Plot Points: Science vs. Religion in “The Secret of NIMH”
In 1982, former Disney animator Don Bluth created a contender for the strangest animated children’s movie of all time. The Secret of NIMH is based on critically-acclaimed 1971 illustrated children’s book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien. It is the story of a widowed (and thus, of course, anthropomorphic) field mouse who, in the course of relocating her family home in advance of a farmer’s plow, discovers that her deceased husband had been a lab animal at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
The premise alone is sufficiently bizarre. To place a real-world governmental research organization – one dealing with mental health research, no less – at the center of a children’s story suggests a specific and conscious political vision. Storybook author O’Brien reveals in his title that lab rats play a role, but Bluth’s movie title replaces that information with a mysterious tease: a “secret.”
Fans of the movie know that the protagonist’s name was changed from Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby (voiced in the movie by Elizabeth Hartman) in order to appease the litigious Frisbee® corporation. But the addition of the word “secret” to the title may reveal more about the filmmakers’ curious approach to an already curious story. Bluth, who co-wrote the screenplay, emphasizes the eerie, abstract, and ultimately inexplicable aspects of Mrs. Brisby’s quest to understand the NIMH research and save what is left of her family.
It is probably a stretch to say that Bluth intended his movie to contribute to a science v. religion debate. Yet, just as you cannot include a scientific organization in the title of a children’s movie without prompting some raised eyebrows, the movie’s attempt to mystify the plot through the pivotal and artful use of magic and oracular intervention opens an intriguing avenue for inquiry.
In the course of their scientific research, human laboratory workers at NIMH have increased the intelligence of their captive lab animals. Most of them are rats, long and spindly things, but there’s a cute mouse in the bunch – a Mr. Jonathan Brisby. The rodents acquire a mastery of human language (the name “Mr. Jonathan Brisby,” like “Mrs. Brisby” and all other mouse names in the movie, predates the NIMH experiments and must be silently translated from mouse-ese into English equivalents for the benefit of viewers; it’s not a plot hole if you can rationalize it.) The rats also learn how to use electricity, that great symbol of scientific mastery. They crave human technologies, which prove their superiority over less-enlightened rodents (“lower creatures,” one rat calls them) and over their previous selves. “We’ve had electricity for four years now!” boasts Justin, the rat Captain of the Guard voiced by Peter Strauss. “Five,” corrects Mr. Ages, a wizened and bespectacled mouse voiced by Arthur Malet. “Jonathan often spoke of electricity!” offers Mrs. Brisby.
The lair of the techno-rats is three feet below a rose bush in the farmer’s yard. It is beautifully illuminated by electrical lights, but it is also the site of a philosophical power struggle between the pro-technology rat Jenner (voiced by Paul Shenar) and the mage rat Nicodemus (voiced by Derek Jacobi). Jenner wants the rats to remain where they are, in the electrical wonderland they power by running an extension cord from the farmhouse. Nicodemus, named for a Biblical figure and saint who was present at the crucifixion, wants to lead the rats into a “wilderness” on a moral crusade (specifically, a crusade against the stealing of electricity). This Moses-like Nicodemus, who along with his followers was once in captivity, is not seen to use electricity. Yet the portal to his chamber glows more brightly than artificial lights, and he is in possession of a book, Biblical in size, that emits light and can levitate. He also gifts Mrs. Brisby with a magical talisman that will empower whoever is brave of heart. Whether intentional or no, more Moses connections may be found by comparing Nicodemus’s luminous artifacts with the Biblical burning bush and the light from the Ark of the Covenant, made famous by Indiana Jones.
Nicodemus’s most striking physical characteristic is his glowing eyes, a trait he shares with the most remarkable creature in the movie: the Great Owl (voiced by John Carradine). “No one has ever seen the Owl and lived to tell about it,” says Mr. Ages. The Owl is impossibly large, with a voice that echoes as if from Beyond, and he is as capricious and dangerous as the Old Testament God. He eats mice, of course, but he is also held in reverence as the wisest creature of the field. Mrs. Brisby goes to him for advice because she cannot move her family’s home before the arrival of the plow. The Owl at first ignores her pleas, but when he learns she is the widow of Jonathan Brisby, he tells her to seek out Nicodemus. There is an arcane ring to his parting words: “Move your house to the lee of the stone.” Mrs. Brisby replies, “I don’t understand, but I will do as you say” – words that could have come from an Abraham or a Noah.
Nicodemus, like Moses in the Torah, dies before he finishes leading the special rats to their new home far away. He is slain in this instance by crude technology: a cement block (the Brisby family home) falls on him when Jenner sabotages a system of levers and pulleys designed to move it. Magic, though, has the last word when Mrs. Brisby uses her talisman to finish moving her home in time.
A final dichotomy between the spiritual and the technological is unquestionable accidental, but it is amusing: The Secret of NIMH features the talents of beloved geek and Star Trek alum Wil Wheaton, who in his first big-screen role voiced Mrs. Brisby’s son Martin. Mrs. Brisby’s daughter Teresa was also voiced by a first-time actor, Shannen Doherty, who later won fame as the witch Prue Halliwell on the TV show Charmed.
The “secret” to The Secret of NIMH’s palpable strangeness can be traced in some measure to its religious and scientific overtones. Don Bluth’s commitment to ambitious, sophisticated storytelling continued in 1986 with An American Tail, which transparently discusses the lives of 19th-century European immigrants, again in the form of anthropomorphic mice. A long-delayed straight-to-video sequel to The Secret of NIMH did not benefit from Bluth’s creative input, and neither will an upcoming live-action/CGI remake announced early in 2015. Whether the remake will recapture the narrative sophistication of the original remains to be seen, but consider us skeptics.
The Secret of NIMH on Flickchart
- Globally ranked #1329
- Wins 46% of matchups
- Ranked by 3307 users
- 2 users have it at #1
- 44 users have it in their top 20
- It is the highest-ranked Don Bluth movie on Flickchart