Those who grew up in the 1980s may fondly remember The Secret of NIMH. It's a lovely tale about a mouse named Mrs. Brisby who just wants to protect her family and, with the help of the great owl, manages to rally a group of intelligent rats led by the enigmatic Nicodemus to help her - only, it's much more than that. The film is dark, it's intense, and it covers some serious issues most adults aren't comfortable discussing in polite conversation. After all, NIMH is the National Institute for Mental Health, and that's not something you're aware of when you watch this film as a child.
The movie was based on a book titled Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H, and it's got an even weirder backstory than the Don Bluth animated film. Regardless, the movie is beloved and is an exceptional presentation of the animation talents of Bluth and his team, which is one of the many reasons adults and children still love the movie to this day.
Backlighting Animation Techniques Gave Two Characters’ Eyes A Frightening Glow
Don Bluth has been a pioneer of animation since his early days at Disney, and there are few who can match his level of expertise. One of the tricks he used in the film involved the use of backlighting to emphasize the creepiness of several characters' eyes.
The Great Owl and Nicodemus are presented in this manner, and the eerie glow that emanates from their eyes is both terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. The technique was expensive, and it was seen in several places other than a few characters' eyes, but those are the examples that viewers often remember.
The technique is achieved by using animated mattes, which are shot with light shining through from the back. Instead of a painted cell, the light shines through a color gel, which creates an intense glowing effect.
The Film Added A Supernatural Element That's Not In The Book
The book and movie share plenty of similarities, and the main plot is pretty much identical. The movie did take some artistic license with how it presented some of the characters and events, but the real change is in the supernatural elements, none of which were in the novel.
In the movie, Mrs. Brisby meets the ancient rat, Nicomedus, who tells her of her late husband's connection to the rats and then gives her an amulet called "The Stone." More than simple jewelry, the stone is a magical artifact that grants the wearer power when they are courageous (which is something Mrs. Brisby isn't for much of the movie).
By the end of the film, just when all hope is lost, she manages to save her children with the power of the amulet, and while many of these events were in the book, they were carried out in natural rather than supernatural ways.
The Great Owl Is Introduced Like A Fearsome Monster
There's hardly anything more frightening to a mouse than an owl. The birds are easily one of the top-tier predators in their ecosystem, and to a mouse, they represent a skyborne terror that swoops down from the heavens and plucks up their loved ones.
While many of us love owls, seeing the Great Owl from the eyes of Mrs. Brisby is terrifying, and that's especially true in the movie. When he first arrives in his cobweb-infested lair, he lands atop a pile of bones - many of which are conspicuously mouse-sized - and crushes several after squashing a spider.
He then twists his head around in an almost unnatural way and proceeds to terrify the film's protagonist. Ultimately he helps her, but few children could watch this scene without feeling the same level of terror Mrs. Brisby clearly feels on screen.
Prior To The Film, Mrs. Brisby's Husband Was Eaten Alive By A Cat Named Dragon
Most kids love cats, but few could look at them the same way after seeing Dragon in The Secret of NIMH. Dragon is the cat who lives on the Fitzgibbon farm, and he terrorizes the local rodent population, which is pretty much what you would want a cat to do in such a situation.
He terrorizes every critter he comes across, and though it happens prior to the events of the film, Dragon is the reason Mrs. Brisby is a widow. Her husband, Jonathan, was one of Dragon's victims, and was eaten alive a short time before the events of the film take place.
Jonathan fell to Dragon's horrific jaws when he attempted to put the monstrous cat to sleep with a drug planted in his food bowl. Mrs. Brisby isn't made aware of this fact until later in the movie, and she follows in his footsteps, helping herself and the rats by succeeding where Jonathan previously failed.