"The Secret of NIMH" is a richly animated and skillfully structured film that should finally test whether there still remains a family audience for new Disney-type pictures beyond the Disney reissues themselves.
The Disney association, of course, is impossible to avoid since the "NIMH" creators -- Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy -- are all veteran apprentices of the master's technique who walked out of the Disney lot two years ago in a dispute over standards, taking nearly a score of animators with them.
As craft, their first feature film is certainly an homage to the best of an age ago. Every character moves fluidly and imaginatively against an extravaganza of detailed background and dazzling effects, all emboldened by fascinating colored textures.
But do kids raised on cheap Saturday ayem cartoons really care? More importantly, do their parents relate if they can't themselves remember their own adolescent reactions? And most importantly, even if kids and parents do care, is it worth the extraordinary expense?
Certainly, high-quality animation has not fared well in recent years. But "Lord Of The Rings" was clearly too complex and "Watership Down" was far too violent for either to be bellweathers. "NIMH" is a much better mixture of light-heartedness and dark drama.
The story, to be sure, is simple, as it must be for the tykes. A mother mouse (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) is simply trying to find a new home for her brood before the old one is destroyed by spring plowing. Her task is complicated by the severe illness of a son, too sick to move.
Beyond that, the layers pile high. On the light side there's the comedy of Dom DeLuise as a clumsy crow who tries to help. At the worst are a pack of rats led for good and ill by Derek Jacobi, Peter Strauss and Paul Shenar, all influenced by some modern-day sci-fi mind-bending, mixed with old-fashioned sorcery. John Carradine also serves well as a menacing but helpful great owl, full of wisdom and woe.
At 82 minutes, "NIMH" marches steadily toward a predictably happy ending, as it should. Nothing seems out of place and nothing seems left behind. If it had been made in the 1940s and reissued now, people would probably be anxious to see it again. Issued here for the first time, it's only a question of modern-day tastes.