So the movie begins with Mrs Brisby visiting Mr Ages (Arthur Malet), a cantankerous old mouse, to beg him for some medicine for her son Timmy who has pneumonia. Ages tells her to screw off at first but he finally relents and gives her some herbs and tells her that Timmy has to stay in bed and can’t be moved for three weeks. Which is a problem, as it’s getting close to “Moving Day”, when the farmer ploughs the field and all the animals have to am-scray or be made into mincemeat. But, only able to deal with one crisis at a time, Mrs Brisby heads home to give Timmy his medicine.
The animation in this movie is a goddamn marvel, especially considering that it was done with a skeleton crew of animators working out of Bluth’s garage with a budget of $7 Million. Remember that The Black Cauldron, which was released be Disney a few years later, cost $40 million and didn’t look close to this good. Working under those restrictions, for Bluth to turn in a movie that didn’t look like complete ass would have been an achievement in and of itself. But honestly, this movie looks better than a lot of the movie’s Bluth would make later with much larger crews and much bigger budgets. For whatever reason, something about this movie just clicked.
On her way back home, Mrs Brisby runs into Jeremy, a young, addlepated crow voiced by Dom de Luise…
…who was gathering some string to make a nest but got tangled up. Mrs Brisby tries to free him and Jeremy just keeps chattering inanely because, duh, he’s voiced by Dom de Luise. Mrs Brisby tells Jeremy to shut up (hah! Tell Dom de Luise to shut up? Sooner bid the wind to cease or the tide to halt its endless march) because the farmer’s cat Dragon will hear them and as a mouse and a bird they’re both on his list of safe foods. This movie’s score was done by Jerry Goldsmith, his first composition for an animated movie (and thankfully not his last). The score was a labour of love for him and it shows, but one of the things I love about this movie is not just how it uses music but how it uses silence. Most of the Disney canon movies are scored from beginning to end with very few breaks in the soundtrack (a legacy of the Silly Symphonies days when the music was the entire point). In this scene where Mrs Brisby warns Jeremy about Dragon there is no music whatsoever and so we’re essentially flying blind. We don’t know if the cat is actually coming, or if, when he does, the scene will be played for comedy, suspense or horror.
The two barely manage to escape Dragon but Mrs Brisby’s distraught because she dropped Timmy’s medicine. Fortunately, Jeremy just happened to pick it up and so it’s all good. Jeremy then asks Mrs Brisby if she likes him and hey! Hey! Crow! Stay away from our women! I’ve had it up to here with that!
Rassin’ frassin’ crows.
Back in Mrs Brisby’s house we meet three of her children, Cythia (Jodi Hicks), Martin (Whill Wheaton in his first movie role) and Teresa (teeny tiny Shannen Doherty).
Yeah. So these characters are very, very, very blatantly based on Skippy, Sis and Tagalong from Disney’s Robin Hood. Which, okay, fair enough, Don Bluth did animate those characters but Jesus this is pretty shameless.
I wouldn’t mind so much, but those three characters were pretty much the ONLY THING IN ROBIN HOOD THAT WEREN’T STOLEN FROM ANOTHER MOVIE. Anyway, the kids are visited by The Shrew (Hermione Baddeley), who’s come to tell Mrs Brisby that the Day of Moving is upon them. Martin angrily tells the Shrew to mind her own business and drives her out of the house and oh man, I’ve seen this before. Little kid, loses his father. Starts acting out and becomes aggressive and unruly and before you know it they’re joining gangs and getting psychic powers and being voiced by Eric Idle. Someone needs to step in, fast.
Mrs Brisby arrives home and gives Timmy the medicine. The next morning she goes outside to survey the field for danger.
To her horror, she sees the tractor starting up on the other side of the field. As the rest of the field’s residents flee in terror, Mrs Brisby and The Shrew manage to climb onto the tractor and sabotage its fuel line just before it crushes the Brisby home. Knowing that they’ve only bought themselves a little time, Shrew tells Mrs Brisby that she must go to the Great Owl to get his advice on what she should do.
One of the reasons I find Mrs Brisby so fascinating is that we don’t really see protagonists like this in modern films. Mrs Brisby is not a wisecracking badass or even, in the conventional mode, a Strong Female Character ™. She is a character who exists in an almost constant state of terror, grappling with horrifying predators and forces that she can scarcely understand. But despite all that, she never gives up. She is not fearless, she is brave.
Mrs Brisby hitches a ride with Jeremy to the nest of the Great Owl (John Carradine). This whole sequence is probably my favourite in the movie. Carradine’s voice, deeper than a Balrog’s belch, is perfect for the Owl and the character is an amazing visual creation, something between a bird and old god, ancient and inscrutable. It’s here that the movie’s subtle religious overtones become most overt. There’s a whisper of it in other parts of the movie, Mrs Brisby at one point says “Please God, no.” and blesses Mr Ages when he gives her the medicine. But here, when the Owl tells Mrs Brisby that the only way to save her son is to seek the help of the rats who live in the rose bush, she simply says “I do not understand, but I will do what you say.” It’s a moment that has echoes in dozens of Biblical tales where the hero has to let go of their fear and doubt and simply put their trust in God. Sacrifice your son Isaac. Build me an ark. Go into Egypt and deliver my people. Take me to where Lazarus is buried.
I do not understand, but I will do what you say.
Mrs Brisby now has to get to the rose bush right outside the farmer’s house, which involves sneaking past Dragon and above all being super quiet. Who better then to bring along than Jeremy, he who is spoken of in legend as the thing that wouldn’t shut up. Mrs Brisby finally gets Jeremy to vamoose by asking him to look after her children while she’s gone and that is just downright irresponsible and reckless. How dare she put Jeremy in that kind of danger?
Ages introduces Mrs Brisby to the rats and tells them that she is Jonathan Brisby’s widow who apparently was a big cheese amongst the rats (mmmmmmmmm cheese. Sorry. Got distracted). Ages then tells the rats that the Great Owl has instructed them to move the Brisby home to safety which causes great consternation amongst the rats.
One of the rats, Sullivan, says that they’ve got their own problems and he’s heard that all mice are terrorists anyway. But Jenner, surprisingly, says that the rats will only be too happy to help Mrs Brisby anyway they can. Ages smells a rat, obviously, and tells Justin to take Mrs Brisby to see Nicodemus and oh c’mon Don, are you kidding me?
Nicodemus tells her that Jonathan was killed trying to drug Dragon on their behalf, which she never knew (a single revelation that makes Nicodemus, Mr Ages and even Jonathan himself a massive, massive dick). He also gives her a gift from Jonathan, a magic amulet.
Realising that there’s no hope of the plan working if Dragon is still awake Mrs Brisby volunteers…
I’m sorry, a magic amulet? And, pray, from which ass was this pulled? Is the National Institute of Mental Health full on dabbling in the occult? Where the flippity fudge did Jonathan get a magic fruckin’ amulet?! Oh, and then Nicodemus tells Mrs Brisby that the reason Jonathan didn’t tell her about all this was because the experiments had lengthened his lifespan and he didn’t want her to know that she was going to get old and die long before him.
That is EXACTLY the kind of thing you need to tell your partner. That you are an ageless product of super science with access to mystical forces working for a cadre of super-intelligent rodents really should have come up in the pillow talk at some point.
I’m sorry, I can’t let this go! Was Jonathan really just going to watch his wife get older and more freaked out as he stayed youthful while she withered away and never tell her why?
Well anyway, Mrs B manages to slip the mickey into Dragon’s kibble but she gets caught by the farmer’s son who puts her in a birdcage. While there, she overhears the farmer talking to NIMH on the phone and learns that they’re coming to exterminate the rats and man these guys are really exceeding their federal remit.
Meanwhile, Jenner is putting his fiendish plan into effect. Basically, this involves lifting the Brisby house through the air and then cutting the ropes supporting it so that it falls on Nicodemus, who has very kindly decided to stand right under the house as it goes past. What diabolical genius.
Mrs Brisby manages to escape from the cage and returns to find her house sinking into the mud, Nicodemus dead, and Jenner telling the rats that they should return to the rose bush and forget all this thorn valley foolishness. But Mrs Brisby warns the rats that NIMH are coming to aid America’s fight against mental illness by killing every last one of them and Jenner attacks her. Justin fights him off and Jenner admits that he murdered Nicodemus, right before he gets stabbed in the back by Sullivan. Now Jenner’s dead but Mrs Brisby’s house is still sinking and the children ar ein danger of drowning because it’s a Don Bluth film and they always end with someone in danger of drowning. Seriously, Disney has royal weddings, Dreamworks has dance parties and Don Bluth has someone almost drowning. It’s honestly a very affecting scene. The facial animation in particular of Mrs Brisby as Justin pulls her away from the sinking home is particularly wrenching.
But then, in a particularly blatant Deus Ex Machina, the magical amulet turns on and Mrs Brisby starts glowing like a 60 Watt bulb while the rats bow before her.
And then she magically lifts the house out of the mud because she has courage of the heart of some such. Lame. Lame. Lame. Lame.
And so our movie ends with the rats leaving for Thorn Valley, Jeremy finding love with a girl crow and Timmy (who did not die) living to see Christmas. God bless us, every one.
Secret of Nimh was a beautiful end to Elizabeth Hartman’s, a beautiful beginning to Don Bluth’s. Over thirty years later, it may still be his finest film. Highly recommended.
Like I said last time, this is one of the Don Bluth movies I like, and it’s even my favorite one. The Land Before Time was the only one I had seen before I learned who Don Bluth was, and The Secret of NIMH was the first one I watched after that.
By the way, Mouse, have you seen the most recent Nostalgia Critic episode?
Right now I barely have time to wash and eat.
The man, the myth, the legend, Don Bluth himself was the guest star with Nostalgia Critic.
Pah. Walt Disney has been appearing on MY blog since day one.
Poor Don, he really has fallen that far.
I think it is the best of Don Bluth movies…his weaknesses aren’t that pronounced in it, and it displays all his strength. Plus, Mrs. Brisby is one of the best written heroines ever. Not just of animated movies, but of movies in general. (She is certainly a better character than Daphne).
But I admit, when I first watched it, the movie terrified me. A lot in it went right over my head.
Oh this scared me SHITLESS
I haven’t finished the review but that opening was heartbreaking. I knew about Judith Barsi but not Elizabeth Hartman. Struggling with depression that struck a nerve
You want to talk about it? I’m here if you do.
I know it’s kind of weird to say but I think the character animation for Jeremy is very impressive. I can’t really explain what it is.
Jeremy in particular? Interesting.
IDK, for some reason I happen to know a lot about bird anatomy (don’t ask) and i’m just surprised how well they kept the physical body structure of a crow so accurate while still giving him expressive facial expressions and body movement. Even the feather fingers are quite impressive, as the wings still fold to the body like an actual bird wing does. Most cartoon birds don’t have nearly this level of detail attached to them.
Man, that might be the nerdiest comment I’ve ever written.
Is it possible you know so much about birds because they’re basically dinosaurs?
More than likely, yah.
Maybe it has how the animators made him look much heavier than the mice by making his movements start slower.
Don Bluth’s first independent Work, and still his best IMHO. And as far as I can tell, showcasing his personal belief that children CAN handle pain and agony in movies, on the condition that you make certain that said suffering leads to the Happy Ending. A shame that with one exception, from the 1990’s onwards he never really managed to pull it off again.
That one exception being?
The religious symbolism makes even more sense when you consider that Don Bluth is actually a Christian.
As for me, I still really like this movie. It’s the only Don Bluth movie I saw (or owned) as a kid, so I do feel a tad guilty that I haven’t seen more of his work.
On a side note, what would you have to say about the Nostalgia Critic’s video about what this movie’s about, if you’ve seen it?
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll be sure to check it out.
I know he was a Mormon in the 70s, but there are rumors he then converted to Christianity. He has never confirmed his religion since his mission trip to Brazil around 1972.
Mormons are Christians.
Thank you Mouse.
Simply a statement of fact.
Makes things easier for me. I was ’bout to go Missionary Mode
ENGAGING MISSIONARY MODE.
He graduated from Brigham Young. Christian may not be the correct term.
I think I laughed too hard at the “cock/shock” joke! Thankfully, I wasn’t reading this aloud as I was in the same room with my mom at the time.
Have you seen the NC review of the game, Dragon’s Lair that also features Don Bluth prominently? He’s trying to get it to be an animated film! He’s raising money on IndieGogo soon:
That was awesome! Nostalgia Critic + Don Bluth = Comedy gold.
Thank you for the review.
Hey, it’s what I do.
I’m sure you already knew this, but the magic amulet stuff isn’t in the book at all, that’s why it feels so incongruous.
Yeah. Also, Nicodemus isn’t a wizard
I do not think the Brisby children look like the Robin Hood children. I really see zero similarities except the oldest and youngest is a girl, while the middle one is a boy.
It’s more obvious when you see them in motion.
The similarities seemed clear enough to me just from the still. Cynthia’s got the big bow and dress, Martin’s got the blue-coloured outfit, Teresa’s got the rag doll she always clings to. And they’ve all got similar faces and fluffy cheeks, but maybe that just comes with being cartoon animals.
I saw this movie in class, during either middle school or late elementary school. This was after we read the book in that same class, so we all thought the magic amulet thing was stupid. I don’t recall what we thought of the movie turning Jenner into a villain, or if we even noticed. What I do recall is that we all thought that a character saying “Damn!”, in an animated movie, was the most bitchin’ thing ever.
That damn was put in solely so they could get a PG rating. Didn’t work
Awesome Review, Mouse! I REALLY NEED to watch this movie. Now that school is over this is finally possible. 😀
Always loved this movie. Always will. It scared me shitless as a kid, but I went back to it over and over out of morbid fascination. Mrs. Brisby is one of my favorite protagonists ever precisely because she’s scared shitless too. Even as a little kid I really related to her, because she was just so overwhelmed and confused, but managed to be brave regardless. She is awesome.
Movies need more characters like her.
I think the animation deserved higher than a 15. But that’s me. I recognise that some recycling did go on (the power is YOURS!). Also thanks for the thoughtfulness of Mrs. Brisby’s voice actor- I appreciate that, given that you didn’t have to bring it up. Most of Don’s good movies are updated tar-and-sugar movies, but for some reason I never put two and two together.
15 puts it on the same level as Beauty and the Beast and Hercules. A 20 would have to be Miyazaki level “my eyes are melting from the pretty” animation.
Heyooo Mouse! Just out of curiosity, will you be reviewing the X-Men films? I know they’re not in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but neither is the Fantastic 4 and your reviewed that mess of a film. 😉
My rough plan is to move on to Spiderman after the MCU. X-men would be a logical choice.
It can’t be overstated that Justin is one of the most underrated badass heroes in all of film history.
I’m pretty sure history’s greatest monster was Jimmy Carter.
I stand corrected.
Ahh Nimh. The brilliant, classic, amazing… Ok, I’ll be honest here, I hardly remember this one. Like, I know I watched it at some point way back in my childhood, but only once, so I only vaguely remember there being some mice and a crow and an owl who the crow impersonates in the sequel and I think a sick baby mouse… All right, I’ll have to see if this can jog my memory a bit. I definitely wasn’t raised on Bluth’s movies like I was on Disney, so pretty much if it isn’t Land Before Time, my memory of it is pretty hazy.
Wow, poor Hartman. Think that’s about all I can say. Though in your case, I think you can handle it, from what I’ve seen from you before. You pulled off Bambi’s review with lots of laughs yet managed very well at paying respects to Frank Churchill, so I think this can be handled a similar way. Though perhaps I merely know nothing of tact. Interesting story of Bluth here. From this reading, I’m getting the sense he was the mind who carried Disney’s torch as the mold-breaking creator. Interesting they’re basically act as bitter rivals here, as they seem to have quite a bit in common at least from what I’m hearing from you. Did the two ever interact in real life? What was their relationship actually like? This is starting to make me curious now.
Ahh man, it’s Bluth’s shot-taker. Ahhh, that one takes me back. To your first Bluth review, that took place in the alternate universe in which I’m just realizing still apparently ended with Walt screwing Don over, because Troll In Central Park was still made. Though I guess with that level of power, being a lame filmmaker would feel like less of an issue.
Well Bluth only briefly worked for Disney in the fifties so I don’t know if they even met. By the time Bluth came back to Disney Walt had already passed. As far as I know Bluth has nothing but respect for Walt the man.
Hey, better watch what you say, telling crows to stay away from your women. That’s a statement that could very easily come out wrong. And can you blame Mrs. Mouse? Everyone knows red is the sexiest colour. Also, Cuban seduction, man, it does things to ya. And speaking of perverse wanton-ness, wow, it’s starting to sound as if the ol’ Whore joke’ll be having a hard time staying in its grave. Guess Bluth most of the time prefers to take what he made for Disney with him, looking back on that Anastasia review. And it also sounds as if he’s pretty passionate in Disney inspiration, considering how he doesn’t seem to only religiously copy the popular ones. There’s no saying Gurgi-lookalike dogs can be a cheap attempt to ride on Disney’s success, and Robin Hood’s got to be one of the most forgotten movies. Maybe less so in the 80s, but still. In any case, gotta love baby Shannen showing up, that takes me back to watching Obscura Lupa’s hilariously increasingly-angry Charmed reviews. Ahh, memories.
I wouldn’t take the Idle voice too hard. I mean, just look at the following picture. We’ve seen angsty fatherless kids grow up to be Matthew Broderick before, is Eric Idle really so bad? Plus, when you start out life voiced by Wesley Crusher (and apparently not much less pushy) there isn’t much worse maturation can do to you, is there? Especially if you’re Jack Merridew levels of trouble already, yeesh. As for the rats, sure they have electricity and wi-fi, but do they have keyboards they can deftly stride across writing scathing remarks on various media pieces as they do it? Don’t think so, huh, rats? Don’t have the dainty paws for it.
Wait a minute, “huge cock”, did you say? My word! Mr. Brisby’s soul was literally reaped in the field by the Crimson Cockerel himself, wasn’t he?!? What a horrible fate! I wonder what horrid deeds he did to illicit such a demise! Wait, he totally gave himself up to Mr. Pistoles when he came to collect his son for being the Wheaton-voiced property of the devil he is, isn’t he? Totally called it.
Ok, is it just me, or does Jennar look like Sid the Sloth had a child with the Sheriff of Nottingham? I’m not the only one, am I? It’s hard to tell by this point. Also, a couple of things I do remember about this movie are that I thought the owl looked strangely non-owl-like and that Nicodemus looked strangely similar to the owl. I guess looking back, that makes sense. And if the owl is God, does that make Nicodemus Jesus? And is it just me, or does God end up being portrayed as something that eats what people are in these allegories a lot? I mean, yeah I guess the risk of being eaten would kind of be like the risk of dying from seeing God face to face or something, but still, that owl’d pretty obviously deliberately go out and eat some mice just because it was hungry. And was I the only one who was a bit disturbed by the implications of the whole Lord is my Shepherd thing? I just have frightened memories of envisioning myself ending up in the Lord’s shepherd’s pie. Actually, I wonder if Avi saw this movie. Looking back, Poppy’s starting to look a bit like the Golden Compass to this movie’s Chronicles of Narnia.
Hey, if NIMH ends up on trial because of this movie, I’d imagine Acme must really dislike the Warner Brothers for making similar accusations in Animaniacs. Also, I wonder if Mr. Brisby just planned on putting on a bunch of old-man makeup and a crotchety performance a la Dawes Van Dyke. In any case, yeah, I take it maybe Panchito didn’t take too much arguing to take him instead of Crusher mouse, that whiskery creep. And too bad Dragon wasn’t a beagle, the rats could have just had Brisby put his drug in a blueberry. I’m kind of surprised you didn’t bring up more Fantastic Mr. Fox what with all the terrible tractors and drugged farm animals. And I was thinking it would be funny to suggest that Timmy grew up to befriend an elephant and help it learn to fly through his outstanding communication skills with crows. Though the Tiny Tim quote makes sense too, I guess.
Oh, but Mouse, without Oxford, there’d be no Michael Palin or Terry Jones.
Pah. We got enough from Cambridge