Long title? Probably. But when you have two different versions of a title, you gotta find a way to combine them.
It isn’t creative, but it works.
National Reading Month marches on, past stories about imaginative and powerful young girls tapping into their true potential, readers hearts, and kid lit glory. Girls who could not wait and with unusual precocity were the standard of the first two weeks of this theme. This week, we move away from humans, to anthropomorphic animals with amazing abilities, and the heroine they’re trying to help.
It’s the story of a best-selling novel, a well-received movie animated by a well-respected company known not to tone down the subject matter of its child-friendly films – the animators knew kids in our generation didn’t always need our movies “Disney-fied.” Heck, they created the movie that scared plenty of little kids in the late 1980s. It even silenced the Venezio family in their living room with one particular scene. A few years later, when I saw the film that is part of the subject of today’s article, I remember it being equally dark to the other film I saw a few years earlier.
The irony of this is, the animator whose company is responsible for both of these films was a Disney animator.
The heroine is Mrs. Frisby (or Brisby, if you’re watching the movie), the book is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and the film is The Secret of NIMH.
Mrs. Frisby’s Plight
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a 1971 novel by Robert C. O’Brien (the pen name of Robert Leslie Carroll Conly), a 1972 Newberry Award-winning story of a mama mouse and her plight to rescue her home from the impending destruction of Mr. Fitzgibbon’s plow and save her children (especially her sick son, Timothy, who suffers from pneumonia as the story begins), allowing them to move successfully to the field, as they do every spring.
Mrs. Frisby, the widow of one Mr. Jonathan Frisby, lives with her children in a cinderblock in the garden of Mr. Fitzgibbon. As the farmer is preparing his plow for spring garden plowing, Mrs. Frisby realizes she needs help, as the move will surely kill her son Timothy at a time when he needs to stay in their warm home. After rescuing a crow, Jeremy, from entanglement in a shiny piece of string and impending doom by the farmer’s cat, Dragon, Mrs. Frisby is taken as a favor to consult with a wise owl about how to move her children so quickly. The owl recommends she consult with the Rats, as they are strong and knowledgeable.
All this information because of who her husband was.
The world of the rats is one of mechanics and literacy – the rats can read, are educated, and have built a whole society within their rose bush home. They have elevators, lights, a library, electricity, and human skills. As Mrs. Frisby finds out, the rats were part of experiments at NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health. Experiments performed on them by humans increased their abilities and allowed for longevity and strength. As soon as the rats find out who Mrs. Frisby is, due to her association with fellow mouse Mr. Ages, they are enthusiastic about helping her and her family.
What unfolds is a plan to divert attention (by way of drugging the farm cat, Dragon), capture, The Plan, a plot to exterminate the rats, and a rescue, sacrifice, and a family saved.
What is “The Plan,” you ask? You’ve got to read the book (or watch the movie) to find out!
4th Grade Reading Class
I read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in my fourth grade reading class (I was in level two reading based on testing done in third grade, the middle of three levels – it was the first time my brother and I were in the same class, something that wouldn’t happen again until middle school), sometime in early 1993. We read the novel as a class – obviously, we had assigned reading to do at home, but we also read and discussed the story in class. At the end of the book, everyone wrote book reports on a preset report format, and illustrate the cover of our report with a scene from the book. My cover, as I recall, was Mrs. Frisby entering the Rats’ ultra secret place within the rose bush. I even remember drawing the Christmas lights on the cover! I’m a terrible artist, so it was a stretch, but then again, I also drew Charlie Bucket from Charlie and Chocolate Factory for another book report in the same class, so I guess I must have been a determined artist.
I loved the story – I didn’t realize it at ten years old, but I’ve had an affinity for slightly darker stories, something that tends to cross over into television and movies I watch. The plot is heavy for a children’s novel, but if you can visualize the adventures of a mouse and her determination to move her family and save her son from illness, only to need saving herself, then you’ll love it. As an adult, I’m seeing the gravity of Mrs. Frisby’s situation, and wow, the story itself is engaging, and just as dark as I remembered it.
After our class finished the book – and our reports (pretty sure I got an “A” on mine, wouldn’t be shocked) – my teacher showed us the movie, which she said came out around the time (or before) all of us were born.
The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH, faithful to the source material (adding slightly and enhancing it in the process), is a 1982 film by Don Bluth, the first feature-length film by Bluth and his animation group. The story had originally been offered to the Walt Disney Company in 1972, who turned it down. Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, as well as eight animators from Disney, had left their animation department in September 1979 in order to start up an independent company.
Prior to work on their first animated project, a short film called Banjo The Woodpile Cat (which I saw for the first time only recently, thanks to my friend Ashley sending me some videocassettes to copy), artist and story writer Ken Anderson fell in love with the story and passed it along to Don Bluth. Bluth later showed it to Disney’s animation director, Wolfgang Reitherman, who turned down his offer to make a move based on the book. Reitherman was quoted as saying:
“We’ve already got a mouse [named Mickey Mouse] and we’ve done a mouse movie [called The Rescuers].”
Bluth and crew were undeterred, and the result of their effort and attempt to realize this book as a feature film paid off.
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Released in theaters on July 2, 1982 by MGM/United Artists, the $7 million budgeted film took in over $14 million, and met with critical acclaim. Despite some changes to the story (mystical elements and the amulet, which was to represent the power she had within her – which is hard to visualize on film, and wizard-like appearance of Nicodemus), the basic element of the original story is there, and blended with the added aspects for the film, it all works. All of it. The dark tone, combined with brilliant animation (the glowing eyes of Nicodemus!) are incredible.
I saw the movie in fourth grade, and didn’t see it for quite a few years, until I was much older (a teenager, early twenties perhaps?), and again about five years ago. I’m not huge on animated movies the way I was as a kid, but I go out of my way for certain ones, this being one of them. I think this is true of Don Bluth movies – I still love The Land Before Time and An American Tail, and those hold up incredibly well for 1980s kids. They’re both pretty heavy in parts, dealing in the same realism that The Secret of NIMH did so well. For Bluth’s first huge effort, it was incredible.
I also recall one of the rats, Justin cursing in one scene, and everyone in my class finding it funny.
He said “damn.” Because yes, that is hilarious.
The one element of the film that I think annoys me the most as an adult, but didn’t phase me as a kid, was the name change from Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby. We were informed of this by my teacher before we watched the movie (probably to avoid questions?). The actual reason for the name change (which is a huge detail!) is actually one that avoided the relatively new animation company a potential lawsuit.
So, here’s the story:
Wham-O, the manufacturer of the Frisbee flying disc rejected the use of the character’s name (it was her name!) for the film. This did cause a problem in post production, as lines had been recorded, so altering to “Brisby” had to be done through re-recording and altering (in the case of John Carradine) the pronunciations of “F” and “B.”
It detracts from the film in the form of a minor distraction, but seriously, the quality of the film outweighs that one detail. Is it annoying? Yeah, if you’re a purist and like little details, then yes, but considering what was added to the film, it had the potential to be so much worse. Everything else just worked. changing the name slightly is an oversight.
I think it is high time to see it again, it has been a few years.
And Now, You!
Have you found out The Secret of NIMH, be it the book or film? When did you see the movie and/or read the book? I’d love to know you experience with it, and if the film still holds up today for you.
National Reading Month rolls on next week with another female protagonist, part of a series of books I read as a kid that actually featured boys more prominently. I mean, I know it is Women’s History Month and all, but did every book I love in the world feature females in a lead/almost lead role?
I guess so.
Have a great day!