Know what movie I’m absolutely dreading having to review? Go on. Guess. You’ll never guess.
Seriously. You’ll never see this coming. Ready?
Land Before Time.
Why? Do I hate it? Do I think it’s a bad movie? Do I project some of my utter loathing for Dinosaur
onto it inadvertently? No, absolutely not and yes, but I’m working through my issues with the help of friends and the love of Jesus. No, the reason is that any review of that movie has to address the elephant in the room, said elephant being the awful, awful tragedy that was the death of Judith Barsi.
I mean, you have to make note of it, and then you have to go back to reviewing the rest of the movie and cracking jokes and “Bahia! Kookaburras!” and…yeah. I don’t know how I could pull that off. Today’s movie offers me something of a dry run because it is another beloved Don Bluth film with the spectre of tragedy draped over it like a quilt (albeit not quite as awful). Elizabeth Hartman, the actor who voiced Mrs Brisby, tragically took her own life in 1987.
The Secret of Nimh was Hartman’s last major Hollywood role, a beautiful coda to a tragic career that exploded into existence with her rapturously received performance opposite Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue. At 22 she became the youngest woman ever nominated for Best Actress at the time but as the years went by both the roles she was offered and her problems with depression grew steadily worse. So it goes.
Since her death, Mrs Brisby has become Hartman’s defining role, to the point that amongst the movie’s fandom Mrs Brisby’s full name is “Mrs Elizabeth Brisby” (we never learn her first name in the film). And there’s no denying that the struggles of Mrs Brisby take on a special resonance when watched once you know what happened to her.
A mouse trying to stop a tractor.
As accidental analogies for the struggle with depression go, I’ve certainly heard worse.
As I went into in the Fox and the Hound
review, in 1979, Don Bluth and nine other animators left the Walt Disney company with a simple mission; to save the feature length American animation as an artform. Bluth recognised that Disney basically had not made any major innovations in their animation techniques since the studio’s near-death experience with Sleeping Beauty
in 1959. Ever since then, in order to keep costs down, the animation had been cheaper, scrappier and less technically challenging. Bluth envisioned a return to the dark, moody animation of Disney’s golden age; a film that would challenge formula rather than using it as a crutch. Basically, Bluth wanted to create a Tar and Sugar movie.
Did he succeed? Let’s take a look.