Mrs. Brisby, a timid widowed field mouse, lives in a cinder block with her children in a field on the Fitzgibbons' farm. She prepares to move her family out of the field as plowing time approaches, but her son Timothy has fallen ill. She visits Mr. Ages, another mouse and friend of her late husband, Jonathan, who diagnoses Timothy with pneumonia and provides her with medicine. Mr. Ages warns her that Timothy must stay inside for at least three weeks or he will die. On her way home, she encounters Jeremy, a clumsy but friendly crow. They both narrowly escape from the Fitzgibbons' cat, Dragon.
The next day, Mrs. Brisby discovers that Farmer Fitzgibbons has started plowing early. Although her neighbor Auntie Shrew helps her disable his tractor, Mrs. Brisby knows she must devise another plan. Jeremy takes her to visit the Great Owl, who tells her to visit a group of rats that live beneath a rose bush on the farm and ask for Nicodemus, their wise and mystical leader.
Mrs. Brisby enters the rose bush and encounters a tough and aggressive guard rat named Brutus, who chases her away with a battle axe. She is led back in by Mr. Ages (who now has his leg bandaged up) and is amazed to see the rats' use of electricity and other technology. She meets Nicodemus and Justin, the Captain of the Guard, and a ruthless, power-hungry rat named Jenner.
From Nicodemus, she learns that many years ago her husband, along with the rats and Mr. Ages, were part of a series of experiments at a place known as NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health. The experiments boosted their intelligence, enabling them to escape, as well as extending their lifespans. However, they are unable to live only as rats, needing human technology to survive, which they have only accomplished by stealing. The rats have concocted "The Plan", which is to leave the farm and live independently. Nicodemus gives Mrs. Brisby an amulet called "The Stone", that gives magical power when its wearer is courageous.
Because of her husband's relationship with the rats, they agree to help Mrs. Brisby move her home. First, they need to drug Dragon to sleep so that they can complete the move safely. Only Mrs. Brisby can do this, as only mice are small enough to fit through the hole leading into the house; Jonathan was killed by Dragon in a previous attempt, while Mr. Ages broke his leg in another. That night, she puts the drug into the cat's food dish, but the Fitzgibbons' son Billy catches her. While trapped in a birdcage, she overhears a telephone conversation between Farmer Fitzgibbons and NIMH and learns that the Institute intends to exterminate the rats the next day. She escapes from the cage and runs off to warn Justin and the others.
The rats are moving the Brisby home, with the children inside, using a rope and pulley system during a thunderstorm. Jenner, who wishes for the rats to remain in the rose bush, sabotages the ropes with his reluctant accomplice Sullivan, causing the assembly to fly apart and kill Nicodemus. Mrs. Brisby arrives and tries to convince the rats that NIMH is coming and they must leave, but Jenner calls her a hysterical liar, attacks her, and attempts to take the amulet from her neck.
Sullivan alerts Justin, who rushes to Mrs. Brisby's aid. After mortally wounding Sullivan, Jenner engages Justin in a sword fight, which ends in Justin stabbing him. Justin then addresses the other rats to prepare for their departure from the farm. Jenner recovers and advances on an unaware Justin, but the dying Sullivan hurls his own dagger into Jenner's back, killing him.
The Brisby house begins to sink into the mud, but Justin and the rats are unable to raise it. Mrs. Brisby's will to save her children gives power to the amulet, which she uses to lift the house and move it to safety. The rats depart to Thorn Valley with Justin as their new leader, and Timothy begins to recover. Jeremy eventually meets "Miss Right", another crow who is just as clumsy as he is, and the two fly away together.Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby
Derek Jacobi as Nicodemus
Hermione Baddeley as Auntie Shrew
John Carradine as The Great Owl
Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the Crow
Arthur Malet as Mr. Ages
Peter Strauss as Justin
Paul Shenar as Jenner
Aldo Ray as Sullivan
Shannen Doherty as Teresa Brisby
Wil Wheaton as Martin Brisby
Ian Fried as Timothy "Timmy" Brisby
Jodi Hicks as Cynthia Brisby
Edie McClurg as Miss Right
Tom Hatten as Farmer Fitzgibbons
Lucille Bliss as Mrs. Beth Fitzgibbons
Joshua Lawrence as Billy Fitzgibbons
Charles Champlin, Dick Kleiner, and Norbert Auerbach as the Council rats
The rights to the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH had reportedly been offered to Disney in 1972 but turned down.
The Secret of NIMH was the first feature film to be directed by Don Bluth. In September 1979 he, fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, and eight other animation staff left Walt Disney Productions animation department to set up their own independent studio, Don Bluth Productions. The studio worked, at first, out of Bluth's house and garage, but moved to a two-story, 5,500-square-foot (510 m2) facility in Studio City, California, several months later. While they were still working at Disney, they produced the 27-minute short film Banjo the Woodpile Cat as a side project to gain other production skills that the company and their animation program were not addressing. Bluth asked Ron W. Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law and the president and CEO of the company at the time, to view Banjo, but Miller declined. As Goldman recalled, "that pulled the enthusiasm rug out from under us. We had hoped that the studio might like what we were doing and agree to buy the film and allow us to finish the short film in the studio, which would allow us to recoup what we had spent in terms of money and the many hours that we and the other members of the team had invested in the film."
Before they started making Banjo, artist and story writer Ken Anderson had been getting into Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which he called "a wonderful story". He gave the book to Bluth for him to read and make a film out of after Bluth finished the animation direction of Pete's Dragon. Bluth later showed NIMH to German Disney animator Woolie Reitherman, who turned down Bluth's offers to make a movie based on the book, stating, "We've already got a mouse [named Mickey Mouse,] and we've done a mouse movie [called The Rescuers]." However, Bluth also presented the novel to the other staff that would work for Don Bluth Productions later on, and they all loved it. Two months later, former Disney executive James L. Stewart, who now had started Aurora Productions, called Goldman and told him about Anderson's idea of making a film based on NIMH. At Bluth, Goldman and Pomeroy's request, Aurora Productions acquired the film rights and offered Don Bluth Productions a budget of US$5.7 million and 30 months to complete the film, tighter in both budget and schedule than most Disney animated features at the time.
Goldman described the casting process as "exciting, fun, and sometimes strange". He stated that focusing on the characteristics of each character, the voices, and acting abilities were crucial, saying that using voices that added to a movie's texture was part of the team's philosophy in the development of a film. Goldman found the strangest casting decision to be Dom DeLuise for Jeremy the Crow, which Goldman, Bluth, and Pomeroy had considered after they watched the 1978 film The End. Elizabeth Hartman was cast as Mrs. Brisby, with Goldman calling her performance in A Patch of Blue "so believable and sincere that we all felt that she was right for the part." Pomeroy suggested Derek Jacobi, who starred in the 1976 miniseries I Claudius, to play the part of Nicodemus. Peter Strauss, whom the team previously saw in another miniseries from 1976, Rich Man, Poor Man, was cast as Justin. Paul Shenar was assigned to play Jenner; the staff liked his "dark, powerful voice". Shakespearean actor John Carradine was "perfect for the dark, ominous Great Owl", while Aldo Ray was assigned to voice Sullivan, whom Goldman said "also had a great distinctive voice".
The production of The Secret of NIMH lasted from January 1980 to early June 1982. The studio set out with the explicit goal in mind of returning feature animation to its "golden era", concentrating on strong characters and story, and experimenting with unusual and often more labor-intensive animation techniques. Bluth believed older techniques were being abandoned in favor of lower production costs, and the only way animation could survive was to continue traditional production methods. Among the techniques experimented with on The Secret of NIMH were rotoscoping, multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadows, and backlit animation (where animated mattes are shot with light shining through color gels to produce glowing areas for artificial light and fire effects), multiple color palettes for characters to fit in different lighting situations, from daylight, to night, to warm environments, to underwater. Mrs. Brisby had 46 different lighting situations, therefore there were 46 different color palettes, or lists of color, for her. Two modern, computerized versions of the multiplane camera were also manufactured for this production.
To achieve the film's detailed full animation while keeping to the tight budget, the studio strove to keep any waste of time and resources to a minimum. The crew often worked long hours with no immediate financial reward (though they were offered a cut of the film's profits, a practice common for producers, directors and stars of live action films but never before offered to artists on an animated feature); producer Gary Goldman recalled working 110-hour weeks during the final six months of production. Around 100 in-house staff worked on the film, with the labor-intensive cel painting farmed out to 45 people working from home. Many minor roles, including incidental and crowd voice work, were filled in by the in-house staff. The final cost of the film was $6.385 million. The producers, Bluth, Goldman, Pomeroy, and the executive producers at Aurora mortgaged their homes collectively for $700,000 to complete the film, with the understanding that their investment would be the first to be repaid. The film was the sixth animated feature to be presented in the Dolby Stereo sound system.
One of the earliest drafts of the film was written by Steven Barnes, who received a creative consultant credit in the final product, and was closer to the original novel. The story would have focused more on the rats and their time at NIMH as it did in the book, which was reduced to a short flashback in later revisions to bring Mrs. Brisby and her plight into the forefront. It also included a female rat named Isabella (described as "a young, cute, somewhat motor-mouthed rat with a crush on Justin"), who was ultimately left out and much of her dialogue given to Nicodemus. A revised synopsis dated July 2, 1980 by an unattributed author would take the movie closer to its completed form, which ended with the mysterious disappearance of the rats, leading the characters and audience to wonder if they ever really existed, or were just an elaborate illusion.
Bluth himself would later make several changes to the story, most notably with the addition of mystical elements not present in the original novel. He explained "Regarding magic, we really believe that animation calls for some magic, to give it a special 'fantastic' quality." This was most apparent in the magic amulet given to Mrs. Brisby, which was meant to be a visual representation of her character's internal power; something harder to show on film. The object was also meant to introduce a spiritual aspect to the plot, with the director remarking, "The stone or amulet is just a method of letting the audience know that Mrs. Brisby has found 'Courage of the Heart'. Magic? Maybe. Spiritual? Yes." In the same vein, Nicodemus was made into a wizard to "create more mystery" about himself and the rats' colony. The antagonist Jenner was given much more prominence in the movie, being only mentioned as a traitor who leaves in the book, to "add drama" to the narrative by giving it a more visible enemy. Justin also now succeeds Nicodemus as the leader of the rats to give his character more of an arc, and allow him an opportunity to "grow and change." Unlike the original work, Justin does not rescue Mrs. Brisby from the cage at the Fitzgibbons' house, and she now helps her children without the rats' assistance by using the amulet; once again giving focus to her personal story. As Bluth put it, "The Secret of NIMH is really a story about Mrs. Brisby and her need to save her children. If the rats save her children, then she hasn't grown in the film."
During the film's production, Aurora contacted Wham-O, the manufacturers of Frisbee flying discs, with concerns about possible trademark infringements if the "Mrs. Frisby" name in O'Brien's original book was used in the movie. Wham-O rejected Aurora's request for waiver to use the same-sounding name to their "Frisbee", in the movie. Aurora informed Bluth & company that Mrs. Frisby's name would have to be altered. By then, the voice work had already been recorded for the film, so the name change to "Mrs. Brisby" necessitated a combination of re-recording some lines and, because John Carradine was unavailable for further recordings, careful sound editing had to be performed, taking the "B" sound of another word from Carradine's recorded lines, and replace the "F" sound with the "B" sound, altering the name from "Frisby" to "Brisby".
The Secret of NIMH Original Motion Picture Soundtrack contains songs from the film written by Jerry Goldsmith and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, with vocal selections by Paul Williams and Sally Stevens. It was Goldsmith's first composition for an animated feature, which he admitted was such a departure from his normal work that in the end he approached the project like a live action score, employing the same kind of extended themes and structural development. What made the scoring process hard for Goldsmith was that he had to score scenes that were unfinished: "I was on the phone constantly with them. My dupe [copy of the film] was in black and white, and they'd bring their color copy over so I could see it. They were constantly adding footage, and it was constantly, 'What's going on here?' and 'What's happening here?'" David Horten spent a year on the sound design for the film, which was supervised by Goldman. Goldman found the sound work by Horten his second favorite part of the production process, recalling that some of his "most beautiful efforts" had to make way for the recordings of Goldsmith's music: "I remember hearing David’s orchestration of ambient sounds and specific sound effects for the 8 minute tractor sequence without Jerry’s music cue. It was amazing. But then, so was Jerry’s 8 minute music cue, it remains extremely powerful. We were able to combine a lot of David’s sounds, treating them like part of the orchestra. It came out great, but I couldn’t help but feel empathy for David."
The album was released on July 2, 1982 on vinyl and audio cassette and re-released on March 3, 1995 on CD with a rearranged track listing. Intrada Records issued a remastered limited edition album on CD on August 17, 2015 with one previously unreleased cue ("At Your Service," running 3:39) and three demos of "Flying Dreams" (as performed by Sally Stevens, Paul Williams and as a piano duet) totaling 10:09.
- "Main Title" (3:13)
- "Allergic Reaction/Athletic Type" (2:40)
- "Flying Dreams Lullaby" (3:45) - performed by Sally Stevens
- "The Tractor" (2:58)
- "The Sentry Reel/The Story of NIMH" (6:03)
- "Escape from NIMH/In Disguise" (4:58)
- "Flying Dreams" (3:21) - performed by Paul Williams
- "Step Inside My House" (4:40)
- "No Thanks" (2:01)
- "Moving Day" (7:57)
- "The House Rising" (4:33)
- "Flying High/End Title" (2:38)
The Secret of NIMH debuted on super 8 film and several home video formats in 1983, including VHS, Betamax, CED Videodisc, Video8, and LaserDisc, which were distributed by MGM/UA Home Video in North America, and Warner Home Video in Europe and Australia. A Video 2000 version was also released exclusively in Europe. With a $79 purchase price in the US, the VHS version sold approximately 25,000 copies within the first few months.
In September 6, 1990, the film was re-released on both VHS and LaserDisc in a new advertising campaign with lower retail prices. It was this new wide availability on video, as well as broadcasts on cable, that helped NIMH garner a cult following long after its theatrical debut. This was followed by another VHS release in 1994, along with a Philips CD-i video disc version that same year.
The film was released on DVD for the first time on November 17, 1998, which was reprinted numerous times in the ensuing years, both as a stand-alone release or bundled with other animated movies from MGM or 20th Century Fox. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman later oversaw a high-definition restoration of the film, which was released on June 19, 2007 in a 2-disc DVD set called the "Family Fun Edition". Improvements in the transfer over the 1998 DVD include color correction and dirt and dust removal, and included special features such as audio commentary from both individuals, and an interview featurette. A Blu-ray version was released on March 29, 2011, which retained the special features of the Family Fun Edition.
The Secret of NIMH received widespread critical acclaim upon its release and continues to be hailed as one of the greatest animated films of all time. It received a 96% "Fresh" approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 23 reviews with the consensus that "The Secret of NIMH is a dark, well-told tale that respects its young audience enough to not tone down its subject matter." Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the movie two positive "yes" votes on a July 15, 1982 episode of their television program Sneak Previews with Ebert stating "Walt Disney would've liked The Secret of NIMH." Ebert would give Secret of NIMH three out of four stars in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, calling it "an artistic success," praising the quality of its animation, and that it "contains that absolute rarity among feature-length animated cartoons, an interesting premise." However, Ebert found that NIMH may not resonate as well on an emotional level with younger viewers, since "it has so many characters and involves them in so many different problems that there's nobody for the kids in the audience to strongly identify with." Siskel, writing for the Chicago Tribune, found the movie "charming", but stated that the narrative was "littered with too many unimportant characters" and that Dom DeLuise "insert[ed] too much of himself" into the character of Jeremy. Despite this, Siskel found the film, particularly the second half, to be a "genuine pleasure", and felt that even adults will be drawn into the story by the end, giving it three stars out of four. In his review for the 1990 VHS re-release, Jeff Unger of Entertainment Weekly gave The Secret of NIMH a grade of "A", calling it "a wonderful adaptation" of the original book, adding that "Bluth and his animators, bless them, chose to revive an endangered art form -- classically detailed animation. They drew their characters exquisitely and gave them individual personalities. The entire ensemble -- artists, actors, animals, and musicians -- created something unique: the world's first enjoyable rat race." Similarly, Richard Corliss of Time magazine called the movie "something gorgeous to look at."
The film's distributor, MGM/UA Entertainment Company, barely did any promotion for the film, leading Aurora to finance the advertising campaign themselves. The financiers had expected the film to open in wide release in 1,000 venues, but MGM opted for a limited opening weekend in 100 theaters, with its widest release in only 700. Although in competition with the blockbuster E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial directed by future Bluth partner Steven Spielberg, it performed better in those theaters alone in its opening week than Poltergeist, Rocky III, Firefox, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, as a result of its release and competition with other summer fare, NIMH ultimately made a disappointing $14,665,733 in North America, though it was more successful on home video, cable, and foreign release, ultimately turning a profit.
The Secret of NIMH won Best Animated Film of 1982 at the 10th annual Saturn Awards, where it also received a nomination for Best Fantasy Film, losing to The Dark Crystal. In his acceptance speech, Bluth remarked, "Thanks. We didn't think anyone had noticed." The film was also nominated for Best Family Feature for Animation, Musical or Fantasy at the 4th annual Youth in Film Awards, being beaten by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, while the home video release received an Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board. In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Animation Films list.
A direct-to-video sequel directed by Dick Sebast and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Animation titled Timmy to the Rescue was released on December 22, 1998. Set several years after the events of the first film, the plot focuses on Mrs. Brisby's son Timothy as he struggles to live up to his father's prestigious reputation. The movie was made without Don Bluth's input or involvement, and was heavily panned by critics and fans upon release.
On March 4, 2015, Deadline.com reported that MGM had re-acquired the rights to produce a new film based on the original novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The film will be produced by the team of Daniel Bobker and Ehren Kruger, with screenplay by Ice Age series writer Michael Berg. It is planned as a CGI/live action hybrid "à la The Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks", and will be "an origin story in which an imperiled mouse protagonist befriends a comical crew of lab rats as they turn hyper-intelligent. They escape a secret laboratory and become the great minds of vermin civilization, forced to outwit the humans hot on their tails." The studio plans to turn the novel into a family franchise.