Monday, February 22, 2010

The Secret of NIMH: Back to Tradition

I was going through some old VHS tapes this weekend, when I came across "The Secret of NIMH."  I hadn't watched it in quite some time, but it has always been one of my favorites from childhood.  So, getting that rush of nostalgia again, I decided to watch it and write about it today.

"The Secret of NIMH," released in 1982, was the first full-length production from Don Bluth and "the Disney Defectors," a group of animators that had left Disney to start their own company because they did not agree with the level of animation being done at the studio at that time.  They wanted to go back to traditional, classic animation techniques, instead of the low-quality cost cutting Disney was doing.  And Bluth and company's dedication to traditional animation can be seen throughout "NIMH."

Based on the book "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" by Robert C. O'Brien, it tells the story of a shy field mouse, Mrs. Brisby, living on a farm.  One of her sons gets terribly sick right before they must move from the field before plowing season begins.  So, to help save her family, she goes to the strange rats that live in a rosebush close to the farmer's house.  These rats, along with Mrs. Brisby's late husband, were once tested on by NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) and now have human-level intelligence.  They agree to help move her family home to a safe place, but not before tragedy strikes.  It is a great story of love and courage, as well as a good lesson about the treatment of lab animals.

Originally rejected by Disney for being too dark, Bluth got partners Aurora Productions to purchase the rights to O'Brien's book.  At a budget half as small as any Disney animated feature at the time, Bluth was determined to get it done well, yet within budget.  Many animators worked 110-hour weeks at no extra compensation expect a percentage of the film's profits.  Bluth and his producer partners, John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, as well as some of the Aurora Productions executives, mortgaged their houses to collectively get an extra $700,000 for the film.

Now in the book, the name for the main character is Mrs. Frisby.  They actually recorded all the actors saying "Frisby" before they finally got word from Wham-O, the makers of the Frisbee toy.  Wham-O would not grant them a waiver to use the name Frisby, so the creators had to go back and change everyone's recordings to say "Brisby."  Unfortunately, not every actor could make it back to rerecord their lines, so some "Brisby" references were actually created by the sound editors very carefully cutting out the "B" sound from other words and replacing the "F" sound in "Frisby" with the "B."  This was before computer programs like ProTools, so they managed to do that with tape...cutting actual tape for one little sound.  Amazing...

So, check out "The Secret of NIMH" this week for some classic animation, good characters, and a great story.  You can find on almost any website for free these days, including Hulu.  Enjoy and have a great week!

(Post-tidbit: This was the film debut for both Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton, who voiced two of the Brisby children.  Wheaton went on to star in "Stand By Me" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."  And Doherty went on to be the infamous bad girl of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Charmed.")


  1. Wow, I didn't know all this. Interesting about the splicing. I remember when this came out in theaters; I was like 5 years old, and it didn't look like one I wanted to see.

  2. Have you seen it since? You should really check it out. :)

  3. No, I never saw it. But I think will watch it some day. I didn't realize Dom DeLuise provides a voice; it sounds like his character provides some much needed comic relief.