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The Secret of NIMH was the first feature-length project helmed by Don Bluth after parting ways with Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1979. By all accounts, he left because he felt that the studio was being mismanaged, but it’s hard to not also see it as a man who was abandoning a sinking ship. By the time the 80s rolled around, Disney went a decade between major hits and was about to embark on its longest critical dry spell up to that point, which would only end in 1989. Bluth wanted a fresh start, a chance to go back to what he saw as feature-length animation’s roots. The end product definitely looks the part, with a premium being placed on the minutiae and craftsmanship of animating sequences. But overall, The Secret of NIMH lacks the depth and charm of the classic Disney films Bluth was trying to emulate.

The story sounds Disney enough until the details get sketched in: a field mouse named Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) lives in a cinder block on a farm. She’s preparing to move her family away because the harvest is coming soon, and with the harvest comes deadly pesticides and just-as-deadly farm equipment. This year’s move is complicated by both the early arrival of the harvest and the worsening state or her youngest son Timmy, who has a severe pneumonia. Then there’s Dragon, a hellspawn of a cat so foul-looking and ill-designed that it could only have come from the imagination of someone who worked under the famously cat-phobic Walt Disney. Did I mention that she’s essentially this universe’s equivalent of a war widow? Or that the film doesn’t even give her a first name? Or that there’s graphic woodland creature-on-woodland creature murder in this movie involving blood and swords? The brooding tone of the film is the film’s biggest asset, giving contemporary American animation the tonal shot in the arm it needed at the time. It’s a shame that level of vibrancy doesn’t extend to the film’s actual narrative structure, which has never been Bluth’s strong suit. He’s not a stylist on par with Ralph Bakshi or Richard Williams, both directors whose strong formal chops help smooth over whatever narrative shortcomings their films might have. Bluth is actually closer to an upscale Rankin/Bass, more fluid and detailed, but just as haphazard when it comes to basic storytelling.

The Secret of NIMH is peculiar because of all the stories contained within its universe, it chooses to focus on the least interesting one, especially considering that Bluth deliberately wanted to engage with darker material. For example, Mrs. Brisby is a widow; this could have easily been a film about dealing with grief, or helping children deal with grief. Instead, her husband’s death seems more like an inconvenience to her, while the children barely allude to their father at all. Her husband could have been killed during the main story, giving Mrs. Brisby’s arc both the gravitas and momentum is so desperately needs. It would also give everyone else’s motivations context: Jonathan Brisby was apparently a heroic figure, but the film completely sells him short, evoking little more than generic, obituary-style remembrances from the secondary cast. There’s actually an entire movie’s worth of material in the small portion of the film where we do see Jonathan in action, which is during the flashback when rat elder Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) talks about the bad old days at the National Institute of Mental Health (the NIMH of the title), where lab rats were injected with a serum that gave them sentience. There’s a rat parliament composed of those very same genetically-modified super-rats which is solely there to introduce the film’s comically one-dimensional antagonist Jenner. The comic-relief crow voiced by Dom DeLuise immediately bogs down every scene he’s in, which is a lot of them. Every potentially intriguing element in the film is treated like a plot-advancement device rather than an integral piece of world-building.

That said, the core disconnect between the dark tone and the fluid old-school animation helps make The Secret of NIMH interesting. There is a palpable love and respect for the craft of animation that is present in nearly every scene. This is most evident when the film decides to embrace the phantasmagorical elements of its fantastical premise. Occasionally, branches and twigs will glow and resemble firing synapses. Every time a grotesque creature or a floating orb or a kaleidoscopic tunnel of chromosomes appears, the style of the film finally matches the tone it aims for. But more often, the film will simply feature characters exchanging exposition. Smartly, the film does this at one point during an amazing Get Smart-style sequence where Mrs. Brisby heads to the rat underground by means of a hollow-out, sealed-up lamp. The Secret of NIMH doesn’t combine cracker-jack animation and plot advancement this seamlessly that often, but when it does, it’s a treat.

The Secret of NIMH is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.

Directed by Don Bluth; written by Don Bluth, Will Finn, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy; based on Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien; starring Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Hermione Baddeley, John Carradine, and Dom DeLuise; 82 minutes.