Whenever someone other than Disney wanted to make a Disney-like animated movie, they usually came to Don Bluth. After a long career at Disney, beginning with work on Sleeping Beauty (rating: 90) in 1959, in the late '70s, he made a series of movies with all the Disney design principles, that were often better than Disney's contemporary output, but, in my opinion, couldn't match the classic Disney magic. Still, he produced a remarkable number of contemporary classics in the two decades to follow: 1986's An American Tail, 1988's The Land Before Time, 1989's All Dogs Go to Heaven, and 1995's Anastasia (rating: 60).
The plot of The Secret of NIMH is an interesting mix of fantasy and realistic elements, as the title itself suggests. "NIMH" stands for "National Institute of Mental Health," a part of the human world surrounding the world that the fieldmice and other animal creatures uneasily occupy. The movie opens with the main character, Mrs. Brisby, seeking aid for her ailing son, Timothy. But it's almost harvest season, which means that the tractor is about to come destroy their field home, and she and her family will have to move with all the other field creatures to colder climes -- a journey that is sure to kill Timothy. In order to save her family, she'll need love, courage, help from some special rats, and a little bit of magic. It's based on the Newbery Award-winning book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH -- Frisby was changed to Brisby to avoid legal battles from the Frisbee toymakers -- and the plot is clearly the movie's strength. The movie is 82 minutes, and it ends not a moment too soon.
The Secret of NIMH, released in 1982, was his full length directorial debut, and it's got an extremely assured visual design, with Disney-esque character designs for all the woodland creatures, cute good guys and scary-looking bad guys. Video game designer Al Lowe once explained the Disney principles:
Character definitions are crystal clear. You always know who's what. People look exactly like what they are: bad people look evil and wear black. The hero looks good and wears light colors.
But as much as the look is right, the feel is off. Any given animated cel looks like pristine Disney. But perhaps because he has a smaller stable of animators, the animation itself tends to be much jerkier, less smooth and fluid. Thankfully, it's not a totally star-laden cast (one of the detractions from Anastasia), but there are a few recognizable names, including the great Derek Jacobi as rat leader Nicodemus and John Carradine as the Great Owl. Two of the child characters are voiced by Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton, before they became stars. The comic relief, Jeremy the crow, looks like a Disney animal pal, but as voiced by Dom DeLuise, he's so annoying that he would have been better left on the cutting floor. The score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is by turns overly bombastic and strangely absent. The whole movie seems just a half-step out of tune.
Of course, I'm reviewing this movie as an adult who had never seen it before. It's still a good kids' movie -- it's a beautiful-looking film with a great story that's over in less than an hour and a half. Children will certainly still enjoy it. It just doesn't hold up as well for adults.
Crossposted from Remingtonstein.