Secret of NIMH, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe always wanted a sparkley of his very own, especially one in hi-def...
Revisiting childhood favourites as an adult often ends in disappointment. At least 50% of the time I find myself crushed to learn that my tastes have changed over the decades, and many of what I’d consider the films that got me interested in film are either not very good, or, more often than I’d prefer to admit, genuinely terrible. Most folks are willing to give crap a pass based on fond memories, but I’d like to think I’m honest enough with myself to ignore nostalgia in favour of ‘truth’. On those special occasions it turns out my childhood self wasn’t a complete idiot ( ET, Star Trek: The Voyage Home, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Empire Strikes Back, Big Trouble in Little China, Ghostbusters) I’m overtaken with joy, and I’m so very happy to report that Don Bluth’s Secret of NIMH doesn’t suck. Not even a little. The story, as I’m sure you already know, revolves around Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a timid field mouse left to deal with a brood of four following her husband Jonathan’s untimely death. The field in which she and her family live is scheduled for a plowing, which means all the animals need to temporarily move to avoid being plowed themselves. Unfortunately, Brisby’s youngest son has come down with pneumonia, and the move could prove disastrous given his condition. Frightened but determined, Brisby seeks council with The Great Owl (cult favourite John Carradine), who leads her to the Rats of NIMH, and series of shocking truths about Jonathan’s past.
Don Bluth is possibly the most tragically unrealized talent in modern movie history. His early work at Disney includes overseeing some of the most impressive character animation in the studio’s history, including 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and The Rescuers, and his breakaway from the studio is one of the most successful in film animation history. Bluth’s first three films as director are among the most popular and well received of the ‘80s – The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale and The Land Before Time – but everything from All Dogs Go to Heaven and beyond range from disappointing to pathetic. Bluth earns huge credit for bringing a more adult slant to feature animation during its darkest hour, though his efforts were often de-clawed before release (most famously a longer, PG-rated cut of The Land Before Time is sitting in a drawer somewhere). Of these three I’d say NIMH stands up the best because it features the better story, but both American Tale and Land Before Time have become integral pieces of an entire generation’s pop culture make-up. Then the ‘80s drew to a close, Disney made a huge comeback with The Little Mermaid, and as if he was contractually required to take it down a notch, he started a string of mediocre, forgettable films that led up to his ultimate and pre-mature downfall with Titan A.E., which he co-directed with long time collaborator Gary Goldman. Titan A.E. was such a fiasco it led to the closure of Fox Animation Studios, and neither Bluth nor Goldman worked in feature animation again.
Secret of NIMH appears to suffer adaptation sickness, but I’m not sure since I’ve never read the original novel (it’s only been sitting on the shelf for, oh, I don’t know, 20 years?). Like many of Bluth’s films the narrative sort of skips through set pieces instead of fully realized story, but it’s hard to complain because the story we get is incredibly inventive (despite the minor issue of the plot inception revolving around the inability to move a very tiny mouse, which never really makes any sense), and the set pieces are incredibly exciting ( Titan A.E. is a sort of unfortunate culmination of Bluth’s action directing abilities, which is too bad since the rest of the movie is relatively terrible). Given a little more time and money Bluth and company probably could’ve found a more satisfying way to connect the grounded first half and fantastical/political second half of the story. Perhaps the magical amulet, which was apparently not present in the book, could’ve been a little less Deus Ex Machina as well, given a little more of a proper set-up. Despite minor structural issues, I’m especially impressed that my memories of the intensity of the film are almost entirely accurate. I recall being terribly frightened by the Great Owl and Dragon the cat, and generally finding all the environments Mrs. Brisby enters spine tingling. As an adult I realize I’d actually hesitate to share the film with younger children, but am impressed that Bluth and company were willing to treat their audience as adults even if they weren’t. The whole film is just generally dark all around, from the NIMH animal testing, to the surprisingly violent character deaths, and political assassination subplot.
Occasionally the animation shows signs of its sub-Disney budget, but for the most part the look is impressive enough, and the general artistry never suffers. The character animation is consistently intricate, not to mention visually memorable, especially any scene involving Jeremy the Crow or Auntie Shrew, and the Bluth animated sword fight between Jenner and Justin is among the best sequences of its kind. The background work is potently stylized, feature dark, gothic images that shimmer with back-lit lights that don’t really come from anywhere specific, but which add quite a bit of ambience to the whole look. The performances aren’t bad either, in fact, I’d hazard to credit this cast with turning over a new leaf for mainstream animation voice acting. The actors create characters that are believable on human terms, without the histrionics of most of the decade’s cartoon characters. Former Oscar nominee Elizabeth Hartman (who was in the throes of depression at the time of recording, and who would commit suicide only five years after the film’s release) crafts a frightened and unlikely action hero worth rooting for, Paul Shenar (who’d die of complications due to AIDS only seven years after release) crafts a villain worthy of our scorn despite only being featured for a manner of minutes, and Dom DeLuise (who’d die of cancer a mere 27 years after release at the tender early age of 75 – NIMH curse anyone?) steals the entire show as Jeremy. DeLuise was so good the script had to be rearranged to include more of the otherwise incidental crow.
I realize I’ve never actually seen The Secret of NIMH in widescreen, as I was a tad too young to see it in theaters when it was released, and there wasn’t a widescreen DVD release for quite some time. Technically, a widescreen transfer actually features less information since it’s actually matted, but the framing is certainly preferable. This 1080p transfer leaves quite a bit to be desired, but none of the problems appear to be related to digital compression, except maybe some minor blocking on the brightest red hues. According to the paperwork Bluth personally oversaw this transfer, but I’m guessing his input was mostly focused on the colour timing, which appears accurate to what I remember from my childhood (though based on VHS quality I suppose my memories are kind of worthless). The transfer is pretty vibrant, and the sparkly back light effects are plenty bright without anything bleeding, or edges blurring over (there are a few odd shots that appear a little smeared). Details are certainly sharper than the 1.33:1 DVD I last watched too, to the point that the difference between cell and painting background can actually be a bit jarring. The big problem is an excess of dirt and grain. There’s a lot of wiggling cell dust, flickering white artefacts (which can be confused for the sparklies at some points), and heavy, inconsistent grain all over the print, and it’s going to bother some fans for sure. In the end I think this is an upgrade, but probably not enough of one for those that own the widescreen DVD.
This disc is rather no-frills on the audio front, featuring an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio version of the original Dolby Surround soundtrack. I’ve got no specific complaints on the quality of this release, though the original tracks do leave something to be desired in terms of mix. There isn’t a whole lot of sound effects work outside of the action sequences, and the musical and vocal effects are often too soft to discern without cranking the system. Interestingly enough the problems with the dialogue are pretty clearly done on purpose as a way of creating atmosphere. It’s creative to have vocals softer when the ‘camera’ is far from the action, and usually the muffled words aren’t exactly important to the plot, so my complaints are minimal in this arena. The low key mix wouldn’t really lend itself to a 5.1 remix either. Though I suppose some of the action scenes could be a bit more on the immersive side, I’m guessing this would require the addition of new sound effects that were never part of the original soundtrack. Jerry Goldsmith’s indelible score could do with a discreet LFE channel, and a bit of sprucing up in terms of volume levels and fidelity, but I have no complaints concerning the clarity of the music tracks, or the separation into the stereo channels.
This new Blu-ray release isn’t exactly booming with extras, but it has it where it counts, starting with a feature commentary with producer/director Don Bluth and producer Gary Goldman. This isn’t a boisterous track, but it’s incredibly informative on a technical level without being boring. I’ve personally taken animation classes since I was a child, and through college, and thought I knew everything I needed about the state of the animation art in the early ‘80s, but I was clearly and incredibly wrong. Behind the scenes factoids don’t come quite as often as I’d prefer, but when they’re there they’re always good, especially the notation that Jeremy the Crow was a very small part of the original script, but Dom DeLuise’s performance was so good they kept finding places to stick him. Sadly Bluth and Goldman are watching a crap print, and keep pointing out problems, then saying ‘Well, I’m sure you viewers can’t see what we’re talking about on the HD print’. The sad part is I usually could see what they were talking about, though clearly the frequency of the print damage has been clearly decreased.
‘Secrets Behind the Secret’ (14:20, SD) is a decent retrospective featurette with Bluth and Goldman, which covers their time with Disney, Bluth production’s process and work, the process of getting NIMH off the ground, acting classes for the actors, character design, working with actors, and artists working overtime without overtime pay. There is some cool archive footage and photographs from behind the scenes, including footage of the animators working and learning to act, along with choice cuts from the film itself. Things are wrapped up with the original trailer.
I’m delighted to report that The Secret of NIMH stands the test of time, and continues to sit among the best animated films of the 1980s. It’s underscored by a delightfully original story, it runs on a crackling series of action scenes, and features some solid, actorly performances. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray release doesn’t look all that impressive, and features a Plain Jane soundtrack, but the extras, including a commentary track and a decent retrospective featurette, are pretty informational and entertaining. If you have the anamorphic DVD you might want to keep it, but the price is right for those that don’t already own a copy.
Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality. I may update this later. Check back tomorrow.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 29th March 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Surround English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director and Producer Commentary, Secrets Behind the Secret, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Don Bluth
Cast: Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, John Carradine, Arthur Malet, Hermione Baddeley, Peter Strauss, Paul Shenar
Length: 83 minutes
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