If you've read some of my blog posts concerning Disney movies in the 1980's, then you'll probably remember the name Don Bluth popping up every once in a while. For those who don't remember, Bluth was an animator for Disney for many years, first working on Cinderella in the late 50's, though working more for the company in the 70's. Disney still had a few hits in the 70's, but it didn't match anything they had made in their early years. Bluth, along with eighteen other Disney animators decided to leave to form their own animation company. Bluth complained that Disney had lost their way and he wanted to create new and exciting animation that would bring it back to the forefront of entertainment. With his small group of animators, Bluth started Don Bluth Productions, and went about working on their first short film, Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Besides the short film, Bluth and his company were also tasked with doing the animated segment of the live-action film, Xanadu. The reason I'm bringing up Bluth is because he is a very important part of animation history. Not only did his company churn out some of the best animated movies of all time, but because of this, Disney got their act together and started making hits again. So, I wanted to do a series on Bluth and his films, though there are much fewer than Disney has released. If you didn't bother to read the title, I'm going to be talking about his first major release, and one of my favorite animated films of all time, The Secret of NIMH.
The Secret of NIMH is based off the book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O' Brien. The book tells the story of Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse who must save her family from human interference. When her son, Timothy, becomes very sick around the same time the farmer, whose land they live on, decides it's time to plow the field, they must find a way to move their home, though the move would likely kill Timothy. Mrs. Frisby is stuck on what to do for her son, until she is directed by an owl to speak to the rats that live in a nearby rosebush. Speaking to the rat's leader, Nicodemus, she finds out that the rats have all gained human-level intelligence from being tested on by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and have thus learned to read, write, and master certain forms of technology. The rats agree to help Mrs. Frisby due to the fact that her husband, Jonathon, was one of their own that had helped them escape from the laboratory. Ironically, the rats also need Mrs. Frisby's help in moving them, as they want to stop their dependence on humans (they steal electricity from the farmer). A small group of the rats didn't agree with this plan and set off on their own, getting killed in the process, which leads to exterminators being called to kill the rats. Mrs. Frisby must help the rats by drugging the farmer's cat, Dragon, so they can move out in the open without fear. Mrs. Frisby is caught by the farmer's son and locked in a cage. Only with one of the rat's help, Justin, is Mrs. Frisby able to escape and tell the rat's of the humans plans to kill them. In the end, everybody makes it out, and little Timothy gets better.
The book ended up winning the Newberry Award in 1972 and was offered to Disney for film rights. Disney apparently wasn't interested in a story about lab rats and mice, but Bluth was a few years later. Bluth asked Aurora Productions to buy the rights to the film, though the deal brought with it a budget of $5.7 million dollars and 30 months to complete the film. Keep in mind that's a short amount of time to make a film, and not a lot of money to make it with. Bluth set out to make a film like the ones from Disney's Golden age, with better character development and classic animation techniques. He felt that Disney was using cheaper and cheaper modes of animation just to save a few bucks, which made the films less visually appealing. Bluth attempted to use a few new techniques in his film, namely rotoscoping (multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadow), and back lit animation. Nicodemus' eyes appear to glow due to light being shone through the color gels. What Bluth got was something altogether new to animation, and something that no one had ever seen before. This style of animation, however, was extremely labor intensive and called for very long hours for the animators, and no pay to show for it in the short run. The animators were given portions of the profits instead, something unheard of in the animation world. Bluth and his producers even had to mortgage their homes so they could pay for the film, so stakes were a bit high.
The movie differs from the book in a few ways. Probably the biggest difference is the name of the main character. Aurora contacted Wham-O to see if it was alright if they used the name Mrs. Frisby since it was so close to the name "Frisbee." Wham-O denied their request to use Mrs. Frisby, and now Bluth was stuck. All the lines had been done already and some of the actors couldn't even be brought back in to re-read, namely John Carradine. Bluth decided to go with a name that was so close, that they could convincingly make it to where Carradine's character, the great owl, sounded like he was saying the new name. So, because of Wham-O, Mrs. Frisby changed to Mrs. Brisby. Kind of silly, right? Many of the characters that had very small parts, or weren't actually shown in the book had much larger parts in the movie. Jenner, the leader of the rats that don't want to stop mooching off the humans becomes the villain in the movie. In the book he is mentioned briefly and is never shown. Jeremy the Crow goes from a bit part at the beginning of the book, to full on comedy relief for good portions of the movie. The book lacked any magic, but Bluth decided to change that by making Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, basically a wizard, complete with a magic amulet. Mrs. Brisby is still a widowed mother, but Justin turns into sort of a love interest.
The film was ultimately distributed by MGM in 1982, who apparently didn't have much faith in the film since they did no advertising for it, so Aurora had to take the brunt of the responsibility for that. Though Bluth and Aurora planned on a wide release of 1,000 theaters, MGM instead went with 100 on the film's opening weekend. It slowly improved to 700, but the damage was done. Being released against E.T., the film only made a little over 14 million dollars, barely twice as much as its budget and therefore ended up putting the studio in the black. That, coupled with the writer's strike forced Don Bluth Productions to file for bankruptcy. This is not the end for Bluth, though. He would be saved, later, by a businessman and a famous director. For all the financial woes that befell the production, the movie was a huge critical success, being called one of the most vibrantly animated films of its time. The film became a hit on video and with cable showings and subsequently became a cult classic.
This film is very much a part of my childhood, namely because it's mostly likely the first animated movie I had ever watched. My parents had recorded it off the TV sometime in the early eighties and my brother and sister and I watched the heck out of it. Not only was the animation beautiful, but the story intriguing and characters exciting. That being said, it's probably the darkest of all of Bluth's films, save for maybe All Dog's Go to Heaven. Between Jenner, the Great Owl, Nicodemus, and Dragon, the film has some creepy and frightening characters, though it wasn't any of them that scared me the most as a child. The scene that still gets me to this day is when Mrs. Brisby is trapped inside that cage inside the farmer's house. The drowning aspect combined with her accidentally cutting her arm open still makes me cringe. Though not as widely known as some of Bluth's other films, this is probably one of the best. Also, how many kid's movies has a widowed mother as the hero? Pretty sure this is the only one, and that's pretty cool. Oh, and it also has the best song during the credits. So bad, but so good.