From the cover of the comic book version.

THE SECRET OF NIMH

Original Medium: Prose fiction
Produced as animation by: Aurora Pictures
Created by: Robert C. O‘brien
First Appeared: 1971
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Animation man Don Bluth, who was responsible for bringing Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Fievel Mousekewitz and much more to the screen, wasn't the first to learn the trade with Disney before opening a studio of his own — Ub Iwerks had been in on the creation of Mickey Mouse before creating his own Flip the Frog, anticipating him by decades, to say nothing of Hugh Harman and …

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… Rudy Ising, who launched two major studios, Warner's and MGM's, after starting at Disney. But Bluth was the first Disney alumnus to produce a feature of his own. His first feature was The Secret of NIMH.

The title was apparently intended to evoke images of dark, mysterious lands, where deadly secrets held the key to fabulous rewards, perhaps even world salvation. But there was nothing supernatural or fabulous about NIMH, which stood for National Institutes of Mental Health, a real-world oganization perfectly compatible with consensus reality.

In this story, a bunch of rats had been mutated by repeated use as experimental subjects, and gained fully human understanding of much of NIMH's technology. This enabled them to escape, and found a colony buried underneath a rosebush next to the nearby Fitzgibbon farmhouse, where they were able to steal enough electricity to run their community. Accepting the rats as relatively plausible, the story did contain one unrelated and unexplained fantastic element, an amulet that had the effect of turning anyone sufficiently pure of heart into what amounted to a superhero. It wasn't emphasized, but did come in handy at the end.

As it opened, the advent of spring was making it necessary that all the animals living in the farm's soon-to-be-plowed planting area pack up and move out of the way. But Mrs. Brisby, a mouse whose husband had died helping the rats escape, faced special difficulty — her son Timothy was sick and couldn't be moved. Hearing of the rats for the first time, she enlisted their help in moving the entire house, a cinder block, to a safe place, causing as little disturbance as possible to the creatures inside.

But a political situation in the rat community led to the rat Jenner, with the assistance of his main minion, Sullivan, to attempt to sabotage the house-moving project, leaving Nicodemus, the rat leader. dead, and the Brisby home still in danger. This was complicated by her friendship with a string-saving crow named Jeremy, and by the Fitzgibbons' determination to rid themselves of the rats by having the rosebush and everything around it bulldozed.

The story was adapted from Mrs. Frisby & tthe Rats of NIMH, which won the Newberry Medal as best children's novel of 1971. The author, Robert C. O'Brien (a pen name of Robert Leslie Conly), died in 1973, almost a decade before the film was made. The name of the main character was changed, to avoid possible conflict over the trademarked name of the toy, Frisbee. MGM (The Phantom Tollbooth) and United Artists (The Pink Panther) released it on July 2, 1982.

Mrs. Brisby was voiced by Elizabeth Hartman, whose other acting credits don't include voice roles. Jeremy was Dom DeLuise, who has played a villain in Duck Dodgers, an animal in The Wild Thornberrys, a minor god in Disney's Hercules and much more. Nicodemus was Derek Jacobi (a magician in a video game version of Aladdin, but mostly a face actor). Jenner was Paul Shenar, another who lacks other voice credits. Sullivan was Aldo Ray (Musselmutt in Houndcats).

The Secret of NIMH was reasonably successful, at least enough so to establish Bluth as a player in the animation field, enabling him to add All Dogs Go to Heaven, Anastasia and others to his resume. It was adapted into comic book form by a subsidiary of Gold Key Comics, and into a Little Golden Book called Mrs. Brisby & the Magic Stone, in 1982. But it wasn't revisited in new animation until Decenber 22, 1998, when MGM and United Artists released its sequel, The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue.

Meanwhile, "O'Brien's" daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two sequels to the original book. Racso & the Rats of NIMH came out in 1986; and R-T, Margaret & the Rats of NIMH in 1991.

Rights to the book were originally offered to Disney, which turned them down as "too dark" for their usual audience. But Aurora Productions, a consortium of former Disney people, bought the property and offered it to Bluth's nascent company. Bluth treated it as an opportunity to show that traditional animation values, which he thought had been left behind at Disney in favor of cutting costs, could save the industry from what looked like a terminal slump. He brought innovative techniques, which he hoped would save money while maintaining those values, to the task.

The Secret of NIMH was made as a non-musical, very unusual for an animated movie of the time. This was in keeping with the storyline, which contained a lot of serious action, but necessitated the exclusion of a scene where the characters are just dancing and singing and having fun, and that contributed to its dark tone. This probably hurt it at the box office, where it was only a mild success, but hasn't prevented it from at least partly restoring those Disney animation values.

— DDM

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Text ©2009 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Don Bluth