tek's rating: ½

The Secret of NIMH (G, though it should be PG)
Don Bluth Wiki; Great but Forgotten; IMDb; MGM; Rotten Tomatoes; TV Tropes; Wikipedia
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Caution: spoilers.

This 1982 film is based on the 1971 book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which I didn't read until many years after I first saw the movie. (The main character's name was changed to Mrs. Brisby for the movie.) I'm not sure exactly when I first saw it, but it must have been on TV sometime in the 80s, so of course it's quite nostalgic for me. I watched it again on DVD in 2012, to write this review, and while I always loved the movie, I think I like it even more now than I did when I was a kid. It's a pretty cool fantasy story; even if it's set in a fairly contemporary world, certain aspects of the story's nature allow it to have trappings consistent with more traditional fantasy. I also must mention that it was Don Bluth's directorial debut, after he left Disney and founded Don Bluth Productions.

The movie begins with an old rat named Nicodemus writing in a journal, and apparently talking to himself, about a mouse named Jonathan Brisby, who had died while working on "the plan." Soon thereafter, we meet his widow, who has gone to see an old mouse named Mr. Ages, because her son, Timothy, is sick. He gives her some medicine for Timothy, and tells her to keep him in bed for three weeks. On her way back home, she meets a clumsy and goofy crow named Jeremy, who hopes to meet a female crow and fall in love. Jeremy and Mrs. Brisby are attacked by a cat named Dragon (who belongs to Mr. Fitzgibbons, on whose farm they live). They help each other get away from Dragon, so they become friends, and Jeremy wants Mrs. Brisby's advice on how to act with girls. But Mrs. Brisby... Well, Jeremy is an awfully funny character, in a broad way (he's voiced by Dom DeLuise, who would later voice Tiger the cat in Don Bluth's next feature, An American Tail). But Mrs. Brisby is amusing in a much subtler way, mainly through her exasperation at how clumsy and ridiculous Jeremy is, and how she deals with him.

Anyway, there's a problem. The very next day, after the frost has gone, Fitzgibbons starts up his plow, so all the animals have to run away (they're warned by Auntie Shrew, a friend of Mrs. Brisby's). But since Timothy can't get out of bed, and there's no way to move him, Mrs. Brisby actually manages to stop the plow, in a desperate and harrowing scene, with some help from Auntie Shrew. In spite of this reprieve, Mrs. Brisby knows the plow will be started up again the next day. So she gets Jeremy to fly her to the woods, to meet with a wise but very spooky owl, to ask for his advice. (She was terrified, because owls eat mice, but again, she was desperate to save her son's life.) The owl says he'd known her husband, and advises her to go to the rats who live in a rose bush on the farm, and ask for Nicodemus. He says the rats could help her move her house to safety.

So, she goes looking for the rats. Jeremy wants to help, but again, Mrs. Brisby sees his buffoonish nature as a danger (he could wake Dragon, who's sleeping nearby). So she tricks him into going to look after her kids. (Aside from Timothy, she has another son named Martin- voiced by a young Wil Wheaton- and daughters named Teresa and Cynthia.) Unfortunately... things rather comically don't go so well for Jeremy, once he gets there. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brisby meets the rats of NIMH. Mr. Ages is also there, and introduces her to a rat named Justin, who is captain of the guard. They all enter a meeting in progress, where a rat named Jenner is trying to convince the others that the plan is foolish. The rats have been stealing Farmer Fitzgibbons's electricity for their own purposes, but the plan calls for them to move somewhere new, where they could provide for themselves. The rats are all well aware of who Mrs. Brisby is, as Jonathan was important to them... but he had never spoken to his wife about them. Anyway, Jenner agrees that they should help move her house, but he has a diabolical reason for doing so.

After the meeting, Mr. Ages takes Mrs. Brisby to meet Nicodemus, the leader of the rats. He explains some things that are essential backstory to the entire plot, though it's never really made much sense to me. He says they'd once been ordinary street rats, but were captured and taken to NIMH- the National Institute of Mental Health- as were many other animals, upon which terrible experiments were performed. A group of rats and mice were given injections that granted them intelligence. This is what I don't get... basically, it meant they could suddenly read. Which is ridiculous, because just being intelligent doesn't automatically mean you can read. That's something you have to be taught. More to the point, the things that intelligence does mean, are things that, in the reality of the story, were already true of any number of animals. Obviously, they talk to each other, they wear scraps of clothing, they use all kinds of things in ways that real world animals don't. Mrs. Brisby even says Jonathan had taught her and the kids to read, which means even without the injection, they were still capable of learning to read. Of course, the rats (and Ages) use things in ways normal animals within the story don't, most notably electricity. In fact, they seem to be able to do things even humans can't... or at least Nicodemus does. He actually seems to use magic. I have no idea why none of the other rats seem to do anything magical. Also he says the injections slowed the aging process, which explains something about Jonathan, but I have no idea then why Nicodemus and Mr. Ages are both so old. And he gives her a magical pendant that Jonathan had wanted her to have. There's no explanation of where it actually came from. However, I'm able to overlook all this stuff I don't get, because it's so cool. Anyway... um... I also need to mention that it was Jonathan who had made possible the rats' escape from NIMH, but that he and Ages were the only two mice who survived the escape. Which is why everyone Mrs. Brisby meets had such respect for him- and by extension, for her.

Well, I feel like I've given away entirely too much of the plot, but there are some crucial scenes that come after all this, which I won't spoil for you. But there's great peril, and great heroics. And of course, a happy ending. The story, as a whole, is pretty intriguing, and I'd love to know more about... everything. It's a fairly simple story... I mean, not a lot actually happens, compared to most movies. But the story's simplicity serves the movie well. And the animation is beautiful. And the acting is pretty great all around. I always enjoy Dom DeLuise's work, so of course I really like Jeremy. And while I don't know the actress who voiced Mrs. Brisby from anything else, I thought she did a marvelous job, in this. Nicodemus is voiced by Derek Jacobi... it's odd that I don't recognize his voice in this, but even so, just knowing it was him is cool. And for all the characters, I felt their voices synced quite nicely with the way they were animated. I mean, just, the sound and visuals worked together to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling, almost as if it was live-action. It's kind of odd and cool that as animated anthropomorphized animals go, the ones in this movie look more like actual animals than I'm used to seeing, but at the same time, they feel, to me, more like real people than such characters usually do. And I'm not sure what else to say. It's just an amazing movie.

Oh, and in 1998, a direct-to-video sequel was released (without Bluth's involvement). I vaguely recall our having that in our house, and at some point I tried watching it. I don't remember anything specific about it, and I probably didn't watch the whole thing, or very much of it at all. All I remember is thinking it utterly sucked.


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