Mrs Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman), a mouse, is suffering a crisis after her husband Jonathan is killed and her youngest son is taken ill just at the time when all the animals in the field where she lives move out to make way for the farmer's plough. She goes to see Mr Ages (Arthur Malet), a wise mouse inventor, who tells her that her son has pneumonia which could be fatal, so he offers her a mixture of herbs to alleviate the symptoms. However, the little mouse cannot be moved while he is still sick, and the farmer is starting his ploughing early this year, so Mrs Brisby must find some other solution to save her family - one that involves a community of super-intelligent rats...
In the early eighties, Disney animation was in a bad way, and to make matters worse, a group of its animators decided that the craftmanship of the studio's classic works had fallen by the wayside. These animators, including the director of this feature Don Bluth, broke away from Disney to set up their own studio and The Secret of NIMH was the first result. Artistically the film was a success, noticeably better produced than the contemporary efforts of the Mickey Mouse outfit they had left with terrific attention to detail and carefully designed characters, but many viewers felt there was something missing and blamed the storyline, which they felt was lacking, a criticism that would stick with future Bluth productions.
Perhaps this was because the film was not based on a traditional folk tale like the obvious Disney favourites, and was instead taken from a book by Robert O'Brien, "Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" (why Mrs Brisby had her name changed for the big screen was apparently to do with confusing her with a plastic disc). Another point that doesn't quite make for conventional cartoon viewing is that it's not the tale of a quest that it first appears, as while Mrs Brisby visits any number of interesting places, she never strays far from her home, presumably because she wouldn't be a particuarly praiseworthy mother if she abandoned her children for long stretches - another character, Auntie Shrew (Hermione Baddeley) takes care of babysitting duties when she's away.
Some Disney standards are familiar, however, such as the comedy sidekick, here Jeremy the clumsy crow (Dom DeLuise - the voice casting is excellent all over). Early on, he and Mrs Brisby help each other out to escape the menacing farm cat, Dragon (who we find out later was the one who killed Jonathan), and become friends for life. It's Jeremy who takes the mouse to see the wise old owl (John Carradine), a stirring scene which takes place in the bird's cobwebby lair which is strewn with animal bones. It's the owl who tells her that she must move her house and the rats of NIMH will help her, so off she goes the next day to seek their assistance from where they live, under the rosebush in the farmer's yard.
The film is darker in tone than you might expect, giving the timid but plucky Mrs Brisby, a novel heroine, good reason to be afraid as she scampers and cowers at the situations she gets herself into. The rats are debating whether to leave their home or not, and their is mutiny on the ranks courtesy of the evil Jenner (Paul Shenar). Their leader is Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), who tells Mrs Brisby of the courage of her husband and the vivisectionist origins of the rats' intelligence (NIMH we discover, stands for National Institute of Mental Health where the rats, Jonathan and Ages were experimented on). Although it never took the place of a Disney cartoon in the hearts of the public, The Secret of NIMH was a valiant try under the shadow of the House of Mouse, and while overfond of the mystical is an unusual and impressive animation, if only for its craftmanship. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
American animator who started his career with Disney working on features such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers and Pete's Dragon. However, Bluth and a number of his fellow animators were unhappy with the declining standards at the studio and walked out to create their own cartoons, starting with The Secret of NIMH. What followed were increasingly mediocre efforts, from An American Tail and The Land Before Time to All Dogs Go To Heaven and Rock-A-Doodle.
By the nineties, Bluth just wasn't competing with Disney anymore, despite his talents, and films like Thumbelina and The Pebble and the Penguin were being largely ignored. Anastasia was a minor success, but Titan A.E., touted as a summer blockbuster, was a major flop and Bluth has not directed anything since.