Any special plans this weekend? Me, I have THE Plan. You know, break away from my reliance on the electricity I steal from my neighbor, wear a glowing amulet or two, mourn a dead mouse, and uncover a massive conspiracy about renegade experiments in mental health. My plan is to pay tribute to my all-time favorite animated movie, The Secret of NIMH.
It’s time, Gen X’ers–and the people who love you/had to live with you in the 80s–to celebrate Mrs. Brisby, The Plan, Nicodemus, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Monday, July 2, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Don Bluth’s beloved animated adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 inventive children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
NIMH taught me all the lessons other animated kid flicks conveniently omitted: that there is, in fact, a vast conspiracy to exterminate people smarter than you. That interspecies friendships are frought with shenanigans. That pneumonia kills. Sure, every Disney flick I’d seen burned down a forest or two, orphaned a child here or there, etc. But in Disney flicks, there were songbirds and princes and multiplying bunnies and remarkably abbreviated grieving scenes.
Don Bluth—decidedely un-Disney since he departed the company in the 70s with his mouse ears in a wad—took an unrelenting approach in telling the story of widow Mrs. Brisby, her ailing son Timothy, and her quest to move her family out of harm’s way when Farmer Fitzgibbon decides to plow through her living room with giant metal blades earlier than usual.
Of course, Bluth is only able to make his film so intense because of the basics of O’Brien’s [truly] original plot. “Hi, widowed field mouse – I love your red cape…really brings out the desperation in your eyes. Hey, does your kid have the sniffles? No, he has PNEUMONIA. What’s that you say? You have to relocate or be chopped to bits? Cool, but if you do that, your kid will die. Sure, go on an errand for some get-well juice from a senile rodent with an intimidating beaker collection, but know that you’ll nearly be gutted by cats. Oh my, yes, it IS good news that your husband was friends with a secret society of rats who live like humans and are going to go out on their own. Nothing ever goes wrong when people venture out on their own!”
But, unlike so many who adapt great books to make movies, Bluth doesn’t slice out much of the book to soften the blow. Basically, he changes the widow’s name to Brisby. Oh, and instead of Science being to blame for making hyper-intelligent rats, the creatures get some help from a wizard. But Science, it seems, is still out to murder the fugitive genius rats. But, hey…wizards are fun, right?!?!
Fun Fact: WHAM-O!, the makers of the Frisbee, rejected requests to allow the film to call the lead character “Mrs. Frisby.” Because the people who brought you the Super Sneaky Squirtin’ Stick are very serious about their brand not being used for silliness.
Watching The Secret of NIMH as an adult, I can’t get over how tense it makes me to this very day. Even the happy-ish ending (piled on a heap of dead good rats and dead bad rats) feels unsteady. The credits roll and I’m sure next week Mrs. Frisby is going to fall into a pyramid scheme. Or Brisby babysitter Auntie Shrew is going to remember she likes to eat mice. Or stupid frail Timothy is going to eat too many rich foods and develop gout. Or Mrs. Brisby’s amulet isn’t glowing because she’s courageous. It’s glowing because she’s slowly enduring radiation poisoning.
And that unsteadiness the story plants in my gut is the beauty of the film and the book: you can do good things, bold things, innovative things, and life will still come after you. And any peace is a temporary peace, so you’d better hold on to your amulets and enjoy life until the next Moving Day.