The Secret of Nimh just turned 35 years old. Released in the glorious and legendary summer of 1982, it was not a hit at first (some think its box office failure can be attributed to a little movie called E.T.), but it has remained a pop culture touchstone all these years, and for good reason — 35 good reasons, in fact.
35. It’s in good company.
MGM’s theatrical rollout of Nimh was poorly planned and executed, but it was not the only flop of 1982 that would later be fondly remembered: Tron, Blade Runner, and The Thing were also getting ignored in theaters that summer.
34. This poster.
33. It’s Wil Wheaton’s cinematic debut!
That’s right, Wil’s first movie theater appearance was playing the voice of Martin, Mrs. Brisby’s oldest son.
32. Peter Strauss loves it!
The actor who stars as Justin, the captain of the guards, loved the movie so much that he named his son Justin!
31. It’s never out of print.
The Secret of Nimh was largely discovered by fans on home video. As a result, it has gone on to be one of the most consistent sellers in the MGM library. It has never gone out of print and has been released on virtually every home video format known to man.
30. It ushered in 80s darkness.
Nimh was the first of many 80s “kid’s movies” to feature a dark tone. It was followed by movies such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Black Cauldron, Return to Oz, and The Never Ending Story, not to mention Bluth’s other dark tales. All of these movies were flops, yet they are all vividly remembered and cherished by those who grew up with them.
29. Watch the movie, play the game.
Like many movies and TV shows of the era, Nimh got its own board game, complete with unique artwork.
28. It taught us sarcasm.
With this simple exchange, a generation of kid’s learned to smirk:
Jenner: “We were just talking about you…”
Justin: “That’s refreshing, Jenner. Usually you’re screaming about us.”
27. Kenny Loggins loves it!
Kenny stepped out of the Danger Zone long enough to record a children’s album called “More Songs from Pooh Corner,” covered Nimh’s theme song “Flying Dreams” with Olivia Newton John, and raved about the movie in the album’s liner notes.
26. It inspired these awesome tattoos.
25. It is lavishly animated.
Don Bluth famously broke away from Walt Disney Studios due to their lack of innovation, increasingly low budgets, and poor quality animation. His team taught themselves classic animation techniques that Disney had long abandoned and created a movie the likes of which had not been seen in decades. The character animation, detailed backgrounds, and vivid color palette are still impressive today.
24. The book is also excellent.
Robert C. O’Brien’s book, on which the movie is based, is fantastic. The most significant difference is that the book contains no magical elements, but aside from that, the adaptation is very faithful.
23. That sword fight, yo.
The climactic battle between Justin and Jenner is an epic sword fight that was animated by Bluth himself. And in a cool, subtle showcase of Bluth’s artistry, you’ll notice the background change during the fight. At first it starts out cold and gray, but as the fight intensifies, so do the colors in the background.
22. It inspired awesome fan art.
L-R: Don Shinoda, Adam McDaniel, Steven Martin
21. Jerry Goldsmith loved it!
Goldsmith loved the work he had done for the movie so much that he stayed on the project for an addition three weeks without pay. It was also his first animated movie.
20. Paul Shenar, the voice of the devil.
Paul Shenar turned heads with his portrayal of Orson Welles in the TV movie “The Night that Panicked America.” Though he had a long and successful career as a working actor, he never had a breakout role. But as the voice of Jenner, the movie’s sinister villain, he created a memorable foe worthy of James Bond’s rogues gallery.
19. It features real peril.
Part of the dark charm that The Secret of Nimh has is that it features characters in real danger. The amount of deadly peril Mrs. Brisby is constantly facing shows that Don Bluth doesn’t pull any punches. Bluth’s philosophy was that as long as you give them a happy ending, kids can take anything.
18. It’s not a musical.
This is not a song-and-dance musical, as was tradition for animated movies. Aside from “Flying Dreams” (the end title track by Paul Williams) and a “lullaby” version within the story, there are no songs in the movie.
17. Movie merch: from obvious to oddball.
If you wanted some sweet movie swag, you could get the usual array of collectibles, such as coloring books and t-shirt iron-on patches. But you could also get cross-stitch patterns, should you be so inclined.
16. It had the best United Artists logo.
The original release featured the early 80s-era United Artists logo, which happens to be the best version.
15. The comic book had its own soundtrack (on paper).
The comic book adaptation tried to recreate the movie’s epic score during the climactic house raising scene by putting actual music notes in the artwork.
14. It inspired some great fan fiction
When the internet was young, fan pages with fan fiction ruled the web, most of it bad, but with a few diamonds in the rough. One real standout in the Nimh fan fiction community was a sequel to the movie called “Second in Command” by the late Paul Gibbs. Another fun story was “The Secret of Sherwood Forrest,” a clever mash up of Nimh and Disney’s Robin Hood by Edwin Ross Quantrall. There was also some story called “Darkest Days” by a guy named Badbird (rumor has it, he now goes by the highly offensive name WatershipDownSyndrome on some obscure site called Laser Time).
13. Justin’s introduction.
In one of the movie’s many clever moments, Justin is introduced as yet another threatening figure to Mrs. Brisby, only to be revealed that he was playing a joke. There is almost no reason for this little interaction, but it it is a great, subtle moment that builds character.
12 . The View-Master discs were excellent.
View-Master discs took special artistry to create. Artist Pete Dorsett was considered one of the best, and he cited The Secret of Nimh as some of his finest work created for the format.
11. There were three NimhCons.
Nimh’s Internet presence in late 90s consisted of a small, but dedicated group of enthusiasts. And on three different occasions, a group of fan site creators and their fans got together for their very own Nimh Convention.
10. A voice cast to die for.
Unlike previous animated movies that largely relied on a stable of voice actors, Nimh employed a full cast of actors from stage and screen. And boy, did they create magic. Every voice is perfect, whether it be wise old sage Nicodemus, Justin’s devil-may-care charmer, Sullivan’s reluctant henchman, or Auntie Shrew’s invasive busybody, not one false note is uttered.
9. It got name-checked in a Bloom County strip.
8. It avoided the obvious love story.
There is unmistakable chemistry between Mrs. Brisby and Justin (even more obvious in the book), yet the movie resists the natural urge to go there, and instead leaves only hints of a possible future at the end while our two heroes remain chaste. A lessor storyteller would not have shown such restraint.
7. The kiss.
But that didn’t stop this pic from blowing up the Internet. No one knows the origin of this image, but it is assumed that one of the movie’s animators was responsible, due to the character models being spot on. This version was enhanced by fan artist MAB.
6. A focus on family.
The book featured two parallel stories: Mrs. Brisby needing to move her house, and the Rats of Nimh needing to evacuate their colony without a trace. Don Bluth wisely chose to focus the movie on Mrs. Brisby and her struggle while leaving the rats to be largely mysterious.
5. 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
That is, if you care about such things.
4. It’s about one mother’s courage.
Ultimately, what makes the story of Nimh truly click is Mrs. Brisby herself. She is not a born hero. In fact, she is in way over her head. She is full of fear and reluctance at first, but gradually, she begins to find her courage – even going so far as to volunteer for the same risky mission that got her husband killed – not to mention risking death to stop a tractor or by entering the home of the Great Owl, a natural predator or hers. And she does it all to protect her family.
In a genre with a history filled with princesses that needed to be rescued by male heroes, Mrs. Brisby broke the mold. Not only did her perseverance save her family, but she also saved the Rats of Nimh from certain extermination.
3. John Carradine was drunk.
According to producer Gary Goldman, John Carradine showed up for his recording session high on painkillers and tipsy from a martini. He did every line in one take and refused do any more. Luckily, they were good takes.
2. There is a very dirty joke hidden in the movie.
When Mrs. Brisby meets Jeremy, he tells her he’s looking for “Miss Right” and that when he finds her, he’ll feel it “Way down in my wishbone…”
1. Elizabeth Hartman, the true heart and soul of the movie.
Mrs. Brisby is The Secret of Nimh, and Elizabeth Hartman is Mrs. Brisby.
Anyone who has seen Hartman’s debut in A Patch of Blue would have assumed she was destined for greatness. Her gentile performance earned her rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And yet, her career stalled. But why?
Elizabeth Hartman was haunted by personal demons brought on by her near-crippling depression. She received many acting offers, but lacking the energy or confidence to perform. She turned many jobs down. Eventually, the job offers stopped coming. Having been reduced to B movies and bit parts of TV shows, The Secret of Nimh offered her a shot at redemption.
Though she had never done voice work, Hartman absolutely owned her performance as the shy, timid mouse who had to rise up to the challenge. Her performance was both harrowing and heartbreaking. No more so was her virtuoso performance evident than in the movie’s climactic “house raising” scene. When disaster strikes and her house is left in near ruin due to Jenner’s sabotage, Mrs. Brisby hears her children crying out for help. Oblivious to the destruction and the fact that they can no longer be saved, her children ask if they are almost moved, to which Mrs. Brisby replies, “soon, now.” She tries to put on a brave face for her children, but her trembling voice cracks, revealing her true emotions – she has resigned herself to the fact that all is lost. It is such a small moment, but the performance by Hartman is absolutely stunning. It is impossible to imaging another actress doing this part justice.
On June 10, 1987, Elizabeth Hartman committed suicide. So powerful is Elizabeth Hartman’s performance that when Nimh fans are asked what they think Mrs. Brisby’s never-revealed first name is, most simply answer: “Elizabeth.”
Article by contributor WatershipDownSyndrome.
From the author: Full disclosure, I am a Secret of Nimh super-fan. I used to operate MaximumNimh.com, one of the largest Nimh fan sites on the internet, specializing in cataloging collectibles and merchandise from the movie and books (you can still view it on Archive.org – caution: it’s hideous). Though there is no way to prove it, I believe that I have the largest collection of Nimh memorabilia in the world (outside of someone who actually worked on the movie, that is). I even own a 35mm pint of the movie. If you search “Secret of Nimh fan fiction” on Bing, my story “Darkest Days” is the second result. I attended NimhCon 2000 (that’s me with long hair). I also provided the rare View-Master discs for the restoration linked above.