Summer of '82: The Secret of NIMH -

Summer of '82: The Secret of NIMH

Mania Grade: B+

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  • Starring the Voices of: Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Arthue Malet, Wil Wheaton, Shannon Doherty,John Carradine and Peter Strauss
  • Written by: Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman and Will Finn
  • Directed by: Don Bluth
  • Studio: MGM/UA
  • Rating: G
  • Run Time: 82 minutes
  • Series:

Summer of '82: The Secret of NIMH

"We can no longer live as rats. We know too much."

By Rob Vaux     July 02, 2012

 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. 


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wrrlykam 7/2/2012 2:59:24 AM

Such a good year.

I don't recall ever seeing NIMH, I've been waiting lately for it to come on TV but they rarely show none Disney 2D animation and mostly 3D stuff these days. I may have to get the DVD.

Dazzler 7/2/2012 3:54:20 AM

I don't I ever saw this either, might have to check it someday.

MrEt 7/2/2012 5:39:16 AM

Saw this film because of Don Bluth's work on Space Ace and Dragons lair. Sometimes it's hard to believe he came from the same cloth as the rest of Disney, and other times I'm shocked that Disney has not re embraced Bluth's work the way they have Burton. Wonder how bad the falling out was.

goldeneyez 7/2/2012 5:49:18 AM

I loved this movie as a kid.

Walker 7/2/2012 6:10:43 AM

 This was an okay movie.  However, I was of the right age to have recently read the book when it came out.  I hated how the movie added all this magic and mysticism that had no place in this story.

Wiseguy 7/2/2012 6:25:41 AM

I thought I was going to be the only one to say that I've yet to see this. Always hear about it just never made the time

noahbody 7/2/2012 6:33:02 AM

I loved the movie and it is well worth a viewing. Lots of heart to this and is so much better than alot of tripe out there today. This is a movie Disney could have made but didn't and Blume deserved a HELL YEAH for getting it done.

Wyldstaar 7/2/2012 8:11:01 AM

 I loved the novel as a child, and was thrilled when I learned there was a movie on the way.  Then I saw it.  It started out fairly solid, but then degenerated into a goofy kids movie, featuring the use of magic for no readily apparent reason.  Very disappointing.

redhairs99 7/2/2012 8:39:12 AM

 This might actually be my favorite animated film of all time.  Such a great movie and I love Don Bluth's work.  I never read the book it's based on, so I can't speak to how faithful it was. Bluth had such a surge after leaving Disney and made some of my favorite animated features of the 80's including Land Before Time and An American Tale.  I think An American Tail still holds up, but I haven't seen Land Before Time in quite a while.  Still, The Secret of NiHM is his high water mark.

momitchell7 7/2/2012 10:29:14 AM

This was such a great movie! So many cool things going on and it really freaked me out as a kid, but it also created an entirely new, imaginary world for me. The visuals and creativity are top notch.

If you've never seen it, do! And it sounds like you might enjoy the movie a lot more if you don't read the book!!!

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