Monday, October 22, 2012

The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn



What is it about 80s fantasies, particularly animated fantasies, that fascinates me well into 21st-century adulthood? There's an aspect of nostalgia to be sure. I was born in 1983 and these movies reflect not just the era that shaped my early consciousnesses but also a form the world must take for everyone at that age: at three or four years old, reality itself seems mysterious, fantastical, dark - all that will later become familiar glows with the dangerous allure of magic. If this is nostalgia, it's an edgier, more unsettling nostalgia than is sold to us on TV commercials, a nostalgia rooted in the recognition that childhood is not merely a time of carefree happiness, but also of deep-rooted fear and disoriented confusion. At any rate, I didn't see The Secret of NIMH or The Last Unicorn, two offbeat animated films from 1982, until about a month ago - so any nostalgic chord they struck was generalized and indirect.

No matter when one was born, something objectively historical and cultural was at work in the 80s, a golden age for cinematic fantasy, particularly dark fantasy (and both The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn, despite their seemingly cuddly heroines, are dark, melancholy films - but then fairy tales were always among the most disturbing and unsettling works of literature). Perhaps the cult of fantasy was shaped by fallout from a drug culture that had only crept into the mainstream about fifteen years before, or maybe it resulted from a longing and anxiety fostered by the collapse of social conventions (both widespread countercultural experiences were, to a certain extent, driven underground by the conservative reaction of the immediate present).

For whatever reason, 80s fantasy culture carries an often palpable expectation of identification as if its creators (and their audiences) weren't just safely touring a faraway place, but experiencing a full-fledged vision of a world more real than our own. Often condemned as "escapism," fantasies and other mythological genres can actually reveal more about an era than its documentary works, since they tend to correspond to the zeitgeist's inner, rather than outer, life. By leading us into dreamlike yet vivid worlds, fantasy films reflect the pain and disorientation engendered by reality but displaced deep into the subconscious.

That said, the universe of Secret of NIMH is not entirely otherworldly. Based on Robert O'Brien's book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Don Bluth's debut feature (released just two years after the talented animator stormed out of Disney, dragging a loyal entourage behind him) intriguingly fuses sci-fi with fantasy; its walking, talking mice and rats aren't just magical creatures, they're the result of scientific testing. The "NIMH" of the title is actually a top-secret government acronym and our renamed heroine Mrs. Brisby's dead husband was a heroic mouse who led the escape from the chemical-testing laboratory. Hiding out in the fields near a farm, he taught the other rodents how to think and control their surroundings (and, presumably, to speak English and wear clothes).

This plot is often confusing; perhaps Bluth bit off more than he could chew (I could've done without Dom DeLuise's comic relief but I guess the kiddies needed a breather between the doom and gloom; speaking of the voice cast John Carradine as a daimonic owl provides a special treat). Nonetheless I found the alternation between the magical, mystical, almost medieval underground world of the murine secret society and the identifiably contemporary, domesticated farm (as well as the modern, scientific urban lab) pleasingly provocative and disorienting. Most of all, NIMH is significant for its splendid animation: this is a visually rich tapestry hand-drawn with loving care in a fashion few would attempt today (one of the reasons Bluth departed Disney was his feeling that it had already given up on this approach).

The Last Unicorn, a Rankin-Bass production, certainly not as lush as NIMH, still bursts with imaginative imagery; its sleek, stylized backgrounds and incorporation of medieval artwork reminded me of Secret of the Kells (2009). However, Unicorn's central appeal lies in its story and characters. In the 80s, Rankin-Bass had a way with poignant, evocative animated features - their 1987 adaptation of Wind in the Willows is one of the cartoons I treasure most. The company also attracted fantastic voice casts. Just as I can't read Grahame's book without conjuring Jose Ferrar's richly authoritative Badger or especially Roddy McDowell's wistfully otherwordly Rat, if I ever pick up Peter Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn I'll doubtless hear this cast (Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee) in my head. Especially Mia Farrow, perfectly cast as the fragile and curious, childlike yet wise title character.

As with Willows, the film depicts a sad loss of innocence (more starkly than Willows with its melancholy repressions), a yearning feeling of loneliness and restlessness, and a series of contentious yet committed friendships. Like NIMH, Unicorn's world is haunting, at times even nightmarish, with its cackling crones, depressed decrepit kings, and ferocious raging bull, trailing a crimson cloud of fire wherever it stampedes (one of Unicorn's most bizarre and bizarrely appealing tangents suggests narwhals surfing the sea are in fact mutated unicorns, deformed and submerged by the bull's black magic). Even the film's "happy ending" is bittersweet at best.

Too often we forget that so-called "children's entertainment" contains a greater measure of wisdom, a deeper understanding of mortality and loss, than many supposedly adult films. When we're grown-up we can kid ourselves that life consists solely of the small patch we see before us, with its grounded, practical, even predictable concerns. When you're new to the world, such a narrow (and misleading) focus isn't possible, and movies like these help us to remember the state of confusion and beauty which call to us still from across the years.

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