NIMH Notes

By John Cawley


The following is a reprinting of one of the selections of The NIMH File, an APAzine published circa June 1986 by Timothy D. Fay. It included some fan-fiction, fan-art/comics, and this little informational piece, written by the PR guy that worked with Bluth Animation at the time Secret of NIMH was released. While I have little hope of being able to contact the authors of the (admittedly very good) stories and art in order to get permission to reprint them, I thought that I'd be justified in reprinting this, as it is a purely informational piece written by someone "official." It answeres and raises some interesting questions about our beloved film. So without further ado...

Questions & Answers

In the summer of 1983, I was hired by the Bluth team as Director of Public Relations. (At that time, they were working under the banner of Bluth Group and producing videogames.) One of my functions was to handle fan mail. Most of this mail fell into two catagories: They were the "gimmies" or the "help."

"Gimmies" always wanted something or other. Some wanted an autograph, drawing, or photo. Some had an "important" question that needed to be answered (like how old was Don, what was it like working at Disney, what was his favorite Disney movie, why did he stop making features, was he working on this or that title of film, was there going to be a NIMH sequel, etc.). Some merely wanted to be "friends" with Don (usually because, as they stated, they had no other friends who understood them).

The "Helps" always wanted to help. They offered advice on how to do the next picture, or specific titles. Some sent scripts, characters etc. for use in future games, films, etc. Others sent resumes for any number of positions. In this group were those who simply wanted to write and help by giving moral support. As one had written, "I don't care if NIMH was a flop, I liked it." Another commented that even though NIMH was a "low budget picture, it usually didn't show." One stated that a jazz score would have made the film more successful.

However, occasionally a letter came in that was more... interesting? (No, many letters were interesting.) More... serious? (No, almost all the writers of fan mail are serious!) I guess "mature" is the word that would fit. (Very little fan mail comes across mature... even those letters written by fans in their sixties!)

One such mature letter was accompanied by a box of some 50 children's letters. It seems a class in New York had taken the time to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and then seen the film, THE SECRET OF NIMH. They then each wrote down five questions regarding the differences found between the two works.

The questions ranged from logical (why the name change) to the obscure (did we want to put Disney characters in the story).

The following reply explains the rest.

Oh, after the letter are some questions of interest to true NIHMphomaniacs. I hope you enjoy them.

John Cawley

December 7, 1983

RE: Story Differences in THE SECRET OF NIMH

Dear [censored] & Students:

I want to thank you not only for taking the time to study the differences between our production of THE SECRET OF NIMH and the novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but for letting us assist in the answering of some of the questions raised. We apologize for the delay in answering, but we only recently received your packet of letters from MGM/UA. The students asked many questions, but generally seemed to focus in on the same topics. Having discussed them with Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Gary Goidman, and Will Finn (the authors of the script), here are the answers to most (and the most frequently asked) questions.


We had originally planned to use the name Mrs. Frisby in the film, and even had the dialogue recorded that way. However, Whammo Toys, maker of the plastic Frisbee, claimed to have control over the name through Trademark. (Unlike a copyright law which must show that you have exactly copied an item, trademarks also control the "sound" of the name.) For this reason, the name was changed to "Brisby," and much of the dialogue had to be re-recorded for the film.


The amulet was a device, or symbol, to represent the internal power of Mrs. Brisby. It also was a gift from her husband, a sign of his love. The stone/amulet had no real power, itself. It was only when Mrs. Brisby's strength was employed that it could become a force. In many ways, it was an extension of Mrs. Brisby... a visual extension of an internal (and harder to show in a film) power.


This change was made to create more "mystery" around both Nicodemus and the entire rat colony. Once again, making Mrs. Brisby have to search both outwards, and inwardly for help.


In the book, Jenner is actually a traitor who simply leaves. In the film, he becomes a more dramatic figure be being a visible enemy. (Like many changes made when books become movies, the change is chosen to add drama to the story.)


Again, to help develop characters, some changes need to be made. Nicodemus must die so that Justin can become the new leader of the rats. Without this action, Justin doesn't have the ability to grow and change in the film. Each character needs a direction.


Jeremy, the crow, was given a larger role because his character had a great deal of entertainment value. (Visual material is preferred in films.) Also Dom DeLuise, the voice of Jeremy, desired a larger part to help develop the character more fully.


All these have to do with storytelling and character development. THE SECRET OF NIMH is really a story about Mrs. Brisby and her need to save her children. If the rats save her children, then she hasn't grown in the film (see why Nicodemus dies, above). If the climax is more concerned with the rats and the rosebush, then Brisby's trouble/problem (the main reason for the story happening) has less importance.


If you really watch the film closely, you'll see the Ages is not truely a mean character. He may be too busy with science to pay close attention to other's problems, and he may be getting cranky in his old age, but he does help Brisby. In fact, it is Ages who gives Brisby the medicine for Timothy. It is also he who leads her to the rats in the rosebush. Ages, in many ways, shows that just because someone seems too busy to be friendly all the time, does not mean they don't care, or are not friendly.


There are many sections of the novel which were not used at all. This is usually due to the lack of time. When you write a book, you have the ability to use as much time as you like. (The same when you read a book.) A book can take days, or weeks to finish. A movie must tell the entire story in less than 2 hours. (You can do longer movies, but 90-120 minutes is the usual length for live-action films; 65-85 for animation.)

For this reason, most stories must be made shorter and condensed. You can't expect a viewer to follow dozens of story lines and characters. What is usually done, is that one is picked out and highlighted. In NIMH, we chose the story of Brisby. Everything in the film had to relate to her story, and her character. At the same time, characters around her needed to be shown... but only those who would assist her in growing: her children, who force her to seek courage; The Shrew and Ages, who help guide her; Jeremy, her initial support (who she later proves she does not need); Nicodemus and the Owl, together who show her the strength she possess; and Justin and Jenner, showing how inner power has both a positive and negative side.

I'm sorry I didn't have time to answer each student's question personally, but hope these answers will help. However, I have enclosed a copy of our Studio newsletter. Exposure Sheet, for each of the students. I hope they enjoy them. Once again, thanks for taking the time to evaluate our film, and for sharing your class's enthusiasm for it.

John Cawley
Director of Public Relations


"The Ladies of NIMH"

While travelling to conventions for the Bluth team, and answering the fan mail, one question always seemed to pop up: Why weren't there any female rats? Well, there were.

Studio members used to proclaim that you could detect females in the shots of the house raising (at the end). However, in reality (if animation is reality), the scenes detailing the female rats of NIMH were left on the cutting room floor. In the need to shorten the film, to keep it within a manageable time and budget, several sequences were cut.

According to early story notes, synopses and scripts, the key female scene in NIMH was to take place in the rat's library as Mrs. Brisby awaited to see Nicodemus. There she met Isabella. Described as "flighty," Isabella at first is suspicious of Brisby (an outsider), but soon becomes friendly to her. It is Isabella who explains where the rats received their powers. (Nicodemus takes over this role in the final cut.) Isabella is also seen helping several male rats with wounds from alleged battles with the Farmer, elements, etc. Some story notes indicate she might have been planned as a true romantic interest for Justin.

Being a lone female, without any real lock into the film's main events, it is easy to see how she was dropped to give the key characters more space and dialogue. However, by dropping the only female rat, a one sided (and occasionally suspicious) view of the rat's lives is seen.

"The Hidden NIMH"

One afternoon while talking with Don and John, I was asked some intriguing questions about the film and it's "hidden" meaning.

They asked if I'd ever noticed that Nicodemus and the Owl both walked with a limp and had glowing eyes. I said I noticed the eyes, but not the limp. It was then explained that these two characters might be, in fact, "the same character in different forms."

I was then asked if I'd noticed that no one outside of Brisby and Ages ever "saw" the rats as she did? "As she did...?" I questioned. It seems that the only times we see the rats in their full costumes and props are when Mrs. Brisby and Ages are around. We never view Jeremy, the children, the shrew, etc. see any of the rats. "Isn't it plausible," asked John, "that the entire set up of the lavish clothes, the elegant chambers, the amulet's power, etc. were nothing more than an imgage given to Brisby to assist her in finding the strength she had inside of her. We know the rats had powers... just how great were those powers?"

We never got around to discussing these points again. Did any of you notice these "hidden elements?"

John Cawley is currently Director of US Operations for VIZ Communications, a division of Japan's Shogakukan Publishing Company. He was previously Production Coordinator of Sullivan Studios, where Don Bluth's upcoming feature (AN AMERICAN TAIL) was produced with Steven Spielberg.