartless animal abusing charnel house. Though if you would like to be horrified, you can read about this possibly apocryphal claim about the inspiration for the story.)

KATE: I also don’t understand why the rats all dress like they’re in a production of King Lear.

I don’t either, really, but I have a half-assed theory about it alluding to their comparative civilization level versus humans. (Also that while it may be weird that the rats have little swords, it would be much, much weirder if they had tiny guns.)

I vaguely recall something from the novel making a big deal about their choice to wear clothes being a sign of the rats’ intelligence, but if so the film rather thoroughly torpedoes that by having non-experimented-on animals wear clothing too. Mrs. Brisby and her kids might be excused by way of having her late husband Jonathan as an influence, true, but that doesn’t explain Auntie Shrew’s matronly garb. And really, are either she or Mrs. Brisby actually less intelligent than the rats or Mr. Ages are? It doesn’t seem like it to me – not on a species-differentiating level, anyway.

KATE: Auntie Shrew gets shit done, that’s for sure.

That she does. Another thing NIMH does really well, by accident or design, is how well it conveys the sometimes unbelievable bravery required of a woman, and especially a mother, who is obliged to fend for herself in a mostly uncaring and often contemptuous world. True, most mothers aren’t specifically dealing with gigantic tractors coming to mow down their houses or having to beard a more-or-less-literal lion in his den (for what is a cat to a mouse but a lion, I ask you?), but these days, Mrs. Brisby’s desperation for anyone to help her with a dangerously sick child and an untenable living situation, neither of which being something anyone else (aside from Auntie Shrew) seems to care about too much, struck a lot closer to home than perhaps was originally intended.

LIZ: They could have at least given her an actual frickin’ name, though.

Truth. Fans of the movie have unofficially named her “Elizabeth”, in honor of her voice actress Elizabeth Hartman, but that doesn’t mollify me much. I tried really hard not to be annoyed that with one exception, none of the other (male) characters seemed to attribute any value to her at all except as an adjunct to her late husband, to the extent of making that her entire identity, but I can reliably report that I did not succeed.

KATE: Well, except the crow. He liked her for her!

Yeah, Jeremy the crow was just clueless about her plight instead of callous. Granted, when I’m in a bad mood I don’t tend to think that’s much better, but hey.

LIZ: Aw, I loved the crow!

I think Liz mostly just loves the delightfully goofy way Jeremy was animated, in that signature and unmistakable Don Bluth style, but she is also right that he provided a badly-needed bright spot in an otherwise fairly grim and gritty tale. So I don’t actually hate him; I just kind of wanted to punch him in the head at a couple of junctures where he was making Mrs. Brisby’s life more complicated, when that was the last goddamn thing she needed at that point, sheesh.

Jeremy, of course, was voiced by very popular-at-the-time comedian Dom Deluise, who has previously appeared in the MRGN (albeit almost unrecognizably) as PIZZA THE HUT! in Spaceballs. He joined a not-stellar but still mildly impressive cast (in an old school way). Most notable, perhaps, is legendary character actor John Carradine as the stentorian Great Owl, but you also had Derek Jacobi as Nicodemus and Arthur Malet as Mr. Ages, which is hilarious because Malet pretty much had the market cornered on portraying excessively grumpy old codgers long before he actually was one.

Also hilarious: both Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton were in this cast too, as Teresa and Martin Brisby, respectively. This is part of a slowly evolving theory I’m working on about Wil Wheaton being, secretly or not, part of every last goddamn kids movie produced in the 80s. HE’S EVERYWHERE AAAAAAAHHH!

I confess, I had a HUGE crush on Justin back in the day. I didn’t realize until this viewing that the reason might have been less that he was the prototypical hero figure, and more that he was the only male character in the entire film who treated Mrs. Brisby with courtesy and respect, even before he found out who her late husband was, and who never once doubted either her word or her courage. All these other losers, including Nicodemus with his needless Dumbledore-y crypticness and Mr. Ages with his dismissive you’re-just-an-hysterical-mother bullshit, can fuck right off as far as I’m concerned. More Justins in this world, I cry!

Aside from that, I was fascinated by him, and really all of the rats in the rose tree, perhaps precisely because we get so very little information on them and their deal in the movie. All the business with Jenner and Sullivan and the politics and the coup attempt gives you very much of a “walked in on the third act of a Shakespeare play” vibe, and while it works on that level, I sort of wish that the film had been able to expand on that whole situation a little more.

But then again, maybe it works better that the rats’ drama is really just a sideshow to the central story. Which is Mrs. Brisby’s, and really quite the traditional Hero’s Journey, at that: her literal quest to save her son, which she accomplishes by venturing out from her small world, seeking out knowledge, braving untold dangers, making allies where she had none, slaying drugging the Dragon, and finding in the end that she had the power to save her family within herself the whole time.

Our mother was right; The Secret of NIMH wasn’t – and isn’t – really a movie for kids at all. But that might be why we appreciated it more as adults. It was a sad and dark and beautiful and weird and creepy and fascinating and strangely meditative film that probably had no business ever getting off the ground, much less going on to become a classic, but gosh, I’m glad it did.

And as nearly always, we close with our Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!

Nostalgia: 6

Reality: 8 (Liz: “one whole point added just for the animation!”)


And that’s the MRGN for 2017, kids! I wish you all a wonderful end-of-year celebrational thingy, in whatever configuration that works for you, and I’ll see you with fresh pickin’s in 2018! Cheers!

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