When Don Bluth and a group of fellow Disney animators left the studio in the late 70’s, they hoped to create a return to the hand-crafted look of animated classics like Snow White and Pinocchio. The group’s first effort was the Bluth-directed The Secret of NIMH in 1982, an adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
In the movie, Mrs. Brisby (name changed to avoid potential legal problems with Wham-O’s Frisbee) is the mouse mother of four children who live in a concrete block on Farmer Fitzgibbons’ field. The farmer will be starting his springtime plowing soon, threatening the Brisby home, but young Timmy is down with pneumonia and can’t be moved.
A bumbling crow named Jeremy takes Mrs. Brisby to see the Great Owl, who advises the mousy matron to seek out a group of rats in Fitzgibbons’ rosebush. Mrs. Brisby enters the rosebush and is led on a dangerous journey to the underground lair of a group of highly intelligent rats.
The super-rodents are escapees from NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health, where they were subjected to brain-enhancing experiments. Nicodemus, leader of the rats, informs Mrs. Brisby that her deceased husband Jonathan led the escape, and in gratitude, the aging rat gives Mrs. Brisby a magical amulet. The rats agree to help move the Brisby home with an elaborate rope and pulley system, but traitorous rat Jenner wants no part of it. In addition to Jenner’s treachery, Mrs. Brisby will have to overcome Fitzgibbons’ hungry cat and her own self-doubt if her child’s life is to be saved.
By all rights, The Secret of NIMH should have had an easy go of its theatrical release. The book was a best seller and Disney’s feature animation department was in a temporary slowdown. Unfortunately, Bluth’s film came up against an 800-pound gorilla called E.T., which completely overshadowed its entry into the marketplace. Animation buffs raved, but most kids had extra-terrestrials on the brain.
Time has given the story a happier ending. Bluth went on to a direct a string of hits, including An American Tail and The Land Before Time, while The Secret of NIMH found a warmer response in later home video re-releases.