Review of the Secret of NIMH

On the surface, The Secret of NIMH is an easy film to overlook. Animated mouse movies are a dime a dozen and, even though they usually manage to be at least decent, few really manage to break out of the pack. However, everyone I have spoken to who was given The Secret of NIMH a chance has the same thing to say. Not only is it a good film for its genre, but it is in facta masterpiece of animation as a whole. I myself will tell anyone that The Secret of NIMH ranks easily as one of if not the best 2D animated film I have ever seen (which is saying a lot).

What is The Secret of NIMH?

The Secret of NIMH is a 2D animated film by Don Bluth based on Robert C. O’Brian’s children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Don Bluth had previously worked as an animator for Walt Disney Pictures but left the company feeling discouraged as traditional hand drawn cell animation was being gradually abandoned for more advanced methods. After reading O’Brian’s novel, Bluth was convinced that it would make a fantastic animated film and eventually received the minimal funding he needed to make his debut feature length animated film a reality.

Like seemingly so many of my favorite animated films, The Secret of NIMH was made with a relatively small budget and animation team. Some animators are even quoted as stating that they would work 100 hours a week to make their deadlines and, when the film’s budget ran out, Don Bluth and several other producers and members of the team mortgaged their homes to get the extra funding needed.

When The Secret of NIMH received a small scale theatrical release it was received with critical and audience acclaim. However, as a result of its limited theatrical run it only managed to make a measly $15 million versus its $7 million budget. As a result, enough money was made to pay off the film’s debts but not enough to keep Don Bluth’s small studio open and it closed its doors not long after. With its subsequent release on home video and exposure through the internet, The Secret of NIMH has seemingly found new life and recognition gaining a loyal following that proudly call it not only one of Don Bluth’s best works but one of the best animated films overall.

What is The Secret of NIMH About?

The story begins on a small farm in which the recently widowed Mrs. Brisby (changed from the original Frisby in order to avoid a law suit from the owners of the Frisbee) and her 4 young children reside. As is the case every year, the family will soon need to move in order to avoid being killed by the farmer’s plow as he prepares the new year’s harvest. However, one of Mrs. Brisby’s two sons, Timmothy, was bitten by a spider and has contracted a serious case of pneumonia.

After consulting Mr. Ages, an incredibly intelligent mouse on the same farm, he gives her the medicine Timmy will need and informs her that he must remain bundled up in bed for the next 3 weeks or he could lose his life. However, disaster strikes when the plow arrives early and only the combined efforts of Mrs. Brisby and “Auntie Shrew” manage to cut the farmer’s fuel line and buy them more time.

In desperation, Mrs. Brisby decides to take the risk of consulting The Great Owl and asking him what can be done. Surprisingly, the Owl  knows Mrs. Brisby’s late husband Jonathan and informs her that the only hope of saving her son is to meet with Nicodemus, leader of the rats in the farmer’s rose bush, and asking for his help in moving her home ot a place that will be safe from the plow.

Mrs. Brisby has her doubts, but there seems to be something strange about these particular rats. Furthermore, a mysterious corporation known as NIMH (the National Industry for Mental Health) has taken a keen interest in the rats, and has been contacting the farmer incessantly…

What Happens in The Secret of NIMH?

Talking in any detail about the events in The Secret of NIMH is very difficult to do without going into major spoilers. I will say that the film could really be divided into two major parts. The prologue (which I wrote above save some specific events and characters) and Mrs. Brisby’s time with the rats which is really the highlight of the film.

The pacing in The Secret of NIMH is actually pretty slow compared to family films today. There are a fair number of action sequences to be seen here but they’re all relatively short and somewhat far apart. Most of the film, in fact, is based in conversation or silent ambiance. There are whole sequences during which Mrs. Brisby is by herself and, apart from the occasional gasp or what not, is completely silent, allowing for the amazing visuals to tell us the story. This is what really makes The Secret of NIMH work, particularly as a story. It is pretty slow and the plot itself is pretty small in scale, but the mood, tone and perfect pacing all help the film to feel grand and to hold the audiences attention.

Beyond that, The Secret of NIMH has an incredibly powerful and relevant message to give us during that second half. It’s one of those rare film messages that I could understand as a kid but get so much more out of as as adult. Again, I won’t talk too much about it for the sake of not spoiling the film for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but know that it really is thought provoking and may bounce around in your head for awhile. The Secret of NIMH is also one of those films that warrants multiple viewings as there are little things that one doesn’t always catch but that enhance the whole experience once noticed.

How is the Animation in The Secret of NIMH?

As stated above, The Secret of NIMH was Don Bluth’s premier feature length animated film away from Disney.  Anyone who has seen one of Don Bluth’s later films (such as American Tale or The Land Before Time) knows what their in for here. The animation is amazing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the best animation of Don Bluth’s career just because of it’s visual impact and tone.

Again, I don’t want to say too much because much of The Secret of NIMH’s best animation takes place during the second half. I will say that Don Bluth went so far as to make changes to O’Brians original story in order to enhance the animation and imagery that he could put on screen. To my knowlege, changes are usually made to shorten or quicken the pace of a film (or make it so long that you can sell 3 movie tickets…) but only rarely have I heard of it being done for the sake of the visuals and animation. Now, watching The Secret of NIMH and how amazing those images have turned out I’d say that it’s totally justified.

How is The Soundtrack in The Secret of NIMH?

The soundtrack in The Secret of NIMH was done by Jerry Goldsmith (the composer for Alien and the original Planet of the Apes) and is absolutely phenomenal. I will say that the music is more to enhance the visuals than to make much of an ear worm, so it probably isn’t the kind of thing that someone would want to listen to on it’s own. However, as soon as it’s put behind that amazing imagery it really shines. Note one score seems out of place and the movie is all the better for it.

Is the Secret of NIMH a Good Movie?

The Secret of NIMH is not only a good movie, but a fantastic movie. Many of the films that I review on this site (and even many of the ones that end up on My Big 5 list) are entertaining but seriously flawed. For The Secret of NIMH on the other hand, I can’t think of any kind of flaw or problem with it. That’s incredibly rare. Furthermore, it’s one of those rare films that I could conceivably recommend to anybody.

For parents I will say that, while there is no content that would not be child appropriate, that some of the imagery can get frightening, so maybe view it alone and decide for yourselves if your children can handle it. For absolutely everyone else, you owe it to yourselves to see The Secret of NIMH for yourselves. I know I’m not the first person to rave about it to this extent, nor will I be the last. I wish I could have gone into more detail here in this review but just take my word for it. See The Secret of NIMH!