MGM // 1982 // 82 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 9th, 2007
"Take what you can, when you can."
It's a double-dip for the Don Bluth masterpiece. Will you heed the call of the Great Owl, infidel?!?
When famed animator Don Bluth peeled off of Disney to start his own studio, The Secret of NIMH became the first venture. Adapted from the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the film tells the story of the enterprising matron of the Brisby family, Mrs. Brisby, who's faced with impending doom: her littlest son is bedridden and she needs to move the family out of their house before the farmer's tractor wipes them out.
Desperate for help, she seeks the counsel of the Great Owl, a scary-looking hombre who directs her to seek out the rats that live in the farmer's rose bush. The intrepid mouse lady heads to the rose bush, aided by the bumbling crow Jeremy and near-senile Mr. Ages. Within the bush, she discovers a sprawling rat society, led by old codger Nicodemus and his bad-ass Captain of the Guard Justin, who both agree to help the Brisby family. But there are sinister forces allied against the good rats, and before the night is done, a mofo will take a knife in the spine.
This movie is a classic and something that is just as awesome now as it was when I saw it for the first time so long ago. I don't if it's underrated or not, as most everyone I know who's seen The Secret of NIMH admit that it rules.
The story of Mrs. Brisby and the rats of NIMH utterly captivated me when I was a child. It had everything: a creepy old sorcerer rat, comedy relief in the form of a horny crow, sword fights, magic laser-beam shooting amulets, shifty back-room dealings, rodents that swear and a plucky mouse heroine who's strangely attractive. From that fantastic opening with the powerful tractor cutting a swath of destruction toward the Brisby home to the revelation of NIMH to the righteous swashbuckling finale, this is an exceedingly well put-together piece of animation and, in my opinion, Don Bluth's finest work.
Even now, as I languish in my adult life, so much of this film entertains. I'm still thrilled by the ending (and proclaim the Jenner/Justin swordfight one of the cooler Final Bad Guy confrontations in cinema) and crap if that spider-squashing owl still doesn't give a willy or two. Bluth's premiere outing is fantastic kids' entertainment that will likely carry over to the DVD collection of most adults.
Be warned: this is some dark shiznit. Perhaps, as Bluth and co-producer Gary Goldman note in their excellent commentary, not as dark by today's standards, but Secret of NIMH isn't afraid to bring the hardcore. Despite the cheerful disc cover with Jeremy the crow and Mrs. Brisby and her kids all laughing and smiling, there's a lot of suffering that goes down during the runtime. And when the rats enter the scene, the subject matter grows up even more. Conspiracy to commit murder, political maneuvering, existential questions, it's all brought up in the second half of the film, and while it makes for some rewarding viewing for the older folks, the complexity of the goings-on may sail over the head of the rugrats. Or maybe not. At the very least, if the intricacies of rat culture don't appeal to them, they'll marvel at the 2D animation and the funny bird.
Looking at this new release, the most notable additions are the extras. The aforementioned commentary by Bluth and Goldman is the highlight. The two reminisce about the making-of process and are surprisingly self-critical. Two moments to listen for: the discussion over Justin's controversial use of the word "damn" and the purpose of the Great Owl's and Nicodemus's similar, glowing eyes. On disc two the offering is lean, with a 14-minute "Secrets Behind the Secret" featurette and five interactive games all there is to be found. The featurette is quite good, though a whole second disc seems to be wasted. The inclusion of both the full-frame and widescreen versions of the film on the first discs seems to be the reason for the spillover. Was the full frame really necessary?
The film does look solid, though the difference in quality from the previous release seems minor to me. For such a low-budget construct, the artwork is simply stunning and the craftsmanship comes through on DVD. Much is dark, yes, but when the colors do show themselves -- particularly in the rat senate and magic amulet scenes -- they burst. The 2.0 stereo audio treatment is adequate, though I would love to see a more active mix, one that does more justice to Jerry Goldsmith's startling composition.
The director's commentary and the making-of featurette are nice extras, but is it worth a double-dip if you already own the first release? I'm thinking no. For the uninitiated, definitely scope this animated masterwork out.
The accused is released to Thorn Valley.
Review content copyright © 2007 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Director's Commentary
* "Secrets Behind the Secret" Featurette