The Man Who Scared Disney: Reviews with History - Part 1 of 3
I like to think of myself as the animation buff around here on Movieweb, or so I hope. I learned the trade and tried to get into the industry, but decided on writing instead. Story is my strength. CG animation is not (since my training focused on 2D animation). In a recent discussion, I spoke with a fellow user about changes in the animation industry. As you know, animated films are better today (for the most part) than ever before, but why is that? The Disney Renaissance? Competition with Dreamworks? The emergence of Pixar? Sure. They've changed and enhanced the industry tons, but who was the first? Since Walt Disney's death in 1966, who was the first to break the mold and truly force Walt Disney Pictures (and others) to step up their game and create, not only quality animation, but quality stories to go with it?
Answer: Don Bluth
As unusual as this is for me to do, I am about to review three subsequent films (produced throughout the 1980s), that, for the first time since Walt Disney himself, helped pioneer the animation industry into a story-driven enterprise that remains today, with historical tidbits (and an in-depth look into my decade-long grudge with Disney during the Michael Eisner era).
Bio: Though not credited, Bluth was an animation director for some Disney films: 101 Dalmatians, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound, and a director's assistant during the productions of The Sword in the Stone and Sleeping Beauty. He finally received credit for Pete's Dragon and received his directorial debut for the animated short, The Small One. For a number of reasons during the turbulent transition of chairmens, artists, and creative vision in the late 1970s, Bluth opted out from Walt Disney Pictures (with other artists) to form their own studio (and John Lasseter, who would later form Pixar, was ironically fired from Disney for trying to make a CG short test film without informing his superiors, or something like that).
Don Bluth Production's first theatrical debut was The Secret of NIMH (1982) - a film that dared to experiment where no children's genre had dared experiment before: a dark and edgy sorta-fantasy mixed with controversial "grown-up" themes. What started as a story about a widowed mouse saving her bed-ridden son from a Farmer's plow takes a turn for the fantastical, which is (arguably) an improvement on the novel by which the film is based (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). Powerfully moving, vibrantly animated, full of energy, and flawlessly executed, The Secret of NIMH is a rare, dark masterpiece where courage of the heart can do the impossible.
Mrs. Brisby, a widowed mouse, has to take on the impossible task of saving her son. Not just from his pneumonia, but from Farmer Fitzgibbons' plow, and Spring has come early this year. If she doesn't find a way to move her son to safety (without moving him out of bed), he is sure to die. With the help of new friends and a terrifying owl, Mrs. Brisby discovers that the rats in the rosebush can help her, but what she finds is a secret world where intelligent rats are at conflict with a moral choice: "to live without sealing." Some will stop at nothing to take from Farmer Fitzgibbons, including murder. Will Mrs. Brisby save her child, or will the rats kill each other first?
What I Dug:
All of it - I have no problem with this film. The script is cryptically and craftily written, the score (one of Jerry Goldsmith's best) continues to induce pleasant chills up and down my spine, and the voice talent is appropriately utilized (though Dom DeLuise and John Carradine are the most memorable names on the list). This is considered by many to be Bluth's masterpiece and the most critically acclaimed animated film to come from the 1980s (with an RT rating of 94%. However, "most critically acclaimed" is arguable with The Little Mermaid's 90%). Although rotoscoping was not a new invention (a means to create back-lit animation and shadows), the filmmakers experimented heavily with this technology to create fire and artificial lighting effects not seen in animated feature films before (which explains just how cool the rat's lair looks).
The Secret of NIMH is an animation lover's delight and every bit as powerful today as we near its 30th anniversary (to which I hope a wide-screen edition will be offered on Blu-ray or DVD). The best part about this film is the serious tone and no musical numbers. If you have not seen it, rectify this problem, and soon.
Bio: Although moderately successful at the box office, The Secret of NIMH cost only 5.7 million to produce and took 30 months to make (2.5 years), which cost less and took less time to make than any Disney film around that same time. While others may argue this, Disney responded to this success by producing The Black Cauldron (1985), the most expensive, dark, and visually ambitious Disney production at the time (the first to receive a PG rating). It failed miserably at the box office, deemed too dark for children with an ill-paced story and little character development). Some think NIMH would have done better if it had not competed with E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, which became the highest grossing film of all time (until Titanic).
This Review and History continues with Part 2 - An American Tail