When it comes to eras in animation, I can say without hesitation that the worst period for animation was easily the early 1980s. It might seem crazy as the 80s gave us all kinds of memorable pop culture with iconic live-action films, memorable TV shows, and of course music dominated by MTV, but animation was at an all-time low during that time and wouldn't get its strength back until around 1986. By then, Hollywood had started to give up the art form as audiences started losing interest in the new animated films and studios were putting out films that just weren't at the top of their game. Even Walt Disney Animation Studios had hit rock bottom during that time as it was being mismanaged with the leaders badly leading the company and making decisions based on what they think Walt Disney would've done rather than going with their gut. Some people knew that Disney was going south with one being key animator Don Bluth who left the studio in 1979 with a handful of other artists to form his own studio which resulted in their first feature film "The Secret of NIMH" in 1982. While there aren't a lot of animated films in the early 1980s I would consider amazing, this is a huge exception. At a time where artists were giving up the artform, this film firmly established that it still could do amazing things and established Don Bluth as a legitimate threat to Disney. I firmly believe it's not only Bluth's magnum opus but also one of the best-animated films of all time.
Each winter, a widowed field mouse named Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) has been living in a cinder block house with her four children, Teresa (Shannen Doherty), Martin (Wil Wheaton), Timothy (Ian Fried), and Cynthia (Jodi Hicks) in the field of Farmer Fitzgibbon until spring arrives when she and her family move to their summer house when Fitzgibbon uses his plow on the fields once the frost is gone. However, near the end of one winter, Timothy falls ill with pneumonia, and Brisby is warned by a mouse named Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) that he'll die if exposed to the cold. With moving day quickly approaching, Brisby is told to go see intelligent rats who have been living in the rosebush near the farmhouse where she hopes to find answers to help move her house and saving Timmy's life.
It's quite amazing how Bluth's debut film really is such an achievement in animation. This is a film that really makes use of what the medium does so brilliantly while being able to have a story that has lots of dark moments but plenty of cheer to make up for it. I often wonder how the people at Disney felt when this film came out as I know Bluth had tried pitching Disney this film when he still worked there. The studio declined as they had just made a mouse film ("The Rescuers") and their mascot was a mouse and felt they didn't need any more animated stories with mice. What a mistake that was. The story for this film is so brilliantly dark yet enriching. For those that don't know, this film is based on a book entitled "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" written by Robert C. O'Brien in 1972 and I can say without a doubt that this is a film that's better than the book. I remember reading the book back when I was nine and I was often curious about why some elements were different from the book. Now that I'm older, I can see that the changes Bluth made were superior to the book. I often don't like comparing film adaptations to their source materials as they are completely different art forms and films have to take certain liberties when adapting the words of the book to the screen as it is a visual art form. However, Bluth and his team were really able to take the story O'Brien crafted and keep his rich story element while adding complicated themes and really enhancing the characters. I'll get more into why the characters work in a bit, but first I want to talk about the themes of the film. The film keeps the theme of questioning whether animals should be used for science experiments but it also adds elements of mystery and magic with an amulet being the main driving force of power. I love how Bluth keeps elements of the film a mystery as I feel an audience's interpretation of art is always stronger than an artist's interpretation. This is also a film that doesn't talk down to its audience as it has mature elements that make it intriguing for adults while having a fair bit of lighter scenes that don't make the film miserable. As far as the animation is, it still is remarkable. This is a film that was designed to look like a film that harkened back to the Golden Age of Animation and I strongly believe the film captures that. It reminded me a lot of the earliest films Disney made like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Pinocchio", and "Fantasia" with the moody backgrounds perfectly complimenting the light character animation primarily animated by Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy. I also appreciate that this film didn't cut corners with its animation and took full advantage of the technologies available which were something that really plagued a lot of Disney's films at the time. If there was one element of the animation that slightly bugged me though it is a minor nitpick is that there was a lot of visible dust on the cels, especially during the scenes set in the dark. I do know Disney used a tool to blow off the dust when they photographed their animation and I wish Bluth did the same. However, it's not enough to distract from how beautiful the film looked. Though what really makes the film absolutely work are the characters. The characters in this film are hugely improved upon from the book and are very strong and complex. The character of Mrs. Brisby is the heart of this film and her character arc is one of the best in animation. She goes from a scared and worried mother to strong and determined to protect and save her family which I greatly admire. She's easily one of the best female protagonists in an animated film. I also love the goofy crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise), the wise and mysterious Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), the somewhat cocky yet strong leader Justin (Peter Strauss), and the villainous Jenner (Paul Shenar). The latter is a great departure from the book who was only told through flashbacks as a character who disagreed with Nicodemus about "the plan" and left the pack. In this film, he does disagree with "the plan" but instead they have him conduct a plan to assassinate Nicodemus and have him take over as leader to have the rats stay in the rose bush rather than leaving. I think it's a great change. I also cannot forget to mention the brilliant score written by the late Jerry Goldsmith. This is one of his very best scores and I believe its epic scale really helps carry the film and makes it even better.
In all, "The Secret of NIMH" is one of the greatest animated films ever made. The story is dark and rich, the animation is beautiful and reminiscent of the Golden Age of Animation, and the characters are very well developed and layered. This truly is Don Bluth's magnum opus and I cannot recommend it enough. Roger Ebert said when this film came out that if he was alive when it came out, Walt Disney would've liked it. I agree with him.