Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Disney's Challengers, part V: Courageous heart


Directed by Don Bluth
Written by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, and Will Finn (based on the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien)

Spoiler alert: high

Quick housekeeping note: it's conceivable that one may notice that this long-deferred companion to the Walt Disney retrospective has skipped from Parts I and II, dealing with the Fleischer Studios' two films, to Part V.  This is because my copy of UPA's first feature, 1001 Arabian Nights, doesn't work.  Certainly, at some point in the nebulous future, I'd like to get back to UPA's pair of films, because, to the best of my knowledge, they constitute the only other significant efforts to compete with Disney prior to 1982, when the groundwork was laid for the more diverse animation marketplace we enjoy today. (ETA 2/16/2024: of course there were a few others, and eventually those two spots will be filled by UPA's Gay Purr-ee and Hanna-Barbera's Charlotte's Web.

So now we arrive upon Don Bluth, who on his 42nd birthday in 1979 submitted his resignation to the Walt Disney Studio, taking eleven other animators with him, including the men who'd serve as his most important lieutenants, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy.  Three years later, these twelve, plus a few dozen others, released the first feature from Don Bluth Productions, The Secret of NIMH.  Which means that the time has come, as it must come to any American animation retrospective, where we all agree to pretend that the way Don Bluth deployed cartoon mice in his fantasy adventure cartoons was radically different from the way Disney deployed cartoon mice in their fantasy adventure cartoons.

That's the confrontational way to put it, because I find that animation nerds are often more in love with the idea of Don Bluth than his actual movies, and thus frame their tributes accordingly.  And, clearly, the story of Bluth makes for an appealing drama: he was the underdog; he challenged Disney on their home turf of family animation (and sometimes he even won); he strove to bring honor back to the art; and, of course, his uprising ended too soon.  To me, however, Bluth was neither prophet nor, as some at Disney considered him, antichrist.  Mostly he was just a talented guy with a sense of outrage, who didn't like how the company he worked for was run, and so he started his own.  There, he made broadly similar product that was distinct, when it was distinct (which was infrequent enough that non-animation buffs routinely assume that Bluth movies are Disney movies), mostly because of some element of production value, or some allegedly-forbidden narrative choice—or, later on, because his former employer finally did get their shit together, and changed their product to match the times, while Bluth lollygagged behind.  And then Bluth started copying that, though it's also the case that, by the time he was in a position to need to overtly copy, Bluth's movies had themselves generally gotten worse, which is a bigger distinction between Bluth's movies and the Disney Renaissance to come than anything else.

On the other hand, I'm being a bit harsher than I should, and not just because the most slavish copy of Disney formula that Bluth ever got up to, Anastasia, is quite possibly my favorite Bluth film; it's also because "being like Disney" was, after all, Bluth's explicit goal from the very start.  It's only that when he said it, he meant the Disney of Walt's lifetime, and, more specifically, the Golden and Silver Ages, when Disney had the resources to produce the most beautiful animation the world had so far seen.  Bluth believed he could recreate the old Disney wonder, not through the enormous capital expenditures of Disney's heyday, but through sheer force of will.  And honestly?  It is incredibly impressive just how much Bluth was able to accomplish with hardly anything but a few dozen employees and his force of will (plus, ahem, six million dollars, a handsome sum in 1982 but still just half the budget of The Fox and the Hound, the Disney feature that Bluth had walked away from in 1979).

So: The Secret of NIMH is traditionally considered a major point in favor of the Bluth-as-Radical hypothesis, both because of its darker-than-usual story and because of the re-emphasis on animator's craft that it embodies.  These are intertwined things, as they should be, though as far as the former goes, a huge amount of NIMH's "darkness" is arrived at by its very first line of narration, "Jonathan Brisby was killed today."  Jonathan Brisby serves as the narrative negative space for the whole rest of the tale—he's the reason most of the things in the movie occur, and he is the standard by which its central character is judged—but the story focuses upon his widow, Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), and maybe the most distinct thing about NIMH is that, almost uniquely for an animated film, it elevates as its protagonist an adult woman (well, adult female mouse, but whatever) dealing with adult problems.  Then again, I have just realized for the first time that this film's heroine doesn't even have a name to truly call her own; and so while it's almost about Mrs. Brisby stepping out of her dead husband's shadow, I don't think it ever quite gets there.

In any event, the widow Brisby has struggled on as best she can in the weeks or maybe months since her husband's passing, continuing to raise their four children in a cinderblock house on the Fitzgibbons' farm.  Lately, she's been confronted with an even crueler crisis, as her youngest has contracted pneumonia, and we meet Mrs. Brisby en route to getting help from a family friend, a certain Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), a curiously intelligent and scientifically-minded mouse who's made his abode in the mechanical bowels of an abandoned thresher.  While there's every reason to expect her little one will get better in time, especially with the medicine she's acquired from Mr. Ages, Brisby still dares not move him from his bed.  And yet her problems are just beginning, for she must move him: it's planting season, and Fitzgibbons is already in the process of plowing his fields, which will destroy the Brisby home and anybody left inside.

To this end, Brisby is driven to desperate measures, first seeking out the advice of the wise (but carnivorous) Great Owl (John Carradine), who politely refrains from consuming his guest, instead suggesting that she seek the aid of the rats of the rose bush—that is, the rats of NIMH.  (And that's an intriguing name, of course, but unfortunately the broad strokes of their titular secret are revealed ridiculously early, insofar as when we overhear the humans saying what "NIMH" stands for it entirely gives the game away for any adult viewer, and probably a non-negligible fraction of the juvenile ones).  So, despite their fearsome reputation, Brisby goes to the rats, and there she discovers that--to her immense surprise--they counted Jonathan as one of their own, for he, like Mr. Ages, share their origins in an arcane human experiment that granted them a miraculous intelligence.  This is a good thing, however, for the rats' leader Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) is eager to repay a debt the rats owe to Jonathan, and thus are plans laid to use the rats' technological know-how to move the Brisbys' entire house, with Mrs. Brisby's son remaining safe inside.  It seems like everything's working out great, but she needs beware, because as much as Nicodemus's protege Justin (Peter Strauss) supports the plan, other, more villainous elements within the rats' society, particularly Nicodemus's rival for power, Jenner (Paul Shenar), are apt to use it to advance their own insidious agenda, and they don't care a whit what happens to her family.

So, as far as "darkness" goes in a kid's talking animals cartoon, sure, The Secret of NIMH can get reasonably dark (it's surprisingly violent, though the good guys are conveniently spared from killing their enemy themselves; it also has a swear word).  By no means is it notably so, arguably not even as dark as The Fox and the Hound, and not one tenth as dark as the film that I suspect had a stronger influence on NIMH than is generally acknowledged, Martin Rosen's 1978 effort Watership Down.  Then again, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was a children's novel already—published prior to Watership Down, to boot—so it's entirely possible the influence here just goes in a great big circle.

Our protagonist's name was changed for obvious legal reasons (albeit probably also because it would be hard to take anybody named "Frisby" very seriously).  That's a small change, though, and Bluth, Goldman, and Pomeroy (with the assistance of Will Finn) managed a fairly faithful adaptation of Robert O'Brien's book, with but equally minor obfuscations for the most part—for example, it appears that the book doesn't forget that it's foreshadowed the National Institute of Mental Health as a looming threat the way the movie does.  But then, that overlooks the big, huge, story-deforming change, which is the introduction of magic fantasy into what had been pretty solidly science fiction.  (Not necessarily the best science fiction: I suspect that I'd join in the usual critique that The Rats of NIMH muddles things up with non-super animals that can already talk, and The Secret of NIMH sees no reason not to muddle further, what with Jonathan somehow having taught his normie mouse wife how to read.)  But The Secret of NIMH goes all in on its fantasy elements, maintaining the rats' drug-induced super-intelligence, but also slathering itself with the thickest possible layer of outright sorcery.  Nicodemus is essentially a wizard.

Ultimately, this is a big damn problem, leading to an ending that, not to put too fine a point on it, is lazy trash, and Bluth should be ashamed that it took four people to write a story that concludes with "and the magic amulet solved all the problems."  Listening to him and Goldman explain on their commentary track that this was always the thematically-inevitable conclusion of Brisby's arc makes it even dumber than when I just thought it was a shrugging cheat; and, on this tenth or whatever viewing, it struck me that NIMH is deeply concerned with Bluth's ideas about personal responsibility and self-reliance, perhaps inordinately so for a movie that, if you trace it back, exists in large part because Ken Anderson gave him the idea and, but for Wolfgang Reitherman, it might've been made at Disney after all.  Certainly, a little hypocrisy doesn't hurt much, and I'd hardly describe "adapting preexisting source material" as poaching.  But then, I'd also submit that "rats stealing five bucks worth of electricity every month" isn't the kind of transgression that most people would find worth moralizing over, either.

Mostly, then, it's just irritating.  Bluth must've seen his scrappy little studio reflected in his scrappy little heroine (NIMH has somehow avoided being read as straight-up allegorical autobiography).  Accordingly, I'm sure he would prefer to believe that he actually told a story about Brisby triumphing on her own merits.  But that's simply not the case: Brisby accomplishes just one thing throughout the movie—she drugs a cat and lives to tell the tale—whereas everything else good that happens, happens either because other characters did it for her, usually because they liked her husband, or because she was handed a deus ex machina by someone else forty minutes earlier, which she dutifully unlocks once her film has reached a feature length.  Plus it's a little deflating when we learn that even Jonathan's great contribution was just being small enough to fit through a grate so he could unlock it from the other side.  As for Mrs. Brisby, she's even less useful—she's but a spectator to the courtly intrigue of the rats—and her story is one of pure reactivity, up to and including its culmination.

Until then, however, it works much better than it should, and since Bluth et al's decision to swerve towards magic was more to justify the fantastic bent of their visuals than for any other reason, overall I'd (grudgingly) call it a good thing—because whatever its narrative failings, NIMH makes up lost ground and then some simply by being one of the most consistently atmospheric animated films ever made.  There has naturally been more focus on the character animation, which is certainly generally quite good.  I might hesitate to say "excellent," given the overacting that attends many of the characters, especially Brisby's borderline-comic "fear" reactions in her earlier scenes, possibly also the first to be animated (in any event, she absolutely gets better and more subtle as the film goes on).  But while her character on the page doesn't get up to much, it's impossible not to find the Mrs. Brisby on the screen a fascinating and sympathetic presence—"reactive" isn't inherently negative, and the animation permits Brisby to seem much more measured in her awe, and more directly engaged with her newly-unbound world, than the writers ever allow her.

I'm not a fan of all of the film's choices: half the time, Jenner's winged, constantly-twitching Evil Eyebrows look like they're not even attached his head, which is a step or ten too far into the grosser reaches of cartoon caricature.  On the other hand, Nicodemus, doubtless the most extreme of all the main characters—somehow between NIMH and the rose bush, he devolved into a form resembling a rotting corpse—works terrifically well, overdone theatrical gestures and all, maybe because there's such a productive and interesting tension between what his visual coding says he is (disgusting and sinister) and what he actually is.  By far the most impressive piece of character animation, to my eyes, is the Great Owl, who is a superb giant monster (well, from Brisby's perspective), both believably ancient and ponderously massive, and given interesting, creepy things to do even within his confined space (I adore how his head twists upright to greet Brisby).  With the touch of his glowing eyes, he comes off as genuinely otherworldly, and not a little bit actually scary, even if I consider it a tremendous lost opportunity for an all-time-classic scene when the rules previously established for the Owl (he hunts mice, but only at night) are forgotten, even though the movie takes great pains to demonstrate that night is falling during Brisby's audience with him.

(But then, Goldman will tell you that the Great Owl is, like, a magical aspect of Nicodemus.  Okie-dokie!)

So you can see how the edges still get sanded off in this "dark" kid's cartoon, though this is where NIMH's color styling and general sense of design come right in to pick up any slack: it is a staggeringly mordant film, where even magic hour sunsets look aggrieved and threatening—even on the edge of apocalyptic—while the actual dark scenes look like visions of hell.  The Great Owl's cobwebbed home (he appears as very nearly mummified by time, even though it's been, what? ten hours?) is one standout.  But then, every interior in the rose bush is just about as good—when Bluth and Goldman namedrop H.R. Giger, one can only respond, "it checks out."  The backgrounds are punctuated with substantial and enriching effects animation by Dorse Laphner, usually overwrought effects animation—virtually everything in the whole movie glows at some point or another—but it's so uniform in its too-muchness that it simply becomes the most salient part of the film's aesthetic, and at least registers an effort to get to the ethereal, unknowable, mystical place the story would have liked to have gone.  Naturally, a Jerry Goldsmith score wasn't likely to hurt that effort, either.  (It's not close to his best, though it might be one of his most characteristic, with a lot of Star Trek: TMP in it—which is certainly appropriate.)

Meanwhile, the whole production is elevated by Bluth's insistence on costly, labor-intensive meticulousness, and the attention paid to physics and especially optics (Bluth loves to point out the consistency of the shadow animation, as well as the numerous color palettes used on Brisby for different lighting conditions) arguably did bring American feature animation back to a level of artfulness that hadn't been seen for decades.  (In some respects, at least: Bluth also made a play to make xerography look more like traditional ink-and-paint animation, and it works way better than, e.g., The Rescuers' similar efforts—but this still sometimes puts weird gray outlines around Brisby and company, not even necessarily consistent outlines from shot to shot, and they routinely wind up "floating" unattractively against the backdrops.)

Now, it has lower peaks than some of the best Disney animation of the years since the close of the Silver Age—it never finds terror the way The Fox and the Hound's animalistic savagery does, and I daresay it needed to—but it also never stumbles into awfulness the way contemporary Disney almost always did.  For starters, even if it ends stupidly, its story has the kind of deeply-felt stakes most Disney Bronze Age films wouldn't even know what to do with.  Moreover, it isn't nearly as beholden to terrible comedy.  Clearly, I haven't mentioned Jeremy the crow (Dom DeLuise) for a reason—he, the shrew (Hermione Baddeley), and the three elder children are indeed all quite annoying, and either have no actual bearing on the plot, or could have had their plot functions replaced by Mrs. Brisby, to her movie's benefit—but at least they're never the kind of kid's movie comic relief you'd need to knock points off for.  And so, while I think the attempts to reclaim The Secret of NIMH as a genuine classic are misplaced, it did represent a very good first try for Bluth's young studio, and deserved better than a box office return so middling that Bluth Productions wound up going bankrupt.  It was, at least, good enough for Bluth Productions to be reborn almost immediately thereafter (albeit with new and more powerful investors).  So the sadder part is that, as the years passed, Bluth's "very good first try" wound up being "the second- or third-best movie he ever did," and, mostly, it is downhill from here.

Score: 7/10

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