When you get to my age, you find yourself experiencing strange waves of nostalgia, whether it is for music, food or films, making the connection to our childhood is often irresistible. Just this week, I was digging through my extensive collection of videos and I stumbled upon an old childhood favourite, “The Secret of N.I.M.H” which is an animated tale about a mouse trying to find a way to keep her children safe from the farmer’s plough. Promptly after rediscovering it, I reconnected the ancient VCR to watch it after school. On the face of it, the story and animation was just as good as I remember it, but now that I look at some of the plot twists and themes included in the story, I am quite surprised to find them in a film squarely marketed at children.
To quote the blurb on the back of the video box, the film is “gorgeous to look at,” and “will delight kids everywhere.” Well, yes the animation is fantastic and the story certainly stuck with me but I wish parents good luck in explaining to their little angels why the main character, Mrs Brisby is so frightened of an owl – the woodland creatures in Disney’s “Bambi” weren’t scared of the owl. Or why the rat, Justin, is so upset when a concrete breezeblock falls on their “charming” leader Nicodemus. Or why the nasty Jenner wants Justin dead. The long and short of it is that “The Secret of N.I.M.H” contains some scenes that children wouldn’t quite understand. Scenes that could be described as unsuitable to warrant the big, friendly U for Universal rating that is printed on its spine.
It is only now, that I watch the film back, that I understand some of the themes. It is clear that the film is against animal testing and is preaching the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but how many five year olds will understand that? That is the argument of some parents who believe that if children aren’t able to understand the messages a film is sending, they shouldn’t be subjected to the often frightening scenes that portray what the story is about. When watching “The Secret of N.I.M.H”, I was prompted to remember other films from the golden years of my childhood such as “Watership Down” and “The Never-Ending Story”, or more specifically, remember the scenes that had me hide from the T.V. The terrifying, totalitarian General Woundsworth of “Watership Down” or the horrific scene where Bigwig falls victim to a snare, or when Hazel is shot, not to mention the indirect mention of the gassing of hundreds of rabbits, are all examples of child unfriendly moments from “Watership Down” alone.
In “ The Never-Ending Story” there is the ever-looming threat of worldwide destruction, a demonic wolf that stalks the hero and a scene where the audience is forced to watch the hero’s horse, Artax, sink slowly to his death in a swamp. After contemplating these scenes while Mrs Brisby desperately tries to save her children from suffering the same fate as Artax, I came to the realisation that children’s films don’t suffer from having these scary scenes, in fact, most benefit from them. There are some exceptions to this of course – after all, who wants to be chased through an M.C Escher painting by David Bowie anyway? – but for the best part of my childhood, these scary ideas didn’t particularly bother me. Even if children don’t understand the symbolism of a film when they first watch it, they can understand the simple messages and implications. Take the six year old me for example who would often huddle up on the sofa to watch “Watership Down”, clutching my threadbare toy bunny rabbit and telling myself this would be the time I wouldn’t hide from Woundsworth as he makes his rampage through the warren. I now interpret the story of “Watership Down” as a symbolic representation of moving from childhood to adulthood. Life starts off innocent, but you feel the need to find your own space; there are many hardships and dangers along the way, but if you remain loyal to your friends and ideals, you’ll make it through.
Of course, six year old, pink bunny toting me didn’t understand that then, but what I did understand was how sometimes there are good people in the world and sometimes there are bad, I also saw how living in a society where everyone had a voice was infinitely better then living in one where one person told everyone else what to do. Even though six year old me didn’t actively analyse this, my brain sub-consciously stored it away for future reference. One example of a future reference being the first time I fully engaged with my beloved “Star Wars”. Instantaneously, I knew the tyrannical Empire were the bad guys. Not only was their main guy tall, faceless, dressed all in black and sounding as if he was constantly having an asthma attack, but it was a society where only one person was in charge. At which, six year old me instantly made the connection to Woundsworth in “Watership Down” who ruled over others with an iron fist… or paw, as the case may be. Swap a gruesomely scarred rabbit for a croaky, shriveled old man and the idea was the same as in “Watership Down”. That’s why when I had my revelation that not all kid’s films are full of Barney the Dinosaur dancing to a merry tune through fields of gumdrops and ice-cream, nor are they all stories censored by Disney with all the jagged edges sanded off. I wasn’t full of dismay and shock. I didn’t find the grim Nazi references in a film about rabbits frightful; I wasn’t appalled by the heavy amount of treachery and backstabbing that can be found all over the shop in “The Secret of N.I.M.H”. In hindsight this is probably because when I was six, I was more interested in the story.
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“The Secret of N.I.M.H” – MGM Home Entertainment - 1982