When I was 6 years old, my father took me to see The Secret of NIMH. It was my first trip to a movie theater to see something other than Star Wars. Although I’m sure I watched plenty of animation before it, NIMH‘s dark and mysterious tone and dazzling effects really left a lasting impression on me. It’s still my favorite animated film to this day.
This was Don Bluth’s first feature after leaving Disney to set up his own studio and, in my opinion, his finest work. He resigned from Disney in 1979, frustrated with the steadily deteriorating production standards and the management’s lack of respect for their artists. A whole slew of animators followed him in a mass exodus, all quitting in the name of Walt Disney, whom they believed would have never tolerated the mediocre culture of the new regime.
In an effort to capture the feeling of “golden era” animated features, Bluth concentrated on strong characters, a solid storyline, and traditional production methods with NIMH. At the same time, he pushed for experimenting with unusual and often more labor-intensive animation techniques. This painstaking approach paid off with a film that harkens back to the stellar Disney features of the 30’s and 40’s. Albeit darker, both literally and figuratively, the animation is playfully fluid and the meticulously painted backgrounds are works of art in their own right ( there were 1078 of them ).
Additionally, there were over 600 different colors used in the film, which is astounding. Multiple color palettes were created for each character to fit different lighting situations throughout the movie; Mrs Brisby had 46 unique palettes for her character alone. It’s worth noting that all of this was accomplished with a smaller budget, a tighter timetable, and less manpower than Disney films of that era. A very impressive feat.
Everything being equal, I think the one thing about NIMH that resonated the most with me was how it engaged me in a way that no other animated film ever has. As a 6-year-old, Bluth’s story gave me an opportunity to understand and process real-life themes such as violence, tragedy, fear, and death. He trusted and challenged his young audience; something that today’s society seems wholly incapable of doing. That trust, combined with passionate craftsmanship, created an esoteric experience that spoke to me rather than at me. I’m truly thankful to Mr. Bluth and his team for respecting my intelligence and more so, encouraging my imagination.