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Another gem which turns 30 this year is the animated film The Secret of NIMH, which is the first that I recall seeing that did not have the Disney, Warner Bros. or Hanna-Barbara label on it.
The Secret of NIMH was the first film made by former Disney animator Don Bluth. Based on the 1971 book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien, the plot concerns the recently widowed mouse Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman and the character name change was due to copyright issues), who must find a way to relocate her family as the farmer (whose land she and her children live on) begins his spring plowing. But she must find a way to move without endangering her terminally ill son.
With the help of the dim-witted but good-hearted crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), Mrs. Brisby enlists the aid of a super-intelligent owl (John Carradine), who, in turn, leads her to a community of super-intelligent rats. Their leader, Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), informs her that the rats are indebted to her late husband for helping them escape from NIMH (the National Institute of Mental Health) after their experiments on the rats resulted in them becoming as intelligent as humans.
The rats agree to help Mrs. Brisby, although the ruthless Jenner (Paul Shenar) plots to take over and have the rats continue to risk the wrath of humans by stealing the farmer’s electricity.
While this was certainly not the first animated film which had no links to Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny (the 1968 film Yellow Submarine comes to mind), it was the most dramatic I had seen at that point.
The climax, involving a fight between Jenner and the most altruistic Justin (Peter Strauss), is intense and ends in an unexpected but dramatically satisfying way.
But none of this would have worked were it not for the fact that our protagonist, Mrs. Brisby, is instantly likeable. Unlike Princess Leia, she is a meek, quiet soul who, as the film progresses, finds the unexpected resources within herself to emerge as the hero of the story. The fact that her actions are with the noble goal of keeping her children safe adds to her appeal.
This film would lead to the less-than-satisfying, direct-to-video sequel The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue (1998).
Bluth would go on to make the equally memorable animated films An A
merican Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988) and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), as well as the ground-breaking video game Dragon’s Lair.