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‘The Secret of NIMH’ provided magic when Disney couldn’t — Ultimate Movie Year

Mrs. Brisby falls after an attack in a scene from The Secret of NIMH
Mice and rats clash over their future in the animated film “The Secret of NIMH.” (MGM/MovieStillsDB.com)

“The Secret of NIMH”
Directed by Don Bluth
Released July 2, 1982 (limited)
Where to Watch

Disney is a dominant player in today’s animated films, but that wasn’t always the case. In the late 70s and early 80s, the studio’s magic touch wasn’t as apparent, as many of their animated films failed to make much of an impression on the public. It would take one of their animators to leave Disney to revive the genre and open up new possibilities, thanks to movies like 1982’s “The Secret of NIMH.”

Don Bluth was one of Disney’s animators in the 70s, working on projects like “Robin Hood,” “The Rescuers,” and “Pete’s Dragon.” Bluth became interested in working on “NIMH” while working on Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound,” but the House of Mouse rejected the idea of another cartoon mouse movie. He left Disney and formed his studio, Don Bluth Productions. The studio first worked on the animation sequences in the musical romance “Xanadu” before beginning work on “The Secret of NIMH,” their first feature-length film.

Based on the Robert C O’Brien children’s book, “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” the film draws us into the anthropomorphic community near a farmhouse where a widowed mouse, Mrs. Brisby, cares for her young children, one of whom, Timothy, is sick with pneumonia. There is constant danger of being discovered and killed around the farmhouse, either by the humans or their vicious cat, Dragon, so many within Mrs. Brisby’s community of mice and rats debate about moving their home elsewhere. However, Timothy must stay indoors, or he will not survive, complicating Mrs. Brisby’s decision.

One of the exciting aspects of “The Secret of NIMH” is that these characters are not just your run-of-the-mill anthropomorphic creatures that live and speak alongside humans, as happens throughout many of Disney’s films. There is a reason they can do what they do: the mice and rats of this community were the subjects of genetic experiments by the National Institution of Mental Health (aka NIMH). The creatures could advance their intelligence to the point where they could reason for themselves and escape for freedom.

Another unique innovation in “NIMH” is focusing this call-to-action adventure story on a single mother instead of the traditional boys and men. Before this, Disney films would normally segregate adventure films on boys and princess tales on girls. In 1977, Disney released “The Rescuers,” an adventure film that Bluth worked on and centered the story around a male and female duo for the first time. In the original book, the account balances between the rats of NIMH and Mrs. Frisby (renamed in the movie to avoid comparisons to the toy frisbee), but Bluth decided the woman’s story was more relatable.

“While debating our way through several story meetings, we concluded that we should concentrate on the widow’s story and her efforts to save her sick son, Timmy, from the farmer’s plow,” Bluth said. “And actually, we liked the Rats’ story just as much, and we felt that the drama of the mom trying to protect her invalid son was more powerful.”

“The Secret of NIMH” was featured in a limited release during the long Fourth-of-July holiday weekend, grossing $386,530 in 88 theaters, well out of the top 10. Two weeks later, MGM increased the number of screens showing “NIMH” to 700, but the film only grossed $1.4 million that weekend, still unable to crack the top 10 domestic releases. “NIMH” tallied a total of $14.7 million during its theatrical run, a little more than its reported budget of $6.7 million.

“‘The Secret of NIMH’ is a work of noble, high-minded intentions that fall short only in the focus of its story,” wrote Desmond Ryan for The Philadephia Inquirer. “Bluth chose it for its allegorical underpinnings, but the pace and structure of narrative do not reinforce these implicit messages.”

‘NIMH’ may not have been the success Bluth hoped for — his company was immediately in financial trouble after it. However, the animator was able to develop other popular media over the following years — “An American Tail,” “The Land Before Time,” and “All Dogs Go to Heaven” in film, and the “Dragon’s Lair” arcade game — that would come to define him as one of the definitive voices in American animation in the 1980s, even over Disney. While Disney would regain its dominance, beginning with 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” Bluth’s work with films like “The Secret of NIMH” would earn him household name status in animation history.

At the Box Office: The long holiday weekend means “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” has a few more days to add to its first-place reign, earning $16.7 million over the four days. Now in its fourth weekend, this is the highest weekend gross of the film to date, bringing “E.T.’s” domestic total to $86.4 million thus far. This is where “E.T.” surpasses “Rocky III” as the biggest movie of the summer and is closing in on “Porky’s” $99 million as the R-rated comedy holds the crown for the highest-grossing film of the year.

Speaking of “Rocky III,” the Sylvester Stallone sequel is still performing strongly at the box office after more than a month of release. Still, it lost a squeaker to Clint Eastwood’s “Firefox” this weekend. “Firefox” returned to second place with $5.4 million, and “Rocky III” finished the holiday just $6,000 less than “Firefox” to place third with $5.4 million.

The overall box office remained powerful, with several films earning just about the same amount across the board. In its second weekend, “Blade Runner” finished fourth with $5.3 million, followed by “Annie” in fifth with $4.9 million. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Poltergeist” are out of the top five, but with $4.5 million and $4.2 million in ticket sales, respectively, they are holding strong with audiences in their fifth weekends. With so many films performing steadily at the theaters, the long holiday weekend was able to score the highest overall weekend gross of the year at $58.6 million.

“The Secret of NIMH” performed well in its limited debut. The animated adventure earned $386,530 in 88 theaters, helping it boast a decent per-screen average, but it only placed 15th in the overall weekend tally.

Next Week: “Tron”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 1, 2022.

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FilmCut is where film critics come together to share their thoughts on the film from the 50s to the modern day. You’ll find post ranging from Netflix to AMC block busters, stay tune and make sure to follow!

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

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