The Secret of Nimh is an animated classic which was crafted by Don Bluth and his team of skilled laborers. Based on the popular children's book "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh," the film is a loose adaptation which introduces several elements into the story while jettisoning a few others. What emerges is a film that will captivate young children, while confusing older viewers.
Mrs. Brisby (name changed due to legal constraints at the time of filming) is a widowed mouse with four young children, one of whom has been struck with pneumonia. The timing could not be worse, however. The Brisby family has made their home near a large stone in a farmer's field, which is plowed once a year in what animals refer to as "Moving Day." Brisby's ill son Timmy cannot be moved into the cold air for three weeks, prompting her to seek out help. Facing down her terrible fear, she first visits the Great Owl who can offer no help regarding her situation. That changes when the Great Owl learns that Mrs. Brisby is the widowed wife of Jonathan Brisby, a mouse with a revered reputation among the animal community. He instructs her to visit the rats which reside in the rosebush near the farmer's home, and ask for the help of Nicodemus, an elderly rat with great intelligence and mystical powers. It is there that she learns the truth of her late husband's past, and gains the help of the rats to move her house to a safe spot. The plans threaten to go awry when the vicious Jenner plots to sabotage the operation in order to seize power over the group. In the midst of it all is Mrs. Brisby's family, whose lives hang in the balance. To save them, she'll need to summon "courage of the heart," which is very rare.
This is a wondrous movie, packed into a brisk 1 hour, 22 second running time. There's an almost antique warmth that soaks through every shot and scene, making it the perfect family film. Don Bluth eschews Disney's penchant for simplicity, opting instead for a thick, multi-layered story with many themes and subtlety which focus on all age groups. Obviously, the film's main target demographic is children, and there's wonder and awe for the little ones watching this with their parents with the lights off in their pajamas, and popcorn in their hands. Those same parents will not be lost, however, on the sharp attack against cruel scientific animal experimentation and the dangers of meddling with genetic manipulation. The film is also very straightforward with its more simple messages about ethical behavior and the differences between right and wrong. When the evil Jenner proclaims, "This much I've learned: take what you can, WHEN you can!" it is immediately countered by Justin's "Then you've learned nothing!" Themes of morality and social commentary aside, however, the Secret of Nimh is simply good old fashioned family fun. Its characters are bright, beautiful, and memorable. Hermione Baddeley is a scene-stealer as the eccentric, chafing Auntie Shrew, but it's Dom DeLuise who takes the cake as the hilarious Jeremy, the dumbest crow on Earth. The film is voiced impeccably well by talented greats such as Peter Strauss, Arthur Malet, John Carradine, Derek Jacobi, and of course, Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby. The movie does deviate from its child audience at times, especially when things become dark, or downright violent. The final act doesn't shy away from showing some very graphic stabbings and slashings, which is another testament to how different Don Bluth is in relation to Disney. Also, the unexplained magical elements introduced into the film version will leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads, as well. How has Nicodemus managed to become the rat equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, I wonder?
Previous releases of the film have usually been lackluster, filthy, and disappointing. Get ready to be blown away with the Blu-Ray release. The film is breathtaking to behold. Horrendous oversaturation has been given the boot in favor of a softer color palette which brings every single frame to life with beauty and majesty. Red sunset evenings are thick and warm, while nighttime scenes are light on color tone with balanced contrast thrown in for good measure. The detail level of the Blu-Ray print is absolutely astounding! For perhaps the first time ever, viewers will be able to make out every little detail in each cell of animation. Watching the Blu-Ray, I was amazed to pick out details I'd never before noticed, from Brutus' face during his attack on Mrs. Brisby, to individual petals in the roses sitting on the farmer's phone desk. This is by far the best home version of the Secret of Nimh to date. The transfer was based largely on the 2007 DVD release. It's not 100% perfect, however, and that is mostly due to limitations of the source material and the era in which it was made. There's a constant brightness flickering that seems to plague the movie from start to finish, but that quickly becomes unnoticeable to all but the most unforgiving of videophiles. There's barely any dirt or specks of dust or other imperfections throughout the whole film, which is the real treat, though the picture is permeated with a lot of grain, which, depending on who you ask, adds to the film's charm, or hinders it. Naysayers have been bashing this transfer for a while now, but I strongly disagree with 75% of their criticism. Could MGM have done better? Yes. Is it enough to break the deal? NO. The DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is a gigantic leap forward from the previous DVD edition. Music is more expressive and sounds wider on the sound channels, while dialogue is much sharper than any previous release, allowing me to make out several previously imperceptible lines that I've spent over 25 years speculating about. Unfortunately, MGM shafted us in the extras department. There's an audio commentary track by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, which is really the only interesting extra here. What's left is a 14 minute documentary about bringing the story from book to film, and a 2 minute trailer. That's it. The cover art also sucks, and should immediately be kicked to the curb in favor of the original theatrical poster for future releases.
There are few films with the same atmosphere, charm, warmth, and richness as the Secret of Nimh. If you watched this film for the first time as a child, then you should immediately share it with your children, and your grandchildren. It's a timeless piece of animated majesty that warms the heart.