One of the elemental truths about storytelling is that if you give your audience a happy ending, they can handle almost any nightmare fuel you throw their way. This is especially true of children who are far more resilient than adults often give them credit for. Some masters understood that kids can take hard truths and sidelong horrors—so long as it is handled well enough, if it is meant with an earnest narrative aim in mind that seeks to empower and uplift, rather than to indulge and distract. Do those things, and one might find that youthful audiences are willing to give a storyteller an awful lot of leeway to explore strange and wonderful territory. And if any of us ever doubt that, let us turn a prime example of this truism: Don Bluth’s 1982 animated masterpiece of dark fantasy, The Secret of NIMH.
The story takes place in the field of Farmer Fitzgibbons, where Mrs. Brisby, a recently widowed field mouse, raises her three children in a discarded and half-buried cinderblock. Brisby knows that Fitzgibbons is going to plow the field soon, an she must move her family, but when her youngest child falls ill and cannot be moved, Brisby grows desperate and seeks the aid of a stance colony of rats who live underneath a nearby rose bush. Possessing wisdom and technology beyond the reach of ordinary animals, the rats owe Brisby’s late husband a debt not easily repaid, for he helped them all escape from the human laboratory where they were experimented on and given unusual intelligence and long lifespans. The rats do not forget a friend, and so pledge to help save Brisby and her family, even though it places them at great risk themselves, especially to Fitzgibbon’s monstrous cat, Dragon. But a craven evil lurks within the rat colony in the form of the treacherous usurper Jenner, who will not rest until he has slain the rats’ wise and mystic leader Nicodemus, and eliminates Mrs. Brisby and her children, too.
The Secret of NIMH is one of a number of movies from the 1980s that seemed to embrace a darker kind of storytelling as both an homage to, and rebellion from, the legacy cast over children’s entertainment by Walt Disney. Disney long held that kids deserve to be treated like adults when it comes to storytelling, and his wisest proteges, contemporaries and devotees agreed and did likewise when they established their own creative legacies. But few did it quite so well as Don Bluth, who both embraced the kind of weird gloominess seen in 1970s swords and sorcery as well as a love of color that would come to dominate the visual aesthetic of the 1980s. He informed it all with a truly old-school appreciation for mythic storytelling that did its best to put its characters in true peril and even go so far as to genuinely thrill and frighten his young audience more than their parents would approve, but enough to earn his charge’s undying gratitude.
The Secret of NIMH is a visual wonder featuring an endless array of richly colored backgrounds and meticulously drawn and animated characters that seeks to evoke a way of animated movie-making from days gone by. Our heroine is strong and resourceful, yet thrown into a world so much bigger than she that she survives amidst constant and dire peril. Her every encounter is with something bigger than her, something that would prey on her, something that does not need her, something that could kill her. And yet, she persists against all odds. Brisby possesses only her courage and it is the quietest kind of courage there is: the kind that exists because any other option is just too unbearable to think about. That she does all this in the shadow of her husband’s recent and violent death just adds more gravitas to the proceedings. The Secret of NIMH might be meant for kids, but it does not treat them lightly, nor does it fill their heads with fantasies of power and victory. It is a story about what courage often really looks like as one grows up, and what it means to sacrifice something—to truly give of oneself—to serve the ones you love. This is all incredible, immortal stuff, and that so many kids got to see it firsthand, unfiltered in a darkened temple of narration lit only by the flickering frames of a story unfolding…what a rare privilege, indeed.
The moment of truth in the Secret of NIMH comes during a scene when Nicodemus explains to Brisby why the rats never her fallen husband, and tell the tale of how they all Gaines superhuman intelligence at the hands of their cruel human masters. For a movie that wasn’t billed as a manifesto for animal rights or against laboratory testing on live subjects, this movie does an awfully good job of both. The scene in which the rats are all jabbed with their super-serum and later, when Jonathan Brisby and his friends narrowly escape the whirling death of a ventilation shaft is the kind of stuff that often gets written off as material too harsh for kids to be exposed to. And yes, these scenes carry with them a heavy dread that we might be happier to live without. The the truth of the NIMH injection scene, and all the scenes that come both before and after it, is that no matter who we are, what luck we have been born with, what obstacles we must overcome, there dwells above and around us forces too large to contend with. They are the stuff of horror. But only if we let our courage fail. And only if we forget that the more dearly we hold our love in our heart, the more we can find a way through those things that would so easily, cheerfully, and casually destroy us. The courage to be big, when one is so little, doesn’t end once we grow up.