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  • Stefan Riedlinger

The Secret of NIMH - Jerry Goldsmith - Soundtrack Review

“The Secret of NIMH" is one of the best soundtracks Jerry Goldsmith ever composed, it was also the first soundtrack with Jerry's music I heard, and it was the first soundtrack I bought in my life. Therefore, three reasons to start my blog with this soundtrack.

The movie

"The Secret of NIMH" (1982) is an American animation movie, directed by Don Bluth, former Animation Director at Disney. It is an adaption of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel “Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” (1971) that I read after seeing the movie. The style of the movie is very like Disney's animation style, but it is sometimes very dark, and I do not consider some scenes suitable for very young children. During the production, the name of the main character has changed to Mrs Brisby because of trademark concerns with the Frisbee discs. 1998 it was followed by a direct-to-video sequel without involvement of Don Bluth or Jerry Goldsmith. Here is the trailer:

The movie has a complicated production history. Bluth’s intention was to return feature animation to its “golden era”, so he focused on strong characters, a good story and experimenting with unusual and more labour-intensive animation techniques. Among these techniques were rotoscoping and multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadows and multiple colour palettes for characters to fit in different lightning situations. The tight budget resulted in a very tight schedule. Producer Gary Goldman recalled working 110-hour weeks during the final six months. Bluth made several changes to the story, mostly by adding mystical elements that are most apparent in the magic amulet given to Mrs. Brisby.

The film was finally a financial success. In competition with blockbusters such as “E.T.”, it performed better in the opening than “Poltergeist” (with another great Jerry Goldsmith score) and “Rocky III” (a fabulous Bill Conti score) and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (James Horner’s best Star Trek score). Compare these scores with today’s scores and you realized how spoiled we were at that time. Because of the strong competition “The Secret of NIMH” made just $14 Mio. in North America but was more successful on home video.

The music

“The Secret of NIMH” was Jerry Goldsmith’s first animation movie as he explained in the notes to the soundtrack release. Jerry finally decided to treat this movie like a live action movie and developed the same kind of extended themes and musical structure. He pointed out: “Also, scenes are much shorter for animated films, and thus, on reflection, seem to lend themselves to music’s playing an even larger, unifying role than usual. I therefore decided to score the picture as though it were live action, believing that this would strengthen the sense of continuity.” You can see in the final duel between the good and the bad guy what Goldsmith meant. If you did not watch the movie so far, then do not watch the scene now:

It is very interesting that composing music for animation seems to be a very difficult field, and even a very gifted composer such as Elmer Bernstein had trouble to find the right approach to composing the music for Disney’s “The Black Cauldron”. Goldsmith returned to animation with his excellent score for Disney’s “Mulan” (1998).

Goldsmith explained in an interview that the scoring process was difficult because he had to deal with a lot of unfinished scenes. The approach to treat this movie as a live action one was exactly the right one, so Jerry could avoid the typical mickey mousing and concentrate more on the darker parts of the story. Because the film starts with Nicodemus, the wise and mystical leader, telling the story of Mrs Brisby’s husband, Goldsmith starts the score with a haunting “Main Title” before you will hear the beautiful main theme played firstly on a trumpet.

The score is very good balanced between the darker and the more lighter parts. “Allergic Reaction / Athletic Typ” is first a darker one with some nice action music. Jerry uses the full force of the orchestra and finishes this track with a beautiful melody. I normally do not listen to the songs, so I will not mention them. “The Tractor” is an excellent piece for a very dramatic scene in the movie. Because Mrs Brisby’s son Timothy has fallen ill and should stay in bed, Mrs Brisby tries to prevent the farmer to plow his field. Here is the scene:

I have two favourite tracks, the first is called "Moving Day". This piece is a great example how you can build up tension and drama. The music follows the film scene very detailed and has an excellent dramaturgical structure by using different themes. Just by listening, you will understand why Goldsmith is, in my opinion, the best film music composer ever. This is music you can play without any changes in a concert hall. The music is modern in a very good way without being atonal, not always an easy-listening track but time-less in its way of giving a perfect example of great film music.

Another astonishing track is “Step Into my House”. This music underscores the scene when Mrs Brisby visits Nicodemus. Goldsmith creates a haunting, but later also a magic atmosphere in his music. Another example of this musical magic is “House Raising”: Jerry composed here an action track for the dramatic final scene when all animals try to rescue Mrs Brisby’s house but fail. Then Mrs Brisby uses the magical amulet and… but you should see this scene in the movie. This is excellent musical story-telling!

My second favourite track is the last track, "Flying High/End Titles". Here Goldsmith gives the film a wonderful ending by musically visualizing the final love scene between two ravens and brings one of his most beautiful love themes to an end. This track is very short but also dangerous. Years ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Munich. My idea was just drinking one glass of wine after a long working day and listening to this track once. In the end, I finished nearly the whole bottle, played the role of the conductor in front of an invisible orchestra and listened to this track over 10 times. Especially the music from 1’21 is excellent. Listen to the strings! Here is the whole track:

If you will ever start your collection of film music with one soundtrack start with this one! This is film music at its highest level of excellence!

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2014, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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