Happy Chinese New Year: The Secret of Nimh

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Well it’s the year of the Rat, a year that symbolises wealth and fertility! To tell the truth, I hope any year with its animal would have those two columns for me to sign my name in. But here we are, 2020, The Rat. 

We are used to a western perspective of the rat. It’s a bad news animal with good reason. The Plague, stowaways, eating my sandwich. And in New Zealand especially with the destruction of so many native species! But this is the Chinese viewpoint of the rat. I wanted to do a review on a positive rat character or story. But for the reasons above there aren’t many of those. The one that probably jumps to mind is Ratatouille. Great movie, but I have a better one! The Secret of Nimh.

1982, a time when classics roamed freely, gave us all something I believe is truly special. It’s one movie that I have memories of from my childhood. It has such a distinctive style. My memory had flashes of imagery but that’s all. I just knew it had an impact on me. So I hired it on YouTube, HD. And I journeyed back to my childhood, back to a better time. A time where media and stories were focused on something simpler but more powerful. A magical time when movies for children got meatier themes and more distinctive characters than adults do now. But I digress, that’s not year of the rat talk!

In The Secret of Nimh, the cover reveals nothing of the tone that lies within. It looks like some old-school Disney fare. But 20 seconds in and I’m already admonishing myself for not re-watching this far sooner. It’s the older style of classic hand drawn animation, where an artist creates a static scene and all the characters are animated on top. It sounds overly simple but immediately I see an advantage. Each background is beautiful and has that really skilled craftsmanship feel. And the character animation is amazing. Even though the number of frames are limited, the expression that is squeezed out of every moment is stunning. The fear, the love, the excitement, the anger are so dynamically displayed. It’s impossible not to connect with each character personally. There are usually only two characters on screen at any one moment so the attention to every drawing is super-focused on revealing what feeling and emotion the little drawn actors are experiencing.

Mrs. Brisby, a widowed mouse, must move her children out of their home in a field before the local farmer starts plowing. Because if they don’t move they die. But her son is so ill, if she moves him he dies. There is a killer cat, a deadly owl. A farmer who wants to gas them all, life and death, life and death. Mrs. Brisby seeks the help of nearby rats, who have heightened intelligence. But they have internal politics that have some rats putting the whole colony in jeopardy. Almost every scene is life or death, it’s Frekn Awesome.

The rats in this are really cool, the oldest and wisest of them is Nicodemus (an old nick name of mine!). I don’t know how fertile these rats are but their intelligence has made them very well off. And most of them have a very high moral code. Having the smarts to fill their underground lair with lights and all sorts of technology, they are now dealing as a society with the guilt of stealing the farmers electricity! The rats have come to understand (well, the really smart ones) that they will never be truly ‘wealthy’ without true independence, true freedom. 

 It’s interesting to read that a handful of ex-Disney animators made this film. They were frustrated by Disney’s bureaucracy and assembly-line attitude, and they believed Disney was neglecting certain animation skills and techniques that would be vital in the years ahead. Wow. Perhaps times have not changed that much. Maybe they have always been about the money. What if a bunch of talent broke off now and made a new science fiction adventure! But perhaps there are too many people with too many mortgage repayments now for that to happen, maybe, or they are too conditioned to the corporate line. Who knows.

All I know is I feel a little guilty that I grew up with such amazing storytelling, I was really lucky. Lucky would be the year of the rabbit. The Secret of Nimh was made in the year of the dog, a ‘smart’ year. If 1982 can produce a movie like this, it can have any and all the animals it wants in my book.



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