THE SECRET OF NIMH (Blu-ray Edition)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1982 | 83 min | Rated G | Mar 29, 2011
Written by Jason Flick

April 6, 2011

Every time I get into a talk with my friends about animated films and how far they’ve come, the good and the bad, I always end up referring back to my childhood. Being born in the early 80s, I was exposed to some of the greatest animated features of our time. Disney was doing fairly well at the time as they usually manage to do despite hard times here and there. I’ve always been an avid fan of Disney but the subject of this article is not about them but rather one of their greatest animators. The year was 1982 and the animator was none other than Don Bluth creator of The Secret of NIMH, which releases this week on Blu-Ray.

While I didn’t see this film upon its release, I first saw The Secret of NIMH several years later on VHS. This was only the beginning of what would be a childhood adventure that has continued today with the release of this Blu-ray. Don Bluth and his works are pretty much cemented in my childhood memories. Over the last several years I have been repurchasing my favorite films on Blu-Ray so that I can have them for years to come as I am almost afraid to even put my original VHS copies in a VCR anymore. Personally I am overly thrilled that these old classics are being brought back to a new media and generation.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the older animation styles that have paved the way for today’s modern advancements in animation. I also feel that while today’s classics such as the great work that Pixar has done, nothing can hold a candle to the films of my youth. Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH is an animation classic and I can’t thank Fox enough for transferring it to High Definition. In the first 10 years of my life alone, he has released more films that I remember more than any other animator and director.

I actually still have many of his film, most VHS copies, in my personal collection which include The Land Before Time, An American Tail and of course The Secret of NIMH. I remember going to great lengths to find a MGM silver big box copy of The Secret of NIMH as it is the one that I remember most. This is Bluth’s debut animated feature, easily his best, and I jumped at the chance to do this Blu-Ray review.

The Secret of NIMH, adapted upon the children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, tells the tale of a shy and timid mother mouse, Mrs. Brisby, who lives in a cinder block with her 4 children on Mr. Fitzgibbons farm. Plowing season is fastly approaching though and her son, Timmy, has fallen ill with pneumonia and Mrs. Brisby has been instructed to not move her son outside for three weeks. With the help of a clumsy crow (voiced by the late great Dom DeLuise), the Great Owl and a mysterious group of rats led by the mystical Nicodemus, the desperate Brisby must move her home to a safer location. There is a lot at stake and Mrs. Brisby must find the courage to save her family and home and stay out of the claws of Dragon, the farmer’s cat.

One of my favorite aspects of The Secret of NIMH is the rats themselves and how Jonathan Brisby (late husband of main character) and Mr Ages became as you see them in the film. It's fairly clear that the above mentioned are smarter than the rest of the characters on the Fitzgibbon farm including Mrs. Brisby and her children. This is due to their involuntary involvement at the titular location of NIMH which marks sort of a depressing point in the film. The name fascinated me when I was younger but as you soon learn in the film that it actually stands for the National Institute of Mental Health, a real world organization that used animals for research testing.

I feel obligated to mention the fact that the less than stellar bright and cheery cover is not to be used as indication of the mood for this film. The Secret of NIMH is a fairly dark film, despite its light and funny parts, for a G-Rating so a little discretion is probably warranted when considering this purchase for young children.

Filmmaking: 9
Don Bluth has a done a great many films since the release of The Secret of NIMH and while most of them are quite good I still feel that this was his greatest film. The Secret of NIMH was his first attempt to bring the “golden age” of animation back. He stated that he felt Disney had lost their touch in creating strong stories and characters during this time period. He went back to use older and experimental methods of animation including rotoscoping and a more modern multi-plane camera setup to achieve all the natural looking effects that you see in this Blu-Ray release.

Bluth weaves a wonderful story here that mixes elements of love, courage, determination and the ever looming feeling of danger. I really like the way that they start the film as it leaves you wanting to find out what happened before the movie starts and that pulls you into the film. The only bad thing I can say about this film is the story while good; it could be a little confusing for some young ones as the plot skips around a bit on what the focus of the film is actually about. This is also one of the few animated films of the time that actually contained the death of a character by someone else’s hand.

Visuals: 6
It’s hard to believe that The Secret of NIMH is almost 30 years, but even today it looks pretty good in 1080p AVC High Definition. This Blu-ray release of The Secret of NIMH allows viewers to see the film in a 1:85.1 widescreen format similar to the earlier DVD releases. This is great considering that this film was originally animated in 1:33.1 or 4:3 full frame. The Blu-ray is the best version of the film that I’ve seen to date and shows the film’s notable vibrancy to great effect. The film had a large number of color palettes, including 46 on Mrs. Brisby alone, thanks to the different methods of animation and effects that you see throughout the film.

This film was and still is known for being a very vibrant film even after all these years. Though The Secret of NIMH has been praised for being a vibrant one, as the new box art suggest as well, it is actually a fairly dark natured film like most of Bluth’s later films. The film that you see on the Blu-ray is a high definition restoration that Bluth and Gary Goldman (producer) oversaw to remove dust and dirt from the cells as well as fixing various color corrections. As mentioned in the included commentary the transfer to HD eliminated the bleeding effect of the color red, which appears numerously throughout the film. Though this is true the transfer is still flawed as there is a fairly noticeable amount of dirt seen throughout the film.

The Secret of NIMH features a lot of gorgeous effects such as transparent shadows, backlit animated mattes, seen prominently in the opening scene as well as during the Great Owl and Nicodemus. One of my favorite scenes, on a technical standpoint is where Justin, captain of the guards, is navigating a boat under a mill. The methods used to create the boat’s rocking motion are one of the best effects in the film.

Sound: 8
The sound department of The Secret of NIMH actually faired better than the video transfer in the Blu-Ray release. If you’re playing this film on a surround sound system, like I did, you will receive very little in the way of true surround sound. Neither the less the English 2.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio track, does sound quite good. I was rather impressed with the clarity of audio especially the score which was composed by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and The National Philharmonic Orchestra of London, England.

The score alone doesn’t get all of the credit though as The Secret of NIMH features some of the greatest actors of the time including the late Elizabeth Hartman and the late and forever hilarious Dom DeLuise as Mrs. Brisby and Jeremy the Crow respectably. Dom, who went on to star in no less than three of Bluth’s future films, is easily the comedic relief and the highlight of the film every time his character graces the screen. The Secret of NIMH was the last Hollywood role for actress Elizabeth Hartman and she played the timid Mrs. Brisby beautifully.

I also have to compliment Sally Stevens on her peacefully calming “Flying Dreams” Lullaby performance which is quite exceptional and a classic example of music in animated film from this time period. I also found it quite interesting and cool that The Secret of NIMH was both Shannen Doherty (Charmed) and Will Wheaton’s (Star Trek: TNG) debut roles as two of Brisby’s children. Other notable performances in The Secret of NIMH are done by John Carradine, Peter Strauss, Paul Shenar and Hermione Baddeley, who all bring this film together nicely.

Value: 5
The Secret of NIMH Blu-ray, which costs around $10-15 at most retailers, features a few extra goodies to be had. Contained within is a 15 minute “Secrets Behind the Secret Featurette” and an Audio Commentary done by Bluth and Goldman. The featurette gives viewers an inside look at how Don Bluth Productions and their first film came to be. It’s amazing to see how much work went into this film from Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s mouths especially the part about the budget where Goldman, Bluth and the executive producers had to take out mortgages to put together an extra $700,000 dollars to finish the film.

I really enjoyed the audio commentary as Bluth and Goldman’s insight into the film was entertaining and very insightful. You will find out cool things such that they filmed certain objects in live action and then used the footage as reference to animate scenes and create like the boat, light elevator and various other parts. It’s also interesting to find out how Bluth interpreted the story especially when it comes to the more mystical parts of the story including the film’s heartfelt ending.

Overall: 7.2
After watching The Secret of NIMH on Blu-ray several times I can gladly say it has a welcome home in my Blu-ray collection. The transfer to Blu-ray definitely helped bring this film’s quality to the forefront. It’s an excellent example of the fine animation that came from Don Bluth’s studio. This version is easily the best, though sadly suffers from obvious film grain that you’ll either hate or stop paying attention to it halfway through. The Secret of NIMH is a highly enjoyable animated film that is full of suspense, laughter and strong messages of love, courage and the determination to overcome all odds. If you love classic animated films and didn’t get the DVD a few years back and just happen to have a Blu-ray player, then this is a sure buy.