As I have discussed elsewhere, 1979 saw Don Bluth, one of Disney's best and brightest animators, leave the company fold, declaring (and rightfully, if you asked me), that The House That Walt Built was no longer true to its architect, and that if there was to be a proper heir to the Disney spirit of magic and childlike entertainment, that heir would not be found taking marching orders from Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller. Thus the animator took eleven of his colleagues from out of Disney's shadow, and started his own animation studio. Their first film was unassuming enough - a short that nobody has ever seen titled Banjo the Woodpile Cat - and as if to prove that money, for right now, mattered more than art, Bluth also took on the unrewarding task of animating a sequence for the misbegotten bad movie masterpiece Xanadu.

Now, we're here for a history of Disney animation, not American animation in general; but to properly discuss the fate of Disney in the 1980s, one must necessarily discuss Bluth's work as well. For his perhaps arrogant boast was, as far it goes, perfectly true: he really did make films that were more Disney than Disney, and a couple of times he even managed to run rings around his old company at the box office, in head-to-head competitions.

Let's start at the start, though, with a film adapted from Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 children's novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, a story that Bluth had tried and failed to adapt while still with Disney, finally to make it as his first independent feature as director and producer. Released in 1982 under the title The Secret of NIMH, it is undeniably a massive improvement over the film that drove Bluth from Disney in the first place, 1981's The Fox and the Hound, and its achievement is all the more spectacular considering how little money, staff, and time Don Bluth Productions had at its fingertips at the time. The film only managed to scrape a bit more than $15 million at the box office - a fairer sum then than it sounds now, but less than half of The Fox and the Hound - but for them with eyes to see, the signs were clear: Disney had been bested at its own game.

The first thing one notices about The Secret of NIMH is that it is dark - literally, it is a film with a pervasive lack of light. Its very first shot is in a gloomy, undefinite space, in which a pair of gnarled hands write in a book that glows with some eldritch golden light. So that the second thing one notices about The Secret of NIMH is that, unlike the majority of recent Disney features - indeed, unlike the novel - it possesses a strong fantastical element, bringing it back in line to the dazzling, this-is-not-our-world possibilities that Disney's hidebound realism since Walt's death had largely banished.

Taken as a whole, the most noticeable thing is, again, that the film is dark - but here I refer to a more metaphorical kind of darkness. Bluth, bless his wonderful heart, had the good sense to realise that "a movie for children" does not necessarily and inexorably mean "a treacly bit of nonsense"; he knew that kids could withstand (and even adore) violence, death, tragedy, blood, even the odd "Damn!" or two. And more importantly, he trusted that kids would get a story that didn't strictly hew to a template for how such movies "ought" to be done. There are some frankly esoteric plot concerns in The Secret of NIMH, including a flashback visit to a very grim and scary research facility. By trusting that his target audience would be able to understand everything he was presenting, and more to the point, trusting that they weren't a bunch of fragile glassworks, Bluth proved in an instant that he had more respect for childhood than Disney's post-Walt output, The Rescuers and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh excepted, had come close to demonstrating.

The award-winning book had a pretty crackerjack story to begin with, but in some respects, I think Bluth and his co-writers (John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, who'd come with Bluth from Disney, and Will Finn, who ended up at Disney before the '80s were out) have bettered it. In some respects, mind you: though I admire the return to straight-up fantasy, I think the mysticism, with its très-'80s lightshow accompaniment, might have been better left to the side - it explains nothing that wasn't perfectly clear in the source material, and seems like a bit of a sop to the easily-bored. But in a lot of ways, the film streamlines the narrative quite brilliantly. That narrative, incidentially, involves a widowed field mouse named Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) - the "F" to "B" name change was to avoid a legal tussle with Wham-O and their Frisbee - whose son is very ill and cannot be moved, but as the last frost has just broken, their home will shortly be torn up by the local farmer's massive plow. Mrs. Brisby consults with the local doctor, Mr. Ages (Arthur Malet), and with a mysterious owl (John Carradine) deep in the woods; eventually she finds her way to the rosebush near the farmer's house, where there lives a secretive society of rats with near-human intelligence, lead by the mystic Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi). These rates knew Mrs. Brisby's late husband rather well, and seem to have owed him a debt; so they agree to move the cinder block where the Brisbys live to safety.

If Bluth had learned one rule above all else from the storied history of Disney animation, it was to privilege character above all else; and The Secret of NIMH boasts some exceptionally wonderful characters. Mrs. Brisby herself is about as well-conceived a protagonist as you'd ever hope to find in a children's animated movie, anchored by Hartman's remarkably sensitive voice performance; her gradual shift from simple confusion and survivalist urgency to a greater awareness of the world around her, with an attendant fear of things she never knew of, at last to being brave and steadfast in the defense of her children, is an arc both subtle and magnificent; all the more when compared to the rough "we need this character shift to motivate the plot" mechanics of The Fox and the Hound The secondary characters are equally well-described: the rats of NIMH are given largely discrete and significant personalities, the addled crow Jeremy (Dom DeLuise, a Bluth mainstay in the 1980s) provides comic relief that not only - gasp! - isn't annoying, but - gasp and shock! - contributed to the story by providing a figure for Mrs. Brisby to react, establishing elements of her character that we wouldn't otherwise see.

For the animation, it is hardly observable that the staff was so tiny, so impoverished, and so rushed; nor that only three men (Bluth, Pomeroy, Goldman) took over all the directing animation tasks. Using the same exact technology available to Disney, Bluth's crew created a work that had all the roundness and soft edges of Disney in the '40s and '50s, and none of the stiffness of the '70s films (again, excepting The Rescuers - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh not counting as a '70s film). If I have a complaint about the animation, it is not a small one: except for Mrs. Brisby herself, every character has a tendency to move with exaggerated gestures that recall the excesses of silent film melodrama. I do not know if this was the Bluth company's attempt to differentiate themselves from Disney; or perhaps they were aiming for a larger, comic feeling. Either way, it's a touch distracting and alienating.

That caveat aside, the design and animation are all extraordinary: not unrealistic, but also not as strapped by what is physically observable as the Disney animation of the same period. The characters are all drawn in readily-identifiable stokes so that you might quickly tell who is funny, who is serious, who is evil, who is heroic; at the same time, they are not caricatures, nor grotesques (though Nicodemus, with his inexplicable glowing eyes, comes somewhat close on the latter count). And they all move, broad gestures and everything, with a graceful fluidity as good as anything to come from the studio's competition. I might also toss some praise in the direction of the background painters, who dabble in much less rich detail than even the flimsier Disney pictures, but still suggest with admirably economy the scale of the film's world: a scale of vast places and towering objects, for what else would you expect from a mouse's POV? (Incidentally, every single person involved in creating the film's visuals was credited at the end of the film, in what I believe to be a first for an animated feature). Moreover, the "camera angles" - I can think of no other term - that Bluth, in his capacity as director, selects to frame the scenes and the action are well-selected to heighten the drama in a manner that Wolfgang Reitherman, love him though I do, never seemed to even imagine possible.

Basically, I would if pressed call this the best American animated feature produced since 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians - again, I'm not counting The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh - and though Bluth himself never matched the ambition and skill that went into this feature, his old bosses should have rightly considered themselves on notice, small box office receipts or not. The student had indeed become the master, and it would take Disney a monstrously costly mistake to even begin to understand how badly they'd been outstripped by this rugged little indie.