*If you know anything about The Secret of NIMH then you KNEW this scene was going to be talked about eventually*
By far the most disturbing moment in The Secret of NIMH comes at the end of the film, though you don’t see it coming at first. This is because it appears that the big climax of the film has already happened: Jenner and Justin have just fought a huge duel that ended with Jenner dead (along with his associate Sullivan). With the rats now warned that NIMH is coming, Mrs. Brisby naturally heads back to the fallen house (which smacked into the ground rather hard when the machinery collapsed). The children are alright (WHY the rats didn’t take them out of the house before they started moving it I don’t know) and it seems like we’ve dodged a massive bullet….and then the music starts. This scene is a grade A example of why I study film music: even before the house starts sinking into the mud, the ominous suspenseful tone should tell you that something very bad is about to happen. Jerry Goldsmith, the composer for this film, put all his talents to work here and he did not disappoint.
The Secret of NIMH (1982): The House Sinking Scene
I should note, this was actually foreshadowed earlier in the film. When the rats and Mrs. Brisby are traveling on the boat, it’s revealed that much of the ground under the farm is hollow, with Justin muttering that it’s all going to collapse someday. The implication then, is that the force of the Brisby home smacking into the ground caused a partial collapse underground which is why the house is now sinking.
As the realization dawns that the house (with the children inside!!!) is sinking into the mud, the music rises quickly into a turmoil that reflects the panic of Mrs. Brisby and the surviving rats. After all, given the esteem they have for Jonathan Brisby, they couldn’t live with themselves if they let his children die. There’s a frantic race on to attach the house (built into a cement block) to any number of lines and stop it from sinking completely. Meanwhile, we actually get a look inside the house as it’s filling up with mud. There’s no sign of Timothy (who, I remind you, is bedridden) and the other children are shrieking “Get us out of here!!” This in itself is disturbing as you don’t normally see children (in animation or live-action) put into such direct peril. Oh it’s been implied before (such as the huntsman nearly stabbing Snow White) but it’s never been so immediate a danger as what we see now.
The worst moment of the scene comes when the final line keeping the block up snaps and the home is pulled down into a whirlpool of mud while Mrs. Brisby is hauled to safety by Justin. The implications are downright macabre: according to what we just saw, all the children (and Auntie Shrew she’s still inside remember) are dead and Mrs. Brisby has now lost her entire family. It’s heart-wrenching, disturbing and once I fully grasped what was going on, this scene screwed me up in the head for years. Now, even though this is set right less than a minute later (in a spectacular piece of animation I might add), that doesn’t change the fact that we the audience had to go through this first.
This scene is the perfect example of Bluth’s belief that children can take just about anything so long as there is a happy ending afterward. Given my experience however, I don’t think this is true. But what do you think? Is the scene any less disturbing with the happy ending that follows? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!
Disturbing Bluth #1: The Secret of NIMH (Overview and Trivia)
Disturbing Bluth #2: The Secret of NIMH: Dragon the (Demon) Cat
Disturbing Bluth #3: The Great Owl in The Secret of NIMH (1982)
Disturbing Bluth #4: Jenner in The Secret of NIMH (1982)
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