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The Secret of NIMH(1982)
To save her ill son, a field mouse must seek the aid of a colony of super-intelligent rats, with whom she has a deeper link than she ever suspected.
For more about The Secret of NIMH and the The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray release, see the The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on March 29, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Elizabeth Hartman, Dom DeLuise, Hermione Baddeley, Arthur Malet, Peter Strauss, Derek Jacobi
Director: Don Bluth
» See full cast & crew
The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray Review
It’s no secret: NIMH is touching, terrifying stuff.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, March 29, 2011
In 1979, Don Bluth was a rebel with a cause. That cause? The charm and wonders of old-school animation techniques. As part of a generation of Disney animators groomed to assume leadership once the old guard—the so-called Nine Old Men—had passed, Bluth was an up-and-comer within the studio. After years of learning the trade inside and out, however, he came to a conclusion: The House of Mouse had lost much of its magic. Cost-cutting measures employed on productions like The Fox and the Hound convinced Bluth that Disney cared more about profits than artistic credibility, and along with several other fed-up animators—dubbed "The Disney Defectors" by the press—Bluth left to form his own studio, where all effort would be made to keep the traditions of "the golden era" of animation alive. For its first full-length feature, the newly established Don Bluth Productions chose to adapt Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, a children's story by Robert C. O'Brien that had once been pitched to Disney, but rejected because it was considered too dark. But Bluth knew—as did Walt Disney—that kids are more than capable of weathering adult-sized traumas en route to a happy ending.
How's this for dark? Our main character, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), is a humble female field mouse, widow, and mother of four whose husband has been recently killed in the service of some plan to which—at the start—we're not yet privy. It gets sadder. Mrs. Brisby's youngest child, Timmy (Ian Fried), has come down with a life-threatening case of pneumonia. The sickness comes at an inopportune time. Every spring, the Brisby family must move from their home in the field, lest they get mowed down by the farmer's enormous threshing machine. Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), an elderly mouse doctor—and longtime friend of Mrs. Brisby's dearly departed husband, Jonathan—delivers a sad, damned if you do, damned if you don't diagnosis: If Timmy is moved from bed he could die of chills, and if Timmy isn't moved, the thresher will make mince meat out of him. There's only one thing to do—request help from the Great Owl (John Carradine), a wise old hooter who lives in creepy, cobweb-draped cave deep in the woods. The owl—who wouldn't seem to be a natural ally of rodentkind—proves helpful, directing Mrs. Brisby to the rats of NIMH, who live beneath the rose bush next to the farmer's house. The rats, led by the wizardly Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), are also curiously sympathetic to Mrs. Brisby's plight, and agree to help move her home out of the thresher's all-devouring path.
But here's where it gets really heavy. We learn that the rats were actually once test subjects at NIMH—the National Institute of Mental Health— where they were tortured and injected with all sorts of experimental serums to "satisfy some scientific curiosity." (Cue a flashback that'll have the littlest kids covering their eyes.) One of these drugs gifted the rats with extreme intelligence, and since their daring escape, they've been mooching off the farmer, even stealing his electricity so they can use human technology. Nicodemus, well past merely sentient and now occupying a mental space in the realms of the philosophical, sees this as unethical. He wants the rats to leave the rosebush and form their own society without having to rely on humans. And he definitely has his supporters, including Justin (Peter Strauss), his second in command, who lends his friendly furry paw to the solving of Mrs. Brisby's catch-22. However, there's a coup in the works. Nicodemus is opposed by the smart-but-freeloading Jenner (Paul Shenar), who wants to stay-put and pilfer from the farmer for as long as possible. By this point, it should be clear that one of the film' shortcomings —and it has precious few—is its incredibly diffuse storytelling. There are so many different motivations and characters and sub-plots to keep track of, and few of them are really compelling. The whole business about Nicodemus' master plan for rodent self-sufficiency seems like a metaphor with no discernable meaning, and there are several gaps in narrative logic that threaten to undermine the whole affair.
Still, any flaws in the story's construction are more than redeemed by the film's atmosphere and artistry. The Secret of NIMH is spooky and unsettling—I remember being terrified of "Dragon," the farmer's cat, when I was a kid—and unlike most movies aimed at the under-10 crowd, the stakes here seem very real. As a shy, humble mother, Mrs. Brisby—whose name, by the way, had to be changed because of a dispute with Wham-O, the Frisbee company—is an unusual protagonist for an animated feature, and she instantly earns our sympathy when we see her fretting over her sick-in-bed son, gently feeding him soup. The film is told with an emotional sensitivity that's rare in today's hyper-glossy, precision-manufactured kid flicks. That's not to say that NIMH is serious to a fault; there's a thrilling swordfight straight out of an Errol Flynn/Basil Rathbone film, several well staged sequences of suspense, and great comic relief in the form of Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), a friendly crow who's allegergic to cats. When I say they don't make 'em like they used to—in reference to animated films—I'm also pointing at The Secret of NIMH and saying this is how they used to make 'em. Of course, Don Bluth was directly inspired by Disney's golden era—the 1930s through the 1950s, roughly—and you can see in NIMH an admiration for the techniques of yore, when the animation industry was exploding with creative energy. Considering Bluth's small crew, tight timeframe, and limited resources—he was required to finish the film in 30 months with a $7 million budget—The Secret of NIMH is a wonder of animated ingenuity, from the luminous fire effects and physics-accurate movement, to the way the characters' faces express subtle, changing shades of emotion.
The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray, Video Quality
Don Bluth and Gary Goldman oversaw a high definition restoration of The Secret of NIMH for the film's 2-disc DVD release, but if this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer has indeed been sourced from that 2007 remaster I can only surmise that the renovation was far from comprehensive. On Blu-ray, the film exhibits a number of issues that definitely should've been addressed. Dirt and debris are present in varying amounts, there are more than a few scratches, and you'll notice frequent but mild brightness flickering and occasional color fluctuations. I also spotted three or four scenes that are subject to slight telecine wobble—when the image appears to judder from left to right a bit where it should remain static. In short, you shouldn't expect The Secret of NIMH to look like a Disney film on Blu-ray. (Disney also tends to use noise reduction methods to remove grain from their animated films, presenting a more faithful rendering of the artists' original intentions. This is one of the few areas where I think DNR can be a good thing. Here, grain is thick and pervasive; NIMH certainly doesn't look as "clean" as a Disney film, but I think the grittiness does give the movie a certain lo-fi charm.) While some of the issues displayed in the transfer can be distracting, The Secret of NIMH's Blu-ray debut is certainly not an altogether unpleasing viewing experience. Colors are eye-catching, the painted backgrounds have a great sense of depth, outlines are fairly strong, and many of the effects—glowing eyes and candle flames, especially—look wonderful. It's just too bad MGM couldn't have sprung for an all- encompassing digital cleanup. Perhaps someday NIMH will get the restorative overhaul it deserves, but for now, this so-so transfer will have to do.
The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray, Audio Quality
I have few qualms, however, with the film's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track. I'm sure some folks probably wish MGM had opted to expand the soundtrack into a full-fledged 5.1 presentation, but I'm fine with the faithful-to-source two-channel mix. The most notable element of the track is Jerry Goldsmith's magical score, the composer's first for an animated feature, and one that he claims as a favorite amongst his prolific output. The music— sometimes tender, sometimes stormy—sounds wonderful, with a rich low and middle range and no high-end brashness. The effects have a similar sense of punch, and despite the lack of rear channel output, the action sequences do often have an immersive quality, thanks to the film's strong sound design. Dialogue can occasionally seem a little thin, but the vocal performances are always easy to understand. As expected, the disc comes with a variety of dub and subtitle tracks. (See above for listing.)
The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Secret of NIMH is one of Don Bluth's best, and it deserves to be seen and appreciated by anyone who claims to be an animation fan. I'm not entirely satisfied with the transfer MGM has put together for this Blu-ray release, but the disc features an excellent lossless audio track, a worthwhile commentary from Bluth and co-producer Gary Goldman, and a short-but-informative making-of documentary. Is it worth the upgrade from DVD? That's a tough call, one that will depend largely on your budget and tolerance for middling high definition transfers. That said, if you don't already own the film and you're looking for the best version to purchase, this is definitely it.
The Secret of NIMH: Other Editions
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