On the surface, the 1982 film The Secret of NIMH doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for one of the darkest children’s movies ever made. I mean, technically it’s just a story about a family of mice trying to move house. Yet, ask most late-stage Gen-Xers about it and you’ll probably be treated to a dozen different variations of “Wow, that movie was really fucked up.” What’s worse is that each person will likely have different reasons as to why that’s the case: The constant threat of death and violence, the fact that the emotional crux of this film hinges on non-consensual medical experimentation, the existence of hyper-intelligent rats who can swordfight.
And, to be fair, they aren’t entirely wrong—-The Secret of NIMH is certainly not your typical animated kids’ film. Much of it is emotionally scarring, what with its downright scary-looking characters and ominous imagery. (Even the colors used in the character drawings and animation are harder and darker than most films of its ilk.) As an adult, it’s still difficult to call the scenes in which lab animals are injected with a variety of painful-looking drugs, or sucked down an airshaft to their deaths as they try to escape their science prison, anything other than deeply disturbing. Yet, it’s also one of the very best animated children’s films ever made, precisely because it rejects so many popular assumptions about what kids’ movies are supposed to be and do.
The Secret of NIMH follows the story of Mrs. Brisby, a widowed, kindhearted mouse who lives with her four children in Farmer Fitzgibbons’ garden. But each planting season she (and many of the other animals who live there) must uproot her family to get out of the way of the farmer’s plow. This year, with her son Timmy deathly ill and unable to be moved, she’s desperate to find a way for everyone to survive. She seeks advice from the Great Owl, who—surprisingly, upon learning the identity of her dead husband—tells her to go to the rats that live in the rosebush. These hyper-intelligent creatures owe Jonathan Brisby a debt, as he’s the reason they escaped the medical facility in which they were trapped (and that gave them their distinctly non-ratlike abilities) in the first place. Because of this, they (mostly) agree to help move the Brisby house to the lee side of the garden stone, and safety. Unsurprisingly, this adventure does not go as planned, and betrayal, death and sacrifice ensue.
A story of loss, suffering and courage in the face of seemingly impossible odds, NIMH is a visually stunning and narratively complex movie, deftly mixing fantastical elements with real-life problems and serious philosophical questions in a way that remains largely unmatched even today. Though our heroine’s journey often seems bleak, we see her not only face her fears but conquer them—not by becoming more like her dead husband or the genetically altered rats he befriended, but by fully embracing the things that make her most fully herself: Her sense of kindness, her empathy and her fierce mother’s love.
The film’s darker, more adult themes touch on everything from death and the struggles of single parenting to medical experiments and animal cruelty. Characters openly show grief and fear, they grapple with ongoing emotional pain in a way that few other children’s films are willing to touch. The Secret of NIMH is equally unafraid to ask complicated questions about ethical responsibility and what we owe to one another as species. (One thing I missed when I first saw this film as a child was how dedicated the rats are to self-sufficiency, insisting that it is wrong to steal from others when you don’t explicitly need to.)
Plus, the entire movie just looks creepy as hell. Even characters who are ostensibly meant to be a positive force in the story, like the ancient rat leader Nicodemus or the wise Great Owl, are pure nightmare fuel. Visually speaking, they’re terrifying, with glowing eyes, creaking joints and a sense of barely leashed menace. (If you don’t physically shudder when the Great Owl crunches across his nest of bones or casually devours a nearby moth, you are possibly not human.)
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the film’s tone. It is based on an award-winning book (Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) that was partially inspired by some real experiments conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was the first major project from animator Don Bluth following his dramatic exit from Disney, and it contains many of the same themes and visual choices we would see later in more grown-up children’s classics like An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven and The Land Before Time. (A fun thought experiment is to consider what the state of animation today might look like had this film succeeded financially rather than Disney’s more bittersweetly saccharine The Fox and the Hound, which was released the year before. How much darker and more grown-up would it be?)
What is surprising, however, is how much we once trusted our kids to understand the stories this film was telling. (Particularly given, well, everything going on these days with school districts attempting to regulate the kinds of things students are allowed to see and read.) Much like another underrated animated gem also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, The Secret of NIMH feels most anachronistic when considering how it treated its target audience. Yes, it’s a children’s cartoon, complete with a bumbling avian sidekick and several overly saccharine songs, that feels, on paper, like something that should be fairly predictable—and predictably ridiculous. Yet, it is neither of those things, refusing to talk down to its viewers or treat them as though they’re incapable of understanding the complex themes of the story.
Instead, it confronts loss, fear and sacrifice head-on, repeatedly putting its protagonists in dangerous and even deadly situations. It doesn’t have a happy ending so much as a realistic one, in which the Brisby home is relocated to a picturesque new garden spot, but the fate of the rats of NIMH remains largely unknown. Jonathan still died a horrible death. Farmer Fitzgibbons and his demon cat still exist, and there are no guarantees this happy ending will last forever. In fact, if the rest of this movie is anything to go by, it probably won’t. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? We survive, and we go on, and we hang onto the people we love. In doing that, we find the strength to face the monsters.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.