Written by Victor DeBonis
SPOILER WARNING: In this review/essay, major spoilers and specific details about important plot events, including the climax, are discussed. If you want to read this work but haven’t viewed this movie, yet, and don’t want any spoilers, please watch this film first, and then, come back to read this.
When it comes to telling others what my all-time favorite film is, it takes a little while for me to come up with an answer at first because so many movies have made a huge impact on me.
“GoodFellas” for instance, is a special movie that still holds a huge place in my heart, since I first saw it at the age of 17 on DVD. This film was my first introduction to how a movie could be done to perfection in every aspect from the acting to the screenplay to the slick, razor-sharp editing to Scorsese’s masterful direction. Listening to that catchy soundtrack in the background and following Ray Liotta on his fascinating journey through his brotherhood with other gangsters before their fall is an experience that I appreciate more all the time, and it played a big part in making me want to learn more about film.
“Lost in Translation” is an incredible film that I love because of the moving and completely believable friendship between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson. Beyond that, however, I respect it as a sincere story about two people striving to find a break from the loneliness of their normal lives, and it’s accomplished through superb, visual storytelling and an atmosphere that is simultaneously strange and wondrous. (Plus, it also plays a huge role in making me want to travel to Japan someday, but I digress…)
In short, it can be a challenge to determine which movie I love the most because my passion for movies is immense, and I love so many movies for completely different reasons. I could probably spend a good chunk of the day going into great detail about why these movies, among others, such as “Heat” “Sideways” “The Godfather” and so on, mean as much to me as they do. It is similar to asking someone to choose who their favorite child is or who their favorite pet is if their house is filled with them and their joyous presence.
Yet, if I had to choose the movie at the top of the list, the one that my mind often comes to the most when I think about how film can inspire someone and respect it as an impressive medium of art and storytelling, the one that always reminds me the most about the sheer power of the medium to the core, then I have to go with none other than director Don Bluth’s 1982 animated masterpiece, “The Secret of NIMH.”
There are several reasons for why this film is often at top for reasons that I will dive in today, but, even setting those aside, it’s just a movie that contains pretty much everything that I want. The story centers around a heroine who is an underdog (in the form of a field mouse by the name by Mrs. Brisby) of sorts and her quest to find help for saving her house (and her family within it) as nearby humans are getting closer to possibly destroying it in the fields, and her journey is illustrated in a marvelous manner that increasingly amazes me every time that I return to it. The heart of the heroine and how much she strives to achieve what she does feels real in every frame that she’s in. Every emotional beat, whether it’s heartfelt or ominous, hopeful or suspenseful, hits its mark and never wavers. The artwork and the music and everything else that brings this film to life fits right at home with what I love the most about the movies but has also helped shape me for the better through the themes that we learn upon the journey of this brave mouse.
If “GoodFellas” was a live-action movie that taught me about what a film in its most impressive form could be in live-action, then “The Secret of NIMH” was a film that showed how a film at its form could be crafted through animation.
I. The artwork and world is fantastic and means much to the animation and film nerd that I am.
From the first frame, the artwork is spectacular.
The movie knows how to use colors to help create a fantastical atmosphere that can sometimes change or linger with its mystical presence.
Rich, dark-blue colors, for instance, sometimes illustrate a calmer environment, such as the scene in which the camera pulls back to reveal Mrs. Brisby looking after her sick son with the rest of her family by the side.
It’s a bittersweet scene that is already established beautifully with the mother mouse providing medicine to her severely ill son, Timothy, while she and the other children in the family show their deep hope and concern for him to heal from his case of pneumonia. The sad yet lightly hopeful mood of the scene is only further heightened as the camera pulls back more to reveal the dark-blue night environment surrounding the quiet home in which this humble family lives. There’s an apparent mystery about whether Brisby can save her child in time, and the tranquil nighttime background contains a soothing presence that is much needed in this dark narrative.
The audience might notice this color appear again in the room of the generous and wise leader of the rats of NIMH, Nicodemus. Conversations with him sometimes contain harsh truths, such as the nature of NIMH’s horrible experiments and the tragic discovery of what happened to Jonathan Brisby (Mrs. Brisby’s husband), but they also have a light optimism with the encouragement and advice that Nicodemus provides. So, it makes sense to draw a background with him that utilizes calmer colors and a more peaceful environment to further depict the presence of someone who helps provide more hope and stability to others.
Other scenes possess warmer colors that paint the beauty and wonder that highlights part of the heroine’s world. Following many of the opening credits, the camera fades in to reveal a white, wooden farm house surrounded by a golden yard that, similar to other shots in the movie, is wonderfully illustrated with great detail.
A bright-purple sky decorates the background of a house with a water mill that Brisby finds refuge in after surviving an attack from a vicious farm animal.
In all sincerity, you could frame several of the establishing shots or other moments in this movie on a wall, and it would look amazing.
The colors can occasionally create a fearful mood as well, such as the blood-red colors that sometimes decorate the background when an intimidating threat appears.
The above scene illustrates the heroine of the movie encountering a vicious guard who doesn’t know who she is and is close to swiping away at her in ways that could possibly wound her or any other passersby that dare to enter close to the world of the rats of NIMH. You may also notice the inside of a log turning blood-red as Dragon quietly approaches Brisby and her goofy crow comrade, Jeremy, and happily licks the outside of his mouth as he savors the idea of devouring them. Similar to any fantastical world that I find from a movie, I often find that the artistry involved with creating it helps develop the experience of wandering through it to a higher level. It turns a story that is similar to some aspects into something grander, something more wondrous that one can’t help but want to experience for themselves through all of the high and low points of the hero’s journey.
On the surface, much of Mrs. Brisby’s home revolves around a farm in a distant land, but the warm morning skies and ominous shadows in the darker parts of the woods develop a world that is rich with character and fully realized. Our heroine’s world can be peaceful enough to cause the fiercest soul to embrace in some parts and, in other parts, dangerous enough to make even the bravest of souls to run away. It is always magical. While the world of this movie may be small, it is an imaginative world that earns it the same level of respect and love that I have for the Land of Oz and the galaxy far, far away.
I enjoy returning to Mrs. Brisby’s fantastical world time and time again, thanks in part to the wonderful artwork on display.
Additionally, every character in the movie has their own movement and emotional reactions that heighten who they are and the traits that define them. Mr. Ages wobbles forward in a rigid manner to illustrate his business-like and reserved demeanor. The villainous Jenner sneers with his razor-sharp teeth and leans forward to spread devious secrets to suit his selfish needs and endless desire for power. Mrs. Brisby and the rest of her family possess these big eyes that contain plenty of personality, whether it’s fierce annoyance from Martin or vivid vulnerability from Timmy.
When working on the animation for this film, Bluth’s animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, worked with the goal of doing techniques that were more experimental and required more work and aimed for illustrating a stronger story and characters. Among the techniques utilized in the making of this film include multiple color palettes for characters to match different lighting situations and rotoscoping. There was a huge emphasis on trying to restrict the budget to the animation as tightly as possible while also trying to not waste of materials as much as possible.
It can be staggering to picture the working process behind this film, and it helps me further appreciate how amazing the animation and artwork is in this movie from top to bottom.
Movies, such as this, leave me aching for the traditional, 2D hand-drawn style of animation that is, for the most part, missing in feature-length films. And, perhaps, a great part of why this movie holds a place as my favorite movie is that it is one of the greatest reminder of why animation is important as it is in telling a story and helping the audience connect with the artistry on display.
Since my days as a young child, I have often held a deep passion for animation that has never truly disappeared. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the “Disney Renaissance” era, and that likely played an influence in not only fueling my love for animation but film as well. For those who are unaware, the Disney Renaissance was one of the studio’s strongest times in which, after a series of unsuccessful movies and a not-so-booming time for Disney itself, “The Little Mermaid” which was released in 1989, kick-started a string of financially and critically successful animated movies, several of which gradually became classics and played a huge part of many childhoods, including my own.
People who grew up in that time can still sing the catchy songs and remember the memorable characters and stories from those films today. They’ve also grown to develop a greater appreciation for animated films from that time that, initially, weren’t very successful, such as “The Iron Giant” and Disney’s version of “Hunchback.”
The animated “Beauty and the Beast” came from that era and affected me the most at that time. It was that artistically inspiring bolt of lightning to me that played a big role in starting my love for movies and also motivated me to seek out the rental of any animated film that I could get my small hands on from my local Blockbuster. I would also rush home when there was free time to pop whatever I had rented into the VCR and see what magic might await me from watching it.
Ever since first renting “Beauty and the Beast” at the age of five, I was always seeking out great animated movies and shows from Disney and elsewhere.
And, I’m especially thankful for that, due in great part to the unforgettable experiences that I have experienced from the medium from both movies and shows.
It still warms my heart to see the sick, red-haired girl at the end of “Balto” hug him and whisper how she would have been lost without him and died if not for his heroism and selflessness.
“Batman: The Animated Series” on top of being my introduction to my favorite character and always establishing why he’s such an amazing and relatable hero, was the first time that I was introduced to thematically and visually dark stories as well as the idea that even an audience of children could see stories that were tougher and more serious and receive a great impact from the experience if it was done right.
The first time that I finished watching “Spirited Away” I found myself only wanting to immediately go back and revisit this imaginative fairy tale and the enchanting world through which the brave heroine and her incredible journey took place.
As an adult, I found great value from watching Diane Nguyen’s journey on the series “Bojack Horseman” because I saw similarities to myself from this frustrated writer character who often dealt with sadness and always felt like an oddball, and seeing her storyline taught me that it was okay to feel sad as long as I tried to recover and always try to be the most decent person that I could be going forward.
So many wonderful experiences have come from me from the medium of animation, and I could spend most of the day listing them.
The truth is that I’m not completely sure whether it’s being able to see certain stories play better in animation than live action. Or, maybe, it was that I grew up in the right time, where my younger self started crafting picture books on literal scratch paper and was partly motivated by seeing fully realized artists tell stories through drawing, too, and the passions for artistry and storytelling never left.
Whatever it is, there’s always been something about the medium of animation that has always left a strong imprint on me and captivated me with its creativity and wonder.
That passion for the medium most likely plays a part into why I love “NIMH” as much as I do as well.
I first received my own VHS copy of “The Secret of NIMH” one Easter when I was about five or six years old, and it naturally also played a part in my appreciation for film and the animated medium that only grew stronger as time went on. I remembered enjoying it the first time that I viewed it, and, as I grew older and watched it again and again, I would gradually come to marvel more of the visual and storytelling wizardry that went on with bringing it to life. A huge part of why I probably treasure this film more than many is my awe at all of the detailed artistry that went into illustrating this story and bringing it to brilliant life.
II. There are other elements to the story that add to its wonder, such as the superb support system and the excellent music.
The support system of Mrs. Brisby is not mentioned often, but it also helps play a significant part to establishing why the film excels as it does.
As foolish as Jeremy the Crow (as voiced by Dom DeLuise) is, he is unquestionably loyal.
Consider how Jeremy is willing to fly the mouse to her destinations that she otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach on feet. Also, while he, admittedly, doesn’t earn huge laughs as the comedic relief character, he usually provides just enough humor that is essential for a journey as frightening as the heroine’s is. That shot of Brisby telling Jeremy atop his feathers about how she doesn’t know how she gets talked into doing something, such as flying atop him, is capturing a moment of brief wonder and humor via soaring through the air before the heroine faces an intimidating creature that might be the only way for her to seek additional help for her ill son.
It’s a brief moment of levity before the heroine navigates through another dark chapter in her journey that will continue to test her bravery.
Through the moments that are scarier or more complicated, Jeremy also manages to assist her friend with different tasks, whether it’s looking after her children while she’s away or inadvertently salvaging Timothy’s medicine. He does stumble around often, and, half of the time, he doesn’t know how to properly do a certain task without a direct explanation. Nevertheless, his heart is clearly present and ultimately pushes him towards supporting his friend.
It is also worth mentioning that, while Jeremy is undeniably clumsy, he never gets to the point where he’s annoying. I’ve seen more than my share of comic relief characters from both film and television that just waste precious screen time with few laughs and never genuinely contribute to what the main hero is trying to overcome on the journey. Jeremy, however, is a genuinely helpful comic relief character and greatly helps the heroine on her path.
Mrs. Brisby is blessed, in general, to have others support her through her journey as well, such as Mr. Ages, who serves as the doctor/scientist of the movie that diagnoses Timothy’s condition and points her further towards other sources to assist her situation. He can come across as bitter at moments, but it is evident that he does care for others around him. Mr. Ages (voiced well by Arthur Malet) simply doesn’t always know the best way to express it, which is the type of figure that many have seen from in their lives and can relate to. His simple reaction to discovering Mrs. Brisby surviving her conversation with the Great Owl alone shows that he is not a cold stick in the mud and recognizes when others are truly special and have achieved something astounding.
There is also Justin (voiced superbly by Peter Strauss) as the “honest, noble knight” figure from the rats who displays enough intelligence and combat expertise to fight against whatever physical foes come across the way and, also, provide a calm, reassuring sense of leadership when guiding Mrs. Brisby through the rats’ underworld. He displays confidence to spare and a legitimate authority when it comes to the rats in order to guide them with moving Brisby’s home to safety.
One element that often doesn’t receive much discussion when it comes to great adventure films consists of the support systems and how vital they are for the main hero and the story, in general.
Imagine, for instance, how Luke Skywalker might not have advanced in his quest as far as he did if it weren’t for the sage wisdom and rigorous training provided by Yoda. The original trilogy has its darker elements as it reaches “Empire Strikes Back” and the journey wouldn’t feel as light if it weren’t for Han Solo’s humorous gruffness and C3-PO’s comedic banter with R2-D2.
As an example of a support system that some may not be as familiar with, I also think of “The Shape of Water” and the loyal neighbor/best friend of Sally Hawkins who converses with her when most others won’t as a fellow outcast and assists her on her absurd yet heartfelt plans throughout the movie. I think of Octavia Spencer occasionally helping her translate what she means to say at work and keeping an eye out for her when others turn their attention in the other direction.
A memorable support system of friends and fellow heroes often plays a vital part in shaping a good film into a great one.
Part of that may come from the idea that, in real life, many of us have our own support systems filled with caring people in our lives in the forms of either friends or family or both who are often around to support us through our journey. Some of these people who support us may be more serious. Some may be fairly light-hearted and happy and add humor or optimism to our journeys. And, some of them aren’t there along every single step of the path, but their presence is no less important.
For a person who does so much on her own with her family, Mrs. Brisby is beyond fortunate to have the support system that she does who greatly guide her along her journey and add to the heart that breathes from this film’s gentler moments.
Something else that doesn’t get mentioned much about this movie is Jerry Goldsmith’s score. His music is simply amazing, and I’m somewhat surprised that more people don’t talk about him as a composer, especially since he’s done the music for a number of memorable movies. Others have him to thank for fantastic scores from movies, such as “Alien” “Patton” “Hoosiers” “Gremlins” and “The Wrath of Khan” among others. Here, Goldsmith perfectly paints an ominous background for a climactic sword battle or a mood of amazement when a mystical circle spins to life with vibrant electricity and color before it reveals both of the hardship and heroism from one character’s past. He was the perfect maestro to elevate a story into truly scaring someone or tug at someone’s heartstrings without being overly sentimental, and there is a vast loss with his presence being gone.
Goldsmith’s musical contributions to this film easily helped provide much of its emotional impact and magic as well, and he deserves credit for his impact on this movie.
III. The philosophy of this movie resonates with me and is meaningful to me.
As the years have gone on, I recognize that certain films stick with people because they give them something strong or hopeful to believe in. In the case of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, for example, many view the Force as similar to either a religion that they have or something bigger than themselves that guides them through their journey in life through both the good and harsh circumstances. On the surface, it’s a traditional story about good vs. evil, but it also contains poignant ideas about what it means to follow a path of either a hero or a villain, what it means to truly become one, and so on. One of the reasons that the original “Matrix” movie from 1999 was such a massive hit didn’t just come from its groundbreaking action but, also, from its ideas regarding finding your greatest strengths from within and not letting the world or others hold you back from developing your inner identity.
Some of these themes from these works have made such an impact upon others that there are literally books written about the philosophy based on the characters and worlds from them. To this day, the power of a movie to help you ponder more or even give you optimism and guide you with its ideas or philosophy is something that I still find a great deal of respect from and play a big role into why I love film as much as I do.
And, for me, personally, “The Secret of NIMH” is partly as powerful as it is because it provided me so many ideas from a simple yet meaningful philosophy that has still guided me to this day.
Such ideas from the philosophy of this movie include the following:
Be kind to others, even in the face of darkness and confusion.
Look out for others and protect those who are struggling the most.
There is no shame in vulnerability.
No matter what bad actions happen to you or horrible circumstances face you, never stop searching for light at the end.
Never give up hope.
Love can sometimes be one of the greatest superpowers of all through what it inspires others (and yourself) to accomplish.
You don’t have to physically be the strongest person in the room or the toughest or the one who appears to know all the answers in order to make a difference or be a heroic person.
Bravery can often be found in the people that you least expect.
These are just some of the ideas that have stood the most with me after seeing this film time and time again. Some of this themes may be obvious to others, and this movie was not the first to voice them, nor will it be the last. However, they ring especially true in “NIMH” because the story is wonderful at presenting them through the journey and how much darkness is fought through to achieve the light and happiness towards the end.
In fact, this philosophy has meant much to me on a personal level through my own journey through life.
I will not go into much detail here, but, through most of my life, I have had moments of my own in which I have either been mistreated or faced situations that weren’t good for me, personally or mentally. I have faced my own demons and my own shadows through my times, including mentally tougher times that were challenging. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not the most physically huge person that one might find, and there are challenges that I have faced in my personal life story in which I felt hopeless or defeated or wasn’t sure that better things would come through the obstacles that I faced.
The past few years, in general, have been particularly hard in specific ways. From what I understand, others feel a similar way, too. sure that they have been for others, too). From a personal perspective and from events that go beyond my own world that have sometimes given me fright or concern, it has not always been easy to know what is the best thing to do or where to find the most trusting people ahead that will always stay with you or where hope may ultimately be, especially in the recent times that we have been living in from the past few years.
Many times, when there is a movie that inspires me to move forward through how bad things get and how overwhelming circumstances can be or how dark they can be, I often come back to this movie and what it has taught me about the importance of courage, generosity, and selflessness in the face of times or environments that are not understanding or can be downright challenging.
I think back to what the film has taught me about how powerful kindness can be and how important it is to fight and move forward for those that you care about and how quietness and shyness are not disadvantages and that courage can occur from anybody and any person.
Often, I reflect back to what this film has taught me about always going the extra mile to help or show your love for those that you care about the most, no matter what confusion lies ahead.
In a world and through times that only seem to feel more cynical and cold at several points, I find comfort from this story that reminds me about what great superpowers love and kindness can be in the face of a world with more than its fair share of shadows and evil monsters to overcome.
It doesn’t replace therapy or anything of that nature, but the philosophy and ideas of this film and this hero’s journey has genuinely inspired me and helped me through my darkest times, and I can’t thank it enough for that.
IV. The movie tells the story of one of my all-time favorite cinematic heroes and is a nice tale dedicated to mothers and those dedicated to acting selfless for the ones that they care about the most.
Perhaps, the biggest strength of “The Secret of NIMH” comes from the heroine herself.
In my mind, Mrs. Brisby is one of the great heroes of cinema and deserves a spot right besides the likes of Rocky Balboa and Indiana Jones.
The late-great Elizabeth Hartmann voices her, and she is simply fantastic and plays a significant part to bringing the strong qualities to her character that make her shine. She carries a gentleness to her performance that conveys humility but still remains steady and strong in the moments through which her character’s faith is tested.
It is also worth noting that her character is not a muscle-bound action hero or a lethal assassin that can defeat its enemies with a number of sharp weapons. Instead, she’s a devoted mother who is often terrified and unsure of herself, and she relies upon her courage, heart, and undying love for those that matter to her the most to navigate through her unpredictable surroundings.
When Mrs. Brisby shivers from her sobbing after almost losing her son’s medicine or tries to speak generously to a soldier that terrorizes her with a nasty sword, the audience recognizes that she is fighting through a horrible situation that most of us would probably be frightened to endure, too. Many have close family or friends that they treasure with all of their hearts and would go to great lengths to assist them or protect them because they mean that much to them.
Just seeing her reaction when she discovers that Jeremy (inadvertently) saved her son’s medicine is the first moment that I always know when I’m about to watch a great movie. It brings me so much joy every time to see her eyes widen and the large smile on her face and how she hugs the medicine with all of her strength, as though it happens to be one of her own children. That amount of happiness and love coming from one character immediately demonstrates how big her heart is, how much others that she love mean to her, and, above all, how important it is that her conflict find a resolution.
The animation is wonderful here at depicting what a caring figure she is with all emotions perfectly illustrated, and it helps the audience further engage with the heroine and what she goes through.
There are several scenes that are great in echoing the extent of the dangers that the heroine of the movie is facing and what it says about her character as she still marches forward to face them.
Take note of the aforementioned scene in which a guard is raising his giant three-bladed sword close to Mrs. Brisby and is trying to frighten her away from venturing further into the rats’ underground world.
Brisby stammers. “H-hello…I’m Mrs. Brisby.”
The guard swipes his sword and leans it closer, since he still doesn’t know who she is, but the hero of the film still tries to act as courteous as she can and asks where she can find the rats of NIMH who are supposed to guide her. Still not fully trusting her, the guard swipes his vicious weapon many more times at her and chases her away from him, but she doesn’t lash back at him or try to yell any foul words. Instead, Brisby continues to search for a safer passage to the rats’ world.
In another scene from earlier on, the mouse is entering the Great Owl’s lair in search of advice is for helping her situation with her family and her sick son despite knowing how he is a creature that is known for eating mice. In a surprising motion, the giant owl’s talons smash onto a tarantula that almost eats her alive, and she just freezes and runs her hands down her gaping face in terror as she looks further up at this intimidating creature that could easily swallow her up at any given second if it wanted to. Little moments, such as this, remind me why I love film as I do because of how much emotion comes through even the actions that don’t say a word but tell you everything that you need to know about the character and the story.
You can tell how how terrified she is but, also, how much courage flows from this tiny hero and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to save someone close to her.
Immediately following the Owl first meeting eyes with the mouse, an aerial shot occurs, revealing Mrs. Brisby running into a small corner and curling up and shivering from her sheer fright about being eaten.
When the Owl hears about her dilemma, there is another scene that, while brief, speaks volumes about the strong heart that comes from her and how far she’s willing to go for her family.
Brisby says with a lone tear that shines within her eye and says. “Please Mr. Owl…I would do anything to save Timmy…anything…”
Mrs. Brisby is upfront about how desperate her conflict is and how hard she is fighting to find a solution. That lone tear in her eyes and the simple motion of her looking down in front of her as she is in such a hurtful moment, again, demonstrates so much about her without her necessarily being talkative.
It shows how vulnerable she is.
It shows how much she loves her son.
It shows how relatable she is to anyone who has ever been a serious time of doubt or concern involving a loved one.
It shows how much she cares about her family, in general, and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to save them.
It shows how, despite facing high chances of possibly getting devoured by this large creature in the woods, Brisby still marches forward and acts politely in the face of the horrible circumstances that surround her and her family.
Something that I’ve noticed with each repeated viewing of this movie is that she never directly says, “I love you” to her children. However, her actions and reactions illustrate how much she loves her family wonderfully on their own. Consider when she reads the magical book from Nicodemus’ room and first discovers how her beloved husband died in his duties as one of the rats of NIMH and how she lowers her head and quivers in her voice when she discovers this devastating information.
Also, take note of when she remains on the verge of entering the home of the Great Owl (an animal that, again, could devour her at any moment, given his nature) and glances to the side and whispers. “For Timmy…Do it for Timmy…” to remind her how she is doing this task for her severely sick child in spite of her own fears that are cloaking her with each step through this dark lair.
Actions, such as these and how she reflects upon her son with compassion as she feeds him his medicine, illustrate how much she loves her family and is willing to go the extra distance for them.
Consider, too, that she doesn’t have a trusted sword or physically fight any opponents with her fists at any time throughout this story.
Her power that helps her through her path largely comes from the bravery to move onwards and ask for help when needed.
Her courage, later, motivates her to do acts that nobody would consider doing, such as alerting the other rats about an incoming threat that could wipe them out or trying to drug a vicious feline in order to help Justin and his comrades with their duty of trying to move her house to a safer spot.
Her abilities come from her own perseverance that encourages her to search through the darkest place for the answers that she desperately needs.
Mrs. Brisby knows that she could die at any moment on her quest. She isn’t exactly the biggest or most intimidating creature in the woods, but she still continues forward out of love for those that are dearest to her while refusing to give up hope.
In short, she is selfless.
Yet, the heroine of the movie is also not a saint by any means. She occasionally reveals a few moments of frustration with others, such as raising her voice for a moment when Jeremy goofily persists on talking about trying to romantically catch someone’s eye when she needs to be elsewhere. Additionally, she remains more than aware of how fearful and hesitant she is about being eaten or killed on her path (and rightfully so). It’s surprising how many close misses she has with death as well as how many ugly encounters she has with those who either misunderstand her or pretend to be helpful but are secretly plotting for their own needs and theirs alone.
And, yet, Mrs. Brisby still strives to act generously and go above and beyond to help those that she loves in her life.
There is something truly wonderful about that level of dedication and selflessness that this heroine displays.
Regardless of what some people may suggest, conflicts and struggles, however they may come through whatever form, don’t always require someone to be the most extroverted or powerful or even be the best leader in the world. In real life, it’s everyday people trying to find their way to find a solution or help someone or do something out of kindness for someone else. When all is said and done, our connection to others, our generosity towards others, is all we have. One needs to only look at the past couple of years to recognize that.
It is inspiring to reflect upon how Mrs. Brisby fights forward with kindness and courage and often does her best to push past her insecurities and worries to accomplish the task at hand. I think back to what the film has taught me about how powerful generosity can be and how important it is to fight and move forward for those that you care about. I reflect on how it suggests that shyness and humility are not disadvantages and that courage can occur from anybody and any person.
In a world and through times that only seem to feel more cynical and cold at several points, I find comfort from this heroine’s journey and how she believably develops into showing herself as more of the hero that she is. She is a simple mother in a scary but believable situation who, despite having occasional failures or doubts, ultimately accomplishes amazing things, due in great part to her dedication and heart.
In fact, through many specific ways, the story reminds me of my own mother.
Similar to Mrs. Brisby, my own mother is quiet and sometimes uncertain about what happens in the future ahead, but she still perseveres and moves forward with a courage and strength that never ceases to amaze me. Both Mrs. Brisby and my mother have a humble attitude that never wavers, and they both share a selflessness and devotion to their family and everybody they care about that are echoed loudly through their actions.
And, although the story of her life is different from this heroine’s, my own mother has (similar to other people in their life journeys) also experienced her share of obstacles and faced her own times of difficulty. Yet, in spite of whatever dark moments or times of uncertainty that she has faced in her path, she still continued forward with kindness and courage, with passion and her own undying spirit and her love for whoever means the most to her in her life as well as others beyond those that she knows. And, she continues to allow her strong spirit to shine through both good and bad times.
My mother also taught me about how being quieter and shy is never a weakness. She taught me about the power of selflessness and the importance of being humble. She continues to inspire me through her own actions that demonstrate great compassion for others and, in the process, she reveals the vast size of her own heart and how strong she is at all times.
Similar to the rest of my family, my mother always inspires me, and I often think of her and the rest of my great family, in general, whenever I replay this film.
My connection to my mother may admittedly play a reason why I find much meaning and connect well to movies that contain wonderful or memorable mother characters as well. It’s why I admire Toni Colette in “The Sixth Sense” as a mother doing her best to stay patient and show her compassion for her son despite being on her own and not fully believing her child’s gift for speaking the dead quite yet. A big part of why I loved Taika Waititi’s 2019 World War II comedy-drama “Jojo Rabbit” came from Scarlett Johansson portraying an amazing mother who works as someone covertly trying to combat the Nazis but also genuinely cares about her son and teaches him lessons about love and finding joy in things beyond what his foolish government tries to brainwash him into believing. In the current year that I’m writing this essay, two vastly different movies in the form of “Turning Red” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (both of them great) focused on mothers from Asian heritage who struggle with complicated pasts from their own families and are attempting to develop a love and strong connection with their own daughters that mean so much to them moving forward.
These movies follow the tradition of “NIMH” in terms of creating memorable mothers who show their strength and the traits that make them shine through their own stories and journeys.
I care very much about my own family, so I’ve always admired media that examines family, such as the strength and power of a mother’s compassion, in ways that “NIMH” and other films have demonstrated.
Given everything that mothers have to do in their work-related lives and the lives of their own families, mothers are, in many ways, heroines on their own, and “The Secret of NIMH” is one of the stories that establishes this the best in my eyes.
“The Secret of NIMH” in general, is a story dedicated to all of the amazing mothers dedicated to going above and beyond to accomplish something or help someone out of love for their families, in general. In fact, as I see it, the movie can also be viewed as a dedication of sorts to anyone willing to go the extra distance for someone that they care about, in general, whether it’s family or someone that they consider as family in their eyes.
V. The movie ends in a climax that is still among one of my favorite scenes in film and makes me reflect about the idea of heroism.
As Brisby’s journey continues, it leads to what is unquestionably my favorite part of the movie: the climax.
Tension is already high as Jenner, the villain of the movie, destroys the contraption that the rats of NIMH are using to try to carry Brisby’s home to safety. Throughout this process, Jenner fulfills his main goal of killing Nicodemus out of his own selfish, crooked desire to force the rats and himself to remain at their home near the house and maintain their power from where they are. He is not dissimilar from many wicked people with higher authority who only aim for their own goals or more power and are even willing to maim or kill others in order to reach what they’re craving.
Once Brisby discovers that the menacing NIMH is on its way to shortly look through the fields and exterminate the rats, she manages to escape her cage from being trapped, and she performs her first great act of heroism from this climax by boldly warning the other rats about NIMH (the cruel animal testing lab) coming to literally exterminate them. Jenner reveals his savage side out in the open when he tries to murder Brisby in order to steal her precious amulet that Nicodemus gave her and eradicate her for ruining his plan of keeping the other rats here.
The tension heightens through a rather fantastic swordfight scene between Justin and Jenner. Goldsmith’s music plays marvelously in this moment where both of these mice block with their swords, step back, and take cover when needed before clashing steel against steel. Wounded both by Justin across the stomach and a dagger from behind by a reluctant accomplice of his, Jenner dies.
However, for as remarkable as this battle is, the climax still hasn’t reached its most powerful moment, yet.
It’s the moment that truly seals this movie in my heart and makes it one of the best films that I’ve ever seen.
Uncertain of what the next step should be and thinking that things can’t possibly worsen, Mrs. Brisby slumps against the edge of her home with her face buried in defeat.
Suddenly, large bubbles from the mud form underneath her home, and her home with her children still inside starts to sink. Calling out to the other rats, Brisby tries to find her way around the rope that is tied to her home and fights so hard to find a way to keep the home afloat. Within the scenes of Brisby and the rats trying to hoist the rope back to protect her kids, it cuts to three of her kids fighting to stay afloat atop their furniture from all of the mud that they are close to drowning in.
Making the situation even more frightening is hearing her oldest daughter cry out. “Mother! MOTHER!”
As her other daughter is caught in the mud, she tells her siblings. “I can’t breathe!…”
The horror of the situation is raised through the voices of Brisby’s children crying out to their mother and fighting to survive. There is something truly horrifying about hearing one’s family call out for assistance in the midst of a horrible situation, the type where someone could possibly die. And, the sight of Brisby’s kids struggling to keep afloat from the ugly muck that is filling their house and close to taking their lives away creates an intense and frightening atmosphere and causes the audience to hope for a happy outcome.
It is a scene in which Ms. Brisby’s worst nightmare is slowly coming to life.
It is the worst nightmare of most people, in general: the loss of their family.
Goldsmith’s music quickens and adds to the terror of the situation, while Brisby is scrambling to find a way with the rope to bring her home back from sinking further into the mud and losing her family forever. Yet, it is of no use. Feeling that all hope has been lost, Justin brings Brisby back to the surface to keep her from drowning with the rest of her house. The heroine fights back against Justin’s restraint and reaches forward with her vocally sounding as though she’s either sobbing or crying out in shock. Her eyes widen, and she believes that her family is lost forever.
Right at the point where it seems that all hope has been extinguished, the red amulet soars from the mud and beams brightly with its radiance glowing from all sides.
The wonderful piece of jewelry soars close to Brisby and briefly shows Nicodemus in the center repeating his words that he mentioned, earlier: “Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it’s there.”
These words indicate that Mrs. Brisby’s courage and determination to save her family is what activated the amulet’s power and is providing the strength and magic that only she can give at this time. Touching upon the amulet, Brisby initially drops the amulet for a moment after it literally burns her hands. However, knowing that her family’s lives are in danger, she reaches for the amulet again, and, this time, she holds onto it tight as though her life depends on it, while its illuminating, red presence quickly travels up her arms and literally fills her with the power of her own love.
Raising her amulet into the air with her hands, Brisby watches as the rest of the screen fills with golden streaks of illumination that paint the background in wonderous fashion. The camera pulls back to show the physical rats of NIMH shielding their vision as they witness the golden lights beaming from this magical amulet that the heroine holds onto. It’s a beautiful scene that must be seen to truly know the incredible wonder of it.
After battling nasty cats and risking being speared to death and devoured, Mrs. Brisby has finally reached her moment in which her love and bravery literally shines from its powerful presence for all to see. Brisby may not be the most physically fierce character in the movie, and she has experienced her moments of self-doubt, but, in the end, none of that matters.
Her selflessness, her courage, her dedication to those that mean the most to her has been more than enough to inspire her to pursue her quest not for fame or attention or wanting to prove something but out of her own devotion for her own family.
And, the amount of courage and love that defines who she is perfectly shows here in this moment through which she can now use all of this to rescue her children.
There were so many points where she could’ve turned back and stayed back or given into her fears for good, but she kept going. Sometimes, she was hesitant or needed someone’s assistance to lead her to a person, but, in the end, it was her bravery, her love that inspired her to never give up hope and keep being as strong as possible in order to do what was best for her family.
Soon, the powers of the amulet lift the rope that is tied to the heroine’s home. Amidst a continually golden background, Brisby closes her eyes and calmly uses the powers of the amulet to help lift her home (now glowing with the same intense, radiant red color) out of the mud and back onto a higher rock, where it’ll be safe and keep her family free from harm. I often come back to this scene and find tears welling along my eyelids because of how beautiful this moment is.
After so much fright and frustration, so many times in which she almost got killed or came at the point to where she could’ve failed her task and lost her family forever, Ms. Brisby has finally reached the point where her love and her incredible dedication to those, outside of herself, saved her family and presented her the most as the amazing hero that she is.
I often get emotional when this scene occurs not simply because of how much has been built up to lead to this powerful moment but because of how it is one of the most perfect representations, on-screen, of how far hope, love, and perseverance can lead someone and how wonderful it is when all of that dedication shows and helps someone else out or, in this case, truthfully saves someone…
I should take a brief moment and talk about the movie’s director, Don Bluth. Since my earliest days when I first started getting interested in film and illustrations, Bluth was perhaps one of the biggest and earliest influences that I had. I always appreciated how dedicated he was to telling darker stories aimed at children but never lost sight of bringing the magic and heart that made them wondrous.
Fievel faces countless obstacles and horrifying creatures in “An American Tail” that cause his eventual reunion with his family to feel all the more powerful and uplifting. Charlie is dealing with a surprising wickedness within him and even a nightmare of literal Hell in “All Dogs Go to Heaven” but the connection that he develops with the girl in the movie, Anne-Marie, and the selfless act that he demonstrates towards her eventually results in one of my favorite cinematic scenes from my childhood when we discover that Charlie is now an angel and talks to the human girl one last time before she expresses her gratitude towards him and the impact that he made on her life.
Similar to many great fairy tales, Bluth creates frightening monsters and situations for his heroes to face because he clearly understands the power of making the happier moments and times of victory feel all the more powerful and magical. Such great and daring storytelling allows the optimism of the heroes of his movies to further shine and their strength to stand out on a higher level, and Don Bluth once again proves through this moment how the hardship of our heroes and what they go through allows for an even more miraculous and wondrous occasion when the heroes of the story reach their big moment of victory and achieve their dreams.
Bluth is still at the top of my favorite animated directors for this specific reason, and the animation industry is beyond blessed to have such an amazing and influential figure, such as him, among them.
Often, this scene of the heroine magically moving her home to safety comes to mind when I think about myself or someone else that I know from real life trying to accomplish something that is challenging or possibly intimidating. When I revisit this magical moment, I remember perhaps one of this movie’s most valuable lessons: No matter how far the odds may be stacked against you, no matter how fearful or anxious you may feel about what’s ahead, you should keep moving forward with kindness and bravery and never lose hope because the strength of your heart and what you can do for others beyond yourself is where true magic lies.
This moment is amidst one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema because it is one of the perfect images of love and hope coming to the rescue and causing people to accomplish great things, even when the situation doesn’t look good or all hope feels lost.
If this isn’t an inspiring moment from cinema, I’m not sure what is.
It’s scenes, especially this one, that help establish Mrs. Brisby, in my eyes, as a genuine superhero.
True, she may not be able to fly. She also doesn’t have superior, physical strength, and she can’t leap from one building to the next. Yet, Mrs. Brisby doesn’t need to have any of those qualities and never did.
Her “superpowers” come from other areas.
They come, partly, from her perseverance in the face of such haunting environments and obstacles.
They come from her own selflessness that encourages her to make her way past intimidating owls and felines and mice with blades to help others beyond herself.
One of her greatest superpowers comes from a mix of the immense strength and, yes, courage of her own heart that helps motivate her to accomplish tasks that others are fearful of overcoming, whether it’s facing the Great Owl or trying to overcome a vicious cat.
She shivers and hesitates and openly expresses doubt at certain points, but her bravery and caring nature still ultimately drive her to move forward on her path, partly because of her inner strength and determination and, also, due to the impressive amount of selflessness and bravery that brews inside her.
Consider, for a moment, how most heroes perform their actions partly inspired by their love for the places or the people that they’re trying to protect. Much of the first “Wonder Woman” movie consisted of the titular heroine going out of her way to protect other human beings around her, partly inspired by her love for Chris Pine’s character and the example of selflessness that he demonstrated in the face of pure wickedness. Or, think of how Superman in most mediums of his stories uses his powers to help others, partly because he loves Metropolis and the birth and adoptive parents that helped him guide on his path, or how Batman uses his intelligence and other skills to assist others and protect them from evil because he cares about his city and the good people from it as much as he does.
Mrs. Brisby is no different in how she performs acts of incredible courage and kindness, whether it’s saving a group of vastly intelligent rats or her own children, in great part due to how much those that she cares about others that mean the world to her.
Nothing that she does throughout this movie is short of extraordinary, and she will always be one of my favorite characters and one of the most inspirational heroes that I’ve ever seen on-screen.
In this climax, in this magical movie moment, is where this superhero truly (and literally) shines the most.
VI. Closing Thoughts
When “The Secret of NIMH” was first released in July of 1982, it was a moderate financial success making $14 million against a $6–7 million budget.
Similar to other family films from this era, such as “The Dark Crystal” there were some mixed opinions from others in regards to how dark this G-rated movie was. Over time, however, “NIMH” has slowly gained a cult film following from many who love or appreciate it, and it brings me joy to know this.
“The Secret of NIMH” gives me practically everything that I could want or hope for from a movie.
I will say that I can’t guarantee that this movie’s dark nature will make it every person’s cup of tea. For me, however, it has taught me so many valuable lessons about perseverance and love and how important one’s hope and caring nature towards others is. It teaches me to be a better, kinder person and maintain my courage and hope in the face of whatever comes my way. In a world that often feels so cynical and selfish at times with media that (if we’re being honest) can sometimes feel so mean and unnecessarily cynical in some places, “Secret of NIMH” is a welcome story that only gets better and feels more relevant as time progresses.
Beyond how strong the movie is on a character and theme-based level, it has incredible animation that I sometimes pause to reflect upon how detailed and beautifully everything is illustrated. The story is timeless, and every emotional moment is earned and then some. The music by Jerry Goldsmith is absolutely fantastic and brings the right sense of terror or wonder or overjoyed splendor that should accompany each scene.The voice acting is excellent with Elizabeth Hartmann, in particular, giving a wonderful performance that makes me and others miss her all the more for her terrific work. Don Bluth masterfully directs this movie with the perfect blend of darkness and light-hearted spirit that results in a wonderfully told fairy tale for others to learn from and admire. The audience is rooting for Ms. Brisby every step of the way, and there are some who could be inspired by this character and this story, too.
This movie continues to inspire me in the same way that others feel inspiration from “Rocky” or the wonder of the first “Matrix” film and what those movies accomplished in terms of storytelling.
“The Secret of NIMH” is my favorite movie because reminds me how movies can go beyond entertaining others and can, in some specific cases, truly inspire others and give hope.
It’s one of those movies that has helped me through some of my hardest times and always leaves me more amazed by it in some way when I return it.
Movies, in general, will always be one of my greatest passions, and this film will always be one of the best examples and one of the finest reminders to me of what amazing things the medium can accomplish.
“The Secret of NIMH” will always be one of the best representations of the power of movies and the impact that they can leave on us.
It is pure movie magic, and this story’s impact on me as a movie lover and as a person will never be lost or forgotten.