Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Title: The Secret of NIMH
Year: 1982
Rated: G
Run Time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby
Derek Jacobi as Nicodemus
Dom DeLuise as Jeremy
Arthur Malet as Mr. Ages
Peter Strauss as Justin
Paul Shenar as Jenner
Hermione Baddeley as Auntie Shrew
John Carradine as The Great Owl

To save her ill son, a field mouse seeks the aid of a colony of super-intelligent rats, with whom she has a deeper link than she previously suspected.
Based on: “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert C. O'Brien
Setting: An American farm...some time in the 50's (judging by the telephone).

Right before your eyes and beyond your wildest dreams.

Andrew's First Viewing: Summer of 1994 on a pirated VHS.
Jordyn's First Viewing: February 11, 2010 on DVD.

Andrew's Comments:
I first watched The Secret of NIMH when I was like eight or nine. My grandma has a cabin at Lindbergh Lake, and we had a recorded VHS version of this movie available for the grandkids to watch. And watch it we would, though I distinctly remember not enjoying it that much. Granted, I would still watch it (there’s something about being a kid where you will keep watching even when it’s crappy; even when you are AWARE of how crappy it is…), but I was never a fan of how “scary” (my words) the movie looked: the movie is punctuated by characters without pupils (just glow-y, Jack-o’-lantern eyes), random intense music, and gratuitous peril and violence (especially near the end).

In short, I’ve never really liked the movie that much.

Then, in the fifth grade, I discovered that The Secret of NIMH was based on a book: “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.” Being familiar with the movie, I decided to check it out from the library and see if it was any good. And dear readers, something happened that I didn’t think possible at the time. I started to dislike the movie even MORE.
The original book. All of the neat ideas of the movie without the boredom. Pick it up, I'd recommend it.

You see, “Mrs. Frisby” is not a tale of wanton peril, scary moments, and fratricide like its movie counterpart. The book is about Mrs. Frisby, a recently widowed field mouse, who discovers a secret colony of super-intelligent rats, and how the rats eventually help move her house before the farmer plows right over it. The characters were similar, but rather than Jenner being a power-mongering jerkwad and Nicodemus being older than God himself, they were simply two rats who (respectfully) saw their power-stealing problem from different viewpoints. In the end, Jenner simply decides to leave the colony, which is a far cry from dropping a doggone CINDER BLOCK on his rival’s head.

You must understand, usually I’m not too hard on book-to-movie adaptations for being too different from the book (heck, I liked Eragon). But this movie took what was obviously a “nice” story and deliberately made it “edgy,” for reasons I can only begin to fathom. Perhaps this is Bluth making a statement, something of a middle finger to Disney’s pantheon of wholesomeness.
Yeah, warts are cool, I suppose.

As you can imagine, going into this with a fresh perspective took some doing. After viewing it, though, I’m not sure if I failed miserably at distancing myself from my memories, or if I was right about this movie the entire time. Complaints about Bluth’s art style are neither here nor there in this argument; I can acknowledge that his drawing-style has its followers, and that they’re entitled to like it. By that same token, however, I’m well within my right to say that I’m entitled to be annoyed at the way characters flounce about the screen as though they’re underwater. It’s not so bad in this movie (wait till we get to All Dogs Go To Heaven…), but scenes with Auntie Shrew and Jeremy Crow just drive me up the wall in the way their mouths and body language is so stupidly over-exaggerated (not to mention they’re both pants-on-head AGGRAVATING).

Pants. On. Head. AGGRAVATING.

My new perspective was able to grant me some new insights, though. Like how incredibly SLOW the movie is. I guess I must not have noticed when I was a kid (or else I just fast-forwarded to the good bits), but this movie definitely crawls by with no sense of pacing to be had. I don’t expect it to be madcap as most recent animated affair (heaven help it if it was), but at least give your characters something interesting to do (we’ll see if the other movies follow suit like this, because I think I remember stuff going on in The Land Before Time that kept my attention; could’ve just been the dinosaurs though…). There was a point where we were like halfway through where Jordyn literally said, “I’m bored,” and I couldn’t help but agree.

I think my biggest complaint overall about the movie, though, is that it simply takes itself too seriously. From the violence to the horror-themed character designs to the “perilous” situations, the film aspires to be way too big for its own britches. It wants to give its audience a gripping, thrilling narrative about a struggle for power and a family in danger, but it can’t succeed because it’s about TALKING RATS WHO STEAL ELECTRICITY. And then periodically we get the random scenes with Jeremy and Auntie Shrew that seem to cry out “But wait! There’s comic relief! See?! Jeremy is just so clumsy! What a laugh riot!” When it comes to mood, this movie is doggone schizophrenic.

Yeah, kill his bitch ass! Then we can get back to the wacky humor!

It’s not all bad, mind. I really liked Mrs. Brisby, and how her character seemed so, well, normal. She was well-drawn, well-characterized, and Elizabeth Hartman provides good voice work for her. I also appreciate how much effects animation there is; at a time when Disney was trimming animation costs left and right, Bluth fills the screen with bubbling mud, splashing water, and murky cobwebs (note that I say that I appreciate it; I’ve never really liked how the effects animation look in his movies, because it looks like he’s trying too hard). The ending sword fight between Justin and Jenner was also fairly well-choreographed; if someone ever wants to adapt a Redwall book to animation, I would probably recommend these guys.

But quite frankly, this movie is not worth it. It’s not the worst animated film I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even the worst one I’ve seen by Don Bluth (you’ll have to check back later for that one…), but it’s one that seems tedious and overblown. I’m surprised at how little actually happens in this movie, and how long it seems in spite of that. I have heard that this movie is a cult classic; I would seriously like to sit down with someone who does appreciate this movie greatly, because quite frankly, I just don’t get it.

Jordyn's Comments:
Until last night, I had never seen The Secret of NIMH. I don’t think I remember learning of its existence until high school when I was trying to watch all the Don Bluth movies. (Obviously, I failed). As a child, if it wasn't about a babysitter who solved mysteries or pioneer girl traveling across the wide and lonesome prairie, I didn't read it. So I was also unaware of the book NIMH is based on. After coming to college, a few of my friends sung its praises as a great animated movie. But being a Disney fangirl, I simply shrugged my shoulders, and let these homilies on Don Bluth’s superior understanding of story and animation go in one ear and out the other.

I do not have the fiery hatred (or maybe utter annoyance) that Andrew possesses when it comes to NIMH. I have the luxury of watching it as an adult without the rose colored glasses of childhood to blur my vision. I can view it for what it really is, and that, my friends, is one boring ass animated movie.
The secret is that it's really dull.

Certainly, there are moments of peril, action, drama, pathos, and life unfolding…but it seems there are ages in between them. Kind of a hurry up and wait thing. Let's rush to get medicine for Timmy! But then let's take 20 minutes to dilly-dally with that stupid crow, who I wish had stayed tied up for the whole movie. It felt like important moments lost their significance because they were given the same amount of time and care put into the adventures of Auntie Shrew. Uneven pacing, thy name is The Secret of NIMH.

There are things I enjoyed about NIMH, but mostly, I think they are rooted in the base material. I like the plot of sick little Timmy and moving day and how the hell are we going to get out of Dodge in time? I also enjoy seeing a heroine who is a mother, and not some fresh faced virgin imp who actually needs the help of her irritating sidekicks. Although, why the fuck doesn’t Mrs. Brisby have a first name? Her husband is Jonathan, not just Mr. Brisby. Give her a first name, dammit!

She's an important character dammit! Give her an identity!

I need to say that I enjoyed the one song in this movie, "Flying Dreams". I love that late 70's/early 80's cotton candy music. If this movie was made today, you know that song would be popped out by Beyonce or something. I love how the movie feels and looks distinctively early 80's. (It's one of my favorite time periods for fashion and food box labels). I can't really put it into's simply a feeling I get. And I feel the animation fits well into this time period.

Actually, (sorry, Andrew!) I am one of those who enjoys Don Bluth's animation style. I'm not saying it's perfect and I'm not saying it's better than Disney. (Although, I would say it's better than the animation in Disney's xerography movies) It's just different! It makes a point to be different. It doesn't look like the early "good" Disney movies like Pinocchio or Lady and the Tramp nor does it change in style after Disney came back to kick ass and take names in the 90's. (Even Anastasia still has the Bluth look). Mostly I like the grotesque amount of detail found on every flower petal and in every wrinkle on Nicodemus's ancient brow.

Don Bluth creates a world filled with minutia and great little details.

And I have to say, you can tell that Bluth loves his project. This isn't a movie created to simply say "fuck you" to Disney or to make money (unlike the The Land Before Time sequels). I honestly feel Bluth wanted to make something different and "better". It was quite a gutsy move to leave the Mouse (and, some might say, cowardly to abandon them in their time of need). Yeah, maybe it's trying to be prestigious at times (but not to the level of say, oh, Happy Feet). You can't blame a man for making the movie he wants to make...although it does take a dump on its source material and fills it with unnecessary mysticism and violence.

Personally, I don't really care about the gratuitous violence or "dark and scary" moments. Then again, this movie didn't haunt my childhood nightmares. Is the violence a little too much for kids? I don't know. If I had kids...probably not. But my parents were loose with the violence for me, so I would most likely not think too much of it.

Really, the thing that pissed me off the most about NIMH was how Mrs. Brisby flirted with Justin so soon after her husband's death. What was it? Like a week ago? I'm very glad it didn't develop into anything, but that moment made me lose respect for her. And it was entirely unnecessary! Okay, if you want to have Justin as a smarmy womanizing type, great. Just don't use Mrs. Brisby's respectability to do it.


Overall, it was okay. If I was sick and had to choose a movie to put me to sleep, this one would be right up there with The Fox and the Hound (ironically, also worked on by Bluth). I don't care for it, and I probably won't watch it again unless I'm babysitting or something. Even then...I'd probably use my powers of persuasion to condition the child towards Disney (MWU-AH-HA-HA-HA!).

Andrew's Rebuttal:
Okay, Jordyn mentions a couple valid points about the movie that I have glossed over, probably because I was well in the middle of a ‘roid-rage when I made my initial post. On a base level, I do like the story: moving day, the dilemma of moving Timmy who has pneumonia, and the titular Secret of the rats of NIMH. All quite solid stuff, and it even works to an certain extent, but the execution in so bollocksed-up that I just don’t get the same wonder from the story that I could have (and wanted to!). As Jordyn says, the whole “hurry up and wait” thing is definitely a royal pain; there’s a lot of neat stuff that DOES happen in the story, but the movie spends so much boredom-time leading up to it, and the cool (or even plot-related) moments go by so fast that the end feels like one big anticlimax (and what's with the random deus ex machina ending, anyways?).

Here's what the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy has to say on plot devices...

A lot of my relative angst with the post also comes from my relative tepidness to Bluth’s style, which is perfectly serviceable in this movie for those who enjoy it. None of the animation looks bad, and it definitely has its own way about it; Bluth obviously cares about artistic beauty, and I will reiterate what Jordyn has said about how much better this movie looks than the Disney xerography movies (everything after Sleeping Beauty and before The Rescuers Down Under, I think). There are just some minor quirks about it that sometimes rub me the wrong way (the aforementioned flouncing).

Also, lastly about the violence, I do think the violence is unnecessary, but the gratuitousness of it doesn’t bother me as much as the movie’s inconsistent tone does. Perhaps little kids are better with violence than I was, but how many of these same kids are going to be amused with the “wacky antics” of Jeremy Crow constantly getting tied up? It feels like they tried to do two different things and ended up getting tripped up.

But again, I don’t hate this movie, I just have some skeletons. Overall, for fans of Don Bluth, I would give this one a rental. It’s nice to see his first major foray into the non-Disney territory, and this movie rightly gave him notice when it first came out (beats the crap out of The Fox and the Hound). Fans of animated films might want to give this one a pass; though it has some good ideas, it just doesn’t do much with them.

Jordyn's Rebuttal
Truly...I don't give a shit about this movie. Not even enough of a shit to argue with much in Andrew's rebuttal. I agree that the ending was sudden, stupid, and about as satisfying as losing your virginity to a baby carrot. But even after the whole Amulet-of-Power-Force-lifting-the-cinder-block-house-out-of-the-mud ending, I find the most insulting part is the conclusion involving Jeremy's love match.

What. The. Fuck. I hated how they set up the Jeremy "looking for love" plotline at his initial introduction and then ignored it until THE VERY FUCKING LAST MINUTE. Then an equally retarded and equally clumsy she-crow slams into him. Of course, since they are the only goddamn birds in the movie, it has to be LOVE. Then they fly off into the goddamn sunset, each holding the end of a piece of string in their beaks.

Pointless love subplot? Very, very check.

For one, the movie isn't even about Jeremy, so why the hell does he get the last scene and the last frame? Secondly, Jeremy does not overcome anything character-wise to merit a satisfying romantic conclusion. It's not like he's a commitment-phobe or has a fear of intimacy keeping him from pursuing chicks. He's just a fucktard. At least his bitch isn't some sexy babe ala Thumper's lady in Bambi. At least she's just as unlikable and fucktarded as him.

Imagine the inadequate romance making me angry. I'm sure Andrew probably agrees with me on this. But I do have one argument. I would suggest this movie to animation lovers...if they haven't seen it already. The Secret of NIMH is an important part of the canon in the history of American animation. But, with that being said, a proficient film viewer needs to watch everything, including the crap. (Of course, this is coming from a person who has watched countless movies she's disliked, simply to complete canons and lists.)

My final thought is this: go ahead and like The Secret of NIMH. I don't give a shit. I have nothing hugely personal against this movie. But don't tell me Don Bluth is the greatest animator of all time without sitting through A Troll in Central Park first. It's easy to point to this movie through clouded Nostalgia Goggles and think it's good, but I strongly advise a rewatching before you go spouting off Bluth's praises as the Master of Animation...that is, if you don't fall asleep.

"Flying Dreams" - Sally Stevens
"Flying Dreams" (End Credits) - Paul Williams

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