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.