Recently, I fell under the spell of nostalgia and wound up with an overwhelming urge to watch anthropomorphic rodent movies. And while I’ve yet to watch Watership Down, I did take in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH.
Here’s what I saw.
The Great Mouse Detective opens with a crime
Kindly toy maker Hiram Faversham gets kidnapped by snarling peg-legged bat Fidget, leaving a daughter, Olivia, abandoned and forced to fend for herself. She meets up with David Q. Dawson, a mouse recently returned to London from Afghanistan, and the two go forth in search of Basil of Baker Street, the Great Mouse Detective. Basil takes the case when it turns out that Fidget is the henchman of Basil’s arch-nemesis, the evil Ratigan.
Ratigan is a criminal mastermind who kills anyone who brings up his rat heritage. He’s somewhat scary, but there’s something a touch unpleasant about having a self-hating “ethnic” villain in anything set remotely near the Victorian era. The Great Mouse Detective not only gives us this, but writes a song around it:
Things get worse from here.
Eventually Basil, Olivia, and Dawson catch up with Fidget at a toy store. There’s a great chase scene among all the toys, but Fidget escapes taking Olivia along with him. Our heroes next try to track the bat down by disguising themselves as sailors and going to the waterfront. There they take in a show:
Unfortunately, after this I couldn’t really take much more. The rest of the movie went by in a blur. Ratigan replaces the mouse Queen Victoria with a wind-up robot. Then there’s an air ship chase and a run among the gear-works of Big Ben.
Whatever. You lost me when you put the burlesque show in the kids’ movie.
The Secret of NIMH opens with death
A wizened voice claims that “Jonathan Brisby died today”, leaving behind a widow and four kids. This narrator, who turns out to be a 30th level Rat wizard named Nicodemous, is at a loss as how to help the family. Mrs. Brisby has to go about things on her own. So when her son Timmy gets sick, she’s off to see Mr. Ages. Mr. Ages diagnoses the boy as having pneumonia and says Timmy is not to be moved. Unfortunately, “Moving Day” approaches, when Farmer Fitzgibbons will start up his plow and reseed the field. No one can help her out and the best they can do is send her off to the Great Owl.
You need advice? Go ask the monster.
The Owl basically tells her that she’s the rats’ problem, and she should go talk to them.
The Rats of NIMH have a bad reputation among the other field animals. Auntie Shrew is nearly in a fit of apoplexy over them. They’re hooligans stealing from Farmer Fitzgibbons. Also, the rats’ intelligence appears to be the result of an LSD injection.
Now while The Great Mouse Detective is a steampunk movie with wind-up simulacra, air ships, and gears galore, it is simply our world made smaller. NIMH, on the other hand, is a science-fantasy movie. It’s our world, only transformed and viewed from another perspective. The rats live in a city that resembles Rivendell with electric lighting.
But like The Great Mouse Detective, NIMH runs into some trouble on the way to the ending.
The screenwriters decided to channel their inner-LucasTolkien, and it turns out Mrs. Brisby can use the force held inside the one true sparkly amulet. She’s able to lift her house out of the mud like it’s an X-wing stuck on Dagobah.
However, the sword-fight right before this is worth it:
Finally, the elves/rats sail into the west to Thorn Valley, and Mrs. Brisby returns to the Shire a wounded but wiser female; capable mother to her children and more respected by her peers. It’s also nice to note that she remains a single mother. And while we never learn her first name or her maiden name, her domestic situation does not need to be improved by the inclusion of a husband.
And there you have it. To sum up: The Great Mouse Detective is a cartoon that offers a narrow-minded view of race and gender, while The Secret of NIMH allows its main character to flaunt social conventions and go unpunished. It’s the true socially progressive work — accept no substitutes.