director Don Bluth
The Secret of NIMH, animator Don Bluth’s first feature film as director, first feature film for his Don Bluth Productions, is certainly one of the best animated features of the 1980’s, a beautifully rendered and crafted piece of traditional cel animation.
It really says something about Walt Disney Studios at the time, the late 1970’s to early 1980’s, whose own products, with the rare exception perhaps of The Rescuers (1977), were a dwindling shadow of the once great studio. That some of its top animators, including Bluth, struck out on their own to actually go back to traditional techniques and qualities, where the major studio had been trying to cut corners and costs. That The Secret of NIMH is the great animated feature that it is says a great deal about Bluth and his team.
I saw the film in 1982 on its original release and have liked the film a great deal ever since. But it had been a long time since I had seen it, can’t even recall when I’d last seen it to be honest. But it’s lovely.
Adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, it’s the story of a widowed field mouse and her brood, who need to seek help when the plowing time has come and the mouse, Mrs. Frisby (Brisby in the film), has a child sick with pneumonia who cannot be moved. She is driven to consult an aged owl and then a collective of super-intelligent rats, former subjects of vivisection and experimentation by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
I don’t know that there has been as good an American cel animated feature until The Iron Giant (1999) nearly fifteen years later. For all of the “Disney renaissance” as it’s known, nothing they’ve done measures up in my estimation.
For all that, I don’t know how many other Don Bluth movies I ever saw. An American Tail (1986) didn’t interest me, The Land Before Time (1988) and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) came at a time that I wasn’t as keen on all animated features and probable prejudices, right or wrong, put me off. I do recall seeing his film Anastasia (1997) back in the day.
Well, great animating auteur or not, The Secret of NIMH is a triumph for Bluth and for traditional cel animated features. And it may open the door for us to watch more of his films. Felix crashed out through the film. But Clara liked it.