Man or Mouse: Humanity and Morality in The Secret of NIMH

Review of The Secret of NIMH, Directed by Don Bluth

Mrs. Brisby has a serious problem. Her youngest son, Timmy, has a nasty fever. Which would be problem enough, but it’s getting to be plow season. This is bad news for field mice (like the Brisbys) and other such critters currently living in a field on the Fitzgibbons’ farm. Normally, the Brisbys would just relocate, but little Timmy can’t be moved, and Mrs. Brisby is at her wits’ end. The friendly neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Ages, sends her off to consult with the wise (and dangerous) Great Owl, who in turn sends her to the mysterious rats who live in a thorn bush near the farm house.

See, it turns out that these rats aren’t exactly normal rats, but are actually the escaped subjects of a research experiment at the National Institute of Mental Health (or NIMH). They are, in fact, smart rats. They’ve learned to read and have even harnessed the power of electricity, which they steal from Farmer Fitzgibbons. And, as it turns out, Mrs. Brisby has a heretofore unknown (to her, anyway) connection to the super smart rats: her late husband Jonathan was in cahoots with them and totally saved their behinds. According to the Great Owl, the rats have the technology and know-how to move the entire Brisby residence to safety—but first Mrs. Brisby must convince the rats to help her. This task is made rather more difficult by the evil Jenner, an unscrupulous, power-hungry jerk who cares nothing for the plight of others and wants desperately to wrest the rat leadership from the benevolent-but-aged Nicodemus. Also, there’s a magic amulet.

The Secret of NIMH (1982) is the first animated feature from former Disney animator Don Bluth, the man responsible for a number of 1980’s gems, including An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988) (though he had no involvement with any of their many sequels), as well as one of my personal childhood favorites, All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). His animation style is quite distinct—you can always tell a Bluth or Bluth-inspired film by the characters’ mouths. Mouths are to Bluth what eyes and lashes are to the inimitable Chuck Jones—nobody else animates them quite like he does.

As near as I can figure, he was also the first person to put Dom DeLuise behind a microphone for voiceover work, and for that I am eternally grateful. You may remember DeLuise from his memorable turns as Tiger the friendly cat in the American Tail franchise and Itchy the dachshund in All Dogs Go to Heaven (and sequels). This film marks his first performance for Bluth, as Jeremy, the comically clumsy crow on the lookout for a special lady.

The movie itself is excellent, if a bit intense for young viewers. My brother and I loved it dearly, as our all-but-worn-out VHS copy clearly attests. It’s funny and scary and suspenseful and action-packed and everything a good kids’ movie should be. Also, the theme song is quite lovely, and makes a great waltz.

Not that it’s without its problems. As I understand it, the magic amulet makes no appearance in the largely naturalistic children’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). (The heroine underwent a rather inconvenient and last-minute name change in order to avoid possible infringement of the Frisbee trademark. Yes, those Frisbees.)

Not surprisingly, this awkward insertion of fantasy elements into what is essentially a science fiction story is by far the weakest link in the film, plot-wise. Where did the amulet come from? The amulet is clearly sized for a rat (or a mouse)—who made it? Is it a tiny bracelet made by a man-wizard of some kind? Did the rats make it? Why? What is its purpose? How is it connected to Jonathan and Mrs. Brisby? Fortunately, the amulet’s big scenes are visually stunning and a ton of fun to watch, and I do not recall its rather mysterious origin giving me any difficulties in my many childhood viewings. I accepted the amulet’s presence without question or hesitation. Of course there’s a magic amulet. Of course only the truly good (or in this case, those with ‘courage of the heart’) can wield it properly. Of course the bad guy wants it, and of course it is imperative that he not be allowed to get his grimy, evil paws on it. Just roll with it and don’t ask questions.

Fortunately, The Secret of NIMH has bigger questions for its viewers to ponder. Like I said, the rats are now super smart. They are, in fact, fully as smart as men (and, it seems, significantly smarter than Farmer Fitzgibbons). They are capable of building a fully functional base complete with electricity and a wicked awesome water elevator. However, much of their lives is made possible only by stealing from Farmer Fitzgibbons—stealing food, stealing electricity, stealing parts and doodads for their headquarters. Many of the rats recognize that stealing is wrong, and feel shame for their actions. In order to remedy this, Nicodemus and his followers have proposed that the rats relocate to a place called Thorn Valley, where they can build a new life and live without stealing. Not all the rats are on board with this plan, and even many of those who are have less than admirable motives. Some support the relocation plan because they fear discovery and annihilation at the hands of humans (and NIMH, which, as it turns out, is a legitimate fear). Others openly oppose the plan, arguing for a continuation of the status quo, stealing and all, or even for an offensive maneuver, in which the rats would launch some sort of full scale attack on Farmer Fitzgibbons and, if need be, all of mankind.

Nicodemus, in defending the plan to Mrs. Brisby, explains it thus: “My child, we can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”

“In the beginning,” Nicodemus recalls, “we were ordinary street rats, stealing our daily bread and living off the efforts of man’s work.” Since that time, they have been given the gift of intelligence, received at the hands of the men of NIMH. But with that intelligence came the awareness that certain actions, even if beneficial to the actor, are wrong. As long as the rats continue to steal, they will only ever be smart rats. If they want to be something more, something nobler, they must be not merely intelligent but moral. It is not intelligence or self-awareness that makes a man, but honor and integrity and right living—using that intelligence to learn about and conform to morality. Nicodemus wants to lead the rats to a new, moral life, where they live not as the rats they were, but as the men they can be.

Jenner, on the other hand, is more than happy to use his intelligence for his own self-interest with no regard for right, wrong, or the interests of others. He is happy to continue stealing from Farmer Fitzgibbons as long as it benefits him, and is even willing to escalate to murder if anyone stands in the way of those benefits. His intelligence thus functions as little more than a kind of elevated animal cunning, and he remains a rat. Because the intelligence of Nicodemus and his followers leads to moral knowledge, and because they submit their intelligence to conscience and in fact put it to work for conscience, they become something more than rats. They are men.

Intelligence is a wonderful thing. We are learning more and more about the world every day—in science, in history, in medicine. But we must remember that intelligence alone is not enough to save us, to elevate us from our fallen state and make us truly men. All animals possess some level of intelligence which enables them to perform the tasks dictated by their instincts. The ability to make moral judgments—to choose among or even override those instincts where appropriate—is uniquely human. When we ignore morality, we are no longer acting as humans; we are simply smart animals. As long as we act continue to act like rats, rats we will be. It is only when we act like men—when our intelligence is ruled by morality—that we demonstrate true humanity.

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Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.