The Rats were the subject of animal research, described by the leader of the Rats as “unspeakable tortures”. Words are minced as sparingly as the images, as you see massive needles puncturing the abdomens of various animal subjects with nauseating ‘plunk’ sounds. DNA is restructured as a rat writhes in pain – the result is that the rats and mice develop intelligence, enough to understand people. Okay, the film is short on realism (all animals understand human language anyway, weapons are electrified, and why was Brisby living in an area that is plowed yearly, anyway?), but NIMH isn’t meant to spark reasoned debate on animal rights. It is meant to evoke a point of view: animals subjected to testing are not interested in how people benefit from it. What I saw in the movie pushed me to read up on animal research, and as an eight year old kid I learned what an LD-50 test is and how all pharmaceuticals are tested extensively, at lethal doses, on legions of lab animals before a person would ever ingest them. Even cosmetic or cleaning products are injected, sprayed, or force-fed to entire warehouses full of animals to find out not whether the products are dangerous or lethal, but how much or little it takes of a given chemical to cause blindness, seizure, gastrointestinal bleeding, or death. Personally, even animal testing that is meant to medically benefit humans is hardly necessary – we cover the earth, and members of our species live twice as long as our genetics intended. The Secret of NIMH confronts this topic head-on; the generation of children who saw it were not to be excused an opinion on a contentious matter through pleading ignorance.
A more subtle, but pervasive, topic in The Secret of NIMH is the ambivalence people show towards animals in general. The animals are heroic, clever, smart, dumb, reckless, thoughtful, malevolent, or horny; none of them are indifferent to the fate of the meadow and its inhabitants. The people could not possibly care less, though their livelihood depends on that meadow. One of the few humans shown in the film resolves to bulldoze the rosebush that the Rats call home, even though he is well aware of their existence. In fact, he wants the rosebush flattened because of the Rats and is obviously excited about it. Regardless of how you feel about rats, the human characters here are bloodless and mindless, driven by mechanical concerns. The animals in the film might be anthropomorphized beyond recognition, but it’s done to create a world that bloodless and mechanical humans can understand and relate to. Interestingly, the Rats are political, each attempting to edge out a rival, striving to make their ambitions that of the rest of the group. In reality, gregarious animal groups have far more complex relationships than people often realize – baboons, meerkats, elephants, rats, and even insect groups have their own complex rules of interaction with nuance approaching human behavior.
More evidence of Bluth’s general disinterest of humans can be found in the abomination that is the housecat, Dragon. The only reason it’s clear he’s a housecat is because he is referred to as one. He is as big as a building, is missing one eye, and hates everything within impaling distance. People keep cats as a way to deter vermin, but this is almost never useful. Housecats are the most proficient predator for wildlife that lives near human dwellings. They kill millions of birds each year, for instance, not that the owners give a shit.
One of the central themes of The Secret of NIMH is that of sacrifice, and its essential nature in group dynamics. Numerous examples can be found of characters who sacrifice a great deal for the common good, or even for the benefit of an individual. Mr. Brisby is killed while drugging the cat, an activity that allows the Rats to prepare for their eventual move. Nicodemus is murdered and Rats are injured while they move the Brisby home, which benefits only Timothy, Mrs. Brisby’s son. The greatest jewel of the Rats, kept safe by Nicodemus, is the Stone. Inscribed on the back: “Courage of the heart is very rare… the Stone has a power, when it is there”, the Stone represents this quality of sacrifice, which is basic and sometimes a necessity for the survival of the animal community. It seems that everyone pays dearly for this quality, except for the humans, who show no such altruism.
For the animals in the world of the film, humans are giant and powerful but also ignorant and arrogant beings who are best avoided at virtually any cost. The Rats violate this rule by stealing from them, sneaking electrical cords out to their home in an attempt to… well, I’m not sure what they have to gain by creating elaborately lit sparkle shows, but at least they’re having fun with it. One faction of the Rats wishes to move far away to a valley where farming is impossible, to live without depending on humans at all, perhaps a permeation of the Rats consider themselves superior to people in every way.
If I were to hazard a guess, Don Bluth had a fair share of contempt for the human race and its inability to live as part of a natural system. Or perhaps the independence of the Rats was symbolic of his secession from Disney, and the success of the film was one final ‘fuck you’ to the old man.
Death is a capricious state, and strikes everyone within this world equally. Most of the films that I feel are excellent for children to watch in order to avoid growing up selfish and insular have death and its randomness as a primary subject. In The Secret of NIMH, everyone’s life is commanded by its immediate threat. The tractor rips the land and destroys everyone in its path, Dragon kills the hero’s husband, a Rat is crushed with a cinderblock and two others stabbed to death, and a host of mice are sucked to their deaths in a cavernous air passage. A body count of at least 20 is respectable for an ‘80s action movie – for an animated film, the number is astonishing and for it the director deserves a medal. Death comes to us all, and the only reasonable wish a person could have is that we meet it on our feet.
What seals the recommendation for NIMH is that its imagery of the film flaunts both charm and visceral power. The film sweeps effortlessly from the beauty of the meadow at dawn to the sinister cave of the wise owl (voiced by John Carradine), the view of the glittering garden of the rosebush is interrupted by the towering sentry, Brutus. Dragon casts a vicious shadow, and is probably the reason I hate housecats with every fucking atom in my body. The animation is kinetic and gives every action scene tension as real as the movie is fantastic, escapist and an allegory. No matter how animation progresses technologically, this film will age remarkably well, because its agenda and intelligence are both timeless.