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MGM, UA, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD Review

The Secret of NIMH: Family Fun Edition DVD Review

The Secret of NIMH (1982) movie poster - click to buy The Secret of NIMH

Theatrical Release: July 2, 1982 / Running Time: 83 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Don Bluth

Voice Cast: Hermione Baddeley (Auntie Shrew), John Carradine (The Great Owl), Dom DeLuise (Jeremy), Elizabeth Hartman (Mrs. Brisby), Derek Jacobi (Nicodemus), Arthur Malet (Mr. Ages), Paul Shenar (Jenner), Peter Strauss (Justin), Shannen Doherty (Teresa), Wil Wheaton (Martin), Jodi Hicks (Cynthia), Ian Fried (Timmy), Tom Hatten (Farmer Fitzgibbons), Lucille Bliss (Mrs. Fitzgibbons), Aldo Ray (Sullivan), Edie McClurg (Miss Right)

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By Albert Gutierrez

In June of 1993, I was finally eight years old, second grade was finally nearing its end of its run, and our teacher Miss Lorscheider had finally run out of things to teach us. So rather than rehash everything in the span of two weeks, us students got to bring in various videocassettes to watch. It was a great way to end the school year, by bonding over the movies that defined our childhood. For many of us, that meant an animated movie, and any animated movie was a considered a Disney movie. We had no conception of how Disney differed from Warner Brothers, Studio Ghibli, Filmation, or Don Bluth. As such, when one of my fellow classmates brought in The Secret of NIMH, most of us figured it was a lesser-known Disney film. We had been groomed on the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, so this eleven-year-old flick seemed pretty ancient to us.

I can't say I remember my initial thoughts on the movie, as I wasn't particularly interested in it at the time. But when I rewatched NIMH for this review, a great sense of nostalgia swept over me. I could remember how our second grade classroom looked, how it smelled, who sat where.
I think that fourteen-year gestation period between my two viewings helped make the film more "important" for me. I was able to view it with some sense of familiarity (I always remembered the way Mrs. Brisby said "Mr. Ages"), while at the same time, I was thrust into the film's universe as if I had never been there before.

The Secret of NIMH is considered Don Bluth's masterpiece, a true labor of love. Over the course of two and a half years (half the usual production span of a major animated feature), the movie was produced from storyboards to animation within the confines of Bluth's own house and garage, as well as an acquired studio. In many ways, it mirrored Walt Disney's own dedication to animation, as he, Ub Iwerks, and a select few were making "Steamboat Willie" in secrecy shortly after Walt had lost Oswald and his animators to Universal. Of course, NIMH wasn't done in secrecy, but very much under the same harried and stressful conditions. And just as "Steamboat Willie" wowed its viewers with the introduction of sound, The Secret of NIMH wowed critics and audience alike with its impressive sequences and dramatic story.

Mrs. Brisby visits Mr. Ages in search of medicine for her son. Poor Jeremy is tangled in some red yarn, which Mrs. Brisby kindly frees him from.

The movie is based on the Robert C. O'Brien book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, though liberties were taken. The most notable (and unnecessary) change was turning Mrs. Frisby into Mrs. Brisby to avoid legal trouble with Frisbee manufacturers. The film also introduces a mystical and supernatural element in the form of an amulet given to Mrs. Brisby that becomes a symbol of faith and determination.

The Secret of NIMH opens with Nicodemus (voiced by Derek Jacobi) writing in his journal, explaining that Jonathan Brisby has died, and making the first mention of the escape from NIMH. It is an enigmatic way to begin, as we have no idea what Brisby or NIMH are, or why the writer's words appear to be shimmering and glowing. Soon after, we are introduced to Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a field mouse and mother who has gone to visit Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), hoping he can provide help for her pneumonia-stricken son Timmy. Along with medicine, Mr. Ages dispatches the advice that Timmy should not be moved for three weeks. On her way home, Brisby rescues the clumsy, unlucky-in-love crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), who has been caught up in a mess of yarn. He takes it upon himself to be her personal steward, a loyal guardian and companion.

Back home, Mrs. Brisby is told by Auntie Shrew (Hermione Baddeley) that the frost is over and the animals of the field must move before the plow comes. The next day, the plow indeed comes, and almost all the animals run away. Mrs. Brisby tries and amazingly succeeds in halting the plow before it destroys her house (where sick Timmy is fast asleep). Auntie Shrew chastises Brisby for risking her life and tells her to see the Great Owl (John Carradine). Jeremy flies Brisby to the Great Owl's tree, where the wise old creature refers them to the rats of NIMH. En route to the rats' rosebush home, Brisby encounters Mr. Ages and captain of the guard Justin (Peter Strauss).

We learn that, like Jonathan Brisby and Mr. Ages, the rats of NIMH are smart creatures, benefiting from human interference and medicine from the National Institute of Mental Health. The rats plan to migrate to Thorn Valley, where they would begin a new life. Their plan hinges on drugging the cat Dragon, which Mrs. Brisby volunteers to do. Of course, there is opposition and battle in store for Brisby and company.

Nicodemus tells Mrs. Brisby the story of the rats of NIMH. Blood! Betrayal! Vermin with clothes! It must be a Don Bluth film.

As I sat watching The Secret of NIMH for the first time in over a decade, I found myself intrigued by the seriousness and maturity of its story. There were things no 8-year-old is likely to pick up. The tension and prejudices between the smart rats and the simple mice is apparent,
with the rats of NIMH not particularly fond of Mrs. Brisby, despite the high regard they had for her husband. Auntie Shrew (Hermione Baddeley) also has little respect for rats, considering them to be beastly. What also is most interesting is the struggles between the humans and the animals. The humans' roles are minor but important, as they are completely oblivious to the damage they are inflicting upon these creatures. Summer plow is something standard and routine for the farmer, yet he doesn't realize that it causes the animal community to uproot themselves from their homes and move elsewhere.

The struggle for power and the question of change are two other themes addressed, and again, there is a human influence to both. Thanks to NIMH, the rats have become intelligent, allowing such ideas as leadership and innovation to thrive in (and also divide) their community. The rats are "ashamed" of stealing human electricity, and elect to start a new life in Thorn Valley. But Jenner (Paul Shenar) is eager to remain in the rosebush, believing that reliance upon human electricity is a necessity for survival. His betrayal of the rats and killing of Nicodemus shows how far he would go to keep that power. Yet amidst all the serious tones and twists in the movie, there remains a true sense of endearing family drama. After all, Mrs. Brisby's entire journey through the film is to make sure her children are safe, to keep her family from harm. Her children Martin, Teresa, Cynthia, and Timmy aren't reduced to just being the "cute but unnecessary" characters. They are more vital to the story than Jeremy, whose friendship with Mrs. Brisby proves useful and character-building for both. If we were to strip the story down to its bare essentials, there would always be a greater necessity for the children than for the crow.

Finally, there are the issues of violence and even language. On more than one occasion we actually see bloodshed and characters dying. This may upset some parents expecting a "children's" movie, but it's a reminder of what these characters are fighting for: their very survival. In a way, it asks us what would we sacrifice for the survival of others and of ourselves. How far would we go to ensure the well-being of our loved ones? Some parents were up in arms over Justin's utterance of "Damn!" at Mrs. Brisby being caught by young Billy Fitzgibbons. For what it's worth, I feel this is another reminder that NIMH is no mere ordinary children's movie, solidifying the already serious tone for viewers. The very lives of the rats hang on Mrs. Brisby. Her captivity has hindered their plan, and has also become a concern for her children. Who is to look after them if Mrs. Brisby were to remain in the farmer's house? Seems like a lot to be found in a simple little semi-swear word, but then again, it's always open to interpretation.

Upon its theatrical release in July 1982, The Secret of NIMH had modest success, though critical praise was widespread. Many often cite E.T. as one of the hindrances to NIMH's box office returns, as Steven Spielberg's record-setting hit opened only a few weeks earlier. However, positive word-of-mouth and a VHS release some years later helped NIMH secure a large and loyal cult following. Its 1998 DVD debut surely disappointed many fans, offering lacking video quality and a mere trailer and booklet as bonus materials. While the disc itself never changed, cover art would as the film was continually re-released in the years to follow. This Family Fun Edition is the first new treatment the movie has gotten in the digital format, and is superior in some aspects while still disappointing in others.

Buy The Secret of NIMH: Family Fun Edition from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen,
1.33:1 Fullscreen
Dolby Surround 2.0 (English),
Dolby Stereo 2.0 (Spanish), Dolby Mono 2.0 (French)
Subtitles: English, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Release Date: June 19, 2007
Two single-sided discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98
Black Keepcase with an Embossed Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Secret of NIMH was animated in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and matted in theatres to 1.85:1 widescreen. Both presentations are offered on the disc, with spiffy anamorphic enhancement on the 1.85:1 version. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but fans who have been crying foul over the video quality of the movie's previous DVD releases may want to keep on crying. Despite praise from the filmmakers on Don Bluth's website about how clean, saturated, and amazing the new transfer would be, NIMH does not appear as cleaned up as it could have been. Throughout the commentary, Goldberg tells the viewers that while he and Bluth are watching an unrestored version of the film, we should be seeing a high-definition remastered version with color correction and all unintended minutiae removed from the cels.

Color correction has been done, as the film's colors are probably the best thing about the video quality. They come in bright and rich, with no bleeds or anomalies at all. The video is slightly cleaner and sharper than the older releases, but there are still noticeable amounts of dust, dirt, and occasional scratches throughout. These shortcomings are especially apparent during several of the underground scenes between Mrs. Brisby and the rats. However, unless you're watching on a huge screen or up close, it doesn't add up to a less than pleasing viewing experience. Still, it is puzzling in light of the filmmakers' compliments that we're treated to something only slightly better than the old DVD. At least most will deem this transfer appeasing enough.

Audio is available in Dolby Surround, with alternate Spanish Stereo and French Mono available as well. Beyond a few hisses and slight noise, it's a perfectly fine track. Jerry Goldsmith's score maintains a nearly non-stop presence, and is evenly balanced with dialogue and effects. I also loved listening to the alternate language tracks and was disappointed at how poor and slightly muffled the French track came out.

Don Bluth and Gary Goldman sit down to discuss the making of "The Secret of NIMH" in this two-disc set's only featurette. It's questions like these that make kids terrified of standardized tests. The animated main menu takes us to the underground waterfall.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

For a two-disc set, bonus materials are actually quite lean, at least in quantity. The most substantial feature (and most likely to be ignored by the "Family" of "Family Fun Edition") is an audio commentary with writer-director-producer Don Bluth and writer-producer Gary Goldman. For the most part, they provide a rather engaged discussion which enlightens, with only a few pauses, all the way through the end credits. The remarks of Bluth and Goldman deal closely with what they're seeing on screen, supplying an appropriate behind-the-scenes story for most parts.




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The pair comments on effects (like the waterfall and glowing), the animators who worked on each character, and each character's personality and motivations. It's a very spirited conversation in which many great techniques are dissected, which makes the few stilted spots easy to overlook.

Disc Two contains two sections. "Featurette", naturally, is home to a lone featurette, "Secrets Behind the Secret" (14:24), an interview with Bluth and Goldman. It's not long enough to go as in-depth as fans would like, but it still packs in enough to give a quick, clear analysis of the movie's origins, animation process, and voice actors. It was a pleasant surprise to find that, even after hearing their excellent commentary, the two filmmakers' remarks here are not redundant. Perhaps the best part of this piece is the abundant amount of vintage behind-the-scenes footage -- character sketches, storyboards, production photos, live-action reference, animators' home movies -- that's interspersed with the new interview.

Five set-top games comprise the "Fun & Games" section. In "Who's Footprint", the player must match a NIMH character to their appropriate footprint. (Sad to say, I actually got the first one wrong.) In "Fuzzy Focus", we pretend we're losing our eyesight like Nicodemus, and must deduce which character or object is seen in a blurred photo. "Untangle Jeremy" is the only animated game, but it's also probably the most ridiculous one. Viewers have to figure out how the yarn is wrapped around the crow by starting at one point and envisioning where it would turn up at another. "Origami Mouse" is a breezy 11-step tutorial on how to turn a piece of ordinary 6"x6" paper into a mouse. I tried it a couple times, and both of my unsuccessful attempts now reside in my wastebasket. The final activity, "Memory Game", plays a clip from the film and follows it up with a multiple choice question on a certain detail (like "How many monkeys were in the scene?"). There are only four different clips, but a text screen makes note that questions change every time the game is played. I didn't have the patience to verify that claim.

I can see why these games are included; they must be the "Fun" of "Family Fun Edition." But ranging from painfully boring ("Fuzzy Focus") to painfully annoying ("Untangle Jeremy"), I found little fun to be had, and I can't imagine a young child finding joy in their ability to discover thirty-seven blades of grass were seen blowing in the wind, or that a cat's footprint looks like... a cat's footprint. The only reward for these games is either a folded-up piece of paper or the simple satisfaction of "winning."

Some DVD sites' early reports announced the inclusion of deleted scenes on this set. Goldman debunked that prospect on Don Bluth's website, saying "We were on a pretty tight schedule...so everything we had done went on the screen. We usually try to edit at the storyboarding stage, before we spend money animating." While that does confirm there are no deleted animated sequences, it raises the possibility of storyboarded sequences that were deleted. The absence of this material -- as well as input from other animators or surviving voice talent -- is unfortunate.
I'm sure a few cast members are readily available to offer memories, and I especially would have loved hearing from Bluth film favorite Dom DeLuise (Jeremy), boy genius Wesley Crusher (a.k.a. Wil Wheaton), and the late Elizabeth Hartman (Mrs. Brisby). While we're noticing what's been excluded, I'm also upset at the lack of any art galleries, animation tests, or promotional materials for the film (*cough* the trailer *cough*).

Another notable no-show for this DVD set is the 1998 sequel The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue. While the Family Fun Edition of Anastasia did include the direct-to-video sequel Bartok the Magnificent on Disc 2, that film was actually directed by Bluth, whereas Timmy to the Rescue had neither his input nor support. Without having seen the sequel, I can't offer an opinion on its absence. But if reviews are any indication as to its quality, I doubt many fans would be unhappy with its exclusion, even if there was more than enough disc space to cover it.

All of the menus are 16x9-enhanced and offer excerpts of Goldsmith's score, but only Disc 1's Main Menu is animated. A short trailer for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Special Edition, the set's only advertisement, plays as soon as Disc 1 loads. A four-page insert inside the dual Amaray keepcase provides not production notes or a chapter list but only a variety of simple children's games (word searches, mazes, connect-the-dots) pertaining to the film. A shiny embossed metallic slipcover completes the package, duplicating the keepcase artwork, which itself has been reused for the continuous re-releases since the film's 1998 DVD debut.

In one of the more surreal scenes of the film, the rats react to the human injection that makes them intelligent. Jeremy's eyes are entranced by Mrs. Brisby's "sparkly" amulet.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I think the fourteen years between my viewings of The Secret of NIMH have helped me not only to better appreciate the mature story and impressive sequences, but also to recapture the childlike curiosity I once had for animated features. In recent years, I had started to regard animation as simply another form of filmmaking that was no different than live-action. I had respect for the art and a high regard for people like Disney and Bluth, but that certain "magic" was gone; rather than excited or terrified at what I saw, I was more impressed and analytical. To summon an overused cliché, rewatching NIMH made me feel like a kid again. The movie gave me so much more than just nostalgia, as it restored the innocent wonder I used to hold for animated films. Its timelessness and eternal messages of courage and love help cement it as a true classic.

I'm grateful for the treatment MGM and Fox have given this DVD, as it's been long overdue and well worth the wait for those waiting. Though not as in-depth as previous "Family Fun Editions" like the superb two-disc sets for Anastasia and Ferngully, what is provided is still valuable. The audio commentary serves lots of behind-the-scenes secrets and recollections, while the featurette offers a brisk and breezy look at the film's making. Even the games can be enjoyable if you have a fondness for them (and are willing to crumple a few pieces of paper). Still, a movie of NIMH's caliber deserves more. Where are the art galleries, the vintage promotional materials, and the interviews with people whose last names aren't Bluth or Goldman? And what happened to the amazing and flawless high-definition video transfer that's mentioned so often in the commentary?

Nevertheless, the power of the film outweighs its impressive-if-still-disappointing DVD re-release. I'd gladly recommend it as a blind buy to families and animation fans, as well as a double/triple/quadruple dip to any NIMH-phomaniacs out there.

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The Book: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

Related Reviews:
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: The Friendship Edition (1977) | Pete's Dragon (1977) | The Small One (1978)
The Fox and the Hound: 25th Anniversary Edition (1981) | The Black Cauldron (1982) | The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Silver Spoons: The Complete First Season (1982-83) | Tron (1982) | The Verdict: Collector's Edition (1982)
The Brave Little Toaster (1987) | Oliver & Company (1988) | Return to Oz (1985) | The Watcher in the Woods (1981)
The Little Mermaid: Platinum Edition (1989) | Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears: Volume 1 (1985-87)
The Aristocats (1970) | Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition (1964) | The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967)
The Muppet Movie: Kermit's 50th Anniversary Edition (1979) | DuckTales: Volume 1 (1987) | Flight of the Navigator (1986)

Reviewed June 17, 2007.



Text copyright 2007 UltimateDisney.com. Images copyright 1982 MGM/UA/Aurora and 2007 20th Century Fox. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.