Today, my oldest daughter and I watched The Secret of NIMH since it’s free on Amazon Prime video. It’s a classic movie from my childhood, and one of the last of the great classically animated movies. Even prior to its release in 1982, director Don Bluth felt that computerization was taking over the animation industry and set out to make the film with no automated help.
In an era that gave us Filmation’s He-man & the Masters of the Universe, She-ra: Princess of Power, Blackstar, Bravestarr, and others, this movie was a refreshing change. These animated series stressed quantity over quality. As I’ve been fond of saying regarding the Filmation Masters of the Universe and Princess of Power series, “For every ‘Rainbow Warrior,’ there’s at least a dozen ‘Flowers for Hordak.'” (Seriously. Watch those episodes if you don’t believe me.)
Animation needs approximately 24 frames per second to simulate motion. Filmation typically did 12-15 frames per second. They also tried to use a dozen or more tricks to speed up the process and reduce the amount of drawings they needed, such as drawing characters as part of the background and only animating mouths and eyes, reusing animated sequences on different backgrounds, using the same character colored differently for different people (Celice the Singer, the Queen of Aquatica, and Mira daughter of Kor the Sorcerer were all the same character in the same outfit).
My childhood was equally Filmation as it was Secret of NIMH. It’s unfair, likely, to compare a series with a movie. Budget, scope, and personnel are totally different. I still watch He-man and She-ra. Don’t think I’m slamming Filmation. That isn’t my intent.
But each frame in The Secret of NIMH is hand-drawn and hand-painted. No automation. No computers. And the detail is incredible. IMdB reports that they filmed the main character, Mrs. Brisby, in 46 different lighting situations, each requiring its own color palette for painting. Animators and painters were working 100 hour weeks, unpaid, to finish the film on time.
The result is amazing.
And now I’m going to cheapen it by putting it into the Save the Cat! formula so derided by many screenwriters all over the Facebook groups I participate in. But here it goes anyway.
Opening Image: Nicodemus, off camera, explains the Rats of NIMH.
Setup: Mrs. Brisby visits Mr. Ages for medicine for Timmy, who has pneumonia. Despite her pressing situation, she still tries to help Jeremy, a crow trapped by his bungling and narrowly escapes Dragon, the cat.
Catalyst: Auntie Shrew explains that the plow is coming early, so everyone best get moving.
Debate: But Mr. Ages said not to take Timmy outside for any reason. Mrs. B is staying put and she gives Timmy his medicine. The next day, the plow comes as promised. Mrs. B and Auntie Shrew disable it by cutting the fuel line, but they know it only delays the inevitable. Mrs. B needs to get to safety without actually moving.
Break Into Two: Mrs. B visits the Great Owl, who only points her to the Rats of NIMH when Mrs. B gives her name and confirms she’s the widow of Johnathon Brisby. The Rats have ways to move her house, he says.
Fun & Games: Mrs. B enters the rose bush, having to dodge Dragon the cat. She is chased by a guard rat, but runs into Mr. Ages. They meet the overzealous Justin, captain of the guard. Justin and Mr. Ages take Mrs. B to the council room, and everyone is excited to see the widow of Jonathon Brisby. Jenner, a ranking member of the community, agrees to move the Brisby home, but clearly has his own agenda.
Midpoint: Nicodemus explains to Mrs. B who the Rats are, and that her late husband is a hero who helped them escape the cruelty of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where they were experimented on and made smart like human beings.
Bad Guys Close In: Jenner orchestrates an “accident” to kill Nicodemus. Jenner plans to seize control of the Rats of NIMH. Mrs. B volunteers for her husband’s old job of drugging Dragon so that the move can go off without a hitch. Nicodemus gives Mrs. B an amulet that once belonged to Jonathon, telling her only the strong of heart can use it.
All is Lost: While trying to drug the cat, the farmer’s daughter captures Mrs. B and keeps her as a pet.
Dark Night of the Soul: Mrs. B overhears the farmer giving NIMH permission to search for the Rats in his rose bush. The “accident” kills Nicodemus and Jenner refuses to move the house any further, leaving it in a mud puddle. Now in control, Jenner declares the rats aren’t leaving the rose bush.
Break Into Three: Mrs. B hatches a daring and successful escape plan, returning to her muddy home and telling everyone NIMH is on its way. Jenner won’t believe her, but the other Rats aren’t so sure.
Finale: The Brisby home begins to sink. Despite a mighty effort, no one can save it and the house (children and all) is lost in the mud. Mrs. B uses the amulet to raise her house and move it to safety from the plow. His sabotage and murder plan unveiled, Jenner has an epic sword fight with Justin.
Closing Image: Timmy is well, her other children play around her, Mrs. B says the Rats have moved on and Justin is now their leader. Jeremy, the crow she saved earlier, meets his Mrs. Right (who is as clumsy as he is). Mrs. B cryptically promises the kids she will take them to see the Rats “someday.”