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Entries in Secret of NIMH/The [1982] (1)

Saturday
Mar032012

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Scurry Movie 

I watched The Secret of NIMH several times as a kid, but I had no memory of it until yesterday. That's very telling. I'm surprised my parents let me see it once, let alone repeatedly. Despite the cute, spunky field mice characters and Dom DeLuise's turn as a clumsy crow, Don Bluth's cartoon about rogue, intelligent lab rats has all the markings of a fantasy/horror film.

The story begins in a cave, where an ancient rat named Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) speaks to an old, dead friend. He writes in a book, and the words sparkle with pixie dust. He caresses a large medallion with a red crystal in the middle, which reflects his large, pupil-free eyes. Between this scene and the truly frightening United Artists logo that preceded it, I began to wonder if I'd put on the right movie.

We cut to a cinderblock on the outskirts of a farm, where field mouse/single mom, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), lives with her small family.* Her life is a series of near-death experiences, populated by mostly unfriendly animals who either want to dismiss or kill her. An old doctor named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) grudgingly gives her some healing herbs to treat her youngest son's illness. The wise Great Owl (John Carradine) can't provide secrets to her husband's mysterious life without scaring her half to death. And then there's the farm cat, Dragon, a hulking beast who terrorizes every creature in sight.

On top of all this, Brisby's home is in danger of being destroyed when the farmer plows his field. She seeks the wisdom of Nicodemus, who has formed an elaborate rat colony underneath the thorn bush in the farmer's front yard. Her visit coincides with a council meeting, in which the scheming Jenner (Paul Shenar) rallies his colleagues to continue syphoning electricity from the farmhouse--while Nicodemus and the head of his royal guard, Justin (Peter Strauss), argue for relocating to a valley, where they can rebuild as an independent society.

Mrs. Brisby is greeted with suspicion by some and awe by others. She learns that her late husband, Jonathan, was an icon of rodent liberation. Years earlier, he and a small number of mice and rats escaped the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) after being injected with drugs that boosted their intelligence to human levels. Nicodemus agrees to help move the Brisby family as the colony's last act on the farm. It's a dangerous, multi-layered process, which Jenner uses as the opportunity for a devastating power play.

I really liked The Secret of NIMH, which is disappointing because I started out loving it. This is a questionable family film, packed with spooky imagery, murder, and a hopeful, positivity-in-a-world-of-assholes vibe that I really appreciated. Brisby's love for her family is really touching, and I dug the bizarre, inter-species flirtation between her and Jeremy the crow (DeLuise).

Setting the story aside, the artistry of Bluth's team is top-notch. From the candle-lighting that opens the film to the moving-day scene in which rain drips down elabrate ropes and pulleys, mixing with pools of mud, the hand-drawn feats put a good deal of Pixar's stuff to shame. Don't get me wrong: I love Pixar, but to me there's a significant difference between innovating and working through problems via traditional animation and tweaking models with code and slider settings. Advances towards computer-generated realism are terrific, I'm sure, for the people working on such films, but as an audience member, it just looks like showing off. It may be possible to build a fully functioning ATM machine using only hydroelectric power and popsicle sticks, but what's the point?

Sorry. Rant over. It's just that looking at the strain of those pulleys reminded me that nothing in The Adventures of Tintin came close to creating that sense of gravity and excitement.

Okay--rant really over now.

My big problem with The Secret of NIMH can best be described by a term coined by Blake Snyder in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!: "Double Mumbo Jumbo". Essentially, this phenomenon occurs when a movie asks the audience to make two or more giant leaps of faith/logic within the confines of the reality it has established. In this case, I'll buy that NIMH's meddling with rodent brains created a new race of creatures with the ability to talk and build hinged doors and power grids. But Bluth and co-writers John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman, and Will Finn (adapting Robert C. O'Brien's novel) go two steps beyond by A) introducing magic into the equation, and B) fudging the origin of their characters' intelligence.

I'll start with the second point. In a flashback, we see men rounding up various animals for delivery to NIMH. The creatures all have dumb, black eyes--except for the apes, who look at least semi-aware of what's going on. The movie's conceit is that, over time, the lab's injections made the animals smart enough to escape, and to fashion clothes and sophisticated language. None of this explains why Mrs. Brisby is able to carry on conversations or sport her tattered, red cloak. Unless she was the child of one of the NIMH rats, she and all her farm-field cohorts should be pre-NIMH oblivious.

Yet, we're asked to believe that she and Jonathan met and started a family after he escaped the lab. It makes about as much sense as the film's use of mysticism. I'm don't know what chemical one injects into an animal to give it psychic powers or the ability to conjure otherworldly talents, but the geniuses at NIMH apparently do. The movie's last act turns into a fantasy free-for-all, with Jenner and Justin engaging in a fight to the death, wearing what look to be costumes from an elementary school production of Robin Hood. Meanwhile, Mrs. Brisby uses the medallion to lift the fallen cinder block out of a mud pit (which gave me flashbacks to both The Empire Strikes Back and Transformers: The Movie).

Those of you who grew up with and cherish The Secret of NIMH may think these are stupid nitpicks. Far be it from me to steal the magic from anyone's youth, but this film cheats left and right. Did Bluth and company not think their premise was strong enough to carry a feature? My understanding of the book is that it was hocus-pocus-free, yet still beloved by millions of children. Maybe it was a trope of the era, in which kids'-movie creators thought everything needed artificial spicing-up. The one thing I'll grant Pixar is that they'd be able to pull off a terrific NIMH adaptation, storywise, without falling back on intelligence-insulting gimmicks to move things along.

Seeing as 2D animation is pretty much dead, though, a Bluth-style remake of NIMH, written by the geniuses behind Up, say, will have to remain my own, private fantasy. In reality, I'm stuck with a gorgeous, spooky, little picture that broke out of its cage much, much too soon.

*For you trivia geeks: two of her children are voiced by Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty.