Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review - The Secret of NIMH

Short review: Mrs. Brisby faces a crisis of a sick child and must turn to the secretive rats of NIMH who have been subjected to scientific experiments that made them intelligent and gave their leader Nicodemus inexplicable magic powers.

The rats are back, but
Nicodemus has magic
Jenner is evil

Full review: In 1979, Don Bluth and ten other animators, dissatisfied with the direction they thought Walt Disney Studios was moving in, left the company and formed their own animation production company. After a few small projects, the acquired the rights to Richard C. O'Brien's 1972 book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (read review) and set about turning it into an animated feature. The result was a beautiful film that is broadly similar to the source material but with some critical changes that make it, in my opinion, a lesser work.

The movie is visually quite beautiful. The main reason that Bluth and the other animators left Disney was apparently dissatisfaction with the declining quality of animation being produced. With this background, it should come as no surprise that the animation in The Secret of NIMH was given detailed attention. As a result the movements of the characters are extraordinarily fluid, the coloring of the cells is evocative and appealing, and the entire movie is full of richly detailed scenery. The only mild criticism I would have of the presentation of the film is that a fair number of the scenes are quite dark and shadowy, which can be hard on one's eyes. This is probably fairly inevitable, as many of the critical scenes in the movie take place at night or underground, but even the daytime scenes often have a heavy feel, with orange skies and dark shadowing.

I'm in the book.
I'm also in a really shadowy daytime scene in the movie.
The basic plot of the movie is the same as the book: Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartwell) is a widowed field mouse living in a cinder block with her children. Her son Timmy falls ill, spurring her to visit the reclusive Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet) for assistance. When he tells her that Timmy cannot be moved for three weeks, she panics because the annual "moving day" is due shortly. Enlisting the help of a clumsy crow named Jeremy (Dom DeLuise) that she had saved from the cat "Dragon", she consults the Owl (John Carradine) who sends her to the rats of NIMH, led by Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi). The rats turn out to have been experimental subjects at NIMH (the National Institute for Mental Health) who have had their intelligence augmented as a result of their time there. Because she is the widow of the revered Jonathan Brisby, who was also an experimental subject at NIMH, they agree to help move her house to safety. The rats have troubles of their own, as they are debating whether to move away from the rose bush outside the Fitzgibbon home and give up their parasitic ways. From there, the plot of the movie diverges a fair amount from the plot of the book, primarily because of the thematic changes that were made both to the characters and the imagined world in which they live.

An aside on casting: it is always fun to go back and look at an old movie and see what famous actors crop up in small roles. In The Secret of NIMH, Shannon Doherty and Wil Wheaton serve as voice actors for two Mrs. Brisby's children. So if you are ever playing the Kevin Bacon game, and a Derek Jacobi to Wil Wheaton connection will help you with a link in the chain, you now know you can do that courtesy of Don Bluth Productions.

Hello, I'm Jenner. I'm evil now.
However, in many elements the movie diverges from the book, from the trivial to the substantial. The most trivial is that in the book, the heroine's name is "Mrs. Frisby", whereas in the movie it was changed to "Mrs. Brisby". Apparently this was because the Frisbee company objected to the use of the similar sounding "Frisby" name for the heroine. This is very trivial, although one wonders exactly what the Frisbee company found objectionable in having a likable heroine have a similar sounding name to the name of their product. Other changes seem fairly inevitable in the transition from book to movie: Jeremy goes from being a mildly comic character in the book, to Dom DeLuise, becoming a source of numerous slapstick sequences. To make the plot a little more exciting Jenner (Peter Strauss), the primary antagonist in the story, becomes considerably more malevolent, going from being merely misguided (and somewhat foolish) in the book, to being a murderous villain.

Science experiments gave me magical powers.
Wait, that doesn't make sense.
But the most substantial change in the movie is the completely unexplained addition of magic to the story. In the book, the rats and mice of NIMH were highly intelligent, a situation explained by the scientific experiments conducted upon them during their captivity at NIMH. The rats then established a society under the Fitzgibbon's rose bush and began to use the fruits of technology to better their lives, establishing a kind of civilization for themselves. And the primary plot of the book is the struggle between those who seek to preserve the status quo of that civilization, and continue to live in the shadow of humankind, and those who wish to strike out on their own and establish themselves as an independent species. But in the movie, Nicodemus is presented as having magical powers, although they seem to be somewhat mixed up with technology to a certain extent. He uses a spinning contraption to observe events far away, using it like a crystal ball. He levitates objects with a wave of his hand. And he hands over a magical amulet to Mrs. Brisby saying that it is powered by a "courageous heart". But why Nicodemus has these magical powers, or where the amulet came from is completely unexplained. While the movie goes into a little bit of background concerning the source of the rats' enhanced intelligence, it is completely silent on the subject of Nicodemus' wizardry. The obvious reason for explaining the intelligence but not the magic is that the intelligence is discussed by O'Brien in the book, and the magic is a new curve ball thrown into the movie. This unexplained new element moves the entire story from "science fiction" to "fantasy" and introduces a number of plot problems. Introducing the magical element without explanation was both unnecessary and sloppy storytelling.

The introduction of Nicodemus' magic serves to sap a fair amount of mystery from the story in the movie. The movie opens by having Nicodemus talk about Jonathan Brisby, establishing a close friendship between him and the rats. But in the book the relationship between Johnathan Frisby and the rats of NIMH is not revealed until well into the book, making Mrs. Frisby's plight seem more desperate. Further, as far as the reader is concerned, whether the rats will in fact assist Mrs. Frisby when she does seek them out is entirely unclear in the book. In the movie, on the other hand, Nicodemus uses his magic to keep tabs on Mrs. Brisby, watching as she seeks out first Mr. Ages and then the Owl for advice, magically prodding her to move towards coming to see the rats for help. But the viewer has to wonder, if Nicodemus knew that Mrs. Brisby was looking for help and that her quest would lead her to seek the assistance of the rats, why he didn't just cut short the circuitous path she takes to their doorstep and send someone to offer assistance? In the book, without the addition of magic, Mrs. Frisby's path to the rats' door makes sense. In the movie, it just makes Nicodemus look like a needlessly cryptic jerk.

The problem is, it seems, that when the writers of the screenplay elected to add magic to Nicodemus' repertoire, they didn't stop to think through the story implications this would have. Later in the story, for example, the rats need to drug the Fitzgibbon's cat Dragon, which requires entering the farm house through a hold only big enough to accomodate a mouse. After the rats reveal that this was how Jonathan was killed, Mrs. Brisby volunteers to undertake this dangerous msision. But since Nicodemus can levitate and move objects by magic in the movie, one wonders why he doesn't just use his magical abilities to deliver the drug packet into Dragon's food rather than sending Mrs. Brisby on a dangerous mission that has proven fatal in the past (and gets her captured)? I think the answer is the same as the answer as to why he let Mrs. Brisby go see the horribly dangerous owl rather than having someone like Justin go and offer the help of the rats: that's the way it happens in the book. But once the scriptwriter added magical elements to the movie, the setting is different from the book, and the story should take those new elements into account. And it simply does not. This is why speculative fiction is hard to write - often much harder than many people who look down their noses at it think. When one changes the setting details by adding magic or new technology, you have to then think through the implications of those additions. And many writers who try their hand at speculative fiction stumble on this element, adding something that seems interesting, and then destroying the verisimilitude of their story by failing to consider the implications of the new paradigm.

But this sort of sloppiness bleeds into other elements of the story too. Jenner endorses the plan to move Mrs. Brisby's house because he decides this will be the perfect opportunity to try to kill Nicodemus and take over the mantle of leadership from him. But Jenner's plan requires Nicodemus to stand directly underneath the cinder block while it is being moved. There doesn't appear to be any reason why Nicodemus would need to do this, but Jenner assumes he will, and Nicodemus does. Other than "because the story needs it" there doesn't seem to be any reason for this, and it makes Jenner's plan seem really quite stupid as it relies entirely upon this serendipitous event. Jenner doesn't seize upon the situation opportunistically and take action when he sees Nicodemus place himself in a foolish position. No, Jenner's plan requires predicting that Nicodemus will needlessly and foolishly place himself in harm's way. In other words, Jenner's plan hinges upon foreseeing an event that he could not possibly have reasonably anticipated.

One might quibble that I'm being overly picky concerning plot issues in what is a film intended for children. But just because a work of fiction is intended for a younger audience doesn't mean it is okay for the plot to devolve into nonsense. When O'Brien wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH he provided a coherent and sensible plot which is why it is so disappointing that when they converted it to a movie they mangled the plot by adding supernatural material without considering its impact. Even the introduction of the magical amulet changes the meaning of the story. In the book the rats move Mrs. Frisby's house via engineering, a triumph of their enhanced intelligence. In the movie, Jenner sabotages the engineering efforts (leading to a dramatic sword fight with Justin*, the captain of the guard) and Mrs. Brisby uses the magical amulet and the "power of a courageous heart" to save her family from sinking into the mud as a result, which provides a beautifully animated scene, but one that tosses aside the idea that intelligence applied to a problem can solve it, and replaces it with a "magical powers save the day" ending.

Translating a book to film always changes it - absolute fidelity when changing mediums is an impossible goal. The only real questions are whether the resulting film is mostly reflective of the source material, and whether it is a good film or not. In the case of The Secret of NIMH the answer to the first question is sadly, not really. Adding magic to the story alters what was a fairly interesting science fiction story about a nascent civilization and humanity's responsibility towards its creations into a fairly run-of-the-mill tale of talking animals and magic. And because the addition of magic was done with little regard for its impact on the story, the translation from book to film results in a story that doesn't make much sense any more. Consequently, the end result is a film that is beautiful, but has a seriously flawed and somewhat bland story.

*One thing that seems kind of odd is the number of "J" names in the story: Jeremy, Jenner, Justin. Okay, it's only three, but there are only about ten real characters in the movie, and having three of them share the letter "J" to start their names is fairly noticeable.

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