Nobody seems to be terribly fond of moving day. For most of us, it's a time when we have to leave our old neighborhood, our old friends, our old life.
For Mrs. Brisby, on the other hand, it's a matter of life and death. Literally.
You see, her little house happens to be inside a cinderblock the middle of a field that's been sitting fallow all winter. The same field that is due any day now to be turned inside-out by that not-so-little plow over by the farmhouse. Slight bummer, but no big deal – until she learns that her son has pneumonia and will probably die if he leaves the house for the next two weeks or so. And as if that's not trouble enough, then she finds out that her late husband used to hang out with some decidedly eerie rats who may now be the only thing standing between her son and an oversized blender set to puree. And that's not even accounting for the evil rat Jenner, a walking disaster area of a crow named Jeremy, the mysterious entity known as NIMH, or the cat the size of Texas.
Life sure can be complicated when you're one inch tall.
Nearly all the characters in the film have some virtue to their credit. An old mouse appropriately named Mr. Ages, as busy as he is, is willing to help Mrs. Brisby handle Timothy's sickness. Mrs. Brisby, in turn, stops to help the hopelessly clumsy Jeremy, who returns the favor by repeatedly saving her life at the risk of his own when attacked by a cat, and by continuing to assist her throughout the film.
Brisby also makes note to remind her children to respect the local busybody, Auntie Shrew, whom she points out “means well.” Means well indeed! Although she appears at first to be stuffy and nosy, the shrew is far from cowardly, readily warning others of danger and even joining Mrs. Brisby in a direct assault on the farmer's threatening plow. Moreover, she goes one step further in urging her neighbor “show some courage. We're fighting for Timmy's life.”
Mrs. Brisby does indeed show a great deal of courage, which seems to be a constant point of the film. Throughout the story, she seems to run straight from one peril to another to save her son. And in the end, it proves to be that courage more than anything on which all fates must hang.
Jonathan, Mrs. Brisby's late husband, apparently had quite a bit of courage himself, and more than a few loyal friends. Everywhere his widow goes, otherwise busy creatures drop what they are doing to help her for his sake; even the Great Owl, notorious for eating mice, recognizes the name and tells her what she needs to know (despite his evil appearance, it's also worth noting that even before he knew who she was he did not eat her for entering his home).
An exceptionally old rat named Nicodemus in particular seems anxious to return the kindness of his old friend Jonathan, and closely watches the various doings of Mrs. Brisby in hopes that he may help.
Another fact well worth noting is that, though the rats steal food and electricity from the farm, none of them (except Jenner) seem the least bit happy about it. In fact, the whole conflict within their society hinges on a plan to move away from human civilization and become self-sufficient instead of leeching off of mankind. They regard their knowledge as a responsibility, as Nicodemus aptly notes, “We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”
Although there are passing uses of the words “God” and “Heaven,” the movie's main spiritual vein seems to bypass notions of divinity. Nicodemus' name aside, he seems in every respect a wizard. His eyes glow, he is able to make objects glow and float around at will, and he keeps tabs on events outside his chamber using a mechanical device that highly resembles a crystal ball. Even the ink he writes with gives off a sparkling gold vapor, giving it a magical look, and more than once he speaks to the late Jonathan as if the mouse could hear him, almost giving the impression that he's trying to update him on how his wife is doing. He gives Mrs. Brisby an amulet with magical properties, which he indicates belonged to Jonathan. His face later appears to her in it, and when she uses it she temporarily gains powers similar to “The Force” from Star Wars, both in their nature and the manner she assumes while using them.
Jeremy is obsessed with finding “Ms. Right,” and attaches the benefit of possibly attracting a mate to much of what he does in the movie. He admits that his association with Mrs. Brisby is largely in hopes that she'll give him some helpful tips on how to treat a lady.
Justin, the rats' captain of the guard, seems instantly taken with Mrs. Brisby. She in turn looks at him doe-eyed at least twice.
The animals' anatomy is shown in a manner which makes clothes unnecessary. We see Mrs. Brisby without her shawl (the only article she wears) twice; once when first waking up, and once when she puts it aside so it won't catch on anything.
At the end, Jeremy runs into the right girl – or vice-versa – quite literally out of a clear blue sky. The two of them are seen flying off into the clouds together.
As is rather typical of Don Bluth's creations, there are some scenes of peril which, while G-rated, might upset some of the more sensitive viewers in the younger set. Among these are Mrs. Brisby and Jeremy being terrorized by a cat appropriately dubbed Dragon. They both survive, though this does little to reduce the cat's foreboding presence.
Mrs. Brisby and Auntie Shrew join forces (much to the shrew's objection) in attacking the plow while in motion.
When Mrs. Brisby goes to see the Great Owl for advice, she walks (with no small amount of fear) past several scattered bones, remnants of the bird's past meals. She is unknowingly menaced by a large spider, which the owl then crushes underfoot. The owl also munches a moth out of the air while they talk.
On trying to enter the Rats' colony under the rosebush, Mrs. Brisby is menaced by a large rat named Brutus with an electric spear.
Jenner and his reluctant hench-rat discuss plans to kill Nicodemus by sabotaging the moving operation. (Spoiler) Sadly they do succeed. He also attempts to murder Mrs. Brisby for her amulet, leading him to slay his hench-rat and engage in a swordfight with Justin. Wounds are received on both sides, with very little blood shown.
On the lighter side of things, there are a few prat falls played for laughs.
Crude Language: Fairly tame. Mrs. Brisby's son Martin exchanges a few minor insults with Auntie Shrew. Justin uses the D-word once.
One misuse of God's name.
Drug Content: Mr. Ages mixes up a powder for Mrs. Brisby to bring down Timothy's fever. The rats speak of drugging Dragon whenever they need to be out in the open for any length of time (Jonathan is mentioned as having died doing so).
Other Negative Content: None of the young mice seem to be especially respectful of Auntie Shrew. While Martin is the only one to ridicule her to her face, his sisters laugh at the altercations when her back is turned. They also disobey her direct instructions when she leaves them (the fact that she was acting foolishly notwithstanding).
Auntie Shrew, for her talk of being responsible for the welfare of the field, is no saint herself. When Jeremy comes, at Mrs. Brisby's request, to watch over her children, the shrew ties him up with the intention of leaving him for the cat, judging without a trial that he is some “hooligan” intent on freeloading off the home while everyone's away.
Nicodemus tells Mrs. Brisby that the reason Jonathan couldn't tell her about NIMH or his own alteration was because said alteration slowed the aging process, and therefore Jonathan would have remained young while she grew old. It is never explained why a mouse of such implicitly good character as Jonathan would not tell her that to begin with, given the obvious impact it would have had on their marriage (not to mention that if they were around each other long enough she would have figured it out sooner or later anyway).
Growing up, Don Bluth's movies were some of my favorites: All Dogs go to Heaven and An American Tale, though I did not watch them often, were on my Top 10 list. Later in my teens, I even enjoyed my first viewing of one of his lesser-known films, The Pebble and the Penguin. And The Land Before Time, I confess, was so firmly fixed in the Number One spot that I even dreamed about the characters – in college. On the other hand, despite being an avid Redwall fan, I can't say mice rate up there with dogs or dinosaurs on my list of interests. So I wasn't sure what to expect from this movie. I am pleased to say that, whatever I might have expected, the film surpassed it. The plot is engaging, the animation has the best of every Don Bluth movie I know, the characters are both inspirational and believable, and the music (which I don't often notice in movies unless there are lyrics) carried the plot along like a raft on white water.
As for the content of the movie, while the violence and magic may be considered a yellow flag by some parents, there are a number of things all parents should be interested to see their children learn from it.
1) Never base your trust of someone on where they come from.
2) Be considerate to others, even if they aren't your first choice of people to be around.
3) Never be afraid to do the right thing, even if you stand to lose a great deal by doing it.
4) Looking down on someone just because they seem unimportant is never a good idea.
5) You can unlock any door if only you have the key.
This last one, people who have seen the movie may recognize as coming from the back of the amulet Mrs. Brisby received. And it begs the question, “What is the key?” A casual viewer of the movie might consider it to be courage, but I don't think that's the right answer. Courage is important, of course, but all the courage in the world wouldn't have earned Mrs. Brisby a hearing from the rats if they hadn't had such a regard for her late husband. Nor would she have even had the courage to go to them, or to do any of the other remarkable things she did, had it not been for her care towards her son.
The key, then, is not the courage itself, but what unlocks that courage: Love.
I've been told there's a sequel, and no one seems to have liked it much. They say it has cheesy (pardon the pun) writing and weak animation. I'm pretty sure it's not Don Bluth. But if it can deliver as good a message as this movie put across, I don't think that's going to bother me much.