The Animated Films of Don Bluth|
by John Cawley
The Secret of
THE SECRET OF NIMH debuted July 2, 1982. On this one picture rode the hopes of the young Bluth studio, and animation fans around the country. If the film succeeded, a new era of animation was anticipated. If it failed, animation would return to the private domains of Saturday morning and Disney. Oddly NIMH was neither a success nor a failure. It turned out to be merely another necessary step.
The film opens with the hands of Nicodemus lighting a candle and discussing the recent events of Jonathan Brisby's death. He wonders how to help Brisby's widow, who knows nothing of the rats. His writing literally burns into the page. He then looks into an amulet which he puts into a box. The main title then burns onto the screen.
Beside the recent death of her husband, timid field mouse Mrs. Brisby has even more problems: her baby son Timmy has pneumonia. She goes to see Mr. Ages, a chemist mouse whose laboratory is inside of an old threshing machine. He gives her some medicine and tells her that Timmy cannot be moved from her cinderblock home which lies in Farmer Fitzgibbons field. However, it is spring and the plow will soon come. If Mrs. Brisby doesn't move her four children, they'll all be crushed.
As she scurries home with the medicine from Mr. Ages, Brisby runs headlong into clumsy Jeremy the crow, who's allergic to cats. When she meets him, he is tangled up in a number of brightly colored strings. His loud proclamations that he is searching for Miss Right brings on Dragon, the farmer's monstrous cat who savagely lunges at both of them.
After a harrowing escape through trees and into an old mill, Mrs. Brisby discovers she's lost Timmy's medicine but Jeremy reappears and presents it to her, also asking for advice on finding a sweetheart. Mrs. Brisby goes home, where busybody neighbor Auntie Shrew has had a tussle with Brisby's other children Teresa, Martin and Cynthia. Shrew stalks out, warning Brisby that Moving Day is near.
Brisby scolds her children gently, and prepares the medicine for Timothy. As the other children voice their fears for Timothy, Brisby tries to raise their spirits. A lullaby is heard as she feeds Timothy the medication. That same night, in the farm house, Mrs. Fitzgibbons tells her husband that NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) had called during the day about the rats. As they talk inside, outside silhouettes of rats run by with an extension cord.
The sound of a tractor breaks through the chill dawn. The alarm spreads throughout the field that Moving Day has come! Brisby pleads with Shrew to take the three children away; she'll stay behind with Timmy. Shrew and the children refuse to leave. Panicked, Brisby attacks the behemoth tractor and is paralyzed with fear. Shrew arrives and disengages the fuel line, halting the tractor temporarily. As they walk away, the Shrew suggests Brisby go to the Owl.
These actions are being watched by Nicodemus on his Hologram, a device that allows him to view distant events in space and, allegedly time. He agrees with the Shrew's advice, hoping the visit to the Owl will bring some courage to her.
Jeremy takes Brisby to see the Great Owl. Brisby quakes but asks for the owl's help. At first he refuses, but when he discovers that she is the widow of Jonathan Brisby, he advises her to go to the rats living under the farmer's rosebush. He says they will help move the cinderblock to the safe side of a large rock, where the plow can't crush it.
As she nears the rosebush, she runs into Jeremy again. To get him to leave her alone, Brisby asks the crow to watch her children. Jeremy quickly agrees and trips off. In the rosebush, Brisby is greeted by Brutus, a guard rat, who attacks her. She narrowly escapes and runs into Mr. Ages, who now has a broken leg. He is amazed by the fact that she is here and has managed to see the owl. Ages reluctantly takes her for an audience with Nicodemus, the leader of the rats. Once again, Nicodemus is seen viewing this action. He comments on the events and discusses Jenner, an evil rat.
As Brisby and Ages walk, a shadowy figure begins to follow them. It turns out to be Justin, Captain of the Guards. Upon meeting Brisby, he seems almost romantically infatuated with her. Brisby seems equally enamored.
Brisby, Justin and Ages then head to a general meeting of the rats where the villainous Jenner is arguing against The Plan. He feels that the rats should take more from the humans, going to war with them if necessary. When Brisby asks for help, Jenner quickly agrees. He sees the dangerous operation as a good cover to remove Nicodemus. Ages then takes Brisby to the library while the rats devise a plan for moving her house.
Meanwhile, Jeremy has been bound by Auntie Shrew who found him hanging around. Auntie Shrew leaves Jeremy in the children's hands. Jeremy tries to explain the situation to the kids, but they think he's done something to their mother, so they leave him tied up.
Back at the rosebush, Brisby finally meets Nicodemus. She reads in Nicodemus' book about her husband's connection to the rats and his death attempting to drug Dragon. Using the Hologram, Nicodemus then shows her the story of the rats and NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health, where the rats and some mice were subjects of experiments which increased their intelligence. Using their new cunning, they escaped and made their way to this rosebush, where they built an underground civilization complete with lights and wiring. They "tap" the farmer's electricity. But they are, he says, preparing to move to Thorn Valley to implement The Plan, whereby they will be entirely self-sufficient, not stealing anything.
Mr. Ages, Nicodemus says, was another of the mice from NIMH. Nicodemus gives her an amulet which he promises will exhibit mysterious powers when worn by a person with a courageous heart. Timidly, Mrs. Brisby puts it on. Justin interrupts the two to tell them the boats are ready, so all three leave. In a secret corridor Jenner and Sullivan plot to kill Nicodemus by crushing him under Brisby's cinderblock home.
As Justin guides the boat through an underground river (under the pond, which is collapsing), Nicodemus and Brisby talk. She discovers that the rats' plan is to move to Thorn Valley. Justin states they must drug Dragon to make sure the moving is safe. Brisby volunteers to drug the farmer's cat so the rats can move her house without interference. She leaves them and agrees to be at the farm house at dusk.
On her way home, Brisby meets up with Jeremy who has escaped and is hiding. He is instantly entranced by the amulet, which he calls a "sparkly." She tells him to find all the string he can. Thrilled, he tells her he has a massive string collection, saved for a nest, and flies off to get it.
That night, Justin and Brisby wait at a small hole in the farm's kitchen wall. Brisby removes her cape and amulet and takes the drug. She squeezes through a small hole into the farmer's kitchen where Mrs. Fitzgibbons is busily preparing the cat's food. As Brisby dashes back from the bowl, the farmer's son captures her and throws her into a bird cage. Justin, viewing the capture, utters the one "four-letter" word in the film, "Damn!" He leaves her to join the others in moving the cinderblock.
Back at Brisby's home, Auntie Shrew is watching the children. They try to tell the Shrew that the rats are coming to move the house tonight, but she does not believe it. Suddenly, she hears a noise outside.
Trapped in her cage, Brisby overhears Farmer Fitzgibbons telling his wife that NIMH will arrive the next day to exterminate the rats. As Brisby struggles to get free, the film cuts back to the rats beginning to set up the block and tackle to move the house. Inside the house, the movements scare the Shrew and children.
In the meantime, Nicodemus oversees the moving of the cinderblock in the rain. Dastardly Jenner, and his henchman Sullivan cut the support rope and the block crushes Nicodemus. Brisby escapes the cage and arrives with news of NIMH and tells the rats they must leave as soon as possible. Jenner argues with her and tries to kill her. Justin comes to her rescue but is no match for Jenner's sword until Sullivan gives him one. Jenner, slashes Sullivan and engages in a fierce swordfight with Justin. As Sullivan's last act, he is able to kill Jenner.
The rats' current menace over, Brisby is shocked to see the block is sinking! Brisby hears the anguished cries of her children, who are trapped inside. A desperate attempt by the rats to save the block fails. Brisby sinks with block as her amulet falls off. Justin pulls her back and the amulet mystically levitates. As she touches it, Nicodemus's voice repeats the chant told her when she received the amulet, "Courage of the heart is very rare, the stone has a power when it's there." Brisby's hands are burned from the amulet's heat.
Soon, she and amulet are one, glowing with the magic stone's force. The amulet gently falls around her neck and she picks up the rope that is tied around the block. It too begins to glow. Slowly, slowly the cinderblock surfaces, levitates and moves to the safe side of the large rock. Brisby, her hands singed, collapses in an exhausted heap.
The next day, Jeremy arrives at the new homesite where Timmy is begging his mother to be allowed to get up. Jeremy is crestfallen to learn that the block has already been moved. He turns away when a black ball from the sky strikes him and pushes him into a clump of high grass. It is, of course, Miss Right. He asks Brisby for the "sparkly," but she has given it back to the rats. As a confident Brisby and her children discuss their future trip to Thorn Valley, Jeremy and his sweetheart wing their way into the sky.
Aurora had given Bluth Production a $7 million budget, about 25% less than what Disney was currently spending on its features. During a 1982 pre-release tour, Don told a reporter, "Our secret to keeping costs down on a full animation picture is to not waste resources. Everybody is working on a screen effect, with our animators and departments not sitting waiting for an assignment. You have to get the completed work out of each department as fast as possible."
The given time allotted them was around 30 months, about half of what Disney spent at that time, though now almost twice as long as a current Disney feature schedule. At the time, it was considered almost an impossible a task.
The film was a milestone for almost all those who worked on it. The desire to succeed and the spirit that they were involved with something big caused the crew to work long hours, often un- rewarded monetarily. To help soften this situation, the studio offered a type of profit participation in the film. Artists were given various numbers of "shares" in the film, to be paid back to the artists with the film's profits. A common practice in the film world for executives, above the title talent (directors, writers, etc.) and stars, it was the first time that an animation studio gave every artist a chance to "own" a piece of the picture.
It was originally titled MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH, the title of the book upon which the film is based. The name Frisby was changed to Brisby during production of the film. As for NIMH, it stood for the National Institute for Mental Health, an actual organization. Allegedly, some people disliked the word "rat" in the title. It was shortened to THE SECRET OF NIMH early in production.
As with any new production and any new studio there were a number of problems during production, but the enthusiasm of the crew overrode any difficulties. In a recent interview, Gary Goldman fondly remembered the film and working on it. "I still think it's our best project we've ever created, not just for the artistic value and the sophisticated story we tried to tell, but for the enjoyment of the crew that had existed at that time. It was two and a half years of absolute crusading and some hard time and some really good times that are extremely memorable to me."
**Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH** was written in 1971 by Robert C. O'Brien. (During production, Mrs. Frisby's name was changed to Mrs. Brisby for legal reasons.) A moderate success, the book won a Newbery Medal. The Newberry Medal has been awarded annually (since 1921) for the best children's book written by an American. The award was named after John Newberry, a publisher of children's books.
The book was brought to Don's attention by an animation storyman when Don had just returned to Disney in the early Seventies. It was allegedly offered to Disney in 1972, but was turned down. Disney's supposed response was "We already have a mouse." With Aurora, Don and his studio obtained the rights to the book. (Curiously, with all of Don's interest in literature, NIMH is his only released feature to date based directly on a book.)
Several working on the film related how the book was actually poorly written in that it was two stories. One featured Mrs. Frisby and her children. Another, equally lengthy one came near the center of the book. It focused entirely on how the rats had gained their intelligence. The lack of a clear ending also bothered some.
A synopsis of the book shows how the stories were handled in the film, and how the final product differed. In the book, Mrs. Frisby is a normal field mouse (no cloak) with four children: Martin, Cynthia, Teresa and Timothy. She and her children live in a cinder block in a field belonging to farmer Fitzgibbons. the house is furnished with leaves, grass, cloth, cotton fluff, feathers and other soft things Mrs. Frisby could find to keep her and her children warm.
One morning toward the end of February, Mrs. Frisby found a squirrel's stash of corn and mushroom bits. Avoiding the farmer's cat, Dragon, she took some of the larder back to her home, only to discover that her youngest son, Timothy, was too ill to leave the fluff that was their combined bed. Since he had been bitten by a spider at a young age, Timothy had been something of a hypochondriac, prone to colds and flus; but this time he was really sick.
Taking the long way around to avoid Dragon, Mrs. Frisby goes to see Mr. Ages, a white mouse who lives in the broken foundation of a house which was destroyed and abandoned long ago. Mr. Ages is very clever with roots, natural herbs and so on, and saved Timothy when he had the spider bite. This time he diagnoses Timothy as having pneumonia, and gives Mrs. Frisby hand-wrapped packets of powder to give Timothy. The danger: Moving Day is coming, the day when the animals must move from the farmer's field to safer quarters. Timothy will eventually die if he is re-exposed to sustained cold, yet Mrs. Frisby's family cannot stay in the winter house.
On her way home, Mrs. Frisby rescues Jeremy, a crow who has gotten tangled in some string on a fence. Dragon appears, forcing Mrs. Frisby to flee to her house on Jeremy's back. Jeremy promises his help should she ever need it then disappears into the sky. Ages' medicine helps Timothy as promised, but...
Withing a day or so, Mrs. Frisby hears the sound of the tractor. With a neighboring (unnamed) shrew for company, Mrs. Frisby overhears the farmer and sons discussing a broken pin which connects the plow to the tractor. the new pin will take five days to arrive from the hardware store, giving them that long to move to their summer quarters.
Mrs. Frisby eventually remembers the squirrel's cache and goes back for more corn. there she meets Jeremy again, whom she asks for advice regarding plows and places to live. Jeremy directs her to do what all crows do when they need advice: see the old owl in the forest. That evening he takes her to see the owl, who listens but can see no help for her - until she mentions her name. The owl suddenly respects her, and sympathizes with her desire to save her home; his home is rotting, but he is too old and settled to leave. He directs her to see the rats in the rosebush, saying they can help her if they move her house to the lee of the stone.
Mrs. Frisby goes to see the rats, who live deep in an abandoned rosebush near the farmer's house. She asks for Justin and Nicodemus as instructed, but is turned back by a large morose rat named Brutus. As she is leaving she runs into Mr. Ages who is limping and in a cast. She and Ages find Justin, a very handsome rat. He takes them deep into the rosebush, where suddenly there are electric lights (stolen from Christmas trees in the neighborhood the previous Christmas). The rats use electricity and even have a small elevator built into their underground home, which adjoins a large natural cave. While Justin and Ages go to a meeting, Mrs. Frisby waits in a large rat library where she sees a schedule for moving, posted on a blackboard. She also meets a young female rat named Isabella. Eventually she meets Nicodemus, leader of the rats. He and a rat engineer named Arthur listen to her story, then decide the job should only take a night. There's no question they will help her, in spite of the fact they are in a hurry to keep moving on The Plan. The trick is, they must drug Dragon to get the work done, and Ages is hurt. Frisby decides she will do the deed, and the rats accept.
While waiting for the proper time, Nicodemus relates the history of the rats of NIMH. He and a rat named Jenner were captured while foraging in an alley, and ended up in a lab where three humans injected them with drugs and began training them. In combination with steroids, the drugs were designed to prolong their lives and increase their intelligence. Among other things, the humans taught the rats to read. After several years, a particularly clever rat, named Justin, figured out how to open his cage be reading the words below the latch. Accepting Nicodemus as leader (because he was older) Justin and Jenner explored the air ducts, looking for a way out. The rats escaped with two of eight lab mice, one being Jonathan Frisby who saved them all by opening an air vent grill.
The mice and rats holed up in an abandoned house where they had food and, more importantly, a vast library. There they learned extensively and, over a long period of time, developed a plan to live in security. Eventually, while moving to a woodland preserve where humans were not allowed, they discovered a toy tinker's truck filled with tiny tools, electric motors, and rat- sized impliments. (The tinker was dead of a heart attack in nearby bushes, so the rats buried him. The truck remained hidden for quite some time.) The rats moved the tools and motors to a cave, then eventually built their rosebush home. Jonathan and Ages went to seek other accomodations.
The rats had stopped aging, nearly, and their offspring grew intelligent due to genetic enhancements from the NIMH drugs. From their reading they knew humans despised rats because of their thievery, and noticing their increased sloth and boredom, decided to quit stealing and begin their own civilization. Jenner thought The Plan foolhardy and left with other rats to continue their improved way of living. The Plan was in effect, and would be complete within a few weeks. (The rats had stolen two years of grain to plant in Thorn Valley, to eventually become self-sufficient. They carry grain in pouches tied to their backs.)
Night fell. Mrs. Frisby was given the drug for Dragon and shown by Justin how to get into the Fitzgibbons' kitchen - through a mouse-sized hole under a cabinet. The deed is done, but the youngest son catches her in a colander and sticks her in an abandoned canary cage. There she overhears the farmer relating talk in town, that a group of rats was discovered electrocuted while apparently trying to steal an electric motor. A group of scientists where now looking for all rats; Fitzgibbons had mentioned the rosebush rats and (fearing a plague of rabies) agreed to let scientists plow up the rosebush and gas the rats. Frisby grew scared, but could not get out of the cage to get away.
That night, Justin arrives to free her, making it appear that a loose cage door had permitted her escape. She tells Justin what she had heard, but first they must finish moving her house. Once Mrs. Frisby convinces the suspicious shrew that the rats are helping, the rats move her house in good order and tidy up all signs of their activity. Once back at the rats' home they interrogate Mrs. Frisby on what she heard and decide to accelerate The Plan - adding a wrinkle to fool NIMH. They hurriedly remove all evidence of intelligent home life and scatter normal smelly, rat-like trash around their home. They then wall up the connection to the storage cave and wait for NIMH.
The next day, while Frisby watches, Fitzgibbons plows the rosebush to the ground and the scientists gas the place. A few rats run in scattered fashion from an escape hole in such a way that it seems there are many rats escaping the gas. In truth most rats had escaped the night before. Frisby sees one rat really wandering about in a dazed fashion before he collapses, and she runs to him. It is Brutus, and he has inhaled the deadly gas. Ages gives him a potion, saving his life. Brutus relates how he and two others accidentally got trapped below ground, and a rat saved him then went back for the others. Brutus sleeps for awhile, then heads off for the rats' new home in a valley near Thorn Lake. (NIMH took the dead rats with them.)
A few days later, the Fitzgibbon plow completely bypasses the Frisby home; Mrs. Frisby and her intelligent children are saved. They discuss the events at the rosebush, and Teresa fears Justin must have been one of the rats killed because he was so brave, and would be just the type to go back into danger to save his comrades. Timothy says he will go to Thorn Valley to see the rats, someday. The kids and Mom curl up in the fluff and settle in for a good night's sleep.
THE KEY IS A GOOD STORY
An actual script was reportedly written by a screenplay writer, but the artists rejected it. Don would travel the country stating that the reason for this was that only animators could understand, and thus write for, animation.
A synopsis by Steven Barnes (who received "Creative Consultant" credit on the film) is one of the earliest drafts for the film. Barnes was a young writer of science fiction at the time. He had written several books with noted author Larry Niven. This piece is much closer to the book than the final film. It opens at NIMH with a doctor frantic about looking for the missing rats. The scene then cuts to Frisby (the change to Brisby came later in production) going to see Mr. Ages. The story follows a fairly similar path for a bit, though Jeremy and the Shrew are fairly minor parts, and there are several cut backs to NIMH. Mrs. Frisby is also shown much more emotional, actually breaking down and crying at not being able to stop the tractor alone.
Upon meeting the rats, the story begins to greatly deviate from the film. Frisby meets a female rat, Isabella (described as "a young, cute, somewhat motor-mouthed rat with a crush on Justin"), who tells Frisby a bit about the rats and of a traitor, named Jenner, who left. When Frisby meets Nicodemus, the elder rat promises to help her. However, to do so they must drug Dragon. Frisby volunteers and is then told that it was a previous drugging attempt that killed her husband.
Suddenly the group hears that Dragon is attacking Frisby's home. The rats go there, stop the attack and the children get to meet Ages and Justin and talk about their lost father. At this point the origin of the rats, and the importance of Jonathan Frisby are revealed.
Justin and Frisby go to drug Dragon. However, once there, Frisby cannot do it. Her fear consumes her again. Justin tells her to "accept the fact that you are afraid, that your fear is natural and good. Just keep your mind on the goal -- you can do anything in the world for the length of time that you can keep your attention focused." She follows the advice and drugs Dragon, but is caught by the farmer's child and placed in a cage.
The film follows somewhat the same path as Frisby overhears that NIMH is coming, escapes (by remembering the words of Justin) and joins the rats at her house. However now the rats simply move her house (though it is a great effort). She warns them of NIMH and now offers to help them move. The rats and Frisby head off into the night.
The next morning two of her children awaken to find that their mother is gone. They go to the rats' den and find nothing. While inside, NIMH arrives and begins gassing the den. Frisby returns home and discovers the problem. She races to the den with Mr. Ages. At the back entrance the last of the rats are leaving, but Justin decides to go with her. As the deadly green gas seeps through corridors a desperate race against time ensues.
Frisby locates her children and gets them out, but becomes trapped. Her only chance is to leap across a giant (for a mouse) chasm. Again, it is Justin's words that guide her and she makes a successful jump. Above ground she says goodbye to her rat friends as she and her family prepare to face challenges on their own.
Like the book, a major section of the story details the rats evolutionary process. It also focuses on scientists at the NIMH laboratory. At some early story meetings, they considered turning one of the NIMH scientists into a major villain status character. Other "good" scientists would help counterbalance this. The entire NIMH experience would eventually be reduced to a short flashback.
A later "revised" synopsis is dated July 2, 1980, but no credit is given. The film's story is finally beginning to awaken. For one thing, the story now starts on Mrs. Frisby and not NIMH. Initially similar to the first synopsis, key changes include the rats' reason for leaving: the pond is going to crush their den. Also the use of boats is brought in. One aspect added, but eventually dropped, was a scene of Frisby saving a beached sea bass. Her effort impresses the rats.
Key to this new synopsis though is the ending and it's future evolution. Once again, the rats move the stone house and Frisby heads off to help them move. Come the morning, the children go to the rats den and go inside. Mrs. Frisby again goes to the rescue... but the rats are already gone. She, alone goes into the den. Once again, she saves the children but is trapped by a cave in.
Back at the house, the shrew, children and Jeremy (he returns) are mourning the loss of Frisby. Suddenly there is a splash at the pond and Frisby comes to the surface. She apparently made it to the secret entrance to the pond. Aided by the sea bass she saved, she comes on shore. Frisby, her children **and** the men from NIMH are surprised to find no evidence of the rats. The synopsis ends with "we, the audience, and Frisby as well, get the ambiguous feeling that the Rats of NIMH never existed; that perhaps they were all a self-improving hallucination." It's the first allusion to a possible mystical storyline.
Don continued to re-work the storyline. It was Don who finally decided that the focus of the story should be Brisby and her children. He is also largely responsible for the mysticism found in the film. There was also, from Don, an attempt to re- create the dialogue rhythm found in the Disney films. Lines were altered to more closely match similar scenes in a Disney film. (For example, Brisby's line to Jeremy, about scaring him, was altered to sound closer to Snow White's line when she meets the animals in the forest.)
Don has always maintained strong control over stories in his films. Prior to the release of NIMH, Don wrote "All those [financial] things notwithstanding, the strongest point of all in favor of an independent production is the story. Any film made by a corporation will always have a very careful story. They have so many other people's opinion's to consider. The independent can be more of a purist. I have the opportunity to tell a strong story without being censored by people who think they know what the public wants but who are actually not creators themselves."
As with the films at Disney during the Seventies, NIMH was built sequence by sequence. Rather than have a final script, Don and his crew worked from rough outlines and synopsis. The team would then discuss and flesh out a sequence for boarding and layout.
Also involved with the writing on NIMH was John Pomeroy, Gary Goldman and Will Finn, an artist at the studio who'd been with them since BANJO. As is somewhat common in animated films, the feature took numerous liberties with the book. Perhaps the most notorious was the addition of the magic amulet.
Almost a year after the release of the film, a school wrote to the studio. It seemed a class had read the book and then viewed the film as a project. One outcome of that project was a series of questions on changes in story between the book and the film. Don, John and Gary sat down and helped compose a letter to the class explaining some of the changes.
As for the amulet, "The amulet was a device, or symbol, to represent the internal power of Mrs. Brisby. It also was a gift from her husband, a sign of his love. The stone/amulet had no power, itself. It was only when Mrs. Brisby's strength was employed that it could become a force. In many ways, it was an extension of Mrs. Brisby... a visual extension of an internal (and harder to show in a film) power."
Nicodemus was changed to a wizard "to create more 'mystery' around both Nicodemus and the entire rat colony. Once again, making Mrs. Brisby have to search outwards, and inwardly for help."
Why was Jenner made evil? "In the book, Jenner is actually a traitor who simply leaves. In the film, he becomes a more dramatic figure by being a visible enemy. (Like many changes made when books become movies, the change is chosen to add drama to the story.)"
Nicodemus dies "so that Justin can become the new leader of the rats. Without this action, Justin doesn't have the ability to grow and change in the film. Each character needs a direction."
About the various changes including changing the ending, Justin not rescuing Brisby from the cage and others were summarized by stating "All these have to do with storytelling and character development. THE SECRET OF NIMH is really a story about Mrs. Brisby and her need to save her children. If the rats save her children, then she hasn't grown in the film (see why Nicodemus dies, above). If the climax is more concerned with the rats and the rosebush, then Brisby's trouble/problem (the main reason for the story happening) has less importance."
John Pomeroy used to wonder if any viewers ever caught several subtleties in the tale. First, the fact that both Nicodemus and the Owl have the same walk, similarly glowing eyes and close vocal patterns. Might it be they are actually the same character in different forms? (At one point it was even considered to have both characters be voiced by the same actor. This was dropped when it was felt that more big name voice talent needed to be added to the cast.)
Also there is the fact that only Mrs. Brisby and Ages see the elaborate costumes of the rats and their society. John once stated, "Isn't it plausible that the entire set up of the lavish clothes, the elegant chambers, the amulet's power, etc. were nothing more than an image given to Brisby to assist her in finding the strength she had inside of her. We know the rats had powers... just how great were those powers?"
THE MUSIC OF NIMH
Musically, NIMH was quite a departure from the standard Disney feature. Rather than a series of forgetful songs, NIMH featured a top notch film score by Academy Award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith's other scores include such films as CHINATOWN, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, ALIEN, PATTON, PLANET OF THE APES and POLTERGEIST. (Goldsmith's association with film maker Steven Spielberg would become an important part of Don's future.) For NIMH, Goldsmith came up with a variety of melodies from the suspenseful and driving "The Tractor" where Brisby battles to stop the vehicle to the light "Allergic Reaction/Athletic Type" when Brisby and Jeremy first meet. He recorded the score with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Goldsmith discussed the difficulty of scoring the film, in that he had to score sequences that were unfinished. Many times all he had to go by were story sketches and daily rushes. He stated "I was on the phone constantly with them. My dupe [copy of the film] was in black and white, and they'd bring their color copy over so I could see it. They were constantly adding footage, and it was constantly, 'What's going on here?' and 'What's happening here?'"
Treating the film as a live action story, rather than a cartoon, Goldsmith created a rich score for orchestra and choir. He used the choir for climatic scenes. According to Goldsmith, "Whenever one is referring to Nicodemus or the amulet, I always used the choir. And the whole thing climaxed as the house was being lifted. It was a very emotional experience -- belief and faith is really what it's all about, and when it finally triumphs, that's it!" Goldsmith later commented he felt his work on NIMH was one of his best scores.
The one song, "Flying Dreams" was by Goldsmith and Paul Williams. Williams had created the songs and score for such films as A STAR IS BORN ("Evergreen") and, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and THE MUPPET MOVIE. "Flying Dreams" was heard during the film in two places. First, by Sally Stevens, when Mrs. Brisby is feeding Timmy and over the end titles by Williams. Allegedly a dispute with Williams caused the song to never be released on sheet music.
THE RATS SPEAK
Don and his team began scouring TV and films in 1980 to locate voices for the film. Voice work in the film was top-notch with most of the cast being virgins to animated features. John Carradine, known mostly today for his roles in horror films, has appeared in almost every type of film including such classics as the original STAGECOACH, THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE LAST TYCOON. He turned in a bravura performance as the wise old Owl. In fact, his work at the microphone inspired John Pomeroy's concept of the owl.
"Remembering how he walked onto that stage," recalled John in a recent interview, "left the impression on me that gave me the ideas of how to animate this owl. And it was a particular scene where he says, 'It is night. I have to go." And he walks out on the limb of the end of the tree, opens his wings, and then lifts himself up into the wind.
"John Carradine was wracked and riddled with arthritis. He could barely walk. He would walk with a limp in a sort of hunchback fashion. And at first, it's a sad-looking impression that you're getting. Afterwards, after you put the man together with the physical appearance, suddenly he's very majestic in some strange, supernatural way. So all of these qualities I wanted to put in this scene."
Handsome leading man Peter Strauss provided Justin with just the right mixture of romance and heroism. An Emmy and Golden Globe nominee, Strauss had appeared in numerous TV films and mini-series including RICH MAN, POOR MAN, MASADA and THE JERICHO MILE (for which he won an Emmy). Fully enjoying the experience, Strauss stated, "I'm delighted with the role. It's wonderful for my image to finally be a rat." (Strauss later named his first son "Justin," after this character.)
His nemesis Jenner was evilly played by Paul Shenar, another popular TV actor of the time. Among other roles, he portrayed the young Orson Welles in THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA and Carrington in the mini-series ROOTS. On the other side, the mentor rat Nicodemus was portrayed by Derek Jacobi, a distinguished British stage actor, seen by U.S. viewers in the PBS mini-series I, CLADIUS. Jacobi was chosen by Sir Laurence Olivier as one of the eight founding members of Britain's National Theatre Company in 1963. "The only problem I had," confessed Jacobi at the time, "was to keep sounding old enough. It's a wonderful problem, really."
Elizabeth Hartman gave Mrs. Brisby a timid yet determined personality. Hartman received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the blind girl in A PATCH OF BLUE. She also starred in such films as THE GROUP, INTERMISSION and WALKING TALL. She had given up acting for a while and Brisby was one of her first new roles. Commuting from her home in Cleveland, she worked a little after the film and then went back into retirement, seldom talking about her varied film and stage career. She committed suicide in 19xx.
Popular stage, film and TV actress Hermione Baddeley played Brisby's friend, the Shrew. TV viewers would recognize her as the hard drinking maid in MAUDE. Another versatile actor, Arthur Malet, who was on such TV series as CASABLANCA (1983) and EASY STREET (1986), gave voice to Mr. Ages. The children included Shannen Doherty, who later was a regular on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE and OUR HOUSE, as Teresa and Jodi Hicks as Cynthia. Ian Fried, who played Timmy, later appeared as Rocky Jr. in ROCKY III. A very young Whil Wheaton, now known as Wesley Crusher on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, portrayed Martin, Mrs. Brisby's eldest son.
The film also featured a number of classic personalities in small roles. These included Lucille Bliss (the voice of Crusader Rabbit and Smurfette), Tom Hatten (popular Los Angeles TV host) and Charles Champlin (then the entertainment editor of the Los Angeles Times).
Making a major contribution was Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the crow. Prior to NIMH, DeLuise was a popular funny man seen in films and TV series including THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW, THE GLEN CAMPBELL SHOW and his own THE DOM DELUISE SHOW. He also appeared in many films with Mel Brooks (SILENT MOVIE, BLAZING SADDLES) and Burt Reynolds (THE END, CANNONBALL RUN). DeLuise's debut in animation was full of subtle comedy and warmth. His liveliness and enthusiasm made Jeremy one of the most contagiously fun characters since Phil Harris' wonderful interpretation of Baloo in Disney's THE JUNGLE BOOK. DeLuise would become one of Don's favorite voice actors, appearing in other films, as well as a popular voice in animation done by other studios (Italy's PETER NO-TAIL IN AMERICA and Disney's OLIVER AND COMPANY among others).
DeLuise's sessions with Don and the rest of the crew had a major effect on the film, turning Jeremy from a minor character into one of the key figures. He would freely alter the dialogue to better fit his character and help Don with the comedy timing. He even offered an art suggestion, "I told the producers to make my character anything they wanted except fat." DeLuise won the role when Don, John and Gary were separately watching DeLuise in THE END, where he plays a lunatic trying to kill Burt Reynolds, and began calling each other to say they had found the voice for Jeremy.
BACK AT WORK
Don not only storyboarded the entire film, and created most of the layouts, but he animated a number of scenes. Most memorable is the climactic sword fight between Justin and Jenner.
One aspect of Bluth's productions that became key in NIMH was his use of live action set-ups. So close would the Bluth crew create the sets of some scenes, many would say it fell under the definition of rotoscoping. (Simply put, Rotoscoping is a process where a live actor or action if filmed and the animator traces the action onto paper frame by frame which with slight alteration becomes the animation.)
For the boat ride underground with Brisby, Nicodemus and Justin, the crew built a small boat and photographed it in Don's backyard swimming pool. The elaborate rigging built by the rats to raise Brisby's cement block home, the bird cage Brisby becomes trapped in, the light that Brisby and Ages travel down in, all were photographed live action. Some were built, others merely adapted from actual pieces.
Though this process assists in giving a more real look to the artwork, it can sometimes creates a visual problem. The bird cage, for example, is seen to flicker and jump. This scene was done by shooting the bird cage in live action film and having photostat prints made from the film. These stats were then transferred directly onto the cels. Due to the imprecise ability of the photocopy process, the bird cage image appears to shimmer at times.
A larger problem occurred when in the midst of production the studio heard from the Whammo toy company. Whammo holds the trademark on Frisbees, the popular pie-shaped disc people throw. The manufacturer stated that Bluth's use of Frisby and possible future merchandise encroached on Whammo's trademark. Rather than risk a legal battle, the studio chose to change the Frisby name to Brisby. Since all the voices had already been recorded, new audio work needed to be done.
Some lines were re-recorded, however Carradine was not available at the time. Instead, the sound editors went in and found a hard "b" sound that Carradine used in other dialogue. They then spliced this "b" sound onto the "risby" sound of Frisby. With today's digital manipulation of audio, such a task would have been fairly simple. However in the early Eighties, the studio had to work quite carefully to physically make the edits. They were pleased when no one ever caught on to the audio operation.
As the production neared the release date, the studio worked on a round-the-clock basis with the camera crew working shifts. Producer Goldman even handled some of the duties to make sure the film would be ready in time. As Gary Goldman remembered recently, "The last six months of that picture, I was averaging around 110 hours a week working from six in the morning until eleven at night; actually shooting on the camera in some cases, late night there in Studio City.
Also working around the clock was the media. As the film came closer and closer to completion, once again Don and his studio became the focus of animation reporting. Many of the articles theorized on whether or not NIMH and Don would replace Disney as the king of theatrical animation. Though Don was trying to create a name for his studio, he was still haunted by his past at Disney and his famed walkout. Many of the pieces focused on this aspect, such as one which was headlined "Will the Real Walt Disney Please Stand Up."
For these pieces, Don once again discussed his belief in the classic style of animation done at Disney's decades earlier. "Disney was a master storyteller, which is what we'd like to be," stated Don in an interview at the time. "There will be no 'second Disney.' It's wonderful that his success could occur, and he could show all that animation can be. Unfortunately, his legacy has been left to those who would chop it up and sell it in the meat market. But he didn't tell all the stories. We want to understand how he told stories and then go from there."
Animation critic Charles Solomon wrote that "The most cursory glance at Bluth's work reveals the strong stylistic influence of Disney. But Bluth lacks the spirit of experimentation that characterized the best Disney films. His attitude is reminiscent of the Renaissance architects who turned their backs on recent centuries of art to return to the principles of the ancients."
Other writers would complain about Don's desire to re-create an older style of animation. To such critics, Don would remark "I haven't seen an innovative animated film since FANTASIA. The scribbly 'Zagreb style' is no more like classical animation than jazz is like classical music. Some of those films are extremely clever, but they can't hold an audience for more than about ten minutes. An audience can't identify with a drawing. Until we can evolve a new style, we're stuck with the old, illustrative one. We'll break new ground at some point, but we can't predict where. We won't rush out just to do something new. We'll break new ground if it's necessary to tell a story."
To help promote the film, United Artists and the Bluth studio went together and created a full color newsletter on the film. The first issue appeared in January of 1982 and heralded "The Second Age of Animation." A cover story concerned this "Second Age" and stated "Ushering in the new age will be "The Secret of NIMH," the eagerly awaited first film from Don Bluth Productions, formed by a group of artists who resigned from Walt Disney Productions two years ago over the issue of creative quality." Also in the issue was some general information on the feature, a cast list of major voices and brief biographies on Don, John and Gary.
The second issue was dated April, 1982 and cover storied "The Art of Animation," an article profiling a history of the Bluth studio and discussing elements of the feature. Inside was a story about "Historical Highlights in Animation" which included such events as the invention of the zoetrope, Gertie the Dinosaur's debut, Mickey Mouse's debut, Bakshi's FRITZ THE CAT and finally, the debut of THE SECRET OF NIMH. Also included were a number of production "Statistics." This included such facts as "Most animated features have taken, on the average, four years to complete. 'The Secret of NIMH' will be finished in two-and-a- half years." Another was "One of the characters, crotchety chemist mouse Mr. Ages, has 26 colors alone." Finally, "'The Secret of NIMH' will be filmed in its entirety four times: Once in sketch form, once in rough drawings that are animated, once in final pencil animation and once in color." This issue also included a page dedicated to "Steps-in-the-Making" of animation.
The press kit from MGM/UA featured a number of statements from Don regarding his thoughts of art and his departure from Disney. "It was very scary when we left. We felt as if we had cast off from the Queen Mary in a very small dinghy. Some people said we were crazy, that it couldn't be done. There were times when we thought they might have been right."
"I'm not sure the world needs any more movies right now," mused Don. "But if a man is going to go ahead and make one, surely the film he makes ought to offer something to the audience. Right now I choose to make films that have a message, but I want to do it well enough so the audience doesn't feel the needle when the medicine's injected."
In a large article released prior to the film's debut, Don discussed the ramifications of the film. "We will earn the right to stay in business. If we don't do it right, then we can't claim the right to stay in business. If THE SECRET OF NIMH succeeds then there will be another film. But even if we fail, that won't keep us from trying again or loving what we do. Animation is a beautiful art form that is in danger of dying out. An animated film today has to be a thoroughbred to compete for big box office dollars to really survive. Every time someone produces an animated feature that fails, the whole animation industry dies a little bit more."
NIMH began previews in the late spring of 1982. Initial reaction was quite strong. The crew was very proud of their work. Everyone felt that there was no where to go but up.
THE RELEASE AND REACTION
THE SECRET OF NIMH was released with a fair amount of "hoopla," but did not live up to expectations in the marketplace. The faults are more due to the times than the film.
Critically, the film was met with generally positive notices. Don's well publicized exit from Disney gave the film more prominence than other animated films of the time. It also gave the critics more of a focal point of criticism. As many wondered, was NIMH like the old Disney?
The Hollywood Reporter, as most reviewers, pointed to the past Disney ties and stated "Those Disney origins are unmistakable in NIMH and that's not bad. In fact, it's gingerbread-good, since the 82-minute adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's 'Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH' is an almost continuous delight of cartoonery magic, a perky bundle of entertainment that should not only captivate a sizable following on its first go-around but could also acquire a life span in future reissues."
The review could also not resist a comparison with past Disney product. "Unlike many similar Disney features, NIMH does not slow down for a bag of song ballads, not once, and travels at a breakneck speed kids will especially appreciate. Even with a G rating, it possesses an intensity in keeping with today's more action filled live features. NIMH never talks down to the small fry."
Newsweek generally agreed, with some reservations. "Whether or not children care that animation has become a diminished art form is a moot question. There's no doubt, however, that THE SECRET OF NIMH is an ambitious and entertaining debut that will delight and terrify kids everywhere. If there are flaws in NIMH they are a product of its ambition: visually, moments when the animation is almost too busy to take in; dramatically, an eclectic and overstuffed plot that threatens the balance of the movie. But better a surfeit than a soporific."
It ended its review with "THE FOX AND THE HOUND, which many of these animators were working on when they left Disney, was more of a piece, but it was also duller and more sentimental. It's as if the creative frustrations these men felt came pouring out in NIMH, and they wanted one movie to show off the full range of their talents. They've infused conservative style with new and bizarre energy. The result is slightly lunatic, and all the more fun for it."
Rex Reed stated, "THE SECRET OF NIMH looks like a Walt Disney cartoon, only better." He went on to say, "Don Bluth, head cartoonist and this film's director, has helped everyone create a touching, funny, above all characteristic and masterfully drawn animated film whose simple little story - about a mother mouse trying to get aid for a sick child - does not begin to indicate the thrills of her odyssey among crows, rats and the farmer's cat, all set against country backgrounds as lovingly detailed as vintage Disney used to be." If that wasn't praise enough, he concluded with "Purely delicious, a perfect summer treat for the entire family, and finally a cartoon that will not insult the intelligence of any child from 6 to 60."
The New York Post headlined their review, "It's no 'Secret': 'NIMH's tops." The review went on to state "This cartoon feature is worthy of the best Disney efforts in its technical opulence and not unlike others in the use of human attributes to sentimentalize such animals as rats, mice and a cat as well as crows, an owl and other creatures less easily identified." It finished by saying "In short, this movie is a Disney-type cartoon, beautifully drawn, fully equipped with sentiments and perked up with battles and suspense. Who could ask for more, or less?"
"THE SECRET OF NIMH does for the cartoon what THE JAZZ SINGER did for the feature film," stated TV reviewer Joyce Hauser on WNBC in New York. "I felt as if I was watching the invention of color, as if I was being drawn into the depths of the screen." She concluded with "THE SECRET OF NIMH is the kind of film that's bound to get America's parents and children hooked on movies all over again."
Locally, the Santa Ana Register (now called the Orange County Register) began their review with a quick summary of the Bluth studio origin and then went to discuss the film, itself. "THE SECRET OF NIMH, their first production, is, indeed, fanciful credence to those dreams. Delivered in the vibrant hues and multiplane camera shots that marked much of yesterday's famed animation, this enchanting film has characters and situations to delight all ages."
NIMH also had some critical competition from Disney in TRON. Disney's multi-million dollar live action-computer animation venture eventually proved a financial "disaster," but upon its opening, it helped pull a lot of attention away from NIMH. TV critics Siskel and Ebert even reviewed the two films on the same show stating that NIMH seemed to showcase "old Disney" while TRON promised a "new Disney." They concluded that TRON was better then NIMH.
The Minneapolis Star & Tribune agreed with the descriptions, but came to a different conclusion. "THE SECRET OF NIMH is not only a wonderful film but an acronymic rebuke to the Disney people at precisely the time that Uncle Walt's heirs are unleashing TRON, their own capital-lettered bid for the teen-age market. It seems to be asking: Why have you given up on the family-oriented market. And the sweetest part of the rebuke may be that its heroine is - of all God's creatures - a mouse." After discussing the artwork, the reviewer went on to state, "All this, however, would be mere decoration, the frosting without the cake, if it didn't serve to enhance a strong, engrossing story line and vivid characters. And NIMH has an ample supply of both."
TRON however, had something that NIMH lacked, studio muscle. NIMH was contracted to be released through United Artists. UA first advertised for licensees early in 1981. Describing the film as "A spectacular, new, fully-animated feature film," the ad promised "18 distinctive characters, over one million drawings (full animation, not limited), 2,000 lush backgrounds, [and] multi-plane animation cameras, producing depth and realism."
In August of 1981, United Artist's first presskit was released. It featured a number of press releases and five stills of film scenes and the directing trio. "I'm absolutely delighted to be involved with Don Bluth Productions," stated UA head Norbert Auerbach in one release. "The artists and animators who are the heart and soul of this bright new studio remind me of the pioneers of our industry: creative, dedicated and passionate about their craft. I look forward to a long and happy association with them."
The release went on to quote Don. "Norbert Auerbach has been interested in our company and our project for over a year and his enthusiasm has been most encouraging. It must be contagious for everyone at United Artists seems to love this project as much as we do. I'm pleased to be affiliated with United Artists and know our relationship will be mutually beneficial and long lasting."
However, prior to its release, MGM bought United Artists and "united" under one banner as MGM/UA. (The two studios would buy each other out, back and forth, several times during the decade until Ted Turner's final purchase of MGM in the late Eighties.) The new management at MGM/UA didn't seem as certain about NIMH as those who signed the original deal. Whereas TRON had the entire Disney publicity and advertising machine behind it, NIMH had very little distributor support.
Don later would state that MGM/UA didn't spend any money on promoting the film and that his group (Aurora) had to put up money for ads and publicity tours. According to published accounts prior to the films release, it was a decision made by Aurora Productions to pay the $4.4 million in marketing. This decision was made to keep a strong control over the way the film was marketed. At the time of this announcement, Aurora stated "There's very little MGM/UA can do without our approval. We're creating the print ad campaign, trailers, and TV spots with outside agencies." The marketing also included a large number of licensee tie-ins and a 30 city tour of costume characters doing shows in shopping centers and hospitals. At the time of this announcement, Aurora expected MGM/UA to place NIMH in 1000 theaters.
MGM/UA opened the film in less than 100 theaters, a very small number for a "major" release. It was also placed in direct competition with E.T. (in over 1300 theaters), which would become the top grossing motion picture in film history. However, audiences found the film. The first week saw an $8,000 per screen average, placing it third in per theatre income, beating such new heavy hitters as POLTERGIEST (also MGM/UA), ROCKY III, Clint Eastwood's FIRE FOX and STAR TREK II. Only E.T. and DINER topped NIMH in per theater income.
In local box-office figures, the film showed that it had drawing power, but nationally, it seemed to be faltering. At less than 100 theaters, the film grossed just over $700,000 for its first week, placing it at #15 on the box office chart. That same week, POLTERGEIST did over $5 million (rating #7) while E.T. did over $24 million!
The next week the film was expanded to over 200 theaters, and then to just over 700. However, by then, most of the advertising had run out and even local figures were dropping. By the end of its first month, it had only garnered a little over $5 million at the box office. At that same time, E.T. had hit $150 million, ROCKY III was nearing $100 million and STAR TREK II had past $50 million. NIMH had been crushed by the mega-hits.
Before the summer ended, the only visual references to NIMH were the numerous merchandising items that included puzzles, books, lunch boxes, comics, plush toys, paint sets and other items. All monuments to the belief of many companies that animated features not made by Disney could succeed. Unfortunately, NIMH was not to be the film to prove it. Bluth and animation would get another chance later.
Though records are sketchy, it appears that NIMH eventually grossed around $12 million in the US. Not a good amount since a film must gross two to three times its cost to really break even. With NIMH's budget around $7 million, the film would have had to do near $18 million. However, the film did end up breaking even with later sales to video and cable (including the Disney channel), as well as foreign release.
The film won several awards. It was voted a Saturn Award for best Animated Film, by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. (Also nominated in the category had been Disney's TRON.) Accepting the Award, Don remarked, "Thanks. We didn't think anyone had noticed." John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman accepted an Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board.
The soundtrack to the film was finally released in the U.S., almost a year after its theatriecal release, on Varese Sarabande's label. The score had been issued in England almost immediately upon release there. However the studio could not find a U.S. source to handle the music. The record appeared in early 1983 and was followed around a year later with its release on CD.
NIMH appeared on the home video market in 1983 at a rental price ($79 list) from MGM home video. After a few months, it went Gold, having sold over 25,000 copies. It proved a popular renter and when reduced to lower prices in later years has proved a well received film.
The film was repackaged and re-mastered for video in 1990. With this new look came a new camgaign, a new, even lower price (under $20), and even a new review. Entertainment Weekly stated "Bluth and his animators, bless them, chose to revive an endangered art form - classically detailed animation. They drew their characters exquisitely and gave them individual personalities. The entire ensemble - artists, actors, animals, and musicians - created something unique: the world's first enjoyable rat race." It received an "A" rating.
The film developed a cult following which only increased with easy access via video and cable showings. In 1986, one group even published a collection of articles, artwork and stories based on the film and its characters called "The NIMH File." Even some of the creative team that worked on the original film contributed to it.
Bluth's original agreement with MGM/UA stated that if the distributor did not re-release the film theatrically in seven years, the average span between Disney animated re-releases, Bluth's party would have the rights to do so. This would have occurred sometime in 1989.
During the mid-Eighties, several members of the Bluth group
discussed plans for this eventual theatrical re-release. They
felt that since MGM/UA would not release a film that already
appeared on videotape, the film would not receive a second
theatrical viewing. However, as the Nineties began, the Bluth
studio no longer seemed to consider the option of having NIMH in
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