The Secret of NIMH is dark, no doubt, but its fear-inducing scenes only scratch the surface of what bottomless anguish can be opened up with the right animated film. If “The Secret of NIMH” is, say, “The Exorcist,” then “The Mouse and His Child”(1977) is “Salò.” Equally obscure, equally nightmarish. It constructs a world unlike anything a sane, happy child could fathom. And it renders it in such brutally disturbing detail that they’ll never forget it, no matter how many My Little Pony parties their mom might throw, complete with actual
pony in the yard.
Trust me, I know of what I speak. “The Mouse and His Child” leaves a deep crater in the
soul of whoever is cursed enough to view it.
I still remember my first time seeing it, when hen I was a wee one wandering my beloved library’s A/V section and saw it inexplicably placed in the kid’s section: “Look, Mommy, a cartoon!” Somewhere, a witch howled with triumphant delight.
The prophecy had been fulfilled. Occasionally over the years that followed, I would mention
to my brother, “do you remember that crazy movie about the two toy mice?” And he
would say “oh yeah…” and then we would share a long silence freighted with deep love
for each other but twinned with the knowledge that our love is worthless in a universe
like this. It’s the type of moment normally reserved for two men who piloted a helicopter
together in Vietnam. “The NIMH Exorcist” can’t touch it. This is some next level shit.
The movie opens in a toyshop when the proprietor winds up a clockwork mouse that
marches around spinning another mouse. Outside, it’s snowing and a garbage man with a
dog is going through trashcans. (I guarantee that, as a kid, I did not realize this man was
homeless. I’m pretty sure I thought he was an unprofessional sanitation worker.) He and
the dog dance together as they watch the mouse in the store window. Cute! This is going to be fun.
At midnight, a hideous face forms inside the clock of the toy store and announces,
“midnight,” in an “I murder for the sheer joy of it” voice. That means it’s time for the toys
to par-tay, and they wake up and start losing their minds. “Where are we? What are we?”
asks the little mouse being spun in the arms of the larger. “We’ll just have to wait and see,”
says father mouse, uselessly. Oh, right, because there are no context clues, Sherlock? He’s an idiot.
The mice are clockwork, as are the seal and pink elephant frolicking nearby, but nobody
wound them up, so I guess they get their energy from the freakiness of homicidal Clock
Man. In blatant violation of animal law, the wind up elephant takes an immediate shine to
the mice and informs them that they’re toys in a shop. They discuss the harsh reality that
everyone, at some point, goes “out into the world.”
Their conversation is cut short by a hideous clown jack-in-the-box flopping around. He
screams wildly about being “covered in jam” and “locked in a freezer” once you’re taken
home by a child. Sounds like a typical weekend for me and my boyfriend. Hey-oh! Seriously though, it’s bedlam. And we’re only four minutes in! The baby mouse (understandably) starts crying as his father drunkenly marches him around. They fall off the shelf and there’s a loud breaking noise. They’re dead. The elephant weeps. I will give this movie credit for one thing: I’ve tried a lot of drugs, but never acid.
It’s the next morning and the shopkeeper is taking out the trash, i.e. the broken bodies of
the mouse father and son. They’re covered in refuse, deposited into a garbage truck, and
delivered to the dump. “Papa, is this the world?” asks the young mouse. “I don’t know. I
hope not,” replies the father.
Hey, there’s the sanitation man again! (He lives in the dump because it’s where he works.)
He finds the mice, fixes them, and winds them up. Where they once walked in a circle, they now walk straight ahead. They trudge merrily through the wasteland as pieces of trash start falling and night descends. “Papa, I’m scared!” the son cries. The father comforts him with the thought that “something good [can happen] as easily as something bad.” The dude is a grade-A simpleton. But it’s not like we weren’t warned; he’s wearing a bowtie.
We are now introduced to Manny the Rat. He’s a pure sleazeball with the autonomous
movement of most living creatures, so he’s got a huge leg up on the mice. He drags them
down into his dank lair while ominous electric guitar riffs play. There’s an interlude here
with a song about “scat rats” that’s something of an homage to that jazz scene in The
Aristocats, except not cute at all, and with less racism.
P.S. — You all know what “scat” refers to in the world of sex perverts, right?
Out comes a motley procession of toys, looking like soldiers who’ve taken a bad beating.
They sing a sad, militaristic ode to Manny and one of them, a donkey, collapses. “I just can’t do it anymore,” he says, lying flat on his belly. “Unhinge him,” Manny tells a lackey rat, after which the donkey scrambles to try to stand, offering “I’ll work! I’ll work! I promise I won’t complain!” (Spoiler alert: Manny goes on to become a Wal-mart GM.) We see, in shadow, the disassembling and unceremonious murder of the (former) donkey. “Maybe he’ll come back to life later, like the mice did when they were broken?” you might be thinking. If so, I laugh cruelly at your soft, hopeful heart. “He’s spare parts,” Manny declares. With this movie, there is no “coming back.” Just ask my therapist.
The mouse and son are sent on an errand outside with Incompetent Lackey Rat, whom they evade with the help of a fortune-telling frog wearing a glove (don’t ask.) The son prattles on about wanting to be a family with the pink elephant and the seal from back in the toyshop, where we all thought that a demented ghost clock was the worst life could throw at us. Happier times. The frog and the mice agree to be friends and “travel the road together” in spite of how “long and hard” it is. (I can’t resist: 8=====D) After announcing his intention to chase down the toy mice, Manny beats a lady squirrel with a stick. Moving on.
Manny accomplishes his mission pretty handily and corners all three of them without much delay. Luckily the wild woodland creatures start going nuts for an unexplained reason, and Manny is knocked into a pond, allowing the mice and Frog to escape in Manny’s wind-up car. Frog is plucked away by a bird of prey, and the car upends itself on a frozen lake, tossing the mice on their sides where they can’t move. Hours or days or weeks pass as the wind howls. At this point in the film, I distinctly remember thinking my first ever equivalent of WTF??? I may not have had the vocabulary since I was only seven years old, but I certainly had the multiple question marks. How is this child appropriate? I wondered even then. I’ve never been given an answer.
The mice are rescued by a blousy bird who, upon learning they’d like to be “self-winding” drops them down a hole into the workplace of a tinkering muskrat. The muskrat agrees to help them if they perform manual labor for him in the snow for several months, and he sets them up to power a rigged axe that repeatedly chops into a tree. Over this scene, an operatic singer bellows lyrics like “Chop plus time equals smash./I will make such a splash./It’s not pedagogic,/It’s practical logic.” I desperately hate whoever is responsible for this.
Manny makes another appearance, this time ranting about finding the mice while he rides on top of the beloved, maternal pink elephant. A single tear slides from her ONLY REMAINING EYE while Manny berates her about being a worthless piece of trash. He kicks her heartily in the butt to get her moving again. We don’t know how she was broken
because she looks basically like a stuffed animal and her seams—for now—are intact, but anyway. I’m going to guess the demented Jack-in-the-box is responsible.
Back to the mice. It’s finally spring, and they’re wizened and bleached of color from being outside for that long. “A time of hope for others,” the father observes of the weather, “but not for us I fear.” Excellent parenting, as always. Mercifully, a hawk swoops down and lifts the mice away, but once he discovers they’re not edible, he drops them deep into the unfrozen pond where they promptly sink to the bottom. This rouses a turtle, who starts lecturing them on infinity, and makes them stare deeply into a can’s label featuring a manically grinning dog on his hind legs, holding a can with a maniacally grinning dog, holding a can…you get the idea. If this dog were a human, “occasional cannibal” would be the least weird thing on his OKCupid profile. It’s that kind of grin.
The mice stare at the can for so long that paper wrapper melts off, and the seal from the toyshop shows up to say, “Come on, let’s go!” Yes, she’s underwater too. Now would be a good time for you to pour yourself a drink. Another one, I mean.
The seal, mice, and Frog are reunited on the bank of the pond. The son is overjoyed and they all dance—until Manny shows up. I have to take a moment to acknowledge this masterful destruction of the viewer’s spirit; it’s the only fully positive, non-scary moment in the whole film and it lasts for about three seconds before it’s interrupted by the most gruesome act. Our withered-looking protagonists moan and weakly cry “no” as Manny seizes them and swings them mightily against a rock face. They fall on the ground and he picks up a stone almost too heavy for him to lift. He holds it above their heads for a moment, savoring their terror. “Momma?” the child mouse says, as he catches a glimpse
of the one-eyed elephant’s trembling form in the background. It looks like this:
Manny smashes their faces over and over again with the rock. When he finally pauses for long enough to look at what he’s done, it so hideous that he covers his face and staggersaway. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.
Frog, Seal, and Seal’s bird boyfriend gather the pieces of the mice and hold a memorial service before bringing the destroyed bodies to the muskrat. You can sort of make out their heads, but that’s about it.
We are treated to the rather gruesome reassembly, which results in the mice coming back to life and finally being self-winding. Because after much suffering comes the most beautiful rebirth, and the soul—even the soul of inanimate matter fashioned to look like a real organic being—is indestructible. Remember that, kids, if that message isn’t blotted out by the vicious bludgeoning murder that came immediately before.
There’s a lot of existential stuff in this film, as you and I, being adults, can now pick up on. And you might be miffed at me for glossing over the Deep Stuff. But let me remind you of what most six-year-old kids like: cute things; toys; animals; families; happiness. Here are some things young kids often don’t like: destroyed toys, carnage, death, confusion, evil dog infinity, metaphysical angst, investigations of our radical alterity. Just because there’s a little boy in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” doesn’t mean “The Road” is a children’s book, ya dig?
Anyway, the film is not going to let us off the hook that easily; Momma elephant is still enslaved. We learn that somehow Manny came into possession of an entire dollhouse, which he’s wiring up with electricity to be a home for his rat underlings. He’s even managed to lodge it high up on a telephone pole, and on the balcony of the house, the elephant’s feet are spike-locked into some pedals so she can provide the labor to lift rats and materials. She cries tears that leak off her body and fall soundlessly into the dark depths below.
The mice and their accumulated buddies (Frog, the seal-screwing bird, etc.) manage to rescue Momma, and then shake all the rats out of the house and onto a passing train that carries them far away. One rat gets electrocuted in the process, while Manny has his only tooth knocked out. Though the tortured toys have the opportunity to beat Manny to death on the railroad tracks, they turn away instead—except for the baby mouse, who offers him the Frog’s pseudo-mystical necklace, and a smile. This is so “The Road,” only bleaker and more confusing.
The movie ends with Father Mouse and Momma Elephant getting married by Frog in the dollhouse, which is clearly not large enough to plausibly house the many animals and toys we see inside. Amid the celebration, we’re generously given one last terrifying shot of clown Jack-in-the-box. Above the door there reads a sign: “Migrants Yes.” I say again: WTF.
The sanitation worker happens to be passing by. He tells them all, “be happy,” hugs his dog, and continues walking down the tracks. I complain a lot but Republicans must truly lose their mind over this movie: cross-species romance, the marrying of inanimate objects, a positively portrayed member of the 47%, pro-migrant signage, etc.
Rightfully, most copies of this film seem to have been destroyed, so it’s like a hundred dollars for a secondhand VHS. But some sadistic soul has made it all available online, where you can read the “lol omg this scarred me for life!” and “I’m crying as I type” comments of many other former children. Enjoy your nightmares!