Don Bluth's animated features are pretty much overlooked or forgotten these days, but there was a time when he was regarded as a real challenger to Disney's animation crown, and not just because he led a group of disgruntled ex-Disney animators to start up a rival studio. Sadly most of his films didn't really work - only the Spielberg-produced An American Tail and The Land Before Time were hits - but there's no doubting that this stands head and shoulders not only above them, but also over most of the competing Disney titles. It may have turned out to be a one-off from a director who never fulfilled his promise, but it's a genuine animation masterpiece that briefly reignited a sense of magic and wonder into a then-failing genre.
The plot is simple, but remarkably well constructed and with surprising emotional depth. One of her children sick and unable to be moved, widowed fieldmouse Mrs Brisby has to seek the help of the mysterious rats of N.I.M.H. - escapees from a scientific experiment who now have extraordinary powers and intellect - to help move her home before the harvest. But the rats are in the midst of a project of their own, with the evil Jenner planning to use the situation to help him usurp the kindly Nicodemus...
The care and attention to detail is quite astounding, with brilliant effects animation that sees shimmering light reflected on cobwebs and underground lakes and a depth and texture a million miles away from the xerox animation then so prevalent that takes the breath away. The film has a real sense of wonder and magic, with Jerry Goldsmith's beautiful score playing no small part.
Equally impressive are the voice cast; at a time when there was a tendency for actors to overplay animation, here they give the same kind of rounded performances you would expect of a live action feature. Elizabeth Hartman is especially good as Mrs Brisby, with good support from Peter Strauss and Paul Shenar as the villainous Jenner, while even Dom De Luise underplays it for once. Throughout, the production values are those you would expect from an adult feature, with a strong screenplay that does not patronise its audience because 'it's only animation'. The film is moving, exciting and altogether the best animated feature since Pinocchio. Bluth has never even come close to this standard since.
The UK DVD boasts a fine widescreen transfer with only a trailer as an extra. The US NTSC special edition is rather light on extras for a two-disc set - an excellent audio commentary by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman that doesn't gloss over the practical problems they faced on making their labour of love on a shoestring budget, brief featurette Secrets Behind the Secret that includes a surprising amount of vintage behind the scenes footage and detail (for example, the animators took acting lessons to improve their craft) and 5 interactive games but no trailer - but also has a good but not outstanding widescreen transfer. The flaws in the transfer are more noticeable in the region-free Blu-ray (which includes the commentary, featurette and trailer but not the games), but despite some speckling on the print and less depth than a properly restored transfer should have it's certainly acceptable, especially considering MGM/UA's financial worries precluding a full restoration.. If you don't already have it in your collection, it's a must for all lovers of animation.