Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: A staggering (and under-appreciated) achievement in animated movies, and a serious and seriously good morality tale.
Review: I had seen Don Bluth’s adaptation of ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ about, I don’t know, 7 or 8 years ago. At the time, it seemed too dense, dark, and scary to make much sense to me, let alone leave a lasting impression beyond bewilderment. Recently, I got into watching fellow reviewer Doug “The Nostalgia Critic” Walker’s material online, and he pointed out in his top ten favorite animated films ‘The Secret of NIMH’, which I had all but forgotten. Intrigued by his very positive take on the movie, I made a mental note to see it again, but hadn’t gotten around to it. Thank Jesus for Hulu.com, however, as I was pleased to find it in their library, and watched it immediately.
The first thing that struck me was how fast they set the tone. In some movies, the tone is so confused or varied that it is very difficult to tell just what kind of movie you are watching from the get-go. Not so here, as death, struggle, mysterious plans, friendship, and magic are all introduced in the first few lines. Now, instead of going through the individual aspects of the film, such as voice acting, music, art, etc., which are all marvelous, I’m most attracted to the themes. I should say, before going on, that this is not really a children’s film, though mature kids will get a lot out of it, I think. It’s actually pretty scary and violent, though funny and heartwarming, too.
Mystery in the midst of crisis is the very essence of the story, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a part of a very much bigger epic, which is a kind of shadow that looms over the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and other great fantasy writers. I believe G.K. Chesterton would have aptly pointed out, as he does in his famous ‘Orthodoxy’, that this fairy tale quality is an essential element of the Christian faith, and indeed of all stories of magic. In fact, I observed that the action of the magical elements was sacramental. In ancient Christianity, sacraments are ordinary objects that by the power of God mysteriously (sacrament is actually synonymous with mystery) become something more. Suddenly, bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood, oil becomes the healing power of the Holy Spirit, water becomes the agent of regeneration, and similarly, in ‘The Secret of NIMH’, a courageous heart and a simple jeweled amulet together can unleash unimaginable power. I point out all this to show that this pervading belief in a kind of magic enigmatically invested in common objects is universally human, and makes for great storytelling, when played with the proper sense of awe, a kind of holiness.
Particularly interesting is the presence of mystery in the midst of such a dangerous and climatic environment as ‘The Secret of NIMH’ presents us with. There are constant threats, and as the tension mounts throughout the story, so does the presence of magic. “Where sin abounded, so did grace much more abound,” St. Paul said, though I am paraphrasing a little. I like to think he wasn’t talking about the legal terms of sin and grace, but something closer to what happens in this movie. Magic is a redemptive force here, and works in tandem with science. In fact, in ‘The Secret of NIMH’, we’re never quite told if there is any distinction between the two, though I think I could draw one. Electrical power, and the intelligence of the rats, are both fruits of science, and the narrative makes clear they can be abused, which creates conflict among the rats. The character of Nicodemus, the leader of the rats and the most intelligent, is also some kind of magician, a benevolent sorcerer or something, and he seems to be able to tap into a power beyond the fruits of innovation. The power he draws on, it seems, cannot be abused, because it works in synergy with the one who uses it. This seems to imply that magic has a will, which is, incidentally, what distinguishes sacraments from other kinds of magical objects, as a sacrament is a meeting place of God’s energies and mankind. Synergism is key to the sacramental. Though we never get a chance to see what would happen if the villain of the story, Jenner, had been able to try to use the amulet McGuffin, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had an effect on him similar to opening the Ark of the Covenant, face-melting and all.
Which leads me to the next interesting tidbit. The rats are sentient, you see, if you hadn’t guessed already, and even though they live in a world populated by your typical cartoon anthropomorphic animals, they’ve been given the privilege of true human-like intelligence, which evolves. The big moral message of the story is about the struggle between the rats’ inherent animal nature and their gift of higher spirit, which they have to choose to pursue and nurture. As rats, they would steal, including the electricity they use to power their under-rosebush city, but as rats reborn, they know such behavior is beneath them, that they can’t steal or be self-seeking anymore. This, of course, is humanity’s struggle transposed. We battle with our selfishness, our raw survival instinct, to pursue a higher ideal, to become better and to better everybody around us. Once again, it’s a theme that Christianity has captured quite well, and watching this film I was able to muse on it. Therein lies its brilliance. Despite the gorgeous art and everything else that’s so great about it, ‘The Secret of NIMH’ is truly great because, well, it manages to be something of a sacrament itself. It goes beyond just being an animated film and becomes a timeless gem of spiritual insight, by a power not its own.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a killer swordfight in it? This movie ROCKS!