For kids, there is nightmare fodder aplenty--creepy old owls with glowing eyes, creepy old rats with glowing eyes, bizarre mysticism, a secret lair with cobwebs and lighted skulls, treachery, danger, blood, gore, needles, death, etc.
You get that the story is about Mrs. Brisby, whose son Timothy is sick with pneumonia, and she needs to move her cinder block home with him in it so he doesn't get hit by the plow. She goes to the rats for help with the move, and they tell her she has to drug the evil cat Dragon so he doesn't interfere with their plans. (A word here: what does Don Bluth have against cats? This plus An American Tail will turn young viewers into dog people for sure.)
Mrs. Brisby gets caught in a cage and tries to free herself but wounds her arm on a wire. (We know she's a mouse, but she's an anthropomorphized mouse, with a family, and a name, and a kickin' red cape, so this is like seeing Minnie lying there naked and bleeding while we watch in frozen horror.) Meanwhile, she overhears that NIMH will come to exterminate the rats, and she flees to warn them.
As an adult, you realize what NIMH actually stands for--the National Institute of Mental Health. Yes, the faceless threat of unspeakable evil here is the organization responsible for researching the human brain and safeguarding your sanity. This revelation is depressing enough to drive one to happy pills--or, you know, not.
The film explains NIMH in a PETA-approved flashback: "In the beginning, we were ordinary street rats..." but then they are captured and caged by NIMH. As Nicodemus says, "They were put through the most unspeakable tortures, to satisfy some scientific curiosity." (Here we see terrified monkeys, rabbits, and puppies huddled and panting in cages.) "Often, at night, I would hear them cry out in anguish. Twenty rats and eleven mice were given injections." I can count on exactly zero fingers the number of times it is appropriate and advisable to use the phrase "unspeakable tortures" in a children's movie. Egads!
Of course, the movie's real punch has yet to be delivered. The rats have rigged a pulley system to move the Brisbys' home, and, as Jenner explains with an evil glint to his accomplice, "Accidents... could... happen." So he crushes Nicodemus to death with the rigging holding a cinder block!
I wonder if this movie has proved problematic with scientists, psychologists, and other medical professionals who have work associated with NIMH. Think their friends assume much of their time is devoted to rat extermination?
Don't teach rats to read.
The Secret of NIMH. Dir. Don Bluth. Perf. Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise. MGM/UA, 1982.
(Watch the full movie on Hulu here)
The Secret of NIMH (2-Disc Family Fun Edition)