The Secret of NIMH (1982)

secretofnimhAnother hidden gem from the past, The Secret of NIMH is a non-Disney, Don Bluth animated film that is aimed for an all-ages audience despite starring talking animals. The Looking at the DVD cover, one would never know how dark the story (indeed, the colouring itself) is. Bluth threw in at least one obvious swear word, visible blood, violence, and obvious death scenes – but because it is animated and about animals, marketers want audiences to think it is for children.

In what is likely a first (and only) for an animated film, our heroine is a widowed single mother named…well, we don’t know exactly, but she goes by “Mrs. Jonathan Brisby”. Indeed, she only gets anywhere in the movie on her late husband’s name. When she introduces herself, nearly everyone she meets gasps and then treats her with utmost respect. Initially, she has no idea why. She just wants to save her children. One of her four children is sick and can’t travel, but her house is in the way of the farmer’s plough and needs to be moved. She is told to seek out the rats of NIMH.

Oh, and Mrs. Brisby is a mouse.  [In the Robert C. O’Brien’s novel that this film is based on, she is called Mrs. “Frisby”, but the Frisbee toy company refused to let Bluth use the name for the film.]

On her courage and faith alone, Mrs. Brisby manages to save her family. While the supernatural elements of the film are a bit over-the-top, they do provide a visual for the biblical theme of “faith can move mountains”. Mrs. Brisby, always thinking she was a little helpless mouse, almost singlehandedly gets her house moved at the last moment, and also saves the rats.

Upon further reflection on her name, I realised that she might not have actually had one prior to marrying Jonathan Brisby. Jonathan Brisby was a rather special and long-lived mouse who taught his ordinary mouse wife some of the skills that he had. Perhaps he chose his own name. In which case, his wife might have simply taken the name “Mrs. Jonathan Brisby” as her own. Their children have personal names, but we don’t see any other creatures’ children. Perhaps it is not customary for mice to take personal names, but giving his children names was Jonathan’s idea. Since his wife had no name, she took “Mrs. Jonathan” as her own. Even as she became the heroine of her own story, equalling or exceeding her late husband’s heroics, Mrs. Brisby did not claim any other name as her own. She was still Mrs. Jonathan Brisby.

While The Secret of NIMH contains strange supernatural elements and dubious scientific accuracy, it is nonetheless an important story. For one, the animals in question act like animals and the humans are not portrayed as villainous. (And for that matter, even the cat, considered a ferocious villain by the protagonist and her compatriots, is only an ordinary farm cat who hunts mice, rats, and birds – somewhat lazily, in fact.) Secondly, its underlying theme is that courage and faith can move mountains and being willing to sacrifice oneself for others is a worthwhile goal. Even the comic relief, a clumsy crow named Jeremy, demonstrates immense courage and faith to help others and eventually find a mate.

I can see why this movie would terrify young children. It needs to be one that they watch with their parents, but unfortunately, I bet a lot of parents left their children alone to watch it because they assumed it was just a film about cute talking animals. The parents thus missed out on a great movie and the children were terrified and thus missed out on the important message (as well as the fun).

Thankfully, I was introduced to this film and hope to keep watching it, kids or not.

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