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

The Secret of NIMH
(1982)

(SPOILERS) Don Bluth, Disney renegade, left the Mouse House in 1979 for noble reasons. He sought to restore animation to its former glories, bringing the respect due to an art form that had waned in the wake of his former employer’s cost cutting, increasingly careless approach. The first fruits of his defection were realised in The Secret of NIMH, an adaptation of Robert C O’Brien’s Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Bluth more than achieved his goal.  He put animation back on a pedestal (and no doubt his competing presence gave Disney a much needed kick in the pants). Unfortunately, he came up short in another area that had traditionally been a Disney strong suit: story.


What hurts most about this is that he had such sterling source material. I read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH before I saw the film. It was a novel that wonderfully exercised the imagination, carrying a strong undercurrent of hidden secrets and a mythic past (to that extent, the movie’s title hones in on exactly the appeal of the book). I was excited by the prospect of a movie version, but it was clear from promotional materials that the makers (Bluth and fellow writers Gary Goldman (also co-animator and producer), Will Finn and John Pomeroy) had diverged significantly from the novel. I can’t clearly remember if the changes put me off, but for whatever reason I didn’t catch it until a few years later when it showed up on television.


Adaptations will inevitably alter the text; one hopes the alterations will enable it to work in a different medium, rather than eviscerating or crippling the core of the story itself. Bluth’s Mrs Frisby (or rather, Brisby; the aerodynamic disc manufacturer said nay to using a similar name for the mouse) embarks on a journey that is, in essence, the same as that of the novel, and certain structural points hew closely to the source. 


Her son Timmy is too sick to be moved, but if her family stays put their home faces destruction under the farmer’s plough. She is aided in resolving her dilemma by a bungling crow called Jeremy, and advised by a wise owl (is there any other kind?) to ask the rats that also live on the farm for help. Brisby discovers a highly developed colony, one that can read, write and utilise electricity. From their leader, Nicodemus, she learns of a dark past of experimentation (at the National Institute of Mental Health) that left the animal test subjects with heightened intelligence, strength and longevity. She also learns that her dead husband Jonathan was an escapee from NIMH.


It’s an idea that draws on dark subject matter (animal testing), and in some respect leans towards the unsentimentalised anthropomorphic take on the natural world found in Richard Adams’ Watership Down (published a year after O’Brien’s novel). Both also share a helpful bird, and it would be surprising if the 1978 animated adaptation of Adams’ novel had not influenced Bluth, even given Dom DeLouise’s inventive take on Jeremy the crow (Bluth commented that when they saw, or rather heard, what DeLouise was doing, they expanded the part). 


The novel also posits the idea of rats recognising the responsibilities that come with their heightened faculties, the obligation to use their intelligence to live better lives; they do not want to depend on humans for power (regarded as theft) and so consider self-sufficiency (part of “The Plan”) as their goal. One might compare the rats to those who regard the plundering of the Earth’s resources as a bad idea.


It’s little surprise that a novel with such strong themes and resonance was adapted for the screen, although Disney rejected it as too dark when it was offered to them. In some respects, that’s understandable, and not such a bad thing. The movie of Watership Down isn’t exactly the most uplifting of experiences (commendably so), and if one waters something down enough one run the risk of losing its essence. The problem with Bluth’s adaptation is not so much that it isn’t dark (although it isn’t really, in comparison with the novel) but that it eschews so much of the meat of the book; NIMH becomes a footnote, an episode dealt with in a swift (though admittedly effective) montage sequence.


One of the issues identified by Bluth and Goldman note on their DVD commentary track, as a justification for changes, is that they wanted to ensure that Mrs Brisby was actively the heroine of her own story. In the novel, the rats come along and complete the move for her without a hitch (O’Brien also leaves the rats’ tale open-ended in a manner unthinkable for anyone planning a commercially successful family movie). She is also saved from a cage in the farmer’s kitchen (where she ends up after drugging the fearsome cat Dragon). Their motivation is admirable, the results less so. Actually, her escape from the kitchen unaided by Justin (a suitor rat whose attentions appear to be forgotten come the final scene) works fine. But bizarrely, Bluth et al choose to have Brisby save her family through the application of magic.


The sequence leading to this is dramatically staged. The rats drive a system of wheels and pulleys, winching the cinder block that is her home.  It’s pouring with rain, and dripping with atmosphere (NIMH isn’t short on atmosphere, and the use of light and colour throughout is rich and vibrant). Jenner, the token baddie rat (in the book he’s a splitter from The Plan, but he has no overt malevolence, and doesn’t even feature in the main body of the tale), sabotages their efforts (and tops poor Nicodemus; a place the book doesn’t go, but less surprising that the movie does when you consider the prevailing influences). He doesn’t buy into The Plan and, what’s more, he wants Mrs Brisby’s amulet.


Yes, in his attempt to give Mrs Brisby back her power, Bluth bestows upon her a magic amulet that takes it away, just in a different way. Bluth tries to get around this by suggesting it requires her will and determination to work, but that’s a bit weak really. Effectively this is a deus ex machina, even given that there has been some half-hearted foreshadowing at the beginning, with Nicodemus writing in magic ink and predicting the future through an orb. There’s nothing about the manner in which the amulet is inserted into the plot – the lack of attention to its origins, what it does, why it does it, why Jenner wants it – that is less than clumsy. It’s a decision that speaks of desperation.


And quite probably a little of cynicism. Bluth opined that kids today are “mystically deconditioned” in the face of science, although I think what he’s really doing by saying that is trying to save face over plot holes. Can it be a coincidental that The Secret of NIMH features two wise elders (an owl and a rat) imbued with great prescience and predilection for cryptic sayings (“You can unlock any door if only you have the key”)? When, in the previous few years, the first two parts of a certain trilogy were graced with two wise elders (Ben Kenobi and Yoda) and brought quasi-mystical fantasy storytelling to a whole new generation? When NIMH offers a rodent that can apparently communicate with those who have passed beyond, and he in turn  returns from beyond the grave (having becomes part of the Force)? When Mrs Brisby uses the power lurking within to manipulate matter (raising her home, much as Yoda does Luke’s X-Wing)?


Nicodemus: Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when its there.

Bluth also draws attention to the transparent visual resemblance between the Owl and Nicodemus (beardy faces, glowing eyes) as evidence they are one and the same person. For what thematic reason is unclear (he references the shape shifter legend), but his additions to the narrative don’t tend to lend themselves to coherence. That said, this sort of element, is reasonably harmless; it’s there for the viewer to perceive or leave. The amulet, though, comes out of nowhere in terms of story and motivation.


The broader problem with NIMH is that Bluth already has an extremely tantalising plot element (the evolved rats) and he casts it by the wayside for something that isn’t just contrived, it’s lazy. The design of Nicodemus’s office/lab drew on Alien’s art direction, and that’s probably a better place to aim for than Dagobah. The rats’ experiments with electricity conjure Tesla-esque ideas of pseudo-science; there’s more than enough going on here already, and Bluth’s inventions only serve to lessen the impact of NIMH and muddy the plot palate; now, anything can happen!


As a result of this sidestepping, NIMH leaves more questions than it answers. The lab scenes are impressionistic and evocative, cruel syringes and DNA helixes. Yet when this fades we’re left wondering at the lack of care involved. Nicodemus informs Brisby, “We had become intelligent” of the rats’ realisation that they could read words on a cage door. But her husband has taught Mrs Brisby the rudiments of reading, so apparently it isn’t completely beyond the average animal’s ken. If the escapees are enabled with longer lives, why are Nicodemus and Mr Aegis so decrepit?


There’s a suggestion implicit in Bluth’s amendments that the experimental drugs have opened Nicodemus’ doors of perception, hence is communion with other planes, the magical artefacts and divination. This might have been an interesting element to pursue, but it’s one that leaves NIMH stranded. Brisby learns that “NIMH’s coming here” but in contrast to the book it is more through coincidence than tracking them down, and we’re denied a dramatic escape since they only get there in long shot.


Significant shorthand is necessary, some of which works. Derek Jacobi gives Nicodemus a suitable air of aging insight, but the character spends far too much time talking to himself; it’s a sign that plotting has become bogged down, relying on great chunks of exposition to fill in the gaps.  Justin is a one-note good guy (he’s smooth in a Robin Hood fox kind of way), and Jenner a one-note dirty rat (he’s bad because he’s bad; motivation to “stay here as long as we like” is pretty weak).


Rats wearing judges’ wigs and ruffs populate the council, as if a thought out community has descended into sight gags. Mrs Brisby’s kin are distressingly twee and annoyingly cute (furnished with the voices of Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty), although Elizabeth Hartman adopts the right note of sincerity as Mrs B. As set out in the movie, the impediment of keeping Timmy shut in never gets much beyond the unlikely, given how life imperilling everything that ensues is.


When it comes to the animation, however, Bluth and his team shine. There are some wonderful designs, and some great sequences. It’s easy to see why kids were scared during certain points. Dragon’s menace is palpable. The Owl squashing a spider is agreeably gross, Brutus’ pursuit of Brisby is nightmarish, not least because she has gone to the rats seeking solace. And the descent to see Nicodemus, in a lantern-come-diving bell is inventive and arresting. Much has been said of Jerry Goldsmith’s score, and there are moments when it shines, although I’m not such a fan of his more emotionally cloying side.


Jeremy: You’re wearing a sparkly!

The work of Dom DeLouise deserves special mention. It’s undoubtedly the case that Bluth could have used him better once he decided to increase Jeremy’s screen time (Kehaar works so well in Watership Down because not only is he funny, he is also enabled with a crucial heroic flourish), but, as comic relief, the crazy crow with a passion for string and sparklies is immensely winning. It helps too that his animation leaps off the screen. You can see when animators get behind a character, and Jeremy clearly inspired them.


Whether or not Jeremy mouths “Son of a bitch!” when he’s bound up by Mrs Frisby’s brood is questionable. Justin definitely says “Damn” at one point, which sounds innocuous now, but raised a few eyebrows at the time (it’s nothing to Keehar’s “Piss off!” in Watership Down, however). Bluth and his colleagues were fully expecting a PG certificate, not for the stray minor oath, but the darker tone of the picture, so it was a surprise when it was classified G (the US U equivalent).


NIMH is admired for its ambition, but it drops the ball in several crucial respects. Bluth’s decision to play safe didn’t go his way. NIMH wasn’t profitable enough to stave off the first of several bankruptcies for Bluth studios. He jumped into the Dragonslayer arcade game (which encountered further problems) and only reached solid ground when he teamed up with Spielberg for An American Tail. I don’t think it’s unfair to say Bluth never really fulfilled the potential that his care for the form suggested. Most of his projects have been fundamentally flawed at concept stage. Even if we ignore that Land Before Time spawned 13-and-counting sequels, this is the guy who was, for a time, the great hope for an animation industry struggling in the wake of Disney’ disarray.


As for the intention to make a NIMH origins story? I was more optimistic when Neill Burger was attached. Pre-planning Mrs Frisby as a franchise is asking for trouble. I don’t necessarily think a live action/CGI affair is a bad idea, depending on its stylistic approach. But in suggested form at least, starting at the beginning is as missing the point as Bluth introducing magic. To return to the Star Wars comparison, it’s like making the prequel trilogy first and then proceeding to the revelations of The Empire Strikes Back. The power of hidden events and past deeds is lost once it has been made linear. But then, that’s the bane of modern Hollywood, unearthing the mythical and draining it of all that made it potent.






The horrifying DVD/Blu-ray cover:


 One can only assume the mandate was to aspire to the dreadful covers of the Disney range, in the hope that parents wouldn't know the difference and snap it up for their insistent offspring.

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