How THE SECRET OF NIMH Proved Don Bluth Could Beat Disney - Nerdist
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How THE SECRET OF NIMH Proved Don Bluth Could Beat Disney

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As we look back at all the great films from the auspicious summer of 1982, one film immediately sticks out as an all-time childhood favorite of mine. Adapted from the 1971 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel by Robert C. O’Brien, The Secret of NIMH tells the story of timid widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby (changed from Frisby in the novel), who must seek the aid of the mystical and powerful Nicodemus in order to save her son’s life. The film not only introduced children to a darker style of animation mostly reserved for older audiences (think Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat, John Wilson’s Shinbone Alley, and René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet), it marked a watershed moment in independent animation. For a time, many considered the man behind it, Don Bluth, a savior of artist-driven animation.

The mice fly on the back of a friendly crow in Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH.
United Artists/Don Bluth Productions

Bluth began his animation career working on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty before leaving the industry for a ten year period to serve on a mission in Argentina and complete his college degree. He then returned to the field doing layout animations for Filmation, mostly working on The Archie Show and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Back at Disney, he worked on films like Robin Hood and The Rescuers, while also working on an independent short called Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Originally optioned in 1959, Margery Sharp’s books were brought back to the studio as a project for its younger animators, with The Rescuers becoming the highest grossing animated film at the time. Bluth’s next assignment was to work on the animated portions of Pete’s Dragon and later The Fox and the Hound.

One of the scariest things we've ever seen, the rat from The Secret of NIMH.
United Artists/Don Bluth Productions

However, in the midst of production Bluth, along with fellow animators ​​Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, left Disney because they felt the production process was deteriorating and the studio had little respect for the quality of their artistry. Eleven more animators would leave the House of Mouse the next day. Bluth later stated he did not like working in a corporate structure where decisions were dictated according to profit and loss. This company-wide walkout resulted in a delayed release for The Fox and the Hound and Disney would spend most of the 1980s trying to recover, releasing just four more features that decade. Of course the last of those four films, The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, would mark the beginning of the era known as the Disney Renaissance. But for most of the decade, at least artistically, Bluth reigned supreme. 

Along with several other ex-Disney animators and execs, Bluth founded his own independent animation studio Don Bluth Productions. Their first project was the animation sequences on the 1980 musical fantasy Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. The studio then started work on their first feature film adaptation: The Secret of NIMH. According to ​​author John Cawley in his book The Animated Films of Don Bluth, Bluth learned about the book when it was first offered to Disney in the early ’70s. They turned it down, reportedly saying, “We’ve already got a mouse and we’ve done a mouse movie [The Rescuers].” Of course, after the release of The Secret of NIMH, Disney released another mouse oriented film: 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective. 

Animation historian Jerry Beck recalled seeing early footage of NIHM, saying it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, “It looked like Disney animation from the forties, only darker. It was as lavish as anything from Bambi or Fantasia, only slightly subversive.” The first draft of the script by Steven Barnes was much closer to the novel, but Bluth revised it, adding fantastical elements because he felt “animation calls for some magic, to give it a special “fantastic” quality.”

What does remain in Bluth’s version of the film are the themes of courage in regards to Mrs. Brisby’s emotional journey, and the exploration of the nation’s growing anxiety over unethical medical and scientific practices as seen through the backstory of the rats who were experimented on by NIMH, aka the National Institute of Mental Health. This storyline in the original book was inspired by the real experiments conducted by John B. Calhoun at the institute in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Working at first inside Bluth’s garage, and later in a proper studio located in Studio City, many animators worked long hours, with producer Gary Goldman recalling 110-hour work weeks towards the end of the film’s production. Little money was offered up front; animators received a share of the profits, a first for artists working below the line on a film. United Artists acquired the completed film. The studio had success releasing animated features like Yellow Submarine and Lord of the Rings (1979) in the past. However, the studio chose a regional release strategy rather than a national release, starting it out in 100 theaters before platforming to only 700 theaters at its widest release. Although it did better per theater than several other films that summer, The Secret of NIMH ultimately couldn’t overcome a film about a little lost alien, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Mrs. Brisby and her mice crew reunite in Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH.
United Artists/Don Bluth Productions

Due to the film’s moderate box office, Bluth Studios briefly pivoted to developing the LaserDisc games Dragon’s Lair and Space Age. However, E.T. director Steven Spielberg approached Bluth to direct a project originally developed as a television special that he felt had potential to be a feature film. Inspired by the beautiful animation on The Secret of NIMH, Spielberg hired Bluth to helm An American Tail. It follows a small mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz who finds himself separated from his family when they emigrate from Russia to the United States. Production was difficult, with Spielberg unfamiliar with just how much work goes into the animation process. Despite Bluth’s clashes with Amblin and Universal, An American Tail got good reviews and became the highest grossing non-Disney animated film at the time of its release. 

They partnered again on The Land Before Time, an adventure-drama that follows an orphaned dinosaur named Littlefoot who meets a rag-tag bunch of lone dinosaurs on his way to find his grandparents in the Great Valley. Again featuring darker themes, these dinosaurs face famine, grief, loneliness, and overcome prejudice as they come of age on their journey. Although the film was again critically and financially successful (and spawned a whopping thirteen direct-to-video sequels), Bluth parted ways with Spielberg, returning to a more independent way of working for his next few projects. 

Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike from Don Bluth's The Land Before Time.
Amblin Entertainment

Bluth’s final success in the 1980s, co-directed with Gary Goldman and Dan Kuenster, All Dogs Go to Heaven starred the voice talent of Burt Reynolds as a gambling dog named Charlie B. Barkin who is murdered by his partner Carface (Vic Tayback), escapes from Heaven in order to exact revenge along with his right-hand man Itchy (Dom DeLuise), but ultimately finds himself reformed after meeting a kind-hearted orphan named Anne-Marie (Judith Barsi, who was brutally murdered before the film’s release). A truly weird film with absolutely gorgeous animation, it was a moderate box office success, later becoming a cult classic of the VHS era, once again spawning numerous direct-to-video sequels. 

Following All Dogs Go To Heaven, Bluth’s reign began to falter in the midst of the Disney Renaissance. While that studio had hits like Beauty and The Beast (which became the first animated film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar), Aladdin, and The Lion King, Bluth Studios (then called Sullivan Bluth Studios) produced a series of critical and box office failures like Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin. That said, I for one feel that Rock-a-Doodle deserves a re-examination. Not just for its interesting mixture of live-action and animation, but because of its clearly very angry insider look at the politics of entertainment and how artists become commodities. 

The poster card for Don Bluth's Rock-a-Doodle.
Samuel Goldwyn Company

Despite all this, then-chairman of 20th Century Fox, Bill Mechanic, hired Don Bluth and Gary Goldman to launch their new animation studio Fox Animation. The short-lived studio used a digital ink and paint technique, which scans traditional hand-drawn animation into a computer, rather than transferring to cels. Their first film Anastasia starring Meg Ryan as the titular fallen Russian princess, was both a critical and box office success, grossing $140M world wide and receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Unfortunately, Bluth and Goldman’s next film for the studio, Titan A.E., a post-apocalyptic science fiction adventure film starring Matt Damon, was a box office disaster and the studio closed shortly after its release. It only fully produced two feature films. Created as a direct competitor to Disney, Fox Animation and its films became part of the Disney catalog after the company acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019. 

Bluth and Goldman launched a Kickstarter in 2015 in an attempt to raise funds to adapt their game Dragon’s Lair into a feature-length traditionally hand drawn animated film. They failed to reach their goal, but later launched an IndieGoGo campaign which ultimately raised over $700K. Netflix picked up the project in early 2020 with aims for Ryan Reynolds to star in the adaptation. However, there have been no updates on the production since a postponement during the beginning of the pandemic. Later in 2020, Bluth announced he’d launched a new studio with the goal of igniting a new renaissance for hand drawn animation. 

Mrs. Brisby speaks to the ancient and mystical rat Nicodemus in The Secret of NIMH.
United Artists/Don Bluth Productions.

While no new projects have come about since the studio’s launch, Bluth’s YouTube channel has hours of awe-inspiring behind-the-scenes videos of the master in action. He’s also been working on a memoir, which is slated for release later this summer. Which is the perfect way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Secret of NIMH, and the summer in which he helped usher in a new wave of animation whose ripples we still feel today. 

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9:37 AM
Jun 3 2022
SUMMER OF 82