The Secret of NIMH arrived at a low point in feature animation. Disney was struggling with the doldrums of a post-Walt world, producing anemic cartoons that served more as glorified babysitters than meaningful contributions the medium. Rivals like Ralph Bakshi and Rankin Bass possessed the vision, but lacked Disney's marketing savvy, and had to content themselves with scraps rather than a full-bore piece of the pie. The Mouse compounded its folly by actively spurning in-house visionaries who could have turned things around, including John Lasseter, Tim Burton... and Don Bluth, who didn't so much chart his own path as remind Disney of the magic they had lost.
The Secret of NIMH represented Bluth's directorial debut, and shines with everything we once expected from his previous employer. It marries gorgeous animation to a solid story, harnesses multiple artists in the service of a single voice, and offers family friendly entertainment without shying away from the darker side of life. As Pixar proved decades later, the narrative is all-important: adapted here from an award-winning children's book with a few hiccups but also a lot of heart. NIMH stands for the National Institute of Mental Health, where experiments have turned a passel of lab rats into super geniuses. They engineered their own escape and now live in the hedge of a country farmer: porting electricity from the nearby household to support their growing society. A family of field mice lives nearby, led by the widowed Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) who tends to her sickly young child Timothy. When spring plowing threatens her home, she turns to the rats for aid, bound to them by ties of loyalty and embroiling herself in their ongoing fight for survival.
Bluth takes a very gentle tone to the story, with few overt shocks and a leisurely pace that modern animation fans may find off-putting. He was operating without a net at the time and his storytelling skills still needed some fine tuning. Nonetheless, the film adeptly conveys the majesty and originality of this tale, bound within a single acre of property but carrying all the perils and wonders of an entire universe. It also plays a neat trick by using talking animals as the source of the conflict. Most animated features take talking animals as a matter of course; this one actually plops them in a real world -- a world where most animals presumably don't carry swords or plot coups -- and sees how they react. It's perennially fascinating and Bluth's adherence to the book ensures that the drama works even when some of the nuts and bolts don't.
And the occasional narrative awkwardness never extends to the animation: delivered in exquisite detail and setting a bold standard in an era that desperately needed one. The backgrounds display an attention to detail that only real artists can produce, while the visual characterization revels in Bluth's singular sense of characterization. Even in the slow moments, the images never bore us, and – as with the story – come to the rescue whenever any onscreen figure becomes too cloying or two-dimensional.
The film also featured the comparative rarity of a female lead, acting bravely and forcefully without a single handsome prince in her corner. Hartman's high-strung decency immediately endears Mrs. Brisby to us, and while Disney's latter-day princesses ultimately adopted her pluck, she made a quietly persuasive starting point on which they could build.
Bluth never quite escaped the family-friendly nature of his first endeavor (though his innovative video games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace let him indulge in slightly more risqué material) and Disney’s renaissance in the late 1980s turned him into an interesting also-ran rather than the savior he might have been. But The Secret of NIMH admirably held the line at a low point for the medium, keeping its creative spark alive until its resident powerhouse finally figured out where to go. Bluth deserved a lot of credit for that, as does the sweet, gentle movie that he left for us to enjoy.