Moving day has arrived at the Fitzgibbons Farm, and Mrs. Brisby the fieldmouse is faced with a dilemma -- she needs to move her family out of the field before the plough arrives, but her son Timmy is sick with pneumonia and cannot be moved. Her only hope is to go to the mysterious rosebush rats for help.
The movie starts with a mysterious rat named Nicodemus writing a report on the death of Jonathan Brisby, a fieldmouse who was his good friend.
His wife (now widow) Mrs. Brisby knows nothing about the reason for her late husband's death, but she has to quickly move from one problem to another, for her young son Timmy is sick. She goes to the intelligent (if cranky) fieldmouse Mr. Ages, who gives her some medicine and tells her that Timmy cannot be moved for three weeks. Unfortunately, moving day is almost there and all the animals that live in the Fitzgibbons field have to move before the plough arrives.
Under advice from Auntie Shrew and with some help from her new friend Jeremy the crow, Mrs. Brisby goes to The Great Owl for advice. The Great Owl tells her to go to the rats that live in the rosebush next to the Fitzgibbons house. Although she doesn't know how they'll be able to help her, Mrs. Brisby obeys.
In the rosebush, Mrs. Brisby learns that the rats there are highly-intelligent creatures, the result of experiments made in the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Mrs. Brisby also learns that not only was her late husband, Jonathan Brisby, one of them, but he was well-respected among their ranks because of his contributions to the group. The rats decide to help move the Brisby home to the lee of the stone where it'd be protected from the plough. But unknown to them, Jenner, one of the rats, has a hidden agenda at hand.
The Secret of NIMH is one of the most grown-up animated movie (intended for family viewing) that I've ever seen. I've had the movie on video ever since I was a little kid, though I fully admit that back then I didn't understand many of the things about the story, and the rats' transformation sequence terrified me. Still, there was something about the movie, in all its maturity and melancholy that spoke to me even as a child. Besides, I could recognise an awesome mom when I saw one.
I'm sure there are layers in the story that could be explored in pages and pages of essay, but one of the main themes that even I could not miss was that The Secret of NIMH is about heroes in unexpected places. Mrs. Brisby is an unconventional hero, for there's nothing outwardly heroic about her, but it's her unconditional love for her children that gives her the strength and courage to do the things that needs to be done. She trembles and she cowers, but she goes out and does it anyway. That makes her ten shades of awesome.
Throughout the whole movie we never actually see Jonathan Brisby except through a very brief flashback, but Jonathan himself remains a powerful presence. The movie itself starts with his death, and from then on he continues to haunt his wife (metaphorically, I mean), helping her in ways that she never expected. It's never outwardly shown, but the love that Jonathan had for his wife and vice versa remains strong and heart-breaking right up to the end credits.
Admittedly, there are a number of changes made from the source material, Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but what movie translation doesn't deviate a little? Even with changes in place, it remains a dark tale. Of course, the catch with this kind of movie is that it hasn't aged very well. I loved it as a child, as did a number of my friends, but I'm hard-pressed to find children right now who would have the patience to sit through the entire movie. (Yes, this makes me sad.)
Although, because the movie is focused on Mrs. Brisby and her own dilemma of how to protect her son Timmy, the subplot of the Rats of NIMH (and Mr. Ages, who isn't a rat but is one of them anyway) doesn't get as much exposition. But we know enough: they were captured and experimented on, and during those experiments they gained intelligence enough to break free and now are looking to set up their own independent civilisation away from the prying eyes of human beings. It's an incredibly interesting story (elaborated on more in the book), because in most animated movies that feature talking animals their level of intelligence is glossed over or not an issue, but here their intelligence matters. Mr. Ages and the Rats of NIMH are not equal to Mrs. Brisby or the other farm animals that we see: they wear elaborate clothes and use machinery and have gone so far as to create a government of sorts. We can only imagine what their civilisation in Thorn Valley turns out to be. (Sequel? What sequel?)
It is in the rats' rosebush that we meet two more classic characters: Justin and Jenner. Both are rats, both are handsome and charismatic, but their ideologies couldn't be further from each other. Justin is the good guy, a little boyish but kind-hearted, and has his own crush on Mrs. Brisby (who wouldn't, really?) while Jenner is selfish, manipulating and thinks of Mrs. Brisby as nothing more than the means to an end. Their fans are many, and totally understandable. :)
Then there's Jeremy the crow, who sadly never quite gets his chance to shine despite the fact that he's absolutely adorable. He's also voiced by Dom DeLuise, who has lent his voice to quite a few of Don Bluth's feature films. He makes a great sort-of addition to the Brisby family, and goodness knows the rest of the Brisby children treat him like a sibling. ;)
Though in the end, I myself remain rooted quite firmly in the Mrs. Brisby camp. Did I mention that she's awesome? Jeremy certainly thinks so. :D