The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray Review
This is the sickener, folks.
Although we hear of a transfer in the commentary that will, allegedly, be restored and relieved from its scratches, dirt and debris, this is clearly not it. Or, at least, not exactly how the film's creators were expecting it to turn out. But, being as they were not present for the full transfer and clean-up process (allegedly not given the opportunity to be, either), we cannot really blame them for how ugly this film looks. MGM's Blu-ray release of The Secret Of NIMH comes courtesy of an AVC encode, but to be honest, this is the sort of image that actually makes you wish that you had access to the DNR button! Easy, boys … I'm joking. But, I can't lie to you – no matter how faithful to the source it may be, this looks terrible. It looks old. It looks dirty. It is smudged and fudged. There are nicks, tears, pops and flecks all over the place. Discolouration mars the image on occasion, with vertical columns of a lighter hue that stick out a mile. With something of an immediate shock, even the opening titles have been botched, with some horrendous ghosting that lattices the screen with yellow or white vapour trails. Things get significantly better after this, of course, but with a start like that, you just know that what you are watching is never going to properly impress you.
Animated at 1.33:1, but always intended for a 1.85:1 theatrical projection, The Secret Of NIMH now comes to BD with its widescreen frame aspect. Now, to me, personally, this looks a touch cramped at times but, hey, this is obviously intentional and has been authorised for this presentation, although I would have liked the full-screen option for comparison purposes.
Now, there are many scenes that still manage to look very nice indeed. When the colours aren't blighted by age, they can be quite beautiful, and they have not been boosted as they were on previous editions. The earthy tones of the setting, the glowing orange eyes of the owl, the cloak of Mrs. Brisby, the lengths of string and the throbbing power of the amulet (all a bright red, I should add) and, most wonderful of all, the fiery golden gleam of the backlit writing and the burnished dazzling of the encroaching dawn … all look tremendous. At times. Purples, blues and greens have appeal too. I like the sickly green webs that hang down in the entrance to the owl's lair, and the fact that the glow from the amulet turns pink even when it is clasped in someone's hand. Blacks can be quite strong – look at Jenner's cloak when we first meet him and he approaches Mrs. Brisby – but they can also look weak and insipid. Contrast is not good, though I would suspect that this purely down to the source. There is plentiful wavering taking place throughout, and the sequence when Aunty Shrew has caught and tied-up Jeremy just looks plain wrong, with the blue cords that bind the crow horribly bright and dazzling against the surrounding image. But, in the film's defence, this grimy and heavy aesthetic was the sort of thing that audiences expected at the time. If the animated film didn't hail from the glossy canvas of Disney, then it was usually a grubby affair. And this goes, tenfold, for when the film is then transferred to high-definition. Whilst Disney can afford to go back to the original negative and perform a painstaking restoration, MGM almost certainly can't. Thus, all those nicks, tears, flecks and pops, and all the grain and grit is going to be magnified by the process.
I'm not happy about it … but I do appreciate how it has come to be.
And yet, the detail is definitely greater than I have seen it before. I no longer have any other copies of the film to refer back to with any specifics, but the image is surely more engrossing, and filled with more depth than we have seen it on home video.
There is no overt edge enhancement, and object and character delineation is smooth and organic. Given the thick swathes of colour, it is also very pleasing that no banding makes an appearance. Grain remains intact and naturally spikes on occasion, and the absence of any digital tinkering can certainly be seen as being a welcome trait. Up to a point. But the picture still looks poor and so unlike a 1080p transfer that you simply cannot help but feel disappointed, and perhaps a little cheated.
And there has been no meddling here, either, and with much the same sort of results.
We get a DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track that doesn't push any boundaries, but sounds nice and clean and consistent. The major component, as you will probably expect, is the score from good old Jerry G. And I am happy to report that it comes across pretty well, with some degree of presence and warmth afforded the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Flying Dreams sounds appropriately lush and floating, but it is the action scenes and those that depict Mrs. Brisby's tentative steps into various strange and frightening locales that really provide the track with something to play with.
However, I will say that dialogue is slight and feeble-sounding, though I didn't encounter any drop-out, nor any swamping, swallowing or drowning-out of the voices. It is just that they lack any weight or impact. Jacobi is portraying a creature that is very old and wizened, but his voice has inadvertently been given some help in this regard by the flimsy prioritisation lent it by the mix. There are still some elements of subtlety revealed, such as the cracking of the owl's neck as it turns its head, the scampering of tiny feet and the cranking of the rat-contraptions.
The bombastic action scenes are still handled with reasonable aplomb, but there is no escaping the fact that they still sound of their time. Swords clang against one another, or against rocks, but the metallic sound is often subdued. The crashing of the winch and the engines of the plough sound similarly restricted, though not disappointingly so. Whereas we would certainly have expected the image to have undergone something of a proper restoration, I think it would have been unfair to have expected that the audio be remixed for surround. I'm sure it would have been nice to have heard some expansive rear channel support, but at least nothing silly has been attempted to falsely enhance the experience. This said, though, the coming of the storm towards the end does genuinely seem to rumble overhead with a convincing and ominous passage.
Therefore, The Secret Of NIMH can't help but become rather underwhelming as a high definition experience.
MGM's BD release comes with the excellent, though now dated commentary from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. As I mentioned earlier, the two make reference to the high definition print that is to become available for us, but they are, in actual fact, referring to the proposed restoration of the previous DVD … and are not talking about this release. It sort of irks you to hear about the splendours that we should have been treated to here. Beyond this, we hear all about how the project came to be, and how the creative team utilised all that they had learned over at Disney as well as unveiling brand new animation tricks to make their film a grand new entry in a very crowded and often innovative field. The two have a good rapport and the chat track is fun to listen to. They discuss the various styles the film incorporated, the terrific score that they got from Jerry Goldsmith and how the screenplay had to adapt.
We also get a fourteen-minute making-of that attempts in a purely scratch-the-surface style to reveal how the film came into being, and the film's original theatrical trailer.
I love The Secret Of NIMH, and I really wish that I could be more enthusiastic about its release on Blu-ray. I, personally, had been looking forward to this immensely. But this is not a praise-worthy transfer by any stretch of the imagination. There are moments when the film, which should be a glorious and colourful explosion of mood and action, looks positively ropey. I know that Heavy Metal and Wizards and Watership Down all look their age on the format, too, but somehow I expected much, much more from this. NIMH is held in very high regard by animation buffs and it beggars belief that MGM didn't provide it with the full restoration that it so richly deserves. Three days they spent on it, apparently.
It is all well and good trying to understand the whys and wherefores of a transfer, and the effect that such a process can have on the image of a very grainy animated film from 1981, and whilst the purists amongst us appreciate the efforts made, and the appearance that has resulted from this endeavour – and the ironic fact is that most should actually have little to complain about - this still looks poor. And those who have no comprehension about what went on behind the scenes will surely hurl scorn at this release.
It is all very unfortunate.
The film, itself, remains a dark joy that offers up a surprising amount of action and suspense. The fantasy is laced with symbolic warnings and the story works on many different levels. The animation is fantastic and drips with atmosphere, and the voice cast is superb. The Secret Of NIMH deserved better treatment than this, that's for sure, but the accompanying commentary is well worth listening to, and the little featurette does its best to convey the intricacies of the creative process.
I'm sure that dedicated fans will appreciate what has been gained by this transfer, and I know that I am still glad that I have the film on Blu-ray with corrected fidelity … but newcomers may not be so forgiving.
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