The Secret of NIMH, Review, Recap, Loving Look Back

The Secret of NIMH, a classic early Eighties animated film, stands the test of time. We'd put this movie up against anything coming out of Pixar.

This is a great animated movie based on the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, but the main character’s name has been changed to “Mrs. Brisby.”  The Secret of NIMH marked Don Bluth’s directorial debut (Fun Mormon Trivia:  Don Bluth is Mitt Romney’s half, second cousin – small gene pool). It’s less dark and more family-oriented than something like The Dark Crystal, which was released the same year, although there are a few scary moments and depictions of animal experimentation. The characters include mice, rats, an owl and a lonely single crow (voiced geniusly by the late and lamented Dom DeLuise).

Anytime I mention this movie to people, they immediately start gushing about how much they love it.  Hopefully, some of them will share it with their kids.  Anyone who loved Pixar’s Ratatouille, with the tenacious Remy, will enjoy NIMH.  They may be two completely different stories, done in very different forms of animation, but both show that even the smallest creatures can be big heroes.

The opening scene takes place in a dark, mysterious chamber, where you see an old, wrinkled hand writing with magical ink in a large book.  The kind, gentle voice explains that someone named Jonathan Brisby, a mouse, has passed away, leaving behind his wife and four children.  Jonathan might be gone, but it’s clear that he is integral to the story and will be sorely missed by those who knew him.  It’s not until later that we find out his fate, and what he meant to the rats who will shape his widow’s future. 

Jonathan’s widow, known only as Mrs. Brisby or just “Brisby,” races from her home to that of her mouse neighbor, Mr. Ages (a crotchety old busybody), hoping to find a cure for her son’s illness.  Mr. Ages is impatient, but tells her it sounds like her son has pneumonia and mixes up some medicine that he places in a white envelope (yes, all the rodents in this movie speak). On her way home, Mrs. Brisby encounters a crow tangled up in string.  As she helps free him, he makes so much noise that she warns him to be quiet. The farmer’s cat, Dragon, lives nearby and is always stalking small animals in the fields. Needless to say, the cat finally appears, scaring the bejeezus out of Mrs. Brisby and the crow…he flies her to safety, but while they are escaping from Dragon, the packet of medicine is dropped and washed downstream. Mrs. Brisby weeps, knowing that her son will have to wait another day for her to go back and get more medicine, but the crow has found the packet and gives it to her. She is overjoyed, and wants to rush home immediately, but the crow introduces himself as Jeremy. He is more interested in chatting than anything else, but Mrs. Brisby tells him she must get home and rushes through the fields to her cinder block house.

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The four children, Cynthia, Teresa – voiced by the eleven year old Shannen Doherty-, Martin – voiced by a ten year old Wil Wheaton (who knew Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty were basically the same age???) and Timmy, await their mother’s return. They are visited by the crabby Auntie Shrew. She is hoping that Mrs. Brisby is home, so that they can discuss the upcoming moving day, when the farmer will be plowing the land and the animals in the surrounding fields must flee. Martin insolently tells her that he’s not afraid of anything, not even the Great Owl (who has never been seen by anyone). He and Auntie Shrew get into a name-calling spat and the old rodent leaves in a huff, just as Mrs. Brisby is coming through the door. The shrew reminds Mrs. B that moving day is at hand, but now that the widowed mouse knows that her son has pneumonia and can’t leave his bed, they must come up with another plan. She makes the medicine into a broth and patiently feeds it to Timmy, while the other kids ask worried questions and wonder what to do next. (The first time we watched this, my daughters kept asking if Timmy was going to die, too…I didn’t want to ruin the movie, so I had to keep stalling them.) 

The following morning, Mrs. Brisby hears the farmer’s tractor starting; Auntie Shrew runs around warning everyone and all the animals run away. Mrs. Brisby grabs all of her children, except Timmy and decides she has to stop the plow on her own. Auntie Shrew goes after her, biting the fuel line of the tractor when Mrs. Brisby freezes up in fear. The plow is stopped, but everyone knows it will be fixed soon and they will still have to move.

The mysterious room and voice from the beginning of the movie reappear. This time, the speaker consults a magic-mirror like device that shows him what is happening in the outside world. Mrs. Brisby has decided she must overcome her fears, and is being carried by Jeremy to go see the Great Owl (voiced by John Carradine), who is wise but elusive. Jeremy lands on a gigantic tree with a large opening leading inside; he waits while Mrs. Brisby goes in, navigating her way through darkness, spiderwebs and assorted bones. Right before she is attacked by a large spider, a giant foot crushes it and she comes face to face with the Great Owl. Is he going to help her, or eat her? No one has seen the Great Owl and lived to tell about it. When she tells him of her predicament, he claims there is nothing to be done except to move her family, including Timmy, if she wants them to survive. When he asks her name and she tells him she is Mrs. Brisby, he is suddenly intrigued and tells her to go get help from the rats who live in the rosebush on the farm. They must move her house to the “lee of the stone. 

While Mrs. Brisby is trying to find a way into the thorny rosebush, Jeremy shows up again, even though the cat and the farmer’s wife are nearby. Mrs. Brisby tries to distract him by sending him to watch her kids while she’s away; Jeremy happily agrees, although he nearly wakes up the cat as he leaves. A secret lever opens a door to the rosebush’s interior; once inside, Mrs. Bris finds strange flowers, lights and narrow passages. This is one scene where the animation really shines; the interior of the rosebush is a stark contrast to the thorny, twisted outside. She is suddenly attacked by a large rat with glowing eyes and a spear; she tries to explain that she needs to see someone named Nicodemus, but the rat keeps attacking her without responding (not a great first impression…these guys are supposed to help her?). She eventually runs into Mr. Ages, hobbling around in a cast. When she tells him that the Great Owl sent her, he agrees to take her to Nicodemus. On the way, another rat sneaks up behind Mr. Ages and grabs him, but it’s only Justin, a friend. He is delighted to meet Jonathan’s widow…and seems to be sporting a little crush on her as well, woot!

The three descend further underground, where Justin explains that another rat, Jenner, is confronting the council about their own upcoming move. Most of the rats want to be self-sufficient, instead of stealing their electricity from the farmer’s house, but Jenner is insisting they stay where they are. At first, Jenner is appalled that they have let Mrs. Brisby, an outsider, into their lair, but once he hears that she has come for help moving her house, he “smells an opportunity.” Mr. Ages has his suspicions, but has no idea that Jenner’s intentions are murderous.

The hapless Jeremy goes to watch Mrs. Brisby’s kids, only to be tied up by a suspicious Auntie Shrew, who doesn’t believe he’s there for any good reason.  When she leaves, the kids ask him where their mother is; he tries to explain that she’s gone to find the rats, who are supposed to help the family, but they don’t believe him and leave him tied up outside the house.  Cynthia calls him a “turkey;” you can’t help feeling sorry for Jeremy, who has good intentions but ends up in some awkward situations. At least he provides some comic relief.

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Mrs. Brisby arrives at Nicodemus’s chamber, where he invites her to read from his magical book. She learns that her husband died while drugging the farmer’s cat, so that the rats could carry out their work. She tells Nicodemus that she never knew exactly what had happened and asks why Jonathan had never told her about the rats’ existence.  Nicodemus uses his “portal” to show her how ordinary street rats were captured and subjected to experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). They received injections that eventually made them intelligent, able to read and to escape their cages. (Although several other animals are shown, the only experimentation shown is the injections, but this scene might be a little disturbing for some.)  All of the mice except for Jonathan and Mr. Ages got sucked through the air shafts to their deaths and Jonathan was the one who was able to free everyone by squeezing through a grate and opening it to the outside world.  His bravery and sacrifice have made him a well-known figure among many of the animals that live around the farm. Nicodemus gives her a necklace with a large, round red stone in the middle and an inscription on the back that reads, “You can unlock any door if you only have the key.” The stone will glow red when worn by a person who has courage of the heart, and has a power that is not revealed until Mrs. Brisby faces her toughest challenge yet.

Jenner explains to his cohort, Sullivan, that he is going to help move the Brisby home, but will cut the ropes and let it fall on Nicodemus, crushing him while looking like an accident.  Sullivan thinks it’s too risky, but Jenner is determined to get Nicodemus out of the way so that he can convince the rest of the rats to stay in the comfort of the rosebush.

After Justin and Nicodemus take Mrs. Brisby on a boat ride to the exit of the rats’ underground lair, she offers to put the sedative in Dragon’s food, since Jonathan is gone and Mr. Ages is injured. Justin tells her to meet him at the farmhouse at dusk. On her way home, Jeremy appears, once again “in disguise,” having escaped the clutches of Auntie Shrew. Mrs. Brisby tries to explain what’s going to happen with the house and the move, but Jeremy is entranced and distracted by her necklace (he REALLY likes shiny things, being a crow and all). Annoyed, she sends him off to find string to help with the move (gotta set the bar low for Jeremy).  

Mrs. Brisby meets Justin at the farmer’s house; she must leave her cloak and necklace behind and empty a packet of sedatives into the cat’s food at just the right moment. She succeeds, but is caught by the farmer’s son, who puts her in a birdcage. Justin has to leave without her to assist the rats, who are making preparations to move the cinder block. While they are getting the ropes and pulleys in place, Mrs. Brisby overhears the farmer talking on the phone to someone from NIMH. The farmer tells them that they can come bulldoze the rosebush anytime they want. 

Jenner and Sullivan get ready to cut the ropes and drop the cinder block on Nicodemus, but when the time comes, Sullivan refuses. Jenner slashes the ropes, sending the block crashing down. Justin and the other rats search for Nicodemus and find his body. Mrs. Brisby knocks the water dish out of her cage, jumps to the floor, and nearly wakes Dragon as she flees, retrieving her cape and the stone.  When she arrives at the moving site, Mr. Ages tells her that Nicodemus is dead. Jenner is trying to convince the rats to stay in the rosebush, but Mrs. Brisby warns them that NIMH is coming to destroy them all.  Enraged, Jenner attacks her, when he sees the stone around her neck he goes after her with a vengeance. Sullivan calls Justin over, and a swordfight ensues, with Sullivan being struck down by Jenner when he throws Justin his sword.

Inside the house, the kids, Auntie Shrew and everything the family owns is being violently tossed around. Auntie Shrew is knocked out cold; the block ends up settling in the mud.  Justin continues to fight with Jenner, suddenly realizing that Nicodemus’s death was not an accident. He wounds Jenner, puts down his sword and tells the rats they must leave for Thorn Valley that night. Jenner tries to attack one last time, but a dying Sullivan pulls out his dagger and throws it into Jenner’s back, killing him. 

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Mrs. Brisby goes up to the house, telling the children that they will soon be moved, but the block starts sinking into the mud. The rats spring into action, frantically trying to get more ropes around the house, but it disappears, and Justin drags a hysterical Mrs. Brisby onto the shore. The stone has fallen off in the chaos, but comes up out of the mud, hovering in front of Mrs. Brisby. She hears Nicodemus’ voice telling her to use her courage to invoke the stone’s power (“Use the force Luke!”); when she grabs it, it burns her hands, but allows her to send a glowing power along the ropes. The house emerges from the mud, is moved through the air to the lee of the stone, and when all is said and done, Mrs. Brisby collapses from exhaustion. The battle is over…and her children are safe. The courage she had to call upon has finally shown itself in all its fiery power.

The next day, an almost recuperated Timmy is trying to convince his mom to let him come out and play, but he must stay inside for a few more days (see, all you worried kids…he didn’t die). Jeremy shows up with string from his “love nest,” disappointed to see that the house has already been moved. As he starts to leave, a female crow flies out of nowhere, bowling him over. Jeremy asks Mrs. Brisby if she still has her “sparkly” stone, but she tells him she gave it to Justin, who is the new leader of the rats. Jeremy has, at long last, found his love, the Brisby home and family are out of danger for good, and the rats have gone on to start a new, self-sufficient colony. 

Part of the reason this is a good family movie is because it touches on the darker side of places like NIMH without delving too far into any moral or ethical issues. The animation is gorgeous, practically on par with something like a Disney film and the darker, scarier moments aren’t enough to give anyone nightmares. I picked it up at the library one day to share with my two daughters, and we ended up buying the DVD because they loved it so much.