It’s December, and I keep saying I’m going to do Christmas movies, but for whatever reason, the Christmas films I’ve been looking at just aren’t speaking to me. So once again, I’m going with two films that are linked in my mind, but maybe not in other thematically appropriate ways. This week, I chose:
Don Bluth – The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Jim Henson, Frank Oz – The Dark Crystal (1982)
One is an animated film, and the other is a film starring only puppets, which is fairly unique in the world of cinema. There are lots of films that make use of puppets and puppetry, but this is one of the few that I know of that features only puppet characters. It’s quite an achievement.
Let’s get into it.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Mrs. Brisby, a mouse lives in a large field with a variety of other small animals. One of her sons has a series case of pneumonia, and can’t leave his bed. But the field they live in is about to be plowed by the farmer. Mrs. Brisby goes on an adventure to find a way to move her home before it is destroyed by the plow. On her way, she’ll meet the mysterious rats that live in the rosebush, and learn the secret of NIMH.
The film is directed by Don Bluth and has voice talent from Derek Jacobi, Dom Deluise, and even Shannen Doherty and Wil Wheaton in some of their earliest roles.
Don Bluth probably isn’t remembered that well by modern audiences, but he was a big force in animation in the 1980s. He directed films like An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, A Land Before Time, and also created animation for the unique video games Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. In a world where Disney dominates any discussion of animation, it’s difficult to make a name for yourself outside of their sphere of influence. But Don Bluth managed to do it.
A lot of people forget that animated Disney films kind of fell down in the 70s and 80s. After The Jungle Book, which was released in 1967, Disney released a lot of films that aren’t well remembered as classics. The Aristocrats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company are all films worth watching, but they don’t get close to the impact that earlier Disney films had. Not until The Little Mermaid in 1989 did Disney re-establish themselves as animation hitmakers. In the 1990s, they produced a string of all-time classic animated films, beginning with The Little Mermaid, continuing with Beauty and The Beast, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, then Aladdin and The Lion King.
So in the 1980s, there was definitely room for fresh voices in animation. And Don Bluth was likely the most effective of those new voices. The Secret of NIMH was his first feature as a director, and is based on a book by Robert C. O’Brien.
The story is told entirely from the perspective of the small animals, mostly mice and rats, though we also meet a crow named Jeremy, and a shrew named Auntie Shrew.
It’s not at all strange to see talking animals in animated films, even particularly intelligent animals. It’s a common storytelling trope. But in this film, we begin with a mysterious rat which is speaking of someone he called Jonathan Brisby, who has died recently. He appears to have some kind of magic powers.
This sets up a few of the films mysteries. First of all, who is Jonathan Brisby, and second of all, what is it about these rats that are more than just simple animals. This goes far beyond the trope of talking animals, which often still act like animals.
But then we meet Mrs. Brisby, who still clearly acts like an animal. She visits Mr. Ages in a large broken down combine tractor. Mr. Ages is another big clue that something else is going on in this world. Mrs. Brisby asks him for help with her son, who has pneumonia. Mr. Ages takes her down to his workshop, which is filled with mouse-sized scientific equipment. He gives her a powder to bring down the fever, and tells her not to let the boy leave bed for 3 weeks.
This sets up the other major complication in the film, Mrs. Brisby brings up Moving Day, which will surely happen soon. The film does a pretty good job of putting us in the world of these animals. Mrs. Brisby and Mr. Ages know what Moving Day is, but all the audience knows is that it’s something that complicates the story. Mrs. Brisby now has an obstacle to keeping her son alive.
Mrs. Brisby is the wife of Jonathan Brisby, and she is never given her own name, even though she is clearly the main character. A bit of 1980s casual sexism, which isn’t terribly surprising.
We soon find out what Moving Day is. All of the animals live in a farmers field. Once the frost lifts, and spring is arriving, the farmer begins plowing the field, forcing all the animals to run for their lives. But of course, Mrs. Brisby can’t move. Her first solution is to sabotage the tractor, which works, but she knows it won’t last forever.
With the help of Jeremy the crow, she goes to visit the Great Owl. Jeremy the crow is voiced by Dom Deluise and is cast as the comic relief character. I imagine that for children, this is a reasonably effective character. This is a good time to talk about the character models in the film. Most of the characters are fairly realistically rendered, but certain characters are highly stylized. One of which is Dragon, the farmers cat who has to be feared or dealt with whenever moving around. Dragon looks almost nothing like a real cat. He has the basic shape of a real cat, but he’s very heavy, and has two different eyes, as if one is made of an entirely different material. He also doesn’t appear to have cute cat paws, but claws, which don’t have the same fur that the rest of his body have.
And upon meeting the Great Owl, we see that style continued. Mrs. Brisby is flown to the Great Owl’s home by Jeremy. The scene is deeply unsettling by design. The Great Owl lives in a dark cave filled with cobwebs and other creatures. Mrs. Brisby fears the owl, as she assumes he might eat her. But when the owl demands that she enter, she walks in. The environment here is wonderfully done. It’s dark and grimy, and the animation of Mrs. Brisby further puts us in that position of fear. She is scared, and when we empathize with her we feel her fear as well. The scene would be welcome in a horror film.
The most tense moment comes as she’s walking through the cave looking for the owl, a large spider begins to follow her. Now, I feel pretty strongly that there aren’t a lot of species of spiders in Midwest farmland that hunt mice, but it works for the film. The music ramps up and the spider gets closer and closer, with Mrs. Brisby being unaware. At the very last moment before the spider pounces, it is crushed by the leg of the Great Owl, which we haven’t even seen up until this point. The Great Owl is huge, and voiced by John Carradine.
The character model on the Great Owl is another example of the highly stylized nature of some of the models. The first moment we see of the Great Owl his head is upside down. It increases the strangeness of the character as we see the head slowly rotate into an upright position. The fact that this is something that owls can actually do is a nice touch from the animators. The animators create a new kind of animal, with some owl traits, and with some imagined traits. The Great Owl has large eyebrows, and a very expressive and large beak and mouth which grows and shrinks, which is not something an owl can do. His eyes also glow orange and he appears to have a beard. It’s an amazing character model and it only appears for a few minutes of screentime.
But the owl deepens the mystery for us. He is generally unwilling to help until Mrs. Brisby introduces herself. He knows her husband personally, and seems to have respect for him. He tells her she must visit the rats of NIMH who live under the rosebush near the farmhouse. He claims that they will be able to move her house behind a nearby rock where the plow won’t be a threat. Mrs. Brisby finds this to be a ludicrous option, but she follows the owl’s advice and goes to see the rats of NIMH.
We have only seen flashes of the rats up to this point, and they’re a source of mystery in the film. Our first glimpse of them is them stealing an extension cord and then the rosebush lighting up after they take it in. When Mrs. Brisby gets there she finds her way in she finds a huge labyrinth of passageways, strung with Christmas tree lights, leading down to a little garden filled with plants. In the passages, she meets Mr. Ages and a new character, Justin, a rat who claims to be the leader of the guard.
The mystery just keeps deepening until Mrs. Brisby is introduced to Nicodemus, the leader of the rats. Nicodemus is another highly stylized character, and we’ve seen him in several little moments, where he comments on things happening in the film, which he views through some kind of magic mirror.
When she meets Nicodemus, he explains the various secrets of the rats. And it’s all pretty obvious. The rats came from an experimental study at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Mice and rats were given a drug that gave them super intelligence, which gave them the ability to band together and escape. Most of the mice were killed during the escape attempt, and only Mr. Ages and Jonathan Brisby survived. In face, Jonathan Brisby was the mouse that made the escape possible by opening a grate. Nicodemus tells her how important her husband was, and gives her an amulet which has a mysterious power if the right person wields it.
The rats now live under the rosebush outside the farmers house, stealing electricity and creating their own little society. They have an internal debate currently whether to stay under the rosebush and continue living off the farmer’s electricity, or move to a new area where they can be self-sufficient. Nicodemus wants to move, and another rat named Jenner wants to stay as they have everything they need. Jenner is a clear villain, and is willing to kill to get his way.
The story starts moving here, as the rats get to work moving the house, with a small subplot of Mrs. Brisby having to drug Dragon the cat with a sleeping medicine so that they won’t be bothered by the cat. She is captured and put in a cage, and has to find a way to get out to return home while the house is being moved.
The rats of course are super intelligent, and can easily put together a complicated pulley system to move the home, which is inside a buried cinder block. While moving it, Jenner and his reluctant henchman cut the ropes holding the home in order to kill Nicodemus, but the home also lands in the mud, beginning to sink.
What follows is a fight between Justin and Jenner, coupled with the peril of the house, which is still sinking. It’s never fully explained why the mouse children were left in the house while it was being moved, but they’re there, and it creates a ticking clock atmosphere.
As the house fully sinks under the mud, the fight is won by Justin, but hope is lost for the children. But then, the amulet that Mrs. Brisby was given begins to glow and Mrs. Brisby is able to lift the house out of the mud, and place it safely behind the rock.
We get a short epilogue where we see that the rats have moved, that Mrs. Brisby and her family are safe and happy, and that Jeremy the crow has found a mate, which was essentially his entire motivation.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
1000 years ago, a powerful crystal was damaged, and a piece was lost, creating a world of darkness. The Skekses control the crystal, opposed by the Mystics. There are only 10 of each left in the world. A prophecy claims that the crystal will be healed by a Gelfling, another race in the world. This prophecy has led the Skekses to hunt the Gelfling almost to extinction. But Jen, one of the last Gelflings is set on a quest by the leader of the Mystics to heal the crystal. Along the way he’ll discover the world, and himself.
The film is directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, two legendary pioneers in puppetry. This film is something of an experiment, as the film is made entirely without human characters. All the characters are either puppets, or heavily made up humans in large costumes, similar to how characters like Big Bird are realized. But the major difference here is that these aren’t humans in heavy make up. The faces and arms and other features which make a character are all puppets.
This raises an interesting point for me about the nature of animation. Puppetry is live action, and animation is drawn or rendered by computers. But they are essentially performing the same action. They are bringing lifeless things to life. Animators draw thousands of drawings that create motion, and puppeteers manipulate objects in such a way to make people believe they are alive. So when I talk about the puppets in this film, I’ll likely use the language of animation to discuss them.
This is a fantasy film, and every location and character is carefully designed. This must have been a massive undertaking. Everything on screen had to be created by the filmmakers. And most of it is incredibly beautiful. The film begins in the chamber of the crystal, where the Skekses are using it to perform some ritual to extend their lives. The Skekses are large creatures with rough skin and large beaks filled with sharp teeth. When their heavy robes are removed, we can see some large bones pointing out of their back, perhaps vestigial wings of some kind.
When we meet the Mystics, we see them living a simpler existence, following some old rituals out in nature. Their features are much softer, and they have an extra pair of arms.
Both the Mystics and the Skekses are about to lose their leader. The Skekses have a fight over who will be their leader as soon as the emperor dies, while the Mystics just continue their lives.
It’s early in the film when we meet Jen, the Gelfling that studies with the wisest Mystic who’s about to die. This Mystic sends him out on his quest, telling him to go see Aughra to find the missing piece of the crystal, but he dies before he can give him complete instructions.
The character work in the film is generally very well done. There are significant challenges to creating fully fleshed out characters with puppets, one of them being that a human generally has to be close by in order to support the puppet and make it work properly. The larger characters likely have humans inside to move the puppet around and control it from inside, while the smaller characters are placed in sets that hide the puppeteer and shot in such a way to make the character seem more real. The larger characters like the Skekses and Mystics all move fairly slowly, lumbering around. But the story explains that these are dying races, which makes the slow movement more understandable.
For Jen the Gelfling, the smaller puppet can’t fit a human inside it who is also a puppeteer, so the film uses a different strategy. For closeups, we only see the puppet, shot in such a way that hides the puppeteer. But for wider shots, the film uses a small actor in a costume and mask. This way the character can move more nimbly without the limitations of a puppet.
But there’s a problem here. With the Skekses and Mystics, their faces have lots of personality, and the puppeteers have control of various aspects that can bring the characters to life. But for Jen the Gelfling, and Kira, the other Gelfling, the puppets have almost completely smooth faces. They don’t have cheeks, and no eyebrows. This leads to these characters, the main ones in the film, to essentially have no personality. It’s a glaring issue and I don’t understand why the filmmakers didn’t put more effort into ensuring that they could add more animation to the face. It becomes a real problem in the film where the main characters are also the least interesting visually.
The film follows a pretty clear Hero’s Journey path. Jen refuses to go first, but then returns, vowing to go find the crystal. He goes to Aughra, who is a strong wizard stereotype. They(I’m not sure whether Aughra is male or female, so I’ll just use they/them pronouns) show him a bunch of crystals that they’ve been collecting and asks Jen to find the real shard. He manages to do it with a flute he plays.
But then, the soldiers of the Skekses arrive, attacking Aughra’s home in search of Jen. I’m not sure what the name of these soldiers are, but they’re kind of shaped like horesehoe crabs and have lots of legs, so I’m calling them crab soldiers. These are the most involved and beautiful puppets in the entire film. They generally show up, break down all the walls of a building, and burn the place down. They’re total chaos.
Jen manages to escape and meets the other significant characters in the film, Kira, another Gelfling, and her pet Fizzgig, who is half cat and half tribble, with the bark of a dog and a giant mouth. Fizzgig is the best character and puppet in the film. Everytime he appears on screen, I just get more delighted.
Kira and Jen both assumed they were the last Gelfling. They both grew up in different societies, Jen with the Mystics, and Kira with the Podlings. Kira has an ability to commune with nature. Talking to animals to get their help which turns into a major help.
This turns into a standard Lord of the Rings style adventure where the two characters attempt to get their object to a location where they can use it to save the world. They’re chased by the crab soldiers, and also approached by one of the Skekses who has been banished by the new emperor. He claims that if they come with him, he will be able to broker peace, but as soon as he gets the opportunity, he captures Kira and uses her to regain his place.
They continue on their journey with some fairly memorable characters, like the land striders. There’s some pretty effective peril for both characters, and in the end, Jen repairs the crystal, and we discover that the Mystics and Skekses are the same beings, who were split into different creatures when the crystal was damaged. This isn’t a huge surprise, as there have been clues throughout the film, but it’s a pretty effective resolution.
The Double Feature
Two films that both involve different types of animation. They both came out the same year, and even though I was too young to have seen them when they came out, they were both considered films appropriate for children so I’m sure I saw them within 5 years of their initial release.
I don’t know if either film would qualify as children’s entertainment now. There are sections of The Secret of NIMH that are genuinely scary, and I have to assume that it was never really designed for children, perhaps for young teenagers, but was simply branded that way because it was animated. The Dark Crystal also has some scary moments, particularly with the crab soldiers. I also assume some scenes displaying the cruelty of the Skekses would not pass muster for modern children’s entertainment. One scene in particular involves a Skekses using the power of the crystal to suck the essence out of a podling, thereby turning the podling into a mindless slave. The emperor then drinks the essence to maintain his youth. Pretty intense.
Both films are still entertaining, and hold up well, with some minor issues that hold them back from being all-time classics. For The Secret of NIMH, the story feels a little hollow. It does a good job of making the drama about the characters themselves, but because so much screentime is devoted to the mystery, it makes us wonder why this rat has magical powers, and what the deal with this amulet is. The film never really explains why any of that is part of the film. It’s possible it was explained in the book, but it becomes so confusing it the film. It’s almost as if the film just hopes you’ll forget that they never talked about why Nicodemus has magic powers.
For The Dark Crystal, the world building and most of the puppeteering is exceptional. A major triumph. But the failures with the main character really harm the film looking back. Unfortunately, despite proving here that it could work, films that are entirely filled with puppet characters just aren’t done anymore. The closest we have is stop-motion animation. But it’s not precisely the same.
Either way, both films are definitely worth watching and exploring.
I don’t have much of a reflection this week. My focus is entirely on writing my dissertation. I’m writing 2000 words per day over the next 6 weeks to try to get it done. Not concerned at all about getting that done.
However, since it’s basically Christmas break for me, I’m going to take the next couple weeks off from the blog. I’ll be back sometime in January with another set of films.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you then.