Day 25 – A Well-Liked Movie that You Don’t Care For
Deny all you want, but occasionally, it’s pretty fun to be a contrarian. Some have even made an entire career out of it, like Pauline Kael, and A_____ W______. This entry isn’t necessarily about deliberate contrarianism (though that certainly can be part of it), but instead about pointing at a piece of classic Hollywood and saying, “Nope, not going to happen”; or wishing you could be anywhere besides watching Big Daddy with all of your friends, despite what an obvious good time they’re all having with the film. You certainly don’t “win” anything for not liking something someone else does, but it can feel pretty good to rant about it once in a while.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Apparently I just like to rag on Don Bluth. It’s not because I have a problem with the guy; I just think his movies are overrated. Maybe it’s because they were a shining beacon from when Disney was up Crappy Films creek, or because of the nostalgia associated with their VHS releases, but animation buffs and Gen-Y'ers absolutely love Donnie B. Goode's pictures for some reason. They’re really not bad films (at least the ones that everyone typically fawns over), but they just don’t do much for me.
Perhaps the most overrated of his films was his first one, 1982’s The Secret of NIMH. NIMH is based on a 1971 children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brian called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and follows the basics of its storyline. The plot centers around Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman; her character was renamed, after the makers of the Frisbee had words with Senior Bluth), a field mouse living on the land of Farmer Fitzgibbons. Plowing season is coming up, which means Mrs. Brisby must relocate her children to a safer spot out of the way of shreddy death. This is nigh-impossible this year, because her youngest son, Timothy (Ian Fried), is bed-ridden with pneumonia, and cannot be moved. After a fetch-quest of asking around, she is directed to the eponymous, super-intelligent rats of NIMH, who volunteer to move her house out of harm’s way because her late husband, Jonathan, was a Big Effing Deal.
And what a deal he was. As we learn through the plot (spoilers!), the smarty-pants group of rats gained their superior intellect through a questionably-legal series of tests conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, and could not have made their escape from the NIMH labs without Jonathan Brisby’s help. As she learns more about the rats and their secret society beneath the farmer’s property, Mrs. Brisby becomes caught-up in an internal struggle between two sides: the elderly, peaceful Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), who desires to leave the farm and quit preying on the Fitzgibbons’ electricity, and Jenner (Paul Shenar), who’s perfectly happy sponging off the guy, thank you very much.
NIMH isn’t bad per se, but definitely not good enough for the rabid cult-following it’s attained since its debut. For a film sparked by Bluth’s declaration to return to quality characters, NIMH is surprisingly lacking in anyone well-written or –developed. With the exception of Mrs. Brisby and Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), the film’s cast is flat and either boring or obnoxious—Jenner twirls his mustache, Justin (Peter Strauss) kinda looks handsome for most of the movie, and Jeremy the crow (Dom DeLuise) acts like a dry run for DeLuise’s character in Oliver & Company. Meanwhile, Nicodemus sits in the corner, looking sagely and doing what sounds like a bad impression of Ralph Fiennes. Granted, perhaps the characters in the original novel weren’t exceptionally dynamic, but it still doesn’t assuage the pants-on-head aggravating antics of Auntie Shrew (Hermione Baddeley).
Much is also made of the film’s animation, and I suppose I can concede that it looks nice; the backgrounds certainly look pretty stonking good, and Bluth was trying experimental and different things with lighting than anyone else at the time. But that’s just it, then: “at the time.” I certainly won’t try to deny that back in ’82, The Secret of NIMH must have looked like an absolute show-stopper compared to tripe like The Fox and the Hound or The Aristocats, but I also won’t try to pretend like it’s aged gracefully. It’s like video games made on the original PlayStation or Nintendo 64: they looked pretty good at the time, but damn they look dated now. Every character flops around like an elastic Jar Jar Binks (again, sans Mrs. Brisby and Mr. Ages), and I have a personal vendetta against every shade of Easter egg violet that Bluth absolutely loves to use in his films. The art design is solid (minus Nicodemus’ older-than-God-himself appearance), and I like the way the costumes and interior of the rats’ colony looks, but I find it hard to watch The Secret of NIMH and not mentally compare it to a host of better-looking films that would soon be released.
When NIMH is firing on all cylinders, it looks positively staggering, but these moments don't come nearly frequent-enough for my liking.
Nearly all of my complaints are personal bias; no doubt this film was a labor of love, cranked out by Bluth with few animators and a shoestring budget. Saying that, I don’t understand the absolute fervor generated by people who like this movie, which (cynical Andrew alert) I’m half-convinced is because The Secret of NIMH underperformed at the box office, and is largely a hidden gem among a sea of better-known animated features. That’s right: people like it because it’s obscure. I went there.
But anyway. The Secret of NIMH benefits from its story and stronger characters, and touts a level of artistry unseen in ’82. Bluth is a huge reason why Disney put their rear in gear during the 80's (and as a result, his place in animation history is forever sealed), and I’m certainly glad people enjoy this film. I’m just not one of them.