“Run! The plough is here! Run for your lives. Run! It's Moving Day!!!”
In my review for the BD release of Excalibur I made reference to the boom-time for cinematic fantasy during the very early 80's. But I made one omission in the list of innovative films that were appearing during what seems to have been a seedbed sown specifically for the cultivation of cult classics – and that was Don Bluth's incredible, yet still underrated animated feature, The Secret Of NIMH.
Made in 1981 but released the following year, this adaptation of the popular children's story by Robert C. O'Brien marked a very definite new kid on the block when it came to the genre of animation. Together with John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, Bluth cut loose from his tenure with Disney and veered away into a brief but very interesting flurry of productions that seemed determined to take more chances than the House of Mouse. At the time, Disney were becoming dry and stale, and safe. The Fox And The Hound came out round about the same time as Nimh and did represent something new and vital, but audiences were becoming immune to the whimsy and lightness of Uncle Walt and, empowered by George Lucas' Dark Side, had discovered a taste for something a little meatier and less saccharine. Bluth wanted to shake things up a bit. We'd had the weird cartoon fantasies from Ralph Bakshi – The Lord Of The Rings, Fritz The Cat and Wizards – and the more stylised, mature and downright depressing entries like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs from Martin Rosen, not to mention hyper-surrealism in the more SF-oriented Fantastic Planet (see separate BD review) and Heavy Metal (see CD review), but Bluth wasn't about to jettison the overriding good vibes and moralistic stance that he had learned at Disney in order to make his stand. Well, not entirely, anyway. The Secret Of NIMH, however cosy and cute its lead characters of a lady mouse, a chivalrous rat and a comical crow, would actually be a whole lot darker than anybody expected, and there were elements in its story, and its visual presentation that would be sure to inspire shudders at best, and nightmares at worst.
In short, it does what a lot of fantasy films from this brave period strived to do – and what most fail to achieve these days – and that is to encapsulate both the good and the evil motivations of the characters and to place them on a sombre equal footing in order to weave its spell. It isn't afraid to say that bad things happen, and it doesn't speak down to children.
“I've learned this much – take what you can, when you can.”
“Then you've learned nothing.”
Buoyed by one of Jerry Goldsmith's best, yet most overlooked scores and couched in wonderful animation design, The Secret Of NIMH tells the tale of the valiant field-mouse, Mrs Brisby (Frisby in the original book, and voiced here by Elizabeth Hartman), who must go on an epic and dangerous adventure in order to save her children from the ferocious advance of the farmer's plough. Her youngest son, Timothy, is very ill, you see, and cannot be moved from his bed inside the nest. The widowed mother, whose deceased husband, Jonathan, appears to have been some folkloric hero, the exploits of whom she had no conception of, must traverse the field meeting with the weird and wonderful and, indeed, monstrous neighbours that also inhabit it in an effort to find assistance to either stop the infernal machine once and for all, or to move her house, lock, stock and barrel out of its path. Her first ally is a crow called Jeremy (Dom Deluise) who, besides pledging his loyalty to the little mouse after she saves him from a potential devouring in the jaws of the hideous farm cat, is a hopeless romantic who just wants to meet his Miss Right.
“Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power … when it's there.”
Her travails will ultimately lead her to the rats of NIMH, a secret and powerful society of super-rodents who are toiling endlessly away on a mission to harness the power of Man. In their vast and elaborate underground warren, hidden beneath the rose bush, they already have electricity, albeit stolen from the farmer. Brutus, the hefty and intimidating guard who initially chases Mrs Brisby around the alien-like structure, carries an electro-spear that wouldn't look out of place wielded by one of Emperor's scarlet-garbed Imperial enforcers in Return Of The Jedi. Here, she will meet her hero, Justin (voiced by Soldier Blue, himself, Peter Strauss), who will accompany her with a sword that swishes just as much as his tail, along with the taciturn mouse-alchemist Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) and a group of possibly less trustworthy rats under the command of the duplicitous, power-hungry Jenner (Paul Shenar), who has reasons of his own for helping the Brisby family.
It would be wise to sit quite closely with younger viewers unfamiliar with the film because there are definitely more than a couple of scenes that could frighten innocent little minds, and a purveying tone of desperation and stark brutality. The sage old owl, voiced with sinister magnificence by John Carradine, may be a source of profound wisdom, but the taloned oracle here is like something conjured-up from a fever-dream. His abode is a deep, dark and web-encrusted hollow in a haunted tree. When Mrs. Brisby enters this menacing lair, she is pursued by a truly horrific fire-eyed spider that, I have to say, I still find more intimidating than Weta's bloated Shelob. The rats, themselves, are a vicious-looking, yet noble bunch, with the ghastly Jenner standing out as a despicable rogue and an extremely formidable, lip-curling villain. I love the way that his black eyebrows cavort and preen suggestively above his head, as though only bound to him via some possessive telepathy. Martin Rosen's sporadically terrific Watership Down had the savage old General, who fuelled many a nervous fit within the mind's eye, and Jenner is cut from the same cloth, although, if anything, he is more devoutly cinematic, his climactic duel with Justin quite deliberately evoking memories of the swashbuckling confrontations that Errol Flynn had with Basil Rathbone in both Captain Blood and The Adventures Of Robin Hood. But the mood of the film, when it isn't homespun and pleasantly rustic, is grim and anxious. One flashback scene to a vivisectionist's laboratory, the place that inadvertently created the intelligent rats, is certainly a tad on the disturbing side. And then there is the farmer's cat, the fittingly named Dragon. Just wait until you see this mutant moggie! Right from the word go, this beast is on the rampage. Mrs. Brisby has only just encountered Jeremy and this deranged, shark-fanged, homicidal terror is on the warpath. Plus, there is some proper violence in here too. We see blood – nothing compared to what is onscreen in The Lord Of The Rings or Watership Down, of course – but it may come as a little shock to some who think that this will just be about slapstick mice rolling about from one amusing antic to another. Kids-in-jeopardy is another major focus of the film, and the idea of a bereaved mother learning to cope on her own after her husband's death – one of the crucial revelations that she must come to understand as the story develops – is something a bit different and more adult than many would have anticipated. The acronym of NIMH, itself, is another fascinating conceit that you just wouldn't expect in what is supposedly a film created for children.
“We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”
It may look charming and dated now, but the animation of NIMH was groundbreaking when it was unveiled after three years in the making. The trio of Bluth, Pomeroy and Goldman, together with their own hand-picked army of artists, had already been at the cutting edge of sophisticated animation at Disney, but their breakaway company was not to be constrained by such studio doctrine as that which ruled their former home. Under Bluth's free-wheeling and expressive leadership, there was a spirit of “anything goes”. New approaches and ideas would be welcomed and embraced, and a surge of dynamic creativity fostered without rigid guidelines and moral parameters. Multiplane techniques make great use of backlit animation, allowing things like candles, fireflies, magical beams and the ethereal golden ghost writing that opens up the film to the accompaniment of Derek Jacobi's spectral Nicodemus, and its story to really pulse with a gleam that seems to burn right through the screen. Wonderful background designs capture the same moody shadows that would grace the Arborian set from Flash Gordon or the forests and caves from Krull. Three-dimensional sets and props, such as the rope-lowered basket and the converted lantern that act as elevators, were filmed and then painstakingly animated, as were the winches and pulleys that we see during the suspenseful action in the last act. There is even a brief hint of the rotoscoping that was seen for the Orcs in Bakshi's The Lord Of The Rings for the farmer sitting on the plough, though I must admit that this seems rather ill-at-ease against the lavish hand-drawn world that dominates the rest of the film. All of this is enormously energetic, too. There are numerous fights and chases, in a variety of intricate environments, and the sense of fluid kineticism is impressive and rewarding. And the imagery has that lush, organic feel that modern CG rendered fare simply mimic.
Where the film comes ever so slightly adrift is in the screenplay. It has to be understood that certain concessions had to made in order to adapt the 1972 John Newbury Medal-winning novel, but the pace can seem a little jolting, especially in the first act, which pitches Mrs. Brisby into the thick of her adventure with hardly a pause for second thoughts. Sometimes, there appears to be a small lack of natural continuity, with a couple of scenes butting awkwardly up against one another as though some less than skilled editing has taken place. This also upsets the sense of the passage of time. Just how do Mrs. Brisby's kids know what she is up to? Naturally, we have to assume that she has been back to see them after her meeting with the owl, but the film moves so sprightly from one set-piece to the next that this element, and others, just gets lost in the tumult. Thus, the film can seem quite disjointed. But this is really only a tiny caveat in what is, otherwise, a thoroughly engaging yarn, delightfully spun out with a fine eye for the balance of comedy and drama, thrills and spills and fantasy. There is melancholy here, which I happen to like, but there is little in the way of actual shmaltz, which only goes in its favour all the more. The character of busybody Aunty Shrew (Hermione Baddeley) could have easily fallen into such a rut, but Bluth is great at ostracising her very quickly until she becomes one of the more likeable of hindering hangers-on. It is also fair to say that the appearance of humans – the farmer and his wife – also jars with the intensely animalistic tone of the movie, even if they are extremely pivotal to the plot. The Tom & Jerry approach of showing us just their feet and letting us hear their voices may have worked a little bit better, I suspect. But then again, the farmers are innocent ...whilst the humans behind the “secret of NIMH” are not and, wisely, they are not properly observed.
“Jonathan … wherever you are … your thoughts must comfort her tonight. She will be waiting … and you will not return.”
The prolific Jerry Goldsmith had never composed for an animated film before, but he took to the project with his customary gusto and utter conviction. He found that such films tend to have shorter scenes than live-action and, thus, to avoid creating stop-and-start cues that would become a chaotic litany of disjointed elements, he would have to work on a “unifying” series of themes of motifs. With so much intricate artistry going on with the production, the renowned and much-missed tunesmith felt inspired to blend in musical colours of his own. Falling back on trusted methods that he had employed recently on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Final Conflict, Inchon and even Outland, he brought a sweep and a warmth to his main theme, dark and brooding scales of menace, and his dramatic side was given plenty of room to deliver blitzkrieg, surging action material that wouldn't sound out of place in The Mummy. The song “Flying Dreams”, composed by Goldsmith and sung first by Sally Stevens and, later, by crooning 70's staple, Paul Williams, who had written the lyrics, will be familiar to devotees, as it would form something of a bridge to his work on Ridley Scott's Legend several years afterwards. In fact, there is much here in NIMH that would evolve into Legend's equally hypnotic tapestry of the soothing and the frightening. The same year that he composed NIMH, Goldsmith would create the remarkable score for Spielberg's Poltergeist, and it would be another supreme example of how deft he was at moving from the heart-warming to the heart-stopping with consummate ease. The resulting score for Bluth is prime-time Goldsmith at both his most melodic and exciting, and it is held in incredibly high esteem by his fans, although it is still one of his canon that is more often than not neglected by record labels, and it is about time that the full score was made available, with the original TER release now quite scarce. Whilst working on Poltergeist for Spielberg, Goldsmith recommended Bluth's film to the Hollywood wunderkind, and this, in turn, led to the two filmmakers collaborating on 1986's An American Tail (which was scored, incidentally, by the great James Horner). Goldsmith often remarked that his score for Nimh was amongst his personal favourites and it is, indeed, a shining pinnacle even for a composer who could simply do no wrong. The main theme can bring a lump to your throat, or stir you. The tone can turn supremely ominous and skin-crawling, and then soar with the clouds and crash back down with a comical bump. It is a bonafide classic.
With its microcosmic society existing and scheming and planning a guerilla takeover, and the notion of magic and spirituality versus industry and science, NIMH has many ideas that were key to the fantasy genre as the seventies relented to the next decade. This was the theme of John Boorman's Excalibur and Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal. It filtered through Dragonslayer and even Time Bandits. The avaricious thirst for power juxtaposed against both the simple belief in natural harmony and the deeper knowledge of an all-binding supernatural force. That this is all played-out beneath the very noses of the humans does not lessen its impact, nor its cultural relevance. The allegorical statement of one race refusing to budge when a technologically superior invader seeks to move in is a timeless one. The symbolism of America's own history is prevalent, and it is perfectly acceptable to note that even Jim Cameron carried on the theme with Avatar though, it has to be said, in a much more obvious and clichéd fashion. There is the reproachful finger of accusation towards Man's improper treatment of the ecology, as well as a nice reminder of just why you shouldn't tamper with nature that recalls the experiments of one Victor Frankenstein and his obsessive ilk. And Nimh also harks back to the romantic theme of the quest. In this way, it is both a searcher of truth as well as a crusader. This isn't too shabby for a film about a few mice and rats going on an adventure.
“If word were to get out, we'd have all of humanity here to … to blow the place apart!”
The Secret Of NIMH may be flawed, but it is often astoundingly animated, frequently very exciting, surprisingly dark and refreshingly mature. It starts off small and cute, but swiftly enters into an odyssey that, back in 1982, did not feel out of place in a world post-Star Wars. Bluth and his team took animation to new levels in terms of pseudo-hologramatic elements and back-lighting, and crafted a film that not only looks sublime but boasts action sequences with overt and exhilarating dynamics. The comedy sidekick angle, the bane of many a family film, is played exceedingly well with the wonderful Dom Deluise and really adds to a story that takes some disturbing turns. The voice cast are excellent, and the fact that they are underplaying their roles only seems to provide gravitas to their characters.
The fantasy films from this ebullient period were something unto themselves. They were laced with an eclectic combination of optimism and realism, albeit a realism that was demarcated by symbolism and allegory. Above all, they weren't self-conscious, assembly-line cash-cows that simply tried to be cool. Dragonslayer, Excalibur, The Dark Crystal and their ambitious brethren were linchpins of this movement … The Secret Of NIMH, as delightful as it can be, is a part of this grand cavalcade of profoundly atmospheric splendour and secretly very astute intellectual musing. The original poster and the BD's new cover-art (which makes it look as though Fievel has gone West again ... and had a sex-change!) are incredibly deceptive, for this is a much stronger film that they give it credit for, even if, ultimately, the film feels like something of a narrative compromise.
Bewilderingly, after such an audacious debut, Don Bluth would never make anything anywhere near so good, or so rich. All Dogs Go To Heaven was cute and clever, but failed to carry the same quality of magic, panache and verve. Anastasia was simply awful, with a massive step back in the animation as well. And Titan A.E. was a brave, yet strangely boring and soulless effort. An American Tail was probably the closest that Bluth and his “Disney Defectors” came to recreating the beauty and sophistication found here. The Secret Of NIMH represents his style, his vision and his passion for the genre at its best and most exhilarating.
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