In 1979, Disney animators Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, and Gary Goldman quit their jobs to form their own studio, after years of disappointment over what they felt were declining standards at a once-great company. They had lofty ideals and a lot to prove, but they did their intentions proud with their first animated feature, 1982's The Secret Of NIMH. Bluth's directorial debut (co-produced, co-written, and co-designed by Pomeroy and Goldman) has its clunky side, particularly in its bafflingly outré alterations to the plot of a beloved children's classic. But the animation was, as Bluth and company had promised, a spectacular return to old-school craftsmanship.
In her final role, Oscar nominee Elizabeth Hartman voices Mrs. Brisby, a timid field mouse fiercely devoted to her farm-dwelling family. When her youngest son becomes too sick to move from a field about to be destroyed by spring plowing, Mrs. Brisby seeks the help of the local rat community, which turns out to have ties to her late husband. Bluth and company threw in a lot of extra comedy business involving a clumsy crow voiced by Dom DeLuise (in a commentary on the film's new "family fun edition," Bluth and Goldman admit that they added most of DeLuise's scenes because they enjoyed his take on the character), and they pack a lot of fuzzy-headed mysticism and weird fantasy tropes into what used to be a simple story free of magical gimcracks, cheap deus ex machinas, and rats running around in medieval clothing and getting into surprisingly bloody swordfights.
But the visuals are splendid. Bluth's team painted each background with a fantastic wealth of depth, detail, texture, and heft. They gave their characters shadows and reflections, keyed each scene for different lighting tones and mood-setting color palettes, and designed vivid lighting effects that literally make the movie sparkle. Compared to modern animated films, NIMH moves at a lackadaisical pace; the main villain doesn't even appear until an hour in, and Bluth is content to let characters spend time slowly wandering through lush settings and complicated scenery. Later Bluth films—An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven—would gradually step up the pace and tone down the quality, but NIMH looks like an animator's showcase, a joyous "Look what we can do!" Even at its most narratively unbalanced, it's well worth drinking in at leisure.
Key features: A narrowly animation-tech-focused Bluth/Goldman commentary, a second disc of kids' games.