Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Director Report Card: Don Bluth (1982)

All year, I've been talking about macho action films. So this month, I've decided to shift gears a little and talk about cartoons. When I was a kid, there were two animation studios I recognized. The first of which was Disney, whose dominance of the market place and ubiquitous association with the art form will never go away. The second of which was Don Bluth, whose hand-drawn films had gorgeous animation and a distinct style of their own. I repeatedly rewatched many of Bluth's classic films as a kid. As I grew older, I lost track of his career. Looking back on it now, there's just as many flubs as there are hits. Mostly, revisiting his films has taken me back to a time when traditional animation still ruled children's entertainment and smaller studios could challenge Disney's control of the market.

In addition to reviewing all of Bluth's films, I'll also be throwing in several non-Disney, non-Bluth films from roughly the same period. We'll get to those later.

1. The Secret of NIMH

In the late seventies, Don Bluth and a handful of other animators left Walt Disney Studios to start their own company. Bluth was disillusioned with the cost-saving measures Disney was employing at the time. He thought this was leading to lower quality animation. Bluth and his team were committed to the time-consuming, costly “golden age”-style of animation, with painted backgrounds and hand-drawn frames. Originally, the animators were operating out of Bluth’s garage before some money people stepped in. The project Bluth’s company would choose as their debut feature film was, ironically, passed on by Disney a decade earlier: An adaptation of “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” by Robert C. O’Brien. The film would be overlooked in theaters but would eventually develop a passionate cult following.

The mouse Mrs. Brisby is a recent widow, her husband being killed by the cat of the family whose property they live on. Living on the same farm is a colony of rats. Experimented on by the National Institute of Mental Health, the rats have developed human-like intelligence and have built their own society under the rose bush. When her youngest son falls gravely ill and her home is endangered by the farmer’s new plow, Brisby seeks the help of rats. She is entangled in the rat’s society and discovers that they all may be in danger.

One of the films Don Bluth worked on while at Disney is “The Rescuers.” “The Secret of NIMH” bares a superficial resemblance to that earlier movie. Both are set in a miniature world of mice. Every day objects, like Christmas lights or lanterns, become huge when compared to the animals. A house cat is portrayed as an enormous monster. The connection to “The Rescuers” is ultimately very shallow. Most mice live an anthropomorphized but simple existence. The rats’ more complex society is justified by their in-story experimentation. “Secret of NIMH” is not a simple children’s story. It’s universe is fully formed and filled out with science fiction and magic-realism elements.

As just a visual experience, “Secret of NIMH” is gorgeous. Bluth’s goal was to return a richness to animation. He certainly succeeded there. The backgrounds in the film were hand-painted. The interior of Mr. Ages’ tractor, the rats’ underground tunnels, or the Owl’s tree are heavily detailed. More importantly, they have a lush aspect to them. The areas feel lived-in, realistic. Mostly though, they’re just really pretty. The character animation, meanwhile, is vivid. The cast is characterized by small movements, which add personality and realism. The facial expression are beautifully rendered, making this collection of talking mice and rats into fully formed characters. The animation in “The Secret of NIMH” is top rate and fantastically done.

The main reason “Secret of NIMH” has continued to resonate with me so much over the years is its main character. There are few other heroes in animation quite like Mrs. Brisby. She’s not the courageous adventurer type. She’s not a smarmy smart-alack. She’s not extraordinarily intelligent, though she is somewhat clever. Mrs. Brisby is as timid as – wait for it – a field mouse. She’s terrified of cats, heights, anything bigger then her, and of loosing her children. Her voice, provided by the beyond compare Elizabeth Hartman, suggests a fragile delicateness. Yet Brisby isn’t weak. Like any single parent, she’s incredibly strong. She takes care of four kids. Despite being deathfully afraid of the cat, she risks death to sneak into the house and dope the animal’s food. When captured, she nearly drowns while escaping, Hartman’s gasps for breath sounding frighteningly real. All the while, she’s terrified… But she does it anyway. Oddly, a mouse may be one of the most human heroes in any cartoon. Hartman’s touching performance shows the heights all voice-actors should aspire too.

Something I admire about Don Bluth’s early films is that they’re not afraid to be more intense then other children’s entertainment. “Secret of NIMH” features characters dying, afraid and in agony. During the escape from NIMH, a number of rats are blown to their deaths inside the air vents. The film’s villains crushes a supporting character under a block, the victim’s mangled body partially visible. Later, he slashes a comrade’s throat before receiving a dagger to the back, both wounds visibly bleeding. The violence didn’t bother me much as a kid. What did bother me were the scary moments. Brisby visits the great owl, an ominous character that lives in a misty, cobweb-strewn tree. The film makes it known that the owl is more then capable of eating the timid mouse. When entering the rosebush, Brisby is confronted by Brutus, a large rat with expressionless, dome-like eyes. He wields an electrified spear and never speaks. This guy scare the crap out of me as a kid. Meanwhile, Dragon the cat looks less like a cat and more like a gigantic monster. Bluth and his team pushed the film’s content in hope of receiving a PG rating, so that the film would be taken more seriously. The movie got a G anyway.

There are moments in “Secret of NIMH” less blatantly kindertraumatic then this. However, there are others equally thrilling. While first encountering the friendly crow Jeremy, the characters attract the attention of Dragon. The bird flies away from the cat, tangling himself and the mouse in string. The two are bounce back and forth as the cat closes in. They escape, obviously, or else this movie would have been even shorter. Yet it’s a surprisingly thrilling and fantastically animated sequence. Another stand-out moment occurs when Mrs. Brisby enters the farmer’s home. Captured by the family’s son, the mouse is put inside an old bird cage. Her attempts to escape involves pushing a water dish out the cage, swimming through the cold liquid, nearly drowning. The image of the dish crashing to the floor, splattering water about, made a strong impression on me as a kid. “The Secret of NIMH” is full of moments and images like that, striking and unforgettable.

Another distinguishing element of “Secret of NIMH” is the serious machinations of its villains. Unlike some animated films, who have comical bad guys that are never actual threats, Jenner the rat is a deadly serious villain. His plan involves murdering the elder of the rat colony, which he goes through with. The act drives him into a blood lust, admitting his plan and striking out at anyone opposing him. Jenner’s motivation is vague at best. He wants to stay at the rosebush and continue to steal electricity from the humans. “Why” isn’t expanded upon. The character’s willingness to steal shows him as morally unethical, which seems to be enough character development. You barely notice this with the intimidating baritone of Paul Shenar powering the character. Contrasting against Jenner is Sullivan, his reluctant partner, voiced by fifties matinee star Aldo Ray. The character is neither a bumbler nor a clown but instead a pointed opposite to the movie’s adversary.

Something else that grounds the film is that Mrs. Brisby’s goal are not abstract. She’s out to rescue her children. Timmy’s illness is not brushed over. His sickness is emphasized as a serious threat to his life. Later in the film, the children’s home sinks into a mud patch, nearly drowning them. The characters are less detailed then the protagonists. Teresa, the girly one, is voiced by a tiny Shannon Doharty. Cynthia is even younger, a mouse toddler dressed only in a ribbon around her waist. The most personable of the kids is Martin, voiced by child star and future self-aggravating nerd “icon” Will Wheaton. Martin is a willful child, ready to fight off adversaries though he’s hopelessly unprepared for them. The threat of a mother loosing her children is not light-weight material. This is why Mrs. Brisby is so scrappy. She has everything to loose.

Rounding out the supporting cast is a number of memorable vocal performances. Future Don Bluth regular Dom DeLuise provides the voice of Jeremy the crow. Jeremy is wacky comic relief. He’s absent-minded and clumsy. He constantly tries to impress woman but never succeeds. The character’s bumbling could have been annoying. However, he’s useful often enough that he never grates on the viewer. DeLuise’s performance is likable, funny, and slightly outside his usual comedic wheelhouse. Brisby’s hinted at love interest is Justin, the master of the rat’s guards. Peter Strauss’ voice is strong and convincing, making him a viable hero and romantic league, though the film doesn’t focus on that too much. Rounding out the cast is John Carridean as the Great Owl, whose reverberating voice makes the character appropriately wise and threatening.

The only real problem I have with “The Secret of NIMH” is its sudden, deux ex machine ending. There are magical elements to the film’s world. Nicodemus, in the first scene, writes with a magical, glowing pen. He also has a spinning devices which conveniently visualizes flashbacks. Early on, he hands Mrs. Brisby a red, glowing amulet. The necklace’s purpose remains mysterious until the very end. At the last minute, as the house is sinking into the mud, the jewel glows and burns. Magical, glowing tendrils extend from the amulet, lifting the mice’ home to safety. The film foreshadows it as much as possible. Despite this, the script still pulls the revelation out of its ass. It’s a lazy, convenient solution to the characters’ problems.

Along with its touching story and its beautiful visuals, another thing powering “The Secret of NIMH” is its powerful musical score. Provided by Jerry Goldsmith, the verdant musical themes establishes the movie’s deep emotional roots. It’s equal parts mysterious and lovely, planting both of the film’s primary tones. It’s probably one of my favorite Goldsmith scores. Further proving he composed my childhood, the movie also includes a song from Paul Williams. “Flying Dreams” builds upon Goldsmith’s themes which pair nicely with Williams’ lilting vocals.

“The Secret of NIMH” would establish Don Bluth as a daring alternative to Disney, during a creative down time in that studio’s history. The film’s visuals are enough to make it an animated masterpiece. However, the story and especially its captivating main character has made it an enduring film. A despised, direct-to-video sequel would follow many years later and now there’s talk of a live-action/CGI remake. The quality of these inferior spin-offs can not lessen the power and beauty of the original. [Grade: A]

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