MGM // 1982 // 83 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 18th, 2011
Right before your eyes and beyond your wildest dreams.
"Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it's there."
A mouse named Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman, A Patch of Blue) lives on a farm with her children Teresa (Shannon Doherty, Mallrats), Martin (Wil Wheaton, Star Trek: The Next Generation), Cynthia (Jodi Hicks), and Timothy (Ian Fried, Rocky III). After learning that the farmer's tractor is about to begin plowing the fields, Mrs. Brisby determines to move her family to a safer place. Unfortunately, Timothy is sick with pneumonia and can't easily be moved. Thus, Mrs. Brisby must attempt to find a way to transport her family safely without exacerbating Timmy's condition. In her quest to find a solution, she encounters an ominous owl (John Carradine, Stagecoach), a wacky crow (Dom DeLuise, An American Tail), a wise old rat (Derek Jacobi, Hamlet), and an assortment of other creatures. Can Mrs. Brisby save her family?
For years, Don Bluth was one of Disney's chief animators, working on films such as Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, The Aristocats, and many others. However, Bluth grew increasingly disappointed in the studio as the years passed, feeling that the Disney animated films had lost their charm and were taking far too many cost-saving shortcuts (such as recycling pieces of animation over and over again). After Disney rejected a proposal to adapt Robert C. O'Brien's award winning children's book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Bluth and some 20 other animators (known as "The Disney Defectors") left to form their own animation studio. After doing a charming bit of animated work for the musical Xanadu (one of that film's brightest moments, by far), Bluth determined to transform O'Brien's novel into his first animated feature.
The Secret of NIMH proved to be a remarkable success, and marked the beginning of Bluth's very respectable career as a director. The movie offered a level of animation that eclipsed what Disney was doing at the time, and contains a level of grim maturity that Disney wouldn't embrace until their renaissance a few years later (partially caused by a desire to eclipse Bluth's level of craftsmanship, interestingly enough). While Bluth would have his own share of less-than-inspired outings later on (Rock-a-Doodle, anyone?), there's no question that The Secret of NIMH is one of the strongest animated films of the 1980s.
Part of what made the film so refreshingly effective at the time was the strikingly different tone Bluth brought to the table. Sure, The Secret of NIMH is a cartoon (complete with a wacky comic sidekick voiced by Dom DeLuise), but Bluth provided the story with a level of gravitas that remains uncommon in the field. There's genuine weight to the burden of Mrs. Brisby (the named was changed for fear the makers of the Frisbee would sue), and the moments of violence could actually mean life or death for the characters (it's almost alarming to see the characters bleed each time they are injured). A similar measure of weight was provided by Jerry Goldsmith's groundbreaking score. Appropriately, the composer decided to approach the film as if it were a live-action feature and eschewed the "mickey-mousing" approach (in which the music directly mirrors the action) that was generally applied to animated films at the time.
The film is visually striking throughout, offering exceptionally fluid animation, striking character design (though some of the characters understandably look quite Disney-esque -- shades of Robin Hood are particularly evident) and gorgeous painted backgrounds. Bluth came out with both guns blazing on his first feature, and the effort certainly paid off (artistically, at least -- the film underperformed at the box office and won an audience on video in the years that followed). The voice work is exceptional, with DeLuise turning in the first of numerous delightful supporting turns for Bluth and Hartman (in her final film performance) bringing a touching fragility to Mrs. Brisby. John Carradine also rumbles with authority in a memorable scene as The Great Owl.
I wish I could tell you that this lovingly-crafted film looked great in hi-def, but the fact of the matter is that The Secret of NIMH offers a 1.85:1/1080p transfer that is nothing short of crappy. Scratches, flecks, grime, smudges, and other visual problems are prominent throughout, excessive grain is all over the place, detail is weak and the image is frequently very soft. Sadly, this is one of those "just barely better than standard-def" transfers that very little effort has been put into. Audio is similarly problematic, with a lot of muffled dialogue and somewhat muddy sound design. The only sound element which is as strong as it ought to be is the Goldsmith score, which comes through with almost startling power (considering the weakness of the other audio elements). Extras include an engaging commentary with Bluth and Gary Goldman, a "Secrets Behind the Secret" featurette and a theatrical trailer.
The Secret of NIMH is arguably Don Bluth's best film and it's a must-own for animation fans. It's too bad this Blu-ray release fails to deliver a transfer worthy of the movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated G