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"The Secret of NIMH": These Rats Deserve Better

Hey, Fox, both your home video and theatrical release press sites are broken. Please fix. Thank you.The Secret of NIMH is finally being released on Blu-ray by Fox, which has recently begun distributing old catalogue MGM titles. For those who don’t know, The Secret of NIMH was Don Bluth’s first film after leaving Disney, and it’s arguably his greatest. What makes this film so significant isn’t just the fact that it was a great, mature, animated film, but rather that it represented Disney’s first real competition since Fleischer Studios’ Gulliver’s Travels. The Secret of NIMH may have been a commercial flop (it made a profit, but apparently not enough), but it was critically acclaimed and kick-started a rivalry between Bluth and Disney, with Disney uncharacteristically having to play catch-up for once. For historical reasons if no other, The Secret of NIMH deserves a proper home video release.

This isn’t it.

Based on the children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Secret of NIMH is about Mrs. Brisby (Wham-o wouldn’t let them use the name “Frisby”), a widow who must care for her family. During the winter she and they live in the field, but they regularly move before the plowing begins. Unfortunately for her, this year Moving Day is fast approaching, but one of her sons, Timmy, has been diagnosed with pneumonia and can’t be moved. In a race to save her son’s life, she asks for help from a secret group of super-intelligent rats who are friends of her late husband. As things would have it, though, one of the rats intends to assassinate their leader, Nicodemus, and take power for himself. Doing so would be at the expense of moving Mrs. Brisby’s house and effectively end Timmy’s life. All the while, the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) is attempting to find and exterminate their escaped experiments.

As I said earlier, The Secret of NIMH was Don Bluth’s masterpiece. He actually storyboarded the entire thing himself. The story is original and the characters are well-rounded. Its heroine is a widow—already a non-traditional choice—who is smart and strong-willed yet still shows fear. She feels like one of the most realistic characters portrayed in any animated film. The children seem to act like real children, and Jenner, the closest thing this movie has to a villain, is not only pretty damn scary, he actually succeeds with his assassination! Even the comedy relief, Jeremy the crow, actually isn’t as annoying as he should be, and he’s played by Dom DeLuise.

And so The Secret of NIMH is a mature, dark movie that never talks down to its audience. And the animation is nothing to sneeze at either. Although done on a shoestring budget, it can hold its own against most of the Disney classics. Also amazing is that its contemporary feel—it was made in the 80s—doesn’t feel at all dated.

I really can’t find one flaw with The Secret of NIMH. I just wish I could say the same for this release.

Unfortunately, while the movie’s story may show no signs of age, the physical film master does. Grain shows up everywhere, and at various intervals, especially in special-effects heavy spots. It’s really distracting, because unlike the Blu-ray release of All Dogs Go To Heaven, the grain isn’t even consistent. Yes, I realize it’s an old film, and with MGM’s financial difficulties, if the movie’s name isn’t Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang it’s not going to get remastered and scrubbed clean like Disney’s animated Blu-ray titles. At least this release includes a short, old, ten-minute informative making-of featurette and an entertaining Don Bluth commentary. Well, it’s something, but this release definitely deserved more. I wish the direct-to-video sequel had at least been included as an extra, as was done with the recent Anastasia release. Sure, the sequel may not have been good, but it would’ve given buyers a little more incentive to get this title.

What a shame. It just irks me that this excellent animated feature should get such poor treatment, and I fear it will never get the proper Blu-ray release it deserves. I find it hard to recommend this release when the quality is so poor: chances are you’re fine with just the DVD release.

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