If you were a child in the 1980s or a VHS-tape-renting kid in the early 1990s, you know kids’ movies were, arguably, much riskier then than they are now. Just because a movie had been slapped with a G or PG rating didn’t mean there wasn’t something bonkers in said movie. For example, Logan’s Run (1976) is rated PG, even though it has full-frontal nudity. By the early 1980s, film ratings underwent some massive changes. And by 1984, a brand-new rating existed, PG-13, mostly so parents could watch out for all the heart-ripping in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Still, it might be easy to assume that despite the wonkiness in ratings for live-action “family movies,” that animated films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were fairly tame. Surely, today’s animated films are more risque than those from, say, 1982?
For those who lived it, or remembered renting animated movies from this era, nothing could be further from the truth. From the horrifying Wizards (1977) to the hardcore animated sci-fi movie Starchaser (1985), stuff that popped up in the kids’ section of the video store well into the ‘90s was often full of all sorts of scary imagery and adult themes that might freak parents out now.
In other words, it was an awesome time to be a kid. Even the stuff that was supposedly aimed at you had a high chance of being subversive as hell. Perhaps the prime example of this kind of darkly brilliant animated movie — masquerading as a cutesy story about talking rodents — was the 1982 Don Bluth masterpiece, The Secret of NIMH. And in July 1982, this movie became an instant cult masterpiece.
Adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s kids’ novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), the overall feeling of The Secret of NIMH is like if Tolkien were fused with a Dungeons and Dragons situation in which all the characters were talking animals, living in the shadow of humans, in a twisted world that Pixar would never dream of now. The very first shot of NIMH tells you what you’re getting into; a gnarled hand of a wizard-rat writes the words, “Jonathan Brisby was killed today...while helping with the plan...”
Gothic candlelight plays out in this scene, making it pretty much the polar opposite of those ornate storybooks that began so many animated Disney classics. The narrator, the quasi-magical rat, Nicodemus, eventually becomes a kind of shadowy Gandalf to the hero of the movie, mouse Mrs. Brisby (named changed from the book), who embarks on a harrowing and dark quest to save not only the rats of NIMH, but all the other animals, too. This movie starts with the death of a friendly mouse off-screen, introduces a sadistic cat named “Dragon,” and just gets creepier and more phantasmagorical as it progresses. Because animals bleed and there’s a lot of death and intense dark magic in this movie, it’s easy to imagine it getting a PG rating now, despite the fact that it’s a cartoon. At the time,
animator and producer Don Bluth was six years away from making his crowd-pleaser, the animated dino-romp, The Land Before Time. If that movie is the moment where Bluth seems to try for mainstream appeal and kind of sell-out to middle-America, The Secret of NIMH is when he’s at his most punk rock.
If the animation style of The Secret of NIMH reminds you a little bit of early Disney films like The Rescuers (1977), or Robin Hood (1973), there’s a reason for that. Bluth was a huge animator at Disney before forming his own studio. In 1979, Bluth left Disney and basically struck out on his own. If there were any iconoclastic tendencies that Disney had reigned in, he was free to go hog wild with his own movies.
The Secret of NIMH was the first, biggest, and most recognizable family movie from Don Bluth Productions, ever. It was followed in 1986 by An American Tale, and then, in 1988 by The Land Before Time. Keep in mind that all of these movies pre-date the Disney renaissance, which began with The Little Mermaid in 1987. And so, when it was released, The Secret of NIMH was almost universally well-reviewed. Roger Ebert even suggested that, had he been alive, Walt Disney would have liked the movie.
Structurally, The Secret of NIMH might represent the kinds of Disney movies that would follow: A plucky character goes on a harrowing journey, assisted by various other characters, as a sort of Fellowship of the Rings but for kids. And yet, the tone and maturity of The Secret of NIMH have nothing in common with the more sanitized Disney movies that would follow. This was a movie that knew small children would be frightened, and that fear was integral to making the story work.
The whole brilliance of The Secret of NIMH might be the fact that the movie is, on some level, about mental health. Although this is basically an Easter egg in the movie, NIMH itself stands for National Institute of Mental Health. Obviously, the poor rats are victims of a society that doesn’t value their mental health. But, through its creativity, boldness, and willingness to go dark, The Secret of NIMH made several generations of kids smarter and less timid. And, if you watch it with your (slightly older, probably over 7!) kid today, you’ll find that it’s just as great.