Saturday, July 4, 2015

The enchantment of NIMH

Animated films take to children quickly. That is because they defy time and space so freely that they enchant. Or maybe the laws of gravity don't apply to them, making their characters easier to watch (and love). Whatever the reason, they caught us at an earlier time. When we grew, naturally enough, some of their charm rubbed off. Those for whom that charm remained no matter how they age, needless to say therefore, have retained a child in themselves. They are rare.

I had my favourites. I loved Disney. Nearly all his films and short features stuck on me in a way I can't explain even now. Yes, part of the reason for this may have been how freely these contorted the laws of gravity and time-space constraints, but for me there was another reason. I believe that this had to do with the emotional power of his characters. It's not just because fairy-tales are about fairies and pixies that we love them, after all. Emotion counts. The power of visuals notwithstanding, that is very likely what enchants kids the most.

For better or for worse, hence, Disney stayed. There were other films which were better, of course. Dot and the Kangaroo, for instance. I should be forgiven, I think, for taking time to realise this. I should also be forgiven for thinking that Disney ruled supreme, at a time when less saccharine-coated alternatives were available.

The Secret of NIMH was one of these. I didn't watch it when I should have. Sadly.

When Don Bluth and 10 other animators walked out on Disney and set up their own studio in 1979, not many had faith in them. By that year, Bluth had credits. He had animated most of Disney's films during this time, The Rescuers included. But Disney was unparalleled. Unchallenged. How could 10 defectors break it apart, even a little?

Bluth's answer came in the form of mice, owls, crows, magic, and the power of love. Disney was shaken. The road would never be the same.

Let me confess. I never heard of Don Bluth till I grew up. My acquaintance with him was through Anastasia and (I think) An American Tail. I should perhaps be forgiven for thinking that these were made by Disney, because after all it was Bluth's films which pushed his former employer to make animation more robust, more nuanced. His ploy worked. We are grateful.

But that's another story.

What was it really though? What was it in NIMH that enchanted and continues to enchant? Was it the magic? Was it the possibility that love can, at the end of the day, salvage everything and anything? Was it the fearsome Great Owl and the enigmatic Nicodemus? Or was it Dom DeLuise's wisecracking Jeremy the Crow? I wasn't young when I watched it, but for some reason I guess all of these would have taken to children in a way Disney couldn't. Rarely after all could mice, shrews, crows, humans, and the power of love get together so seamlessly.

Most critics I know love to talk about subtexts. Well, NIMH has a subtext too (I think). It's not just about the acquisition of intelligence and the needless shows of power and domination which go with it. Not just about power-hunger. Not just about self-imposed preferences for siphoning off others' lands over living independently with responsibility. There's much more to it, things that escape the eye at first glance but which come back (richer, I should say) with subsequent viewings.

That is why NIMH was different. It was catered to children, yes, but it did not insult their intelligence by self-censorship. There are sequences in the plot which were and are darker than what Disney could come up with. Characters are injured. Some are killed. Some even kill and freely shed blood. The one-before-the-last sequence, for instance, is genuinely thrilling not just because Mrs Brisby is trying to save her children from drowning in the mud, but because we are made to empathise with her so strongly that we feel her desperation.

The subtext didn't jar like they did in (most) other animated films, by the way. It allured us. The rats of NIMH become intelligent. They are split ideologically: should they continue to loot the humans from whom they "borrowed" that intelligence, or should they move on, making a new colony of their own? In other words, should they continue to leech off their benefactors or live independently? It is this dilemma which, throughout most of history, makes up how civilisation progresses and regresses.

But then NIMH has an emotional centre. Mrs Brisby. She is caught unawares in the middle of this dilemma. She doesn't much care for power-politics but she has her own concern: to save her dying son. To protect him, at whatever cost, she'll do anything. Courage isn't her preserve, moreover, and her feebleness is what makes the plot all the more moving.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert points out that despite the daring plot, it contained too many characters for us to identify with. That is correct. NIMH has too many characters. None of them is irrelevant, which is what makes it more difficult for us to connect. That's also what makes it easier for us to place ourselves in Mrs Brisby. The shifts and turns of power, the behind-the-wall scheming of Jenner, and the comic sequences of Jeremy the Crow and Aunty Shrew, all are swept off and become secondary to her character. Ebert, for some reason, does not mention this.

I wrote before that when it comes to animated films, emotion counts. That is what I saw or rather learned in NIMH. Well, the power of love has been a cliché since the dawn of the cinema, but in NIMH is gains credence. That is because the character of Mrs Brisby is made so authentic and comparable to her human counterpart – she is a widowed mother – that I am yet to come across a similar mother in a Disney film. There is less melodrama with her. She acts more. Talks less. At the end of the day, kids loved that.

And overall, that's what made NIMH so lovable. It wasn't a hit at the box-office, true. But in later years and up-to now it has always retained popularity. There's some chord it strikes, I can't really say what, which immediately makes us connect with Mrs Brisby. I still stand by what I said before, hence: Disney has not come close to someone like her. This had to do with the man behind the film probably, and I will write on Don Bluth later.

For now, I'll end with a story. There was a boy, not quite 12 but intelligent enough to appreciate the finer nuances of a work of art. He was small. He knew films. Loved cartoons. Adored Disney. He hadn't known the love of a mother for the better part of his life till then. I was careful, but unsure which film he'd take to. Disney was out. I chose NIMH.

Halfway through I realised that the boy was seeing the opposite of what he was living through. Mrs Brisby was a widowed mother fighting for her son. The boy had a widowed father who (one could say) had undergone just about the same thing. Naturally enough, I was worried. Especially when the climax came. How would he react?

The boy loved it. He took to it at once, with that enigmatic smile and those moist eyes which meant it had "won" him. The sequence of Mrs Brisby using the amulet (given by Nicodemus) to raise her house out of the mud, even though it's burning her, moved him.

The credits rolled. He turned. He was crying. He embraced me. "That was so beautiful!" he whispered, perhaps the only response he could blurt out at that point in time.

The point is that the film's subtext hadn't moved him the way its emotional depth had. The point is that it had overwhelmed him. The power of love, and a mother's love at that, clichéd and overused to the point of overkill by other animated films, was so brilliantly exemplified in this one. It was that the boy had taken to. He continued to embrace me. Continued to cry. He couldn't help it.

Nor could I, for that matter. I smiled. Even after all these years and decades, even after 3D animation and CGI, there's something timeless in an animated film from more than 30 years back which moves us. They don't make films like that anymore. They can't. Don Bluth could, though. We are all happy for that. We are also grateful. Not just for The Secret of NIMH, but for what it left behind.

The Secret of NIMH was released 33 years ago. It celebrated its 33rd last Thursday. July 2. The film ends with a song. The song ends with these words: "Love is the key". Sums it up, I should think. Beautifully.

NIMH still enchants. Small wonder.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 4 2015