If I had realised sooner that today was Star Wars Day, I would have made an effort to get the animated Clone Wars movie for this week’s Kids’ Film Friday. Unfortunately 7:30 this morning was a bit late to do anything about that, so I went with this tip from my roommate Iida, who saw this flick when she was but a little field mouse herself, and had the ever-living crap scared out of her. This one’s for you, Iida.
This is for kids? Really?
A widowed field mouse, Mrs Brisby, wants to move her family to their summer home to escape the farmer’s plough. Unfortunately, her youngest child Timmy has pneumonia and the trip would kill him. Seeking help wherever she can find it, she is sent to the fearsome rats that live under the rosebush. But the rats have a secret of their own, and a debt that must be paid.
This 1982 adaptation of the novel Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (yeah, I know. Copyright’s a bitch, isn’t it?) by Robert C. O’Brien was Don Bluth’s feature directorial debut after he left Disney three years earlier. He said at the time that the reason he left The Mouse House was because he felt the traditional animation methods were being eroded in favour of reduced costs, and this film clearly supports his stated intent to maintain the old-fashioned way of doing things. The movie has echoes of the Disney classics in the look of it, but the story itself is not one you can see Walt having a hand in. I can’t imagine some dude in a Nicodemus costume wandering around Orlando. Can you?
This film really is the anti-Disney. The heroine is a widowed mother of four; the comedy animal sidekick is a crow just trying to get laid; nobody bursts into a random song and dance number at times of extreme emotion. In fact, the story itself is surprisingly grown up for what is ostensibly a cartoon for children. The plot of a mother trying to save her house from demolition while her son (potentially) dies of pneumonia is not typical animation fare, but Bluth makes it work through the sheer artistry of it all, as well as a fantastic cast lead by Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs Brisby, Derek Jacobi as the wizard rat Nicodemus and Dom DeLuise as the randy crow Jeremy*. One minor complaint I would have is about the actual secret of NIMH itself. Considering it’s the title of the film and the basis for the whole intelligent-animal-civilisation, the explanation is presented as a third-level plot point after Mrs Brisby’s house troubles and the infighting in the rat colony itself. While the flashback is undeniably evocative, seeing the movie for the first time at my age has almost certainly robbed the sequence of some of its power. This is one film that I really wish I had gotten to watch as a young lad.
This is easily the most unnerving mainstream children’s animation film I can think of (as much as I’d like to, I can’t really call Jan Švankmajer “mainstream”). Yes, I have seen Watership Down but this has such an overwhelming sense of danger and dread through the whole running time that I imagine it could put the frighteners up all but the hardiest youngsters even now. Bluth presents some scenes as pure nightmare fuel, especially the Great Owl sequence, and Jenner’s plotting against Nicodemus. If you saw this at that impressionable age, I’d be interested to hear what your memories of it are, and how it might have affected you.
The magical elements in the film, such as Nicodemus’ mystical mirror and the amulet were all added to the story by Bluth and I’m really not sure why, unless it was just to build towards the pay-off with the house move. I didn’t question it while I was watching the film, but thinking back on it now it seems a little out of place. Overall though, there is no doubt that this film is a classic of its time. It examines big, mature themes that you don’t expect from an animation, and it does it with grace and without passing judgement on any of its characters or their situations – except for evil Jenner, of course. I understand the belated sequel is to be avoided however.
*And for the trivia nuts among you, Mrs Brisby’s two eldest little mice are played by Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton.