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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Secret of NIMH

April 14th, 2011

The Secret of NIMH - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Don Bluth worked as an animator at Walt Disney, but was unhappy with the cost-cutting measures being put into place there and left to form his own company. After working on a few smaller projects, their first feature-length film The Secret of NIMH. It wasn't able to find an audience during its theatrical run; in fact, it never reached the top ten. It was released several times on the home market, including a special edition DVD a few years ago, but will the movie shine on Blu-ray?

The Movie

This is a hard movie to discuss without getting into spoiler territory. It's called The Secret of NIMH, and going anywhere near that secret is entering spoiler territory. So the plot summary might be a little shorter than usual.

Mrs. Brisby is a widowed mouse whose husband recently died helping with "the plan", something she has no knowledge of. (Nor does the audience.) One of her children, Timmy, has come down with pneumonia and is bedridden. The timing couldn't be worse, as moving day is nearing. They must get out of their current home before the farmer whose land they live on starts plowing the fields. On her way back from getting the medicine she needs from Mr. Ages, she runs into Jeremy, a love-struck crow. Or at least he's a crow looking to find Miss Right. He gets so enthusiastic about love, that he accidentally attracts the attention of Dragon, the farmer's cat. They managed to get away, and she gets back home, but learns the frost is gone and moving day is coming faster than expected. She and Auntie Shrew are able to disable the tractor giving them a day or two reprieve, but it's clear she needs a more realistic solution and the only one smart enough to come up with one is The Great Owl. She's terrified to talking to the owl for obvious reasons, after all, owls east mice, but she has no choice. He doesn't eat her, but he doesn't help her either, that is till he learns she's the widow of Jonathan Brisby. It is only then he suggests going to the rats and asking to see Nicodemus.

Meanwhile we get a little information on the rats and the titular secret (like what NIMH stands for). But I'm uncomfortable discussing those details and will have to end the plot there. You could give a short summation of the plot thusly: It's a movie about a mouse trying to save her family, and becomes involved in something she struggles to understand. In doing so, she discovers something about her family she never knew.

It's amazing that The Secret of NIMH was the first feature-length film directed by Don Bluth, because it's nearly flawless. The book the film is based on has an excellent premise, one that offers philosophical questions one rarely sees in kids movies. It also offers plenty of opportunities for action and some genuinely scary moments. (Had this movie and The Black Cauldron been hits, we could have seen the direction of animated film move toward more adult fare.) The voice work is also great, ranging from Shakespearean trained actors like Derek Jacobi, who add gravity to the film, to comedic actors like Dom DeLuise, who was a regular in Don Bluth's films. Finally, the film does manage to walk that narrow ledge balancing the comedy and the peril, sometimes within the same scene. Sometimes when a film tries to do this, the shift in tone is too much and it takes the viewer out of the story. I never felt that was an issue here.

There is one potential problem, depending on your point of view. The main character we follow is on the periphery of the main philosophical debate. Some might call that a flaw, while others would call that an interesting narrative technique.

As for the film's technical prowess, had the Annie Awards had the modern format back in 1982, this film would have cleaned up. The character animation is a lot more detailed than in most animated films of the era and there was a lot more movement. The painted backgrounds are gorgeous, harkening back to the Golden Age of Dinsey. Meanwhile, the special effects are excellent and include back-lighting, transparencies, and more. There are some issues with the age of the movie, but we will get to that shortly.

The Extras

Extras include an audio commentary track with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (the co-writer / co-producer). It's a very informative track that keeps the energy level up and fans of the film will certainly want to check it out. The other extra is a 14-minute featurette on the creation of the movie, right from creation of the company, getting the animators to act, voice actors, etc. Very in-depth.

While the movie itself is amazing in practically every regard, the print used is showing its age. Really showing its age at times. The amount of grain, grit and flaws can be a little distracting at times. (It would be more distracting if the movie wasn't so good.) The colors are strong, where the scenes call for it, especially with some of the special effects shots. But this is not a Blu-ray you will use to show off your HDTV. Likewise, the audio is rather antiquated with little in the way of dynamic effects, but at least the dialogue is clear and the bass levels are strong. It's better than the video and acceptable given the age of the movie.

The Verdict

Don Bluth's departure from Disney revitalized the animation industry, but not quite in the way that he had hoped. He was never able to find the level of commercial success to match his talent, but the competition meant Disney had to wake up from its slumber. While The Secret of NIMH is not the biggest hit of his career, it is his best and even though the Blu-ray doesn't do the movie justice, it is worth owning.

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