The late 1970s and early ’80s was a great time for animated adaptations of high fantasy literature. Rankin/Bass studios adapted fantasy classics like The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn, and Disney turned out more mainstream, kid-oriented films like The Black Cauldron. In the midst of all this, two fantasy classics that had previously been thought unadaptable finally got the film treatment they deserved: 1978’s Watership Down and 1982’s The Secret of NIMH. Both feature talking animals, both tackle conservationist or animals rights concerns that were way ahead of their time, and both are just a touch scary—or at least I thought so as a tiny child. My younger self was impressed with the films’ fantasy landscapes couched in an atmosphere of danger. Revisiting them both as an adult, I still love them; now I find myself empathizing with each film’s reluctant leader while also squirming at the damage wrought by humans.
I’m sure I don’t need to summarize the plot of either film, so instead I’ll talk about their different animation styles. The Secret of NIMH looks in many ways like the other Don Bluth-era Disney films; it has a recognizable “house style,” but it’s no less effective for its inclusion in that group. One of the things I loved about The Secret of NIMH as a kid was the intricate visual details and bright colors. There’s something to look at in every scene; I especially loved Mr. Ages’ laboratory with its bubbling test tubes and cauldrons. Watership Down uses a more muted palette, which makes sense since its characters are regular rabbits living in the wild, not rats who have gained sentience like the characters in The Secret of NIMH. These softer, watercolor-style backgrounds remain largely stationary as the rabbits move across them; it leans into the limitations of the animation techniques available at the time, focusing on creating beautiful landscapes rather than kinetic realism. This visual style fits with the source material, which focuses heavily on the minute variations in the landscapes the rabbits travel over, giving us a window into their worldview.
Both films also use storytelling as an important plot device. Arguably the scariest part of The Secret of NIMH comes when Nicodemus, eerily voiced by the wonderful Derek Jacobi, tells Mrs. Brisby how her husband and the other rats of NIMH became sentient as a result of horrific experiments conducted on them in a scientific lab. The animation becomes more psychedelic, hinting at the drug-fueled nightmare the rats suffered through in order to gain their superior intellects and longer lifespans. The story has taken on the importance of legend to the rats of NIMH, the same way the rabbits of Watership Down use folktales to explain their physical attributes and purpose in life. The animation in these sections of the film is more stylized, with the face of the Black Rabbit drawn almost as a mask with blank eye-holes. The stories give the rabbits a sense of continuity with the past and help them make sense of the world, but they also learn to transcend the legends when necessary. The rabbits’ default problem-solving method is mythical thinking; that is, they explain everything they encounter in terms of Frith (the sun), El-Arairah (the ur-rabbit), and the Black Rabbit (death). But the more clever rabbits like Blackberry also start using the scientific method, like when he sees a piece of wood floating on the river and decides to put the rabbits who can’t swim on top of it and float them across the river instead. It’s easy to forget when watching The Secret of NIMH how advanced the rats’ thinking has become, since we take the scientific method for granted. But there’s a real innocence to Watership Down that comes largely from its fidelity to its characters’ mythic worldview.
I also feel duty-bound to mention the Comedy Relief Birds in both films: Jeremy the crow in The Secret of NIMH and Kehaar the seagull in Watership Down. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if the former was inspired by the latter, but it’s too important not to mention. Both have distinctive voices; Jeremy is voiced by Dom Deluise as a wheezy, bumbling joker, while Zero Mostel’s Kehaar is a trilling, vaguely Russian prima donna. Both befriend our heroes and become instrumental to their success; when you’re only a few inches tall, it helps to have a friend who can fly. Making friends with animals of different species is atypical for both the rats in The Secret of NIMH and the rabbits of Watership Down, and both encounter some resistance and confusion from animals who would prefer to keep to their own kind. But Mrs. Brisby and Hazel are both willing to try unorthodox methods to achieve their goals. They know they can use all the help they can get, even if it means trusting a weird and potentially predatory bird.
Both films have gained relevance with the passage of time; scientific testing on animals has always been ethically murky at best, with most people preferring to know as little as possible about it. The scene in Watership Down in which Holly tells of the destruction of the old warren has never been more chilling than in our current political climate with its flagrant disregard for environmental protection and regulations. At the end of this story, one of the rabbits remarks that men must hate them, otherwise why would they kill them? And another sagely corrects him, saying men don’t hate rabbits; they just destroyed their burrow because they could, because it was in their way. No one in The Secret of NIMH explicitly identifies this quality in man, but it’s clear that to them, the rats in the lab are also a disposable means to an end, like the rabbit warren.
Maybe the best thing these films did was give a voice and a personality to some of the most humble creatures in nature. Regardless of where we see ourselves on the food chain, it’s always good to be reminded that we’re not the only ones who have to live on this planet.