Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Secret of Nimh Blu-ray Review

For years, Don Bluth was one of Disney’s chief animators and worked on many of their classic movies before taking off on his own for a short period before returning to the studio for a couple of years before leaving again.  With Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, he founded Don Bluth Productions and released the cartoon short “Banjo the Woodpile Cat,” and then the animated segment for Xanadu.  He also provided the animation for the “Dragon’s Lair” and “Space Ace” video-games. When a group of former Disney executives formed a production company called Aurora Productions, they funded what many people consider to be Bluth’s masterpiece – The Secret of Nimh.

Film (3 out of 5 stars) 

Bluth and the rest of the “Disney Deserters,” as they came to be known, left Disney because they were unhappy with the cost-cutting measure taking place that seemed to be a higher priority than quality.  Originally setting up shop in his garage and later a small facility, Bluth and Co. toiled for long hours to make a movie that would serve as a mission statement for the company.  Bringing back the multi-plane camera that had been used quite a bit in Disney’s past for movies such as Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia, they also created a lot of new processes too.  By taking the time to do difficult shots using techniques that included split exposures to create shadows, or using diffusion to create reflections, and they even creating new art stands that allowed them to film backlit animation which gave the movie its signature glowing features.
The story for The Secret of Nimh is an easily accessible one that harkens back to Disney tradition, but this movie is a lot darker and has a much harder edge which may or may not be a positive thing depending on your comfort level when it comes to violence and death in a children’s movie.  As the movie opens, the viewers are informed of a death right away of one Jonathan Brisby who sacrificed himself to save the rats of Nimh.  His widow, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) has a sick child and goes out to search for a wise old mouse named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), so he can give her medicine to save her son.
During her travels to find him, she comes across a crow named Jeremy (Dom DeLuise) who is the personification of clumsy.  They band together after she helps free him from the string he got himself trapped in and they escape the farmer’s vicious cat named Dragon.  After talking to Mr. Ages, Mrs. Brisby travels to see the wise great owl (John Carradine) to ask how she can move her cinder block house from destruction once the farmer starts to till his land.  The creepy old owl tells her to see the aid of the rats of Nimh who can help her, especially their leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi).
When she reaches the rose bush where the rats live, she discovers that not all of them are friendly and in fact, there’s a possibility of a coup in the air, since not everyone agrees with Nicodemus’ plans.  One rat in particular named Jenner (Paul Shenar) is determined to seize control and is just waiting for the right moment to strike.  Once Mrs. Brisby finally talks to Nicodemus, a lot of things are finally explained to the viewers such as a somewhat reasonable rationale for why the rats and mice can talk.  As an audience we just accept it at face value now in these animated movies, but Bluth makes it a point to explain that these creatures were experimented on my the National Institute of Mental Health (which is what the Nimh in the title stands for), and that’s why they are now intelligent and have the ability to speak.  They also gained more human characteristics like guilt, greed, nobility, sacrifice, and community which is a big part of why they are fighting amongst themselves.
Up until now, the rats have been stealing electricity from the farmer and most of them feel guilty about it.  They have a plan that will make the self-sufficient (although we never really learn the entirety of the plan), but some rats like Jenner would rather just eliminate the farmer and his family and anyone else that gets in their way.  Some rats like the Captain of the Guard Justin (Peter Strauss) agree with the peaceful solution put forth by Nicodemus, so it’s only a matter of time before the two sides clash.  Unfortunately, for Mrs. Brisby she is caught in the middle of their fight while she endeavors to save her family and her home.  The final act of the movie serves as a commentary on human behavior since both the positive and negative aspects come in conflict as the rats face the same dilemma that humans do – give into their selfish impulses, or help each other survive the coming destruction.
While this movie is rated “G,” I would like to forewarn other parents thinking that this movie will be similar to other “G-rated” movies from Disney like I did that that assumption is incorrect.  I let my three year old son watch it with me since he wanted to and there were several parts of the movie that were too intense for him and I had to fast-forward through them.  As Bluth intended, this movie is a lot darker and violent than the Disney movies he worked on which he knows and embraces since as he said, “Children can handle just about anything as long as you attach a happy ending.”  I can agree with that statement for older children perhaps, but not young children.  It’s quite a shock to them to see characters killed on screen, or get stabbed and sliced from a sword fight that includes visible blood.  As an adult, I admire more adult oriented animation like the new DC and Marvel movies that are intended for older audiences and aren’t marketed for little kids.  They are also rated correctly and The Secret of Nimh should have been rated “PG” and when it wasn’t it even surprised Bluth and company. In fact, the movie’s producer Gary Goldman felt it should have been “PG” and later said that film’s “G” rating may have cost them some of the older audience members who had no interest in “G-rated” films.
There’s some excellent animation in this movie but I think they overdid the glowing effects.  I think like a kid with a new toy, they were so happy to utilize the admittedly cool process and just kept doing it over and over.  The owl’s eyes, the mirror, Nicodemus’ eyes, any words written in a book, etc.  I also didn’t like the addition of what could only be described as magic to the movie which never made sense since the filmmakers went to such lengths to explain the reasons for the rats’ intelligence.  It makes no sense to add magic to an already somewhat feasible world but they did anyway.  Nicodemus seems to have the Force as his ally since he can summon his walking stick to himself with a gesture.  He also has some kind of a magic mirror that allowed him to follow Mrs. Brisby’s journey to see him which makes me wonder what kind of a sadist makes a timid little mouse go on such a treacherous trip to see him, when he already knows what she wants?  Why can’t he just stop by her house for a spot of tea and help her out?   That’s pretty cold-blooded if you ask me.  I liked the movie more than I thought I would, but I still have a lot more love for Disney movies that might be a little tamer but they also aren’t trying to scare the bejesus out of your kids.

Video (2 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The 1080p (1.85:1) transfer for this film is wildly uneven.  Some shots look pristine while others look like they’ve been copied from a VHS source.  Many shots have so much grain that the electronic noise is distracting beyond belief.  There’s also a lot of dirt and debris throughout the film and some minor flickering as well.  On the plus side, there are some beautiful scenes with vivid color such as when Mrs. Brisby meets Jeremy for the first time which are clean and sharp.  Black levels are satisfying as well, with very deep blacks through the movie such as Jeremy against the orange hued sky, or the home of the rats in the rose garden that is a well of shadows.  Those scenes that look really good only make the bad ones (of which there are many) more irritating to see.  For a movie that has as many fans as this one does, the studio and Don Bluth should have put some effort into a new restoration.  For all of the things that Bluth thinks Disney does wrong, I can safely say that how they release their animated films isn’t one of them.  Disney regularly releases stunning restorations of their films both to preserve their rich legacy and also to give their fans the best quality available.  That’s one lesson the “Disney Defectors” didn’t learn before leaving.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The film’s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track fares a lot better as it seems like more effort was put into it.  The main draw is Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the film (which he worked several extra weeks on for no money since he loved the movie), which has a lot of punch to it.  Dialogue is good for the most part but there were some times were it seemed a little soft.  For a stereo track, this one sounds pretty good but I wonder why the studio didn’t blow this out to a full fledged 5.1 mix.  Maybe all of these deficiencies will be addressed in a future Special Edition double-dip later.

Special Features (2 out of 5 stars) 

There’s not a lot of extras here but there are some quality moments.  They are all in standard definition.
  • Audio Commentary – A talk with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman who talk about how the project came about and the the hardships they had in making it, first in Bluth’s garage and later in a small facility where they had animators working in the hallways and at home due to the lack of space.  Both gentlemen seem pleasant and happy with how the movie turned out and very proud of the processes they used to create it in the time they had and the lack of money available to do it with.
  • Secrets Behind the Secret Featurette – A short behind the scenes look with Bluth and Goldman who cover the project.  A lot of the same ground is covered in the audio commentary but there’s some good stuff here too.  Goldman mentions how they all had to mortgage their houses to raise money to finish the movie after their funding was cut.  What made it funny to me was that Bluth seemed shocked that that had happened.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

There’s a lot to like in this movie but I take exception to how it’s marketed to children.  The font cover has a cute little female mouse surrounded by other adorable creatures with no hint of the darkness and violence within.  In any case, this is an admirable achievement for everyone involved with Don Bluth Productions especially considering the limited time, resources, and money they had.  Perversely, the biggest positive effect this movie had was to give Disney some serious competition which inadvertently triggered the “Disney Renaissance” to begin with The Little Mermaid.
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