the secret of NIMH 3

Does It Hold Up?

So, so well. The Secret of NIMH is a masterpiece. It’d been years since I last watched it, and every scene feels vital to the story and every character feels like an old friend. What surprised me was how little there was to the adventure; I talked about scope earlier, but when you boil it down to the basics, Mrs. Brisby gets guidance from The Great Owl, meets the rats of NIMH, there’s some cool tiny sword fighting, and then they (really, she) raise her home from the mud. Within that tight framework is a lot of endearing dialogue and a healthy dose of mini-battles and wacky nonsense from DeLuise’s crow with two left talons.

I can’t say I knew who Dom DeLuise was a kid (at least not until Robin Hood: Men in Tights), but it’s fun to look back on his vocal performance here and appreciate how key he was to lifting the spirits of this movie. In playing clown for the Brisby children, he’s also babysitting for the young audience, tacitly promising that the movie won’t get too scary. Or, if it does, that they can handle it.

It was also fascinating to look back on this movie with adult, film critic eyes to remember an age where movie stars hadn’t breached the world of voice acting yet. If NIMH were made today (ahem), Justin Timberlake would voice Jeremy and Amy Adams would voice Mrs. Brisby. This is a get-off-my-lawn type of thing, but there was something special about the pure characters that emerged from animation without star power audibly poking out from behind the cels.

NIMH is filled with actors whose names we might not recognize until we scope out their resumes. Most were Shakespearean stage players. Sir Derek Jacobi brought fantastic gravitas to Nicodemus, the wizened rat spirit guide who gifts Mrs. Brisby the amulet that she uses to save her family. Hermione Baddeley – a Tony winner who is probably most recognizable as one of the housekeepers in Mary Poppins – stole scenes as the cranky Auntie Shrew. Weirdly, the most recognizable names to the casual pop fans of my generation are Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton, who voiced the two older Brisby kids. That was a nice gem to uncover about a movie that I’ve never investigated beyond its final scene. As a child, the movie existed solely as story, and I can’t explain why I’ve never been curious to know who voiced what character or who drew what scenes.

The exception to that is Don Bluth. The writer/director is an institution of darker-themed children’s movies with outstanding animation. NIMH was his first feature after striking out on his own without Disney. It’s tragic that his career has been most heavily marked by phenomenal movies that didn’t make money. I’d like to believe that if he were launching today, he would find more success. With the success of LAIKA, Dreamworks, Ghibli, and Pixar, there is more room today for animated movies than in the monolithic Disney decades.

Comfort and Closure

Obviously, I can read more deeply into the movie as an adult to explain what I loved about it as a child (and love about it now). For example, I’m sure I never really noticed how the major villain (us, with experimental syringes) is mirrored in the opening by Timmy’s sickness. The theme is a yarn ball of complication: we’re watching sweet, talking animals who were given damning powers by human experimentation that was most likely in service of finding medicine for our own illnesses.

Mostly, the revisit gave me a chance to psychoanalyze myself as a child. I grew up with a terminally ill brother and parents passionately devoted to his health and survival, and even though I’d loved NIMH for years before his diagnoses, it’s easy to see that I would have worn out the VHS copy afterward relating to the difficult story of a mother’s fierce courage and overwhelming sacrifice in the face of a immovably sick child and the towering force steadily rolling toward their home.

It helped me get some relief on the day of my worst sunburn, and it helped me, undoubtedly, on many days after that.


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