As you can see from the masthead the name of this blog is “The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of”. That parenthetic “probably” is important. I have no way of knowing what movies you the reader have heard of, let alone have seen. On more then one occasion I received a post from someone saying that they loved one of the films I profiled. Also I sometimes just want to re-watch and write about a movie I loved and haven’t seen in some time.
If you were a kid in the eighties like I was then there’s a good chance you’ve heard of and have also seen The Secret of NIMH. If you grew up in an earlier or later time period you probably haven’t. The Secret of NIMH was the first animated feature directed by Don Bluth, a Disney ex-patriot who left the House of Mouse and brought a team of animators with him to start his own studio. NIMH wasn’t a hit at the box office but thanks to the growing home video market and HBO, many kids and families saw The Secret of NIMH. Even my Dad, who normally ignored whatever my sister and I were watching on TV loved the film.
Don Bluth, a native of El Paso, Texas first worked for the Disney studios in the mid-fifties, working as an assistant animator on Sleeping Beauty. He then spent several years in Argentina doing missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When he returned to the states he first went to work for Filmation, a low-budget animation studio that produced Saturday Morning cartoons. Bluth’s first assignment was drawing layouts for a cartoon based on the Archie comics.
He then went to Disney where he worked on The Adventures of Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. He later was one of the key animators on The Rescuers and was principally responsible for animating Elliot, the title character in Pete’s Dragon. On the one hand Bluth was able to learn from the masters. Some of Disney’s “nine old men” such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson were still working at the studio and were eager to pass down their expertise. There were also a number of new animators coming in such as Ron Clements, John Musker, Brad Bird and the man who would co-found Pixar and is now the president of Disney animation, the great John Lasseter. Bluth had a hand in training these future masters.
Alas, Bluth was also frustrated. Hard as it is to believe now, Disney was only producing an animated feature every four years and while there are people who fondly remember Robin Hood and The Rescuers it’s pretty hard to argue that they don’t hold up as well as the great animated classics such as Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and others, or even such latter day hits as 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. Fact is, by the late seventies/early eighties it looked as if the animated feature was on the verge of extinction. Fact is not many animated films that weren’t produced by the Disney studio were ever hits. There were a few, of course. Yellow Submarine was a hit thanks to the Beatles and the fact that it was a delightful film. Ralph Bakshi opened the door to “adult” or “underground” animation with his X-rated Fritz the Cat. While it looks pretty tame compared to your average South Park episode it’s still a wickedly funny film. Films like Watership Down and Bakshi’s abbreviated version of Lord of the Rings never achieved a big audience. Frankly it was starting to look like the only outlet for animation was Saturday Morning and commercials.
And so, shortly after The Rescuers was release, Bluth and eleven other animators left the Disney studio and opened their own studio. Their first film was a short called Banjo the Woodpile Cat. By now animated shorts were pretty much just relegated to the festival circuit, but it was a start. Next they created some delightful animated sequences for the notoriously campy Olivia Newton-John roller-skating musical Xanadu. It was then that he got the financing to make his first feature.
For his first film Bluth and his crew chose to adapt the Newberry Award winning book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. The film centers on Mrs. Brisby (the protagonists name was changed to avoid a lawsuit from Wham-O) a field mouse with a major problem. Her youngest son, Timothy, is sick with pneumonia. She goes to visit Mr. Ages, a crusty old mouse who lives in an abandoned wheat thrasher. He seems to be a chemist of some sort and mixes up some medicine for sick little Timothy. He also warns her that Timmy must be kept in bed for three weeks. This poses a new problem. Moving day is coming. That refers to a day when all of the animals that live in the field take temporary refuge while the farmer starts plowing the field.
On her way home we meet Jeremy, a crow, and a clumsy one at that. He claims that he’s building a love nest but hasn’t gotten a girl. Mrs. Brisby takes a shine to Jeremy but she can’t help but also be a little bit exasperated by him, especially when he attracts the attention of Dragon, the farmer’s cat. You may wonder why anyone would give such a name to his or her cat, but you’ll know once you see him. Frankly, Dragon looks more like some kind of gargoyle then a housecat, and he seems to be the size of a pig. Dragon is, quite frankly, the most ghastly feline I’ve ever seen in the movies. Does he curl up with the farmer and his family and purr at night?
At home, we meet her other three children. Her precocious son Martin, her somewhat goody goody daughter Teresa and her young daughter Cynthia. Real child actors voiced all the kids. Will Wheaton who voiced Martin would later act in Stand by Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation and now has a recurring role as himself on The Big Bang Theory. Shannon Doherty (Teresa) went on to star in Beverly Hills 90210 and Charmed.
When Mrs. Brisby comes home she gently gives Timmy some broth mixed with the medicine Mr. Ages gave her while a lullaby called “Flying Dreams”, sung off camera by Sally Stevens. The number was written by Paul Williams, who sings it again during the closing credits (not as well if you ask me) and Jerry Goldsmith, who also scored the film. One of the greatest film composers of all time, Jerry Goldsmith scored countless films during his career, including Patton, Chinatown, Alien, Gremlins and many, many more. Writing a score for an animated film was not something that A-list film composers did back then but Goldsmith rose to the occasion.
The next morning Mrs. Brisby and her family are awoken by a terrible sound. The plow has come early this year. Both Mrs. Brisby and the comical “Auntie Shrew” manage to stop the machine, but they know it’s only a temporary solution to a permanent problem. If she doesn’t find a way to move her family then there’s nothing she can do. Therefore Mrs. Brisby decides to do something drastic. She decides to visit The Great Owl. A character that is only spoken about in hushed tones. The owl is thought to be very wise but also very dangerous. And lest we forget, owls eat mice.
Jeremy the crow flies Mrs. Brisby to the owl’s hollow. When she sees the creature with his glowing eyes she’s justly frightened. No doubt many children were too, especially the way he makes his introduction, squashing a giant spider that was about to attack Mrs. Brisby with his mighty talon. When Mrs. Brisby tells him of her plight, the owl is apoplectic. But then he finds out that she’s Mrs. Jonathan Brisby (her own first name is never revealed). He won’t tell her how he knows Jonathan’s name, but he does offer some sage advice. He tells her to go to the rosebush in the farmers yard. There she will find the Rats of NIMH.
When she arrives at the bush she finds to her surprise that Mr. Ages, who now has a broken leg, is there in the rosebush and is a friend with the rats. He also learns that they have something called electricity, which allows them to illuminate their lair. Mrs. Brisby is introduced to the Justin, the dashing leader of the rats. “You are welcome here anytime,” he tells Mrs. Brisby when he learns who her husband was.
Next she’s taken to see Nicodemus, the ancient leader of the rats. He’s an elderly fellow dressed in a regal robe. He appears to be some sort of sorcerer, a sort of rodent Merlin or Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here she learns what the secret of NIMH is, as well as the truth about her late spouse.
As Nicodemus tells it, he and his tribe were once ordinary street rats. They were captured by an organization called the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH. Here they and other animals were placed in cages and “put through the most unspeakable horrors to satisfy some scientific curiosity.” Several rats and mice were given injections. This lead to a change in them. They became intelligent. Nicodemus was the first to realize this when he was able to read a sign on the cage that allowed him to open it’s door and for him and his brethren to escape. Later, when a ventilation grate traps the rats, it was Jonathan, being a mouse and thus much smaller, who was able to climb through the grate and save the other rats. For this reason the rats owe a great deal of debt to Jonathan Brisby and will repay that debt by relocating the Brisby family. Nicodemus also presents Mrs. Brisby with a gift, a magical amulet. “Courage of the heart is very rare,” he says. “The stone has a power when it is there.”
Turns out the rats are planning their own migration. They’ve been stealing their electricity from the farmer. This is a source of shame for them. Well, most of them. There is one rat named Jenner (I doubt that they were referencing Mr. Bruce, now Ms. Katelyn) who has no qualms with staying in the rose bush and stealing electricity. He’s also power crazy and is plotting to kill off Nicodemus so that he can become the new leader of the rats.
The Secret of NIMH received rave reviews when it was released but tepid action at the box office. Bluth’s studio nearly had to file for bankruptcy. They were saved from this fate when Bluth became involved in creating the animation for two laser-disc arcade games – Dragon Slayer and Space Ace. Both were essentially fully animated films that the player could control. Die-hard gamers have told me that the game wasn’t much fun, you basically just had to push a button at the right time. That may be but when I saw these games in the arcade as a kid I was pretty blown away by them.
Visually, The Secret of NIMH is a marvel. The rich, detailed backgrounds and the wonderful movement of the animals, not to mention some jaw dropping visual effects made The Secret of NIMH quite possibly the most beautifully animated film since Bambi. Also like Bambi, The Secret of NIMH has received its fair share of controversy. Many people who grew up watching the film will tell you that they found both Dragon and The Great Owl to be frightening and the flashback scenes at NIMH are particularly disturbing. But I don’t know that this is a drawback. Just about every children’s film that has resonated through the ages had something in it that frightened children. Snow White had the evil queen and plus the heroines terrifying journey through the woods, Bambi had to deal with the death of his mother, The Wizard of Oz had those flying monkeys and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had that bad acid trip of a boat ride. Frankly, I can’t think of a more horrific moment for a child then the seen in Pinocchio when he and his friend Lampwick turn into donkeys. Yet who in there right mind doesn’t treasure these cinematic experiences? The year before The Secret of NIMH was released Disney came out with The Fox and the Hound, a film that Bluth had started work on. It made more money at the box office and I know that there are some people who remember the movie fondly. For my money it was way to saccharine. Life is full of light and dark and a big part of fairytales and legends is that they help us face our demons rather then hide from them.
Eventually Bluth found a new benefactor with deep pockets – Steven Spielberg. He brokered a deal with Universal Pictures to produce his next film, An American Tale. That picture did well, becoming the highest grossing non-Disney animated film up to that point in time. Two years later Spielberg again, this time with the help of George Lucas, produced Bluth’s next film, The Land Before Time. It was another hit but it arrived the same year that Disney released both Oliver & Company and the Spielberg produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Soon Disney’s animated studio was in the throws of another renaissance, with films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King not only winning over family audiences but teenagers and adults as well.
With Disney back on track, Bluth found himself struggling for his share of the audience. His next few films – All Dogs Go to Heaven, Rock-A-Doodle and A Troll in Central Park received miniscule attendance compared to the Disney fare. He signed a new deal with 20th Century Fox and had some success with the animated musical Anastasia in 1997, which is currently being turned into a Broadway musical. His last full-length feature was Titan A.E, an ambitious animated science fiction film that didn’t totally hit the mark but was imaginative and visually stunning nonetheless
Aside from writing two books on animation – The Art of the Storyboard and The Art of Animation Drawing he has also launched a series of tutorials on YouTube to teach the art of hand-drawn animation, an art form that sadly is in danger. I love CGI animation and I think some of the cartoons of the last few years such as Frozen, Inside Out and this year’s Zootopia are among the best-animated films ever made. But there’s nothing quite like the visual luster that one gets from hand painted animation. Computer animation isn’t necessarily easier. The artists at Pixar put just as much care into their animation as the Nine Old Men did at Disney back in the day. But CGI is less time consuming. A computer animator manipulates a characters posing with a click of a mouse. A hand drawn animator must re-draw the character for each pose.
A few years ago Disney revived their ink and paint department to create the animated sequences in Enchanted and to animate all of The Princess and the Frog. I absolutely loved the latter. It did well at the box office, but not phenomenally well. It would be a tragedy if we lost the art of ink and paint animation forever. If it weren’t for people like Don Bluth the art of animation might have been lost forever. Today we have whole cable networks devoted to animated cartoons and feature films come out practically every month. Even those who do animate on a computer can learn a lot from someone like Don Bluth, a keeper of the flame who learned from the masters how to create animation that was not only beautiful but believable, emotional and entertaining all at once.
One more thing. Special credit must be given to the voice-over actors in the film. Today just about every animated film has a list of big name actors above the title, sometimes for no other reason then apparently to entice grown ups to buy themselves a ticket. In 1982 voice-over work was frowned upon but a number of fine actors lent their talents to The Secret of NIMH. Elizabeth Hartman, who we last spoke about in You’re a Big Boy Now and who received valentines from the critics for A Patch of Blue voices Mrs. Brisby with a perfect blend of warmth and wisdom. Derek Jacobi, one of the founding members of the Royal National Theater in Great Britain voiced Nicodemus while John Carradine, veteran of many classic Hollywood films (and father to Keith and David) voiced The Great Owl. And then there was Dom DeLuise, that cheerful rotund actor well known for acting in both Mel Brooks and Burt Reynolds’s movies. He comes close to stealing the show as Jeremy the crow and would later become one of Don Bluth’s favorite voice over actors, providing his talents for three more Bluth films – An American Tale, All Dogs Go To Heaven and a Troll in Central Park.