The Secret of NIMH

(Editors’ Note: This essay is a side-step to Mari Ness’s exquisite Disney Read-Watch series of essays on Tor.com.)

Don Bluth entered Disney in 1955 with high hopes. As a child, he had been mesmerized by Disney films and shorts, later telling interviewers that he spent hours copying Disney comic books. To his delight, he was put to work on one of the all-time artistic Disney animation greats, Sleeping Beauty (1959), where he worked as an assistant animator on some of the minor characters, developing his art under the guidance of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the animators who had created Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940).

Religion interfered with his career shortly afterwards, as Bluth left his job to do an LDS mission tour and college. The love of animation still called to him, however, and by 1967 he found himself working for Filmation, a newish animation company that had produced several successful cartoon shorts on Christian themes, and was now looking to branch out into new, more secular projects. The Disney-trained Bluth, with his religious background, seemed a perfect fit. Bluth was immediately set to work on a long delayed animated sequel to The Wizard of Oz and a cartoon based on Archie Comics, The Archie Show. And yet, four years later Bluth was back at Disney. Filmation’s focus, then and later, was on quantity, not quality, and Bluth’s focus, then and later, would be on animation quality.

He arrived to find the Disney animation studios in some disarray.  Walt Disney had died in 1966 from lung cancer, and the company was still floundering, unsure of where it should focus: the infamously expensive feature length cartoons, the only slightly less expensive and potentially less profitable cartoon shorts, live action films, theme parks (the groundbreaking for what would be Walt Disney World was in 1967, the same year Bluth went to Filmation), or toys. Eventually, the answer would be “all of the above, plus cruise ships” but at the time, Disney executives were seriously considering shutting down the company’s animation studio.

Still, Bluth relished the opportunity to work again with Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the fabled animators who had been working at the company since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Plus, for all the talk about closing down the animation studio, Disney was still working on Robin Hood and various shorts, and was slowly adding refinements to the cost saving xerographic process, improving the looks of the cartoons. Bluth had hopes. 

Eight years later, Bluth walked out on Disney again, this time permanently.

As with his decision to leave Filmation, the trigger for Bluth was, again, a perceived lack of quality.  During those eight years, Disney had produced The Rescuers (1977)—a film Bluth appreciated and learned a great deal from. But the moderate success of The Rescuers did not convince Disney executives to pour more money into the animation studio, and the next film, The Fox and the Hound (1981) was, Bluth decided early on, an unmitigated artistic disaster. (He was perhaps a little harsh, but not entirely wrong.) Disney, Bluth announced, was no longer true to Walt Disney. But he could be. He founded his own firm, Don Bluth Productions, determined to be true to Disney’s artistic vision. Eleven Disney animators joined him. Disney pointedly failed to credit Bluth for his contributions to The Fox and the Hound.

The new Bluth group quickly finished an animated short, Banjo the Woodpile Cat, just to prove they could, before moving on to outsourced animation work on feature films to bring in some needed cash. It was not enough. Money was so tight that at first, the group worked out of Bluth’s garage. So tight that when Bluth got an unexpected call from a former Disney executive who had also started his own production company, he seized the opportunity, even if it wasn’t one of his initial ideas: the chance to do an animated version of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, an acclaimed 1971 children’s book by Robert O’Brien.

But Bluth set some ground rules. He demanded—and got—multiplane cameras, similar to the one used by Disney to create the illusion that the camera was moving through drawings. Developing and building the cameras took a full a year and a half. And, he wanted his film to offer something new. For that, he and his team turned to special effects and lighting, something Disney had stopped experimenting with after Fantasia. Bluth was not quite ambitious enough to try underwater sequences, but he did want to make things glow and explode.

The big trick here was accomplished by Dorse A. Lampher, who had the multiplane camera shoot images through backlit color gels—giving the illusion that the film colors were actually glowing, with a radiance that had not been seen in animation since Fantasia. Lampher and the others at Don Bluth Productions were so excited by the results, they decided the film needed a glowing magical amulet. The original book has nothing about magical amulets, let alone magical amulets capable of lifting concrete blocks when triggered by mice with pure hearts, and trying to squeeze one in proved rather awkward, but not only was this a relatively logical follow-up to the influential Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, the glowing amulet allowed animators to show off different multiplane camera effects and backlit animation. At the very least, it got investors for the film interested enough to cough up extra money—rather useful, given the added costs for these special effects.

Apart from forcing a change in the plot, the astonishing light effects had one other disadvantage, though: the focus on light made animating shadows a particular nightmare. Eventually, the artists carefully animated individual shadows for each character, working with light effects in their studio to ensure that each shadow was at the correct length and angle. To this, Bluth added split exposures to create more shadowy and translucent effects. The result: arguably the greatest advancements in animation since the development of the xerography process for One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Bluth had accomplished his goal of restoring innovation to animation—unaware that back at Disney, a young animator named John Lasseter was just then beginning to consider what computers could do for the art form.

But all that was much later. For now, all of this innovation meant that Bluth’s studio did not have quite enough funds to ink and outline in color—something that rival studio Disney had just returned to for The Rescuers and some parts of The Fox and the Hound—but they were able to use a refined xerography process that left relatively clean animation lines, and they also were able to mix and develop new colors for the backgrounds and animation cels.

For the music, the producers managed to hire legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith is probably best known to Uncanny readers as the man who created the music for Aliens and for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the theme for which was later prominently used in the opening credits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and later Star Trek films. At the time, he was probably best known for his work on Planet of the Apes, Patton, Chinatown, The Omen, and The Boys from Brazil.  The Secret of NIMH would not rank among his top scores, or even his top scores for an animated picture (that would be the later Mulan (1998)), but even lesser Goldsmith is effective Goldsmith, as it is there.

For voice actors, Bluth persuaded veteran actors to give his new company a chance, in a list that eventually included Shakespearean trained Derek Jacobi, American character actor John Carradine (in what, by his own disputed account, was about his 400th film), British character actress Hermione Baddeley and American actress Elizabeth Hartman. The results ranged from competent (the kid mice and various minor characters) to excellent (Elizabeth Hartman) with one exception: Dom DeLuise as the comedic Jeremy the crow. Dom DeLuise could and did shine when directed by Mel Brooks, but Brooks was nowhere near this film, and DeLuise can most kindly be called “grating.” Fortunately, he’s not in the film much. 

That left only the story, and here, the animators faced new problems. For one, as previously noted, the plot of the book did not include too many opportunities to show off amazing glowing light effects—something that obviously had to be changed. For two, and more seriously, much of the source material is told in flashback form—something that had never been tried in a full length animated cartoon before, and something that Bluth and his animators hesitated to try now. And for three, the book contained only one, perhaps two, scenes that could be considered action scenes—a requirement for nearly every film.

So animators tweaked the plot. Oh, the basis remained the same: Mrs. Brisby, a field mouse, terrified about the health of her son, Timothy, and knowing that a plow is about to come very close to their house, forcing them to move, seeks out the help of various animals, including Mr. Ages the mouse, Jeremy the crow, the Great Owl, and a nearby colony of super-intelligent rats. To her surprise, the rats owe their lives to her husband, and agree to help. Mrs. Brisby offers to help in return: Timothy is, after all, her son. 

But other elements were massively changed. Bluth added not just the subplot with a magical amulet, but an exciting scene with a plow (a definite improvement over the book, and one of the highlights of the film) and transformed the moving scene from a model of efficient labor to something that, frankly, makes me question the actual intelligence of these supposedly super-intelligent rats. The book’s lengthy flashback sequence was greatly shortened. And Bluth added a final scene involving crows and some bondage which—yeah, I’m just going to leave that there, but if crows and bondage are your things, at least one film is thinking of you. 

The tweaked plot required tweaked characters. Justin the Rat transformed from a ratty bland sort to a ratty Robin Hood sort, who looks remarkably like the Disney one; Jeremy the crow from a Useful Sort into a clown; Nicodemus from a cautious leader into a Rat Wizard; small mouse Martin from someone forgettable to someone vaguely interesting yet still forgettable; and Jenner from a rat with opposing politics into a Full Scale Evil Villain Complete With a Villain Wardrobe.  

All of this led to rather mixed results. Oh, the film looks great—the animation here, if not quite up to the best of Disney hand animated works, certainly outdoes nearly everything else the Disney studios produced between Walt Disney’s death and The Little Mermaid (1989). Many of the characters, both tweaked and untweaked, turned out to be standouts—particularly Mrs. Brisby, who 35 years later, still stands out as something unusual in Western animation: a mother on a hero’s journey—one she largely takes alone.

Disney, of course, had featured mothers in heroic roles and as major characters before this, most notably in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Aristocats. But both of those mothers had functioned in decidedly support roles, needing assistance from their partners. Mrs. Brisby does need the help of the rats to move her house and her children, but she finds the rats on her own, and later braves a cat and rescues herself from a birdcage with no help whatsoever. During this, she finds out not just about her husband, but about her own inner courage. It helps, too, that her main character trait appears to be kindness, and her desperation and love for her son remains clear, making her instantly sympathetic. Her friendship with Auntie Shrew is awesome: they may and do criticize each other, but they know each other’s positive qualities—and they help each other when really needed.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Brisby is stuck in a plot which isn’t quite worthy of her. The mystical amulet plot never really does fit into the rest of the movie, and the back history of the rats—critical to her understanding of her husband and her children—gets sorta shoved into a small infodump, with little time to explore what it means to her. And frequently, the rest of the plot feels as if it needed just a touch more tweaking. For example, in an early scene, an unsympathetic Auntie Shrew is telling Mrs. Brisby that the plow is coming and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Three scenes later, and Auntie Shrew is telling Mrs. Brisby that they will think of something, and perhaps the owl can help. Oh, sure, before all this, Auntie Shrew had a reason—beyond her time—to be irritated, and between these two scenes, Auntie Shrew watched, and helped, Mrs. Brisby stop a major piece of machinery, suggesting that the mice have just a bit more control over the situation than it might seem. But the transition still feels shaky at best, not to mention that I can’t help but wonder why Auntie Shrew didn’t mention the owl before this—unless she now figures that if her friend is willing to face a dangerous tractor, an owl is nothing.

Speaking of which, Mrs. Brisby responds to the whole owl suggestion by noting—with reason—that owls eat mice. Auntie Shrew, who has just seen Mrs. Brisby do something pretty much unheard of, tells her to have a little courage. Shortly after that, Mrs. Brisby repeats this point, noting that she thinks this is a terrible idea, while on the back of a flying Jeremy, who explains that owls only eat mice at night. It’s an amusing line, which serves to emphasize just how scary this scene is for Mrs. Brisby—but if Mrs. Brisby is still so reluctant to seek out an owl, who, exactly, contacted Jeremy for the flying service in the first place? Not Auntie Shrew—a later scene shows that Auntie Shrew knows nothing about Jeremy. Which leads to the next question: since Auntie Shrew knows nothing about Mrs. Brisby’s friendship with the crow, how did she think her friend could reach the owl in the first place?

It’s moments like these—and the film has many, many more—that keep the film from completely working. It doesn’t really help that a later scene, played for drama, shows the rats dangling the Brisby house from a crane so that little Timothy doesn’t need to leave his bed—a scene that also shows the house swaying back and forth in the rain and wind, and even leaving out what happens next, I gotta say, I’m not really sure that this is all that much safer for Timothy than, say, picking up his bed and moving him safely and then moving the house—however effective juxtaposing these scenes with those of Mrs. Brisby frantically trying to escape her cage. Essentially, Bluth had Walt Disney’s art, but he did not yet have Walt Disney’s sense of story. (Speaking here of the man, not of most of the 1970s and 1980s films made in Disney’s name.)

Also, parents should be warned: parts of this film, particularly a scene involving some mice where things do not go well, may be a bit too intense for small children, though older children should be fine.

Bluth, however, was satisfied. After some massive last minute sound editing work, needed to change the name “Mrs. Frisby” to “Mrs. Brisby” to prevent any confusion, by which Bluth meant expensive legal complications with Frisbees, and a moment where the MPAA board gave The Secret of NIMH a G rating instead of the PG rating he felt, with reason, it deserved, Bluth launched The Secret of NIMH, along with Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty (in their first ever screen roles as little mice) out into the world, ready to declare himself the heir to Disney. 

For any number of reasons—the story flaws, the lack of the Disney name and Disney marketing budget, the film’s unsuitability for very small children, or getting released in the same week as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, that attempt failed. The Secret of NIMH was a box office disappointment, bringing in only $14.7 million—not enough to cover production, distribution, and marketing costs. The film would eventually turn a profit from later international and home video releases, becoming a minor cult hit, but chief financial producers Aurora Productions declined to produce any further animated films, and Don Bluth Productions was forced into bankruptcy. Bluth turned to animating video games. But he had the memory of this film to support him. When a knock on his door came from Steven Spielberg, he was ready—and his next films were able to challenge the Mouse not just artistically, but financially. 

Mari Ness

Mari Ness is not quite as obsessed with myth and fairy tale as her work might suggest. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Apex Magazine, Fireside, Daily Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons, and her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was recently released by Papaveria Press. For more, check out her webpage at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter @mari_ness.

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