The evolution of young Timothy Brisby--from The Secret of NIMH through The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy To The Rescue.
Say what you will about the sequel to Don Bluth's excellent movie The Secret of NIMH (many fans do, and what is said usually isn't very complimentary), but while there are indeed many things about The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue deserving of the harsh criticism and ire of dedicated fans of the first movie (and/or author Robert C. O'Brien's book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), there are also certain aspects of the film which, when taken on their own, rather than being weighed against any aspects of the first movie, are actually pretty good. One of the most significant and well-developed aspects of the sequel, worthy of praise, is the character arc of Timothy Brisby.
This is the first of a three-part look at how the character is developed in the animated sequel, and how that is one aspect of it which shines amidst its generally disappointing story, animation and voice acting. In this first article, we look at the foundation of the character, as presented in the first movie, and then the subplot in the sequel which shows us the deep and loving bond which exists between Timothy and his older brother Martin...a significant facet to the overall story of the sequel. It's very good writing. You could scrap many other aspects of the sequel if you were able, but this one is definitely an exception!
When we first get a look at the character, he's presented to us as a very young, very sick boy mouse, stricken with pneumonia.
Throughout almost the entirety of The Secret of NIMH, we only ever get to see the poor fellow confined to his bed, weakened by the illness and quite uncommunicative. He is, in fact, apparently so ill that he cannot even get out of bed (as Mrs. Brisby tells Mr. Ages when she goes to him seeking medicine and advice). In the first chapter of the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Timothy does indeed start out very ill, even delirious. Unlike in the movie, however, he is able to communicate and, at times, is more lucid--enough, in fact, to even talk with his mother when she returns with the packet of medicine. And his condition improves more noticeably in the book, to the point that he is up and around (inside the Frisby home) and chatty with his family, in subsequent chapters. But it takes the closing scene of the movie for us to finally see little Timothy up and around, feeling much better, and wanting to go outside (which Mrs. Brisby, of course, doesn't allow him to do).
The Little Phoenix
By the beginning of the animated sequel, The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue, we are reintroduced to Timothy Brisby and his brother Martin, apparently a few years removed from the first movie. We are never given any indication just how many years separate the two movies. Not even O'Brien's book and his daughter's first sequel book, Racso and the Rats of NIMH, make it entirely clear how many years separate the moving of the Frisby home from Timothy's first adventures in Thorn Valley. In the closing chapter of O'Brien's book, after Mrs. Frisby tells her children about the rats, NIMH and her own adventures, and the full story of their late father Jonathan, Martin says to her "I'm going to the Thorn Valley, somehow, someday." They end up having a debate about whether or not it would even be possible to find it, much less whether or not the rats would want visitors (even members of Jonathan's family), and it's left wide open as the book ends.
By the opening chapter of the sequel book, we learn that over the summer (probably not the same summer the Frisby family was preparing for after their house was moved by the rats), "Martin, her elder son, had found a mate, a lovely young mouse named Breta. They had moved to a small nest under a rotted sycamore stump in the meadow." So his desire to find Thorn Valley apparently never materialized. The sequel does, however, note that Mrs. Frisby's younger son, Timothy, had started attending school at Thorn Valley at some point after their home had been moved (though it doesn't say specifically when he started). It does, however, indicate that "this would be his third year as a student in a school run by the superintelligent Rats of NIMH."
As The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue opens (following its rather corny prologue), we see a slightly older Timothy (described in the credits as being ten years old...presumably the mouse equivalent of a ten-year old human) having a race with his older brother Martin. They're riding in walnut shells being pulled by a pair of rabbits, and having a grand time. The race quickly devolves as Timmy's shell gets overturned by a rock, and he gets tossed out onto the ground. As he tries to catch up with Martin, he wanders off the path they were racing on, and into the underbrush, where he stumbles into a cage trap. He calls out to Martin for help, who rescues him.
At this point we see the first indications of a deep bond between the two brothers, and just how strongly Timothy has latched onto Martin. A dejected Timothy says to his brother "This was our last race together, and I ruined it. I'm sorry, Martin."
It's basic psychology, in our real world, that every boy needs an older male in his life--a positive role model to look up to and to emulate. It's pretty evident that this particular facet of Timothy's character arc is a dramatization of that concept. Timothy's had almost no experience with his father, who was killed when the Brisby children were all still young (especially Timothy and Cynthia, who were very young). Timothy has had far more time with Martin being more of a postive male role model and influence than his father ever had the chance to be. Even if Timothy knows that Jonathan's a hero.
Martin initially expresses his frustration about how Timothy, who's about to leave for his first year of schooling at Thorn Valley, is already considered a soon-to-be hero, to be molded in his father's own image (as presented in the animated sequel, to live up to a "prophecy", by the late Nicodemus, that he would save the rats of NIMH and be a hero...the first instance of the animated sequel which breaks the existing canon...as neither the book nor the first movie make any mention of a "prophecy" by Nicodemus, nor refer to him as a "prophet"). But as he sees Timothy express feelings of guilt and personal responsibility for Martin being overlooked, and about how he considers Martin more worthy of being a hero, his brother feels bad for him. Trying to cheer him up, Martin offers Timothy his slingshot, and gives him a quick lesson in firing it.
The experience Timothy shares with Martin affects him so deeply that, in a moment of unreserved affection, he tells his brother "when I grow up, I wanna be just like you, Martin." Not like his father, whom we soon learn that Timothy feels no connection to...but Martin.
As Jeremy arrives to take Timothy to Thorn Valley (and is accidentally grazed when Timothy is momentarily distracted during his practice with the slingshot), we see the Brisby family and Auntie Shrew saying their goodbyes to Timothy. And while there is a tender moment between Timothy and Mrs. Brisby, it is noteworthy how strongly Timothy reacts when, after he tries to return the slingshot to Martin, his brother tells him to keep it. And again, in a touching moment, Timothy embraces his brother and expresses how much he'll miss him.
Of all his family members, it's Martin who draws most of Timothy's familial affection. And it would remain a key theme throughout the sequel story.
The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue takes us from those opening scenes, where Timothy is the equivalent age of a ten-year old human, to an unspecified point in time, some years later, to where he is now (once again, according to the credits) the equivalent of a seventeen-year old human. Now, having spent all that time at Thorn Valley without returning home for any breaks (which again differs from the literary sequel, Racso and the Rats of NIMH, where Timothy returns home to his family for summer break each year), he finds himself caught up in an adventure to not only save "The Lost Six" (the mice which didn't make it out of NIMH in The Secret of NIMH...though, in that movie, it was eight who were lost in the ventilation system.), but also his brother--who has somehow ended up there. It's worth pointing out that six is the correct number of the mice who were lost in the ventilation system, as that is the number that O'Brien gave in his book. It was Don Bluth who tacked on two more mice (other than Jonathan and Mr. Ages).
Timothy repeatedly expresses concern for his brother even though he hasn't seen him for what is presumably several years. And, at the climax of the movie, when all the mice--except Martin (who has been transformed, by some disturbing electro-shock applications, into an "evil", sociopathic character)--are saved, and there is an opportunity for Timothy to flee the NIMH laboratory as it is burning to the ground (as a result of events which occur during the rescue), Timothy risks his life to go back into the building and save Martin.
Even after his brother, in his altered state, tried several times to turn Timothy into a minion, and then finally to kill him (all this occurring shortly after Timothy and Jenny first arrive at NIMH in previous scenes of the movie), Timothy still exerts tremendous effort to save his brother, dragging him to safety, shielding him from an explosion, and finally hefting him up into a NIMH cage which serves as their means of escape (through a rather crazy chain of events).
They get out, with a little help from Jeremy, and everyone heads back to Thorn Valley, where Mr. Ages and the rats of NIMH manage to restore Martin to his old self (though we do not see how this is accomplished).
As Timothy is fetted as a hero, who has fulfilled Nicodemus' "prophecy", he spots his brother Martin emerging from Mr. Ages' laboratory alongside Mr. Ages and Justin. Overcome with emotion, he rushes to his brother's side, shouting "Martin, you're back to your old self! I've got my brother back!"
And, in a fitting tribute to their father's memory, it's Martin who tells his brother that "dad would have been proud, hero."
Many fans poo-poo the animated sequel as a disaster...and consider it one of the worst animated sequels ever made. As usual with fans of any popular and beloved animated movie, they always compare the sequel against the first movie. The first movie hangs like a sixteen-ton weight over the sequel, threatening to come crashing down on it. In some ways, this is unfair. Not only was the first movie produced as a theatrical product (as opposed to the sequel, which was made to be direct-to-video...a very common trait in animated sequels), but it was produced by one of the industry's greatest animator/writer/directors.
Considered on its own, while the animated sequel does have its share of problems (low budget; frequently poor-quality animation; dry voice acting by many of the actors, in spite of there being many well-known and experienced actors in the cast; contradictions to the existing canon of the first movie and the books which, to be fair, even the first movie sometimes is guilty of where O'Brien's book is concerned; and a generally weak and bizarre story), there are facets of the story which stand out as examples of good writing. The on-going character arc of Timothy Brisby, which itself has several facets, shines through the blandness of the larger story. And the three people who portrayed him in the sequel: Andrew Ducote, Alex Strange and Ralph Macchio, each did a very good job portraying him!
In Part 2, we'll look at Timothy Brisby coming to terms with the fame of his father, and how he has to struggle to live up to it.