FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
Though famed animation director Don Bluth got his start working on classic Disney cartoon-features, most of his independent works seemed to attempt to outdo Disney in the sentimentality department. Bluth was not alone in this reaction to the Disney corpus. In the book SEVEN MINTES author Norman Klein asserts that during Disney’s heyday in the 1940s many animated shorts of the period emulated what their creators assumed to be the appeal of Disney cartoons: lots of ootsy-cutesy critters. Those cartoon-makers often missed the darker, harder aspects of the Disney oeuvre, and I regard Don Bluth followed in their footsteps with works like AMERICAN TAIL and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN.
That said, Bluth’s first animated feature, THE SECRET OF NIMH, suffers the least from oversentimentality. This may be because NIMH adapts a 1971 children’s fantasy, MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH. I have not read the book, but apparently the NIMH-film is reasonably close to the original. Both chronicle the efforts of an intelligent mouse-mamma—whose name is changed to “Mrs. Brisby” in the cartoon-- to save her brood from extinction. The widow Brisby, whose husband Jonathan died under mysterious circumstances, attempts to raise her four children in a makeshift home made from an abandoned cinderblock.
Unfortunately for her, her home is in a farmer’s plowing-field. I’m not clear on the reason why this circumstance hasn’t been a problem for her family in earlier years, but at the time of the film, Mrs. Brisby can’t pick up and leave her domicile without endangering the life of her youngest child, who’s sick with pneumonia. Her only option is to get help in moving her whole house out of the path of the farmer’s tractor.
She gets some help from her family doctor (also a mouse) and a comic-relief helper, a crow named Jeremy. But the only ones who can mount the resources necessary to bodily move her house are the mysterious Rats of Nimh.
A backstory eventually reveals that these rats, as well as several mice in the vicinity—including the late Jonathan, though not his wife—had their intelligence boosted in government experiments. One probably shouldn’t inquire too closely as to why both the experiment-subjects and “wild” creatures like Mrs. Brisby all share the same intellect and the same propensity to wear clothes. The important distinction of the Rats of Nimh is that they have the capacity for technological advancement, which means that they can mount the resources necessary to move the house with the sick child still inside. On the down side, Mrs. Brisby learns that there’s a schism in the Rats’ society, between those who want to keep stealing some of the resources from human culture, and those who want to make their society independent of humans.
The moral debate isn’t framed with any particular depth: the “naysayers” are represented by a scurrilous evildoer named Jenner, while the “independence party” is represented by a wise old rat named Nicodemus and a handsome figure of a rat named Justin. Romance between the mouse-widow and the swashbuckling rat is suggested. This may seem remarkable because Mrs. Brisby is one of the few female protagonists of an animated film who is neither a cute little child nor a hot babe.
There are some clever slapstick scenes with Jeremy, and one strong scare-scene worthy of Disney’s best, when Mrs. Brisby must seek counsel from the spooky-looking Great Owl, despite her awareness that owls eat mice. But the storyline, emphasizing the Rats’ mastery of science, is somewhat confused by the intrusion of a magical talisman of no precise origins. The talisman’s only function in the plot seems to be to give Mrs. Brisby some supernatural help at the climax, a plot-device that seems drawn more from Steven Spielberg than from Disney. But weak ending aside, at least some of the characters in NIMH aren’t constantly deluging the audience in cute-osity.