On 17th September 1979, fed up with working on sub-par animated features for the then creatively bankrupt Walt Disney studio, whose producers routinely cut corners in order to save a quick buck, directing animator Don Bluth abruptly quit his job, taking with him eleven disillusioned co-workers, resulting in the loss of 15% of the animation staff. Longing for a return to the glory days of glossy, full animation with minimal corner-cutting, Bluth and his followers established their own production house, initially working from his garage before they could afford an actual studio, and throughout the 80s and 90s produced a series of features intended to recapture the spirit of Disney's golden age. To what extent they achieved their goals is a matter for debate, but the fact remains that Bluth's filmography contains several extremely popular (with both casual fans and critics) titles, the first of which, The Secret of NIMH, is arguably his most celebrated.
Widowed fieldmouse Mrs. Brisby's young son, Timmy, is sick with a fever and needs a considerable period of rest in order to recuperate. Unfortunately, with spring well under way, the farmer will soon be setting out to plough the fields, destroying the Brisby home in the process. Unable to move Timmy for fear that the journey would kill him, and yet unable to remain where she is, Mrs. Brisby turns to an unlikely group of allies: the enigmatic and highly intelligent rats living under the nearby rosebush, with whom her deceased husband, Jonathan, had dealings.
Released in 1982, this adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's Newbery Medal-winning children's book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was, by Bluth's own admission, an attempt to prove that high quality animation could still be produced, and for a modest budget. In the 1960s, in a move to cut costs, Disney had abandoned the old-fashioned process of hand-inking each and every frame of animation in favour of simply Xeroxing the rough animation drawings on to celluloid, resulting in a much rougher aesthetic and one which, combined with increasingly frugal budgets and unimaginative storytelling, brought about a considerable drought in the quality of the studio's output in the wake of the death of Walt Disney.
So far, this review has placed much emphasis on artistic issues, and this is not altogether unreasonable, for the visuals are definitely The Secret of NIMH's highlight. For a modest $6 million, Bluth and his team of artists succeeded in creating a film that, while a far cry from the artistic splendour of early Disney efforts like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, stood head and shoulders over what the competition was churning out in the early 80s. Given the effects that can be produced relatively easy in today's animated features with computers (whether traditional or 3D), it may seem minor to draw attention to seemingly trivial details like characters casting shadows and flames glowing, but 25 years ago, animation as a medium had reached such a point of lethargy that such features must have seemed groundbreaking. (One legend often recounted is that, for Bluth, the straw that broke the camel's back was when a producer ordered the ink and paint department to save time and money by not bothering to colour characters' pupils white.)
Bluth opts for a bold colour palette, foregrounding angry orange skies and setting much of the film in dark, subterranean caves lit with occasional bursts of rich reds and blues, further differentiating this from Disney's output. The maturity of the colour styling is far from inappropriate for, despite featuring cute anthropomorphic talking mice and instances of wacky comedy, this is an altogether bleaker animated feature than audiences would have been used to when it was originally released. Indeed, the sometimes oppressive atmosphere and depiction of murder (including some on-screen bloodshed) turned out to be rather controversial at the time. Having said this, none of this was without precedent, for The Secret of NIMH often recalls the earlier Watership Down, another independently-produced animated feature based on a successful "talking animals" novel which pulled no punches in its depiction of the brutal realities of nature. A handful of scenes seem to have been directly inspired by the earlier film, including a sequence in which the origins of the rats of NIMH are revealed, which appears to reference the visual representation of the destruction of the Sandleford warren in Martin Rosen's film.
That said, Bluth does seek to lighten the tone by including comedic elements, to which too much time is unfortunately devoted. Most of it involves the clumsy crow Jeremy, voiced by frequent Bluth collaborator Dom DeLuise, and it's not hard to imagine that the actor was allowed to improvise his performance, resulting in his scenes meandering on for too long with little ultimate purpose. (The voices, by the way, are all of a high standard, and include such famous names as Derek Jacobi, John Carradine and a young Shannen Doherty, but they seem a bit too restrained given the often flamboyant nature of the animation, resulting in the feeling that they are not actually coming out of the characters' mouths - a frequent bone of contention for me in Bluth's films.) Indeed, the film's biggest failing is its narrative, which feels confused and unshaped - surprising, given that one of the major problems with the source material identified by Bluth and co-adapters Gary Goldman, John Pomery and Will Finn was that it effectively told two stories (the Frisby family's plight, and the escape of the rats from the sinister NIMH institute) and was in serious need of focus. The film reduces the latter to a brief flashback, but the remaining narrative still lacks structure. Elsewhere, the insertion of supernatural fantasy elements jars somewhat with the more scientific aspects retained from the novel. Why, after all, would the rats need to harness electricity and machinery when they are shown to have magical powers which, among other things, allow them to see into the past, present and future?
As a historical record, The Secret of NIMH's importance cannot be underestimated. It told Disney, in no uncertain terms, that it was no longer the sole player in the field of American feature animation, and it's hard not to warm to its "triumph of the underdog" storyline, which, appropriately enough, mirrors the experiences of its makers. All the same, it feels as uneven as virtually every other Don Bluth film, and at times it feels as if the plot itself has been overlooked in favour of the technical qualities of the animation. Over the years, it has built up a loyal fanbase, and is considered by many people to constitute a profound viewing experience, but it remains, for me, a flawed but interesting effort.
The Secret of NIMH was originally released on DVD in the US in 1998 and, much to the consternation of its fans, featured only a full-frame 1.33:1 transfer, which suffered from some major errors in the colour palette, thanks to a technician deciding to "correct" the colours by ensuring that Mrs. Brisby's fur was the same hue in every scene, despite the fact that it was supposed to change depending on the lighting conditions of the scene in question. European territories, meanwhile, got a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation of the film, maintaining the colour balance originally created by Bluth and his team, albeit somewhat over-saturated.
For this new "Family Fun Edition" (a moniker that causes me to cringe whenever I hear it), MGM and their new distribution partner, 20th Century Fox, have included both the full-frame and widescreen versions, both fully colour corrected by Gary Goldman, one of the film's producers, animators and writers, and a long-term Bluth collaborator. Both look rather nice, and are a far cry from the overly processed-looking restorations frequently released by Disney: The Secret of NIMH still actually looks like a film released in 1982, retaining the grain structure and the originally intended muted but occasionally striking colour palette. Like a number of Fox catalogue releases, the image seems a bit on the soft side (although it improves significantly on the older, non-anamorphic Region 2 release), but on the plus side there is no edge enhancement in sight.
There remains some confusion over the film's intended aspect ratio, however. A comparison of the two versions reveals that the 1.85:1 is essentially a matted version of the full-frame presentation, revealing only a sliver of extra information on either side. When originally released theatrically in 1982, it would definitely have been projected in this ratio, and yet, having watched both of the versions presented on this disc, the full-frame version often seems to be framed better, with compositions in the widescreen version often feeling too tight. The closing credits, which feature a number of static images, appear especially compromised in the widescreen version, with much of the intricate artwork unceremoniously lopped off. With Bluth's preferred version unclear, MGM and Fox should be commended for including both versions and allowing the individual viewer to choose. For what it's worth, the full-frame version seems minutely sharper than the widescreen presentation.
The audio is a 2.0 Surround encode of the original Dolby Stereo mix, and it sounds very good, with the dialogue coming across as being slightly clearer than on the Region 2 DVD (although it is mixed at a slightly lower level). Jerry Goldsmith's magnificent score, truly one of the best of a very fine line-up, sounds incredibly rich and powerful, while the sparsely-used positional sound effects are often quite effective.
Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0 and French 2.0 mono dubs are also provided, in addition to English and Spanish subtitles for the film. The extras are not subbed.
A look the the garish and utterly inappropriate cover art should leave no-one in any doubt as to the intended audience for this release: young children (a rather disingenuous example of false advertising given the often dark nature of the film itself). This approach, unfortunately, is carried over to the bonus features, the bulk of which are comprised of a series of games and activities, the like of which Disney often includes on their DVD releases. Even the accompanying booklet looks more like the sort of menus many restaurants do for pre-schoolers, with a crossword, mazes and join the dots puzzle.
Fortunately, a couple of features have been provided for the more mature viewer. The first of these is an audio commentary by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, which is engaging and informative, considerably more so than their visual commentary on the Blu-ray and HD DVD release of Dragon's Lair. Bluth's contributions are primarily technical in nature, discussing how various effects were achieved and naming those responsible, while Goldman tends to pay more attention to the story, voice-over artists and so on. The pair complement each other well, and there is little if any dead space throughout its 82-minute duration.
Bluth and Goldman return once more for an all too brief 14 minute featurette entitled "Secrets Behind the Secret" in which, in a very broad sense, they detail the making of the film, including their reasoning behind the numerous alterations to the plot of the original novel, the trials and tribulations of producing the film on a limited budget, and what they hoped to accomplish with it. Their comments are augmented by some intriguing home video footage shot during the making of the film, although what is shown does not always complement what they are describing. A discussion of budgeting, for example, is accompanied by footage of a dope sheet (used for timing in animation, which, to the uninitiated, might look a little like a financial report), while their admission that the cel painters all had to work from home is synchronised with a video of a background painter (not the same thing by any stretch!) at work.
The lack of bonus content is made all the more frustrating by the fact that this is a 2-disc set, with the second disc more or less empty (it contains only the five games and the featurette). Perhaps more material was planned but not completed before the deadline, or perhaps MGM simply decided that their target audience would have no interest in anything more in-depth. Either way it's a real shame, and something of a missed opportunity, given that this would have been an opportune time to put together a lavish 25th anniversary edition.
This new release of The Secret of NIMH comfortably renders its predecessors obsolete, sporting a decent transfer and audio track. The extras are disappointingly sparse, and the whole package has clearly been aimed at a younger age group than the film's original intended audience, but even so, fans should not hesitate to pick up a copy of this version.
More information on The Secret of NIMH can be found in an in-depth retrospective by Adam McDaniel.