Directed by Don Bluth
Story Adaptation by Don Bluth & John Pomeroy & Gary Goldman & Will Finn from a novel by Robert C. O’Brien.
Starring (voices) Derek Jacobi, Elizabeth Hartman, Arthur Malet, Dom DeLuise, Hermoine Baddley, Shannon Doherty, Wil Wheaton, John Carradine, Ian Fried
Back in the 80s, Disney had almost a monopoly on animated films, and the genre was in dire condition. Disney was in a creative slump, the animation department releasing only three feature length films in the 1970s,* of indifferent quality. Their first 80s film, The Fox and the Hound also unimpressive and Disney seemed content to rerelease their classics every seven years to a new audience of kids. It was in this atmosphere that Don Bluth put together The Secret of NIMH.
Bluth had worked with Disney starting with Sleeping Beauty, but set off on his own, getting the rights to Robert C. O’Brien’s Newberry Award winning novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.**
Mrs. Brisby (voice of Elizabeth Hartman) is a widowed field mouse whose son Timothy (Ian Fried) is deathly ill and must stay in bed or die. But the spring plowing will destroy their home. Desperate, Mrs. Brisby consults with the rats of NIMH – highly intelligent ones who were bred at the National Institute of Mental Health – and their leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi). But the rats have traitors in their midst….
The story is not plain vanilla Disney. There is a darkness, and characters even die. Mrs. Brisby is a strong, brave heroine. It came out to strong critical acclaim, though did not make a great deal of money.
It was, however, a wake-up call to Disney, which began producing quality animated fare that is now considered the second golden age. I remember seeing it and thinking, “finally the Mouse is getting some serious competition.” And looking forward to more great films by Bluth.
Alas, it was not to be. While Bluth did have some solid hits like An American Tail and The Land Before Time,*** the films were never as good as his first, and his All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rock-a-Doodle are just embarrassing to watch.
But The Secret of NIMH is not just the high point of Bluth’s career, it’s a classic of animation.
*Plus the fix-up, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was made up of three shorter films and linking material.
**They were worried the Wham-O might not like the name “Frisby” and I suspect putting “rats” in the title was considered bad marketing.
***The Land Before Time was a brilliant concept, but a dull story, with extremely muddy animation, but it did succeed.