Horror of Horrors: The Secret of NIMH
We all reminisce over certain childhood favorites, some more popular than others. I think those that were born in the early 80’s all remember The Land Before Time as one of the most epic and moving movies of our childhood, probably because it was the first one many of us ever saw in the theaters. But it’s always interesting to me thinking back to a movie that was animated, or for some reason or another advertised as kid-friendly, yet it partially traumatized or frightened the shit out of you when you were that kid. The movie I am writing about as a horror spotlight today is The Secret of NIMH. I think this movie is still one of the most beautiful and terrifying animated children’s movies I have ever seen, but looking back at it I realize I might have been a little too young for it as a child, seeing as how some of the imagery gave me nightmares for weeks, which is why I am granting it a horror of horrors status.
The Secret of NIMH follows a family of rats and mice that live on the farm of the Fitzgibbons family. We meet our primary character, Mrs. Brisby, a quiet and quaint field mouse just trying to live peacefully in a cinderblock home with her family. Her husband, a mouse who went by the name of Jonathan, is absent as he was killed by the barn cat on the property. Mrs. Brisby’s son has come down with pneumonia, and needs rest and medicine to recover. But spring has come early this season, the farmer is about to start plowing the field, which will definitely destroy their cinder block home and kill her family if they cannot relocate first.
This sounds innocent enough, right? What can be so scary about a bunch of cute little mice trying to find a new home? There are several things that this movie does very well making it a horror movie for young children though. You can already tell that these mice and rats, and all the animals in the film, are very much anthropomorphisized. They wear little human like clothes, speak to each other in English, and make homes that would make a hobbit envious. Well, several of these animals are certainly demonized, making them particularly terrifying.
First we have Dragon, the barn cat that murdered Mrs. Brisby’s late husband. This fat cat has one thing on his mind: torture. The Oatmeal said it best in this strip: cats are murderers. And Dragon definitely falls in to that category. The several near escapes Mrs. Brisby, and her dim-witted crow friend Jeremy, has with this blood-thirsty feline had me on the edge of my seat when I was a kid.
Another chilling scene was when Mrs. Brisby thought she had time to plan a move for her family only to see the plow started early, heading down towards the burrows and homes of many animals. Her friend Auntie Shrew loses her wits and begins running through the fields screaming “Run for your lives!!! The plow is coming!!! We are all going to die!!!” at the top of her lungs. Luckily she gets her senses knocked back in to her, but that scene as animals are fleeing from being shredded in to tiny pieces of muscle and flesh was so panic-inducing.
The movie continues and Mrs. Brisby realizes she has only a short while to devise a scheme to move her family without jeopardizing her son’s health. Being a brave mouse at heart, she travels with Jeremy to meet the Great Owl. This monster is found living in a dark and forbidden forest, and seeing as how mice like herself would be the perfect meal for this owl, she shows a lot of courage in traveling to find him for his wisdom. This Owl is so creepy, living in a lair full of skeletons and cob-webs. Even though the Owl is helpful in the end, giving her good advice in who might help her, the entire scene is quite scary.
So her next mission in her attempt to save her family? Mrs. Brisby now must travel to see the rats under the rosebush. Interestingly there was an allusion to them earlier in the film, where we heard that Mrs. Brisby was taught to speak and read by her husband Jonathan, but we did not really know where he came to have those skills.
Once under the rosebush Mrs. Brisby finds a colony of rats that have built an underground fortress for themselves. They even use electricity, pulleys, elevator systems, and all sorts of human-derived mechanisms to make their lives easier. Next we meet the second horrifying yet kind-hearted character of the film: Nicodemus. Nicodemus is the wise leader of the rats, and quite frankly he looks like a zombie-rat. I know he helps Mrs. Brisby and is a wise, gentle soul like Dumbledore, but his half-decayed face and skeletal fingers would make me think twice about being in the same room with him.
But luckily for Mrs. Brisby, Nicodemus was friends with her late husband Jonathan and takes pity on her plight agreeing to have the rats help her family move their home. It is during their visit together that Nicodemus also reveals how all these rodents have such great intelligence, and here we meet another villain: the humans. These rats and mice were all captive laboratory rodents of The National Institute of Mental Health where they were experimented on daily. You all know my affection for animals, and I just find vivisection appalling. Obviously the film-makers involved in this movie did too, cause it is heart-breaking and painful to watch these rats and mice suffer at the hands of human researchers.
The rats devise a plan using pulleys and ropes to move the cinder block Brisby home to safety, but the only way they can accomplish this is by making sure the local serial killer cat Dragon is asleep. They do have drugs to sedate him, but need to slip them in to his food and only a mouse can get through the hole in the door to the house where Dragon’s food is kept. Once again our petite little field mouse finds her courage and sets out to achieve this task, only after having been told that her husband was on the same mission when Dragon caught and killed/ate him.
She succeeds in her mission, but is caught by the farmer’s 10-year old son and put in a bird cage as a pet. And her attempt to get out of this predicament in time to be there for her family’s move as well as to warn them of the conversation she overheard with the farmer (the NIMH is coming to eradicate the rats under the rosebush as they suspect they are from the group of rats that escaped their facility earlier this year) is truly horrifying to watch. She is such a little mouse, and when her arm gets sliced open on the metal she is trying to move aside to squeeze out from under the water bowl, it’s like I could feel my own arm burning with pain when I was watching this movie as a child. She does escape, and makes it in time to watch our third villain of the movie make his debut: Jenner is one of the rats living under the rosebush that is quickly rising to power. While Justin and Nicodemus think it wise to leave the rosebush, Jenner disagrees and also wants to become the leader of the rats. He is really just your classic power-hungry villain who wants to run an army, but it is still heart-wrenching to watch his scheming succeed in murdering Nicodemus. It was almost as tough to watch that as it was to watch Dumbledore get murdered without any retribution to Snape occurring. Jenner gets in a good couple kills before he is defeated. And just when you think it is all over we get brought to the edge of our seats again!
The villains are all defeated, we can finally rest easy, right?! NO! Mrs. Brisby’s family is still inside the cinderblock house, and with all the commotion that happened amongst the rats while it was being moved it is now sinking in to the mud! You feel quite helpless watching these cute little baby mice cry for help as they are slowly sinking to their doom, drowning in mud.
Well, I am sure you figured out that they don’t actually die, but it was quite a nail-biter there at the end. Eventually most of the characters in this movie live happily ever after, which is probably why it was considered appropriate for small children. But I wonder if any of you agree with me: despite the ending, the route we had to travel to get there was full of terrors and horrors, making it a real horror of horrors for us kids watching it. I am sure I will share it with kids in my family in the future, but not without a fair warning that it might enter their nightmares.
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Posted on May 13, 2014, in Cartoons, Features, Geekology, Horror of Horrors, Movies, Reviews and tagged animal experimentation, Animation, Cartoons, childhood, Horror of Horrors, Mrs. Brisby, Nicodemus, The Secret of NIMH, vivisection. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.