Sunday, July 1, 2012

Summer of 1982: THE SECRET OF NIMH (July 2, 1982)

THE SECRET OF NIMH didn't open nationwide until July 16, 1982, but it was given a limited release in a few markets two weeks earlier.  The animated film was much-hyped at the time because it was the debut effort from former Disney staffer Don Bluth.  It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when Disney animation was in decline.  The films were getting more expensive and time-consuming to produce, and the focus had shifted to television.  By 1980, Bluth decided to leave Disney and took a number of animators with him.  In 1982, the independently-produced THE SECRET OF NIMH, based on Robert C. O'Brien's children's book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, was distributed by United Artists to much critical acclaim and moderately successful box office.  The film, about widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby, who encounters a secret society of super-intelligent former lab rats in her quest to move her home and her children out of the path of Farmer Fitzgibbons' field plow, was so expensive to produce for the new Don Bluth Productions that the company ended up filing for bankruptcy despite the success of the film.  Bluth and his team quickly rebounded by forming The Bluth Group and designing the animation for the arcade games DRAGON'S LAIR and SPACE ACE, but even that was short-lived when arcade game popularity began to wane shortly after.

Bluth eventually hit his stride when he found a benefactor in Steven Spielberg, who produced 1986's AN AMERICAN TAIL, which quickly became the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film.  By that point, Disney was licking its wounds with the tanking of 1985's THE BLACK CAULDRON and their animation department was barely showing a pulse.  In 1988, Bluth and Spielberg released THE LAND BEFORE TIME, and on the same day, Disney released its animation comeback OLIVER & COMPANY.  Bluth's film was the bigger success at the box office, and for a brief time, his was the biggest name in animation, and while he continued to make high-profile films like ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN (1989), ROCK-A-DOODLE (1992), THUMBELINA (1994), A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK (1994), THE PEBBLE AND THE PENGUIN (1995), and ANASTASIA (1997), Disney eventually returned to animation dominance with THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991), and ALADDIN (1993) and they've remained at the top since.

A 1982 publicity shot of Don Bluth
Now 74, Bluth hasn't made a film since 2000's ambitious box office flop TITAN A.E., but has remained busy in the world of video game design and has written two books on the art of animation.  Though he seems to have left the world of film, Bluth's name is forever cemented in cinematic animation as the guy who, albeit briefly, bested Disney.  He had ambitions and saw possibilities beyond Disney's capability in the 1970s and made the ballsy decision to branch out on his own.  And while he faced some financial stumbling blocks along the way, one could argue that Bluth's massive success with AN AMERICAN TAIL and THE LAND BEFORE TIME was the kick in the ass the complacent Disney needed to step up their game.  Without Bluth bolting and taking other similarly frustrated animators with him, starting with THE SECRET OF NIMH, there's always the possibility that the Disney renaissance of the 1990s wouldn't have happened.

A publicity shot of Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby

Dom DeLuise as Jeremy

John Carradine as The Great Owl

The voice cast of THE SECRET OF NIMH is headed by Elizabeth Hartman as Mrs. Brisby. This was the final film project for Hartman, an Oscar nominee for 1965's A PATCH OF BLUE.  She struggled with depression and was just 43 when she committed suicide by jumping out of a fifth-story window in 1987.  Other voice actors include Dom DeLuise as a comic relief crow named Jeremy, Derek Jacobi as the wise rat leader Nicodemus, Paul Shenar as the treacherous Jenner, Aldo Ray as his flunky Sullivan, Peter Strauss as the heroic Captain of the Guard, John Carradine as The Great Owl, Hermione Baddeley as Auntie Shrew, and early film credits for Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty as two of Mrs. Brisby's children. Bluth had nothing to do with the belated, cheap, and universally-reviled 1998 sequel THE SECRET OF NIMH 2: TIMMY TO THE RESCUE, which went straight-to-video and was directed by veteran TV animator Dick Sebast (FONZ AND THE HAPPY DAYS GANG, THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN, SONIC THE HEDGEHOG).  Hartman, Shenar, Carradine, Baddeley, and Ray had passed on by then, and only DeLuise returned from the 1982 film, with other voices being supplied by Ralph Macchio, Eric Idle, Harvey Korman, and William H. Macy.

Backtracking a bit to spring 1982, it's worth mentioning that in this summer ruled by E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and with big box office takes for the likes of ROCKY III, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, STAR TREK II, FIREFOX, and others, Albert Pyun's THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER,  released way back in April, was still a regular fixture near the bottom end of the top ten (or, in the case of this weekend, 11th place).  The film, starring MATT HOUSTON's Lee Horsley and clearly rushed into production to beat CONAN THE BARBARIAN to theaters by a month, was by far the biggest hit (and final release) to come from the exploitation outfit Group 1.  Group 1 would, on occasion, accidentally release a good movie like SWORD or ALLIGATOR or Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC, but primarily offered drive-in and grindhouse trash like THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION, JAILBAIT BABYSITTERS, MEATCLEAVER MASSACRE, and NAZI LOVE CAMP 27 (Group 1 chief Brandon Chase left the movie business and, presumably with some of his SWORD AND THE SORCERER money, eventually founded the Beverly Hills-based Swiss watch company Chase-Durer). Early in its run, SWORD would consistently land in the top five despite being on just 660 screens at its widest release.  As late as this, its 11th week of release, it was still taking in $1.5 million a weekend, now on just 309 screens with a $5200 per-screen average, a per-screen average that was second only to E.T.  Pyun's film very quietly became a massive sleeper hit, grossing nearly $40 million and was in first-run theaters well into August, nearly five months after its initial release, which is the first and last time anyone could say such a thing about any film containing the credit "Directed by Albert Pyun."  PORKY'S, released way back in March, was still landing as high as 12th place, with a total just under that of THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER.  It's easy to forget that, unlike today when movies are released on 4000 screens and make $250 million in three weeks and are on Blu-ray three months later, things stayed at the theater much longer back then.  PORKY'S was released in March.  By today's standards, even if it made $250 million in theaters, it still would've been on Blu-ray a month ago. 

TOP 10 FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND OF JULY 2, 1982 (from www.boxofficemojo.com)

5.   ANNIE
9.   BAMBI (re-release)

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