If your childhood was anything like mine, with time split between two divorced working parents, you watched a lot of VHS tapes. And back in the 80s, movies for kids were dark. Real dark. Don’t recall? Let me remind you.
Take The Secret of NIMH. While it was released before I was born—proof that I can talk about 80s films while still being a very vibrant and young woman, thank you very much — my parents apparently felt the need to make sure I didn’t miss out on this demented mess about near-dead young ones, animal experimentation, and murder. I doubt helicopter moms allow this to happen nowadays, but when I was growing up, if it had a cartoon on the cover, it was suitable to throw on the TV to distract the kids while directing one’s adult attention to cooking up some porkchops with Shake ‘N’ Bake. (I know you millennials reading this are like, what’s a cover? It’s this. It was made out of paper. Don’t even worry about it.)
The film opens on warty, gnarled hands with coke nails on every finger as a voiceover informs us that someone named Jonathan recently died. Terrific start. Kids love coke nails. We assume the voice is courtesy of whoever owns the hands, which is a little confusing because while the voice is telling us the narrator is old, the hands are telling us he’s been dead for several weeks.
Though his name won’t be revealed until later, we can deduce fairly readily that Nicodemus is a rat wizard since he uses magic glitter dust instead of ink and doesn’t need to touch his pen to the page to write. In further confirmation that this film was inexplicably intended for pre-literate children, the lines the narrator speaks are not the same lines he writes labors over writing in the book. We don’t see his face. As we’ll later learn, we won’t really want to see his face.
The film cuts to a piece of ominous-looking, broken down farm equipment, with tons of dark smoke swirling around inside. Animated farms already scared the shit out of me as a child because of Watership Down —which, believe you me, I’ll get to reviewing in good time—so Little Me immediately knew this movie was bad news. This is when we’re introduced to Mrs. Brisby, a widowed brown mouse with a sick son who needs to stay still in bed for three weeks because he has pneumonia. Mrs. Brisby is out fetching medicine for ill Timmy when she has a run-in with a stupid comic relief crow that we won’t fuss over, because children have very poor senses of humor, and a killer beast named Dragon, whose as gruesome to look at as every other evil character in this film.
Dragon has a bad eye, and everyone calls him a cat though given the way he’s drawn he seems more like the result of a weasel(?) mating with a small bear. When we see him later lying near the family home, he’s the size of a fully grown golden retriever. Isn’t it funny how back in the day you could makes cats villains? Thanks to the internet, no one’s buying that anymore. Cats are our cute overlords, especially when they’re bad-tempered. Eat as many of these rodents as you want, Dragon! We love your youtube clips.
Back at the Brisby homestead, an obnoxious neighbor named Auntie Shrew visits the three non-dying children, gets her scarf caught on a knot in the wood and falls down the stairs. You see what I mean about comedy for kids? She already walked with a cane and that probably broke her hip. And this is what’s supposed to lighten up the mood.
Fun fact I looked up while watching this scene: mice really can get pneumonia. You can read all about how fatal it is thanks to the folks at American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association. Yes, they are accepting new members.
Now comes a shot of further farm terror as birds, rabbits, and other assorted creatures flee the blades of an approaching tractor. You see, the big dilemma isn’t so much that Timmy has pneumonia as it is that it’s plowing time at the farm, and if the mouse family doesn’t leave their home, they’ll be ground up in the turf. But Timmy can’t leave because he’s been put on strict bed rest. Whatever will happen? And why is it that the farming lobby is powerful enough to keep doctors from downgrading meat in the food pyramid, but couldn’t manage to keep these types of demonizing portrayals out of children’s media?
In an act of pure daring, Mrs. Brisby manages to pull apart a crucial plug in the tractor’s engine. It’s funny to me that mice are so attached to their pups. A century or two ago, not even human beings would have put up so much of a fuss over losing a child and here’s a rodent mom electrocuting herself—we see her in a fetal position, convulsing, after tampering with the line—to keep a single child safe when she had three more perfectly healthy ones. I wonder what the AFRMA has to say about mom-pup bonding and the near-suicidal intensity it brings out in field mice.
Mrs. Brisby decides she can only put herself in the direct path of an electrical current so many more times, and she needs to turn to a higher up for more definitive assistance. The Great Owl is the big cheese in those parts, and he lives in a tree trunk with bones everywhere, and he’s covered in cobwebs because he’s a gross lazy slob. He has
Nicodemus-esque claws, eyes, and eyebrows.
In other words, he’s frightful and he’s mean, but he finally tells Mrs. Brisby she needs to consult the rats that live in a rose bush in front of the farmer’s house. Our little heroine has so far been sent on a Family Circus-style meander, if that meander had a noble purpose and was set in hell.
Once inside the rats’ rosebush, it will surprise no one that Mrs. Brisby is attacked and almost killed by a mute, weapon-wielding rat. If this were a Pixar movie, she’d have accumulated at least three cute sidekicks with whom to engage in adult-accessible witty banter. But it’s a Don Bluth movie, and life is endless suffering that culminates in the death of you and everyone you’ve ever known and loved, so sorry, no cute, dropped-jaw reaction shots here. Wolf howls echo throughout the bush.
Here, Mrs. Brisby finally meets Nicodemus, who promptly makes her read his glitter diary’s entry about her husband’s death. Pleased to meet you, too, Nico. Mrs. Brisby learns that Dragon killed her husband while he attempted to drug the cat upon request of the rats,
which gives her great closure. Nico notices that she’s experiencing a moment of emotional relief in her otherwise soul-trampling journey, and he promptly launches into a description of the animal testing facility from which he and her husband escaped. Oh, you didn’t know your husband was a lab captive in his past life? Haha, pwned.
The animators do everything short of showing full on vivisection in this sequence. We see full syringes plunged into the rats while beagle puppies, rabbits, and monkeys cower in their cages, trembling in ways that alternatively suggest fear and nervous system damage. Nicodemus mentions “unspeakable tortures” and how he’d hear screams at night. But all the horror isn’t for naught, because the mice and rats are made super intelligent, and use their new abilities to escape through air shafts—where all of the lightweight mice are “blown away, sucked down to their deaths.” All except two, that is, one of whom became Mrs. Brisby’s husband. Heartwarming.
Meanwhile, the farmer is taking forever to fix his tractor. What farmer on this earth is so lackadaisical about his harvest? All he had to do was plug one thing back in. Jesus. The rats want to take this opportunity to move out of the rose bush, but they need someone to finish her husband’s task and drug that monstrous “cat” so they can make a clean getaway. Mrs. Brisby volunteers because she doesn’t have enough on her plate at the moment. The rats promise to erect an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to pick up her cinderblock house and move it to another location while she’s busy with the cat. It’s the perfect plan. How did it happen, exactly, that all the super intelligent rats and mice were males? Hint to scientists injecting animals with intelligence serum: you need to double up the dose for dudes. Mrs. Brisby is running circles around these clowns and she’s only using what God gave her.
Once in the house, Mrs. Brisby sheds the red cape that was her sole piece of clothing and Justin (a sexy rat) talks her through the approach on the cat bowl. It’s very disturbing: charismatic man convinces woman to get naked and risk her life as a drug mule. Nick Kristof is penning a column on it as we speak.
Back in the field, the rats are hauling the cinderblock out of the ground without having evacuated any of the children. I know Timmy had to stay put, but the able-bodied three are bouncing around like marbles in there. This really adds to the drama when Jenner, an evil, power-hungry rat, cuts the ropes to drop the block on Nicodemus, crushing his body. R.I.P. Nico. Can I have your glitter ink? Insider the cinderblock, one of the kids is almost set on
fire. Auntie Shrew passed out long ago. And feminists get up in arms about girls watching mermaid Ariel pine after a man, like this nightmare isn’t the bigger threat to everyone’s mental health.
Finally, Mrs. Brisby shows up and is reassured that her kid are fine though, clearly, no one has actually checked. We see a crumpled bit of Nico corpse sticking out from under the cinderblock. Evil Jenner hits Mrs. Brisby because he’s a psychopathic lunatic, which causes sexy Justin to jump in and fight him. Apropos of nothing, Jenner has a sword. I know rats are resourceful but where did they even get the metal for this? In his rage, Jenner slices a former ally across the chest. It’s fatal. The cute, fat ally rat dies slowly in the mud. Justin’s bleeding, everyone’s bleeding. I’m screaming for my dad but he yells back that he has to watch the rice and do I want sweet tea or milk with dinner?
Jenner is finally vanquished and Justin starts to give a speech but what’s this? The Brisby kids start shouting. They’re trapped in the stone, still, and now the stone is sinking in the mud. Inside, the littlest mouse pup falls into the rising level of muck and says she can’t breathe even though her head is still well above the mud level. God, kids are such drama queens. Try watching this movie and then come cry to me, little mouse. The stone sinks entirely. Mrs. Brisby is dragged away from it, screaming. They do a great job of animating her eyes to look like someone about to permanently lose her grip on sanity. The end!
Just kidding. An amulet that Nicodemus gave her floats into the air and gives Mrs. B super-mouse strength. The cinderblock rises up from the sludge and all the children are safe. Now that I’m grown, this seems very girl-power to me. Only a humble, non-enhanced intelligence mom can operate this mystical tool?
How an intelligence serum translated into animal mastery of magic, we’ll never know. And was the great owl also a lab escapee? He certainly had the repulsive look of one. But shush, children. Let NIMH keep some of its secrets. Your pork chops are ready.