Best cartoon feature since the heyday of Disney

Aside from its title, there's no secret about it: The Secret of NIMH is exciting, engaging, and often magnificent to look at. Add it up, and you have what is probably the best cartoon since the bygone heyday of the Walt Disney studio.

In a way, that comparison is ironic, since ''NIMH'' was made by artists who left the Disney organization after a disagreement over ''creative quality.'' But it's indisputable that Disney set the standard for cartooning decades ago, leaving a legacy that still challenges serious animators.

And it's clear from the first frame that ''NIMH'' is a movie in the familiar Disney mold, mingling thrills and warmth with smooth, sumptuous images. None of the newfangled tricks of Ralph Bakshi and his ''Lord of the Rings'' here, no matter how effective they may be at times. Rather, the deliberately classical ''NIMH'' is steeped in ''golden age'' techniques that still pack a powerful punch.

Since ''NIMH'' has been given a straight G rating, it's important to note that some scenes may be harrowing for the youngest viewers. The film includes moments of violence and illness that are substantially more intense than anything in ''Pinocchio'' or ''Peter Pan.'' Many sequences are closer to a Brothers Grimm fairy tale than to the average kiddie cartoon.

Yet nearly all of it serves an impressive goal: the spinning of a yarn that's both credible and incredible, a freewheeling fantasy that's grounded in ideas as well as whimsy. Only at the climax does it drift away from its own strong logic, closing the story with a disappointing dose of mere wish-fulfillment. Most of the way, it's a compelling tale.

In time-honored fashion, ''The Secret of NIMH'' centers on animals that talk and think like people. The heroine is a mouse named Mrs. Brisby, who is furiously trying to protect her family from imminent dangers. Through an odd chain of circumstances, she finds herself mixed up with an unusual gang of rats which are intelligent and resourceful even by cartoon standards, and are living in a sort of commune that's humanlike right down to its (pirated) electrical power. With their help, she embarks on a grand venture to save her brood, which is almost wrecked by infighting among the rats.

That's only a basic outline of the story, which is surprisingly complicated, involving several subplots and references to a kind of rat mythology. What makes it special is not only its complexity, but also the pungency - and implied social commentary - of its biggest surprise, which concerns the origin of the rats' intelligence. As it unfolds, the tale is by turns heroic, sentimental, bizarre, and reasoned. Swinging boldly from fantasy to science fiction, it negotiates most of these difficult twists with dignity and humor.

It also includes a number of memorable characters, which are the bottom line for any successful cartoon. While the gentle Mrs. Brisby is not as magnetic as she might be, she has run-ins with a couple of highly imposing figures called Nicodemus (an elderly rat) and the Great Owl, and there's a charming old mouse named Mr. Ages who lends welcome friendliness to some intimidating moments. And there's a clumsy crow called Jeremy who arrives to lighten up the plot every time it seems all might be lost. A delightful creation, he could become the Artoo-Detoo of '82.

The statistics behind any major cartoon are awesome, and ''The Secret of NIMH'' is no exception. According to the new Don Bluth Studio, which produced the picture, some 11/2 million drawings were involved. Certain shots called for as many as 96 drawings per second, and to perfect some scenes the film was passed through the camera a dozen separate times. Complicated ''multiplane'' cameras were often used - much more effectively than in ''Watership Down'' a few years ago - and even the shadows of the characters are animated throughout.

In the end, almost 7,000 feet of film were completed by 120 artists, and their hard work is plainly visible on the screen. It's no surprise, for example, to learn that more than 600 colors were used, including almost 500 developed by the filmmakers themselves. Rarely does a cartoon have such immediate impact on the eye.

Another plus is the gaggle of fine performances by the actors who supply the voices: Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Hermione Baddeley, John Carradine, Dom De Luise as the wonderful Jeremy, and many others. They help make this a superior package for young and old.

It remains to be seen whether current tastes are ripe for animation; it's possible that the live-action ''cartooning'' of epics like ''Star Wars'' and ''E.T.'' have dampened the market for pen-and-inkery in the old style. Perhaps fearing this, the filmmakers are releasing ''NIMH'' carefully, beginning with ''heartland'' areas and making New York - a key market for most movies - the last stop rather than the first.

But however audiences respond this summer, ''The Secret of NIMH'' remains a major achievement in a difficult genre. Its advent is a good sign for the dwindling G-rated scene, and an auspicious debut for filmmalker Don Bluth. At least until the Disney studio releases its next full-length animation, ''The Black Cauldron,'' he stands as chief legatee to the classical cartoon tradition established by the legendary Walt himself. Return of a gentle classic

Speaking of cartoons, Bambi is back. That's right, the Disney classic, first released in 1942, and still able to move viewers of all ages with its timeless yarn about the childhood and coming-of-age of a friendly deer.

''Bambi'' makes an interesting comparison with a more recent animation like ''The Secret of NIMH.'' The earlier film is less plotty and even more mythical, dealing entirely in archetypes -- the Mother, the Friend, the Mysterious Danger -- and pinning its loose story on the great cycles of nature. The things that happen to Bambi aren't mere events, they're full-fledged facts of life: the changing of the seasons, the painful loss of innocence, the gradual growth from dependency to maturity. Such things are universal and ageless, and help explain the movie's perennial appeal.

''Bambi'' isn't a fancy-looking film; its style is subdued but entirely charming. Less honored in its day than ''Fantasia'' or even ''Dumbo,'' it has nonetheless continued to live in the popular imagination of one-time children who now flock to share the experience with their own little ones. It's good to have this gentle classic on screen again. Hinton books as movies

This is the year of S. E. Hinton.

If her name isn't familiar to most adults, it's because her novels appeal mainly to teen-age readers. In fact, she wrote her first book, ''Tex,'' when she was a teen-ager herself. And later this summer it will reach out to an additonal audience through a screen version from Walt Disney Productions.

The movie, due for release in August, was adapted and directed by Tim Hunter, a former teacher and ''experimental'' filmmaker. He discovered the novel through teen actor Matt Dillon, who starred in another picture Hunter helped write, the scathing ''Over the Edge.''

The title character is a boy living in a broken-down ranch house with his older brother, trying to grow up but not sure how to go about it. Again, the talented Dillon is the star. And sharp-eyed moviegoers may spot Hinton herself in a bit part.

And that's not all. Francis Ford Coppola, of ''Godfather'' and ''Apocalypse Now'' fame, has also launched a Hinton book into film production. It's called ''The Outsiders,'' and it came to Coppola's attention through a letter he received from a group of California high-schoolers who wanted to recommend the work of their favorite writer. Coppola wasted no time, beginning the film even before the release of his last picture, the expensive but disappointing ''One From the Heart.'' As in ''Tex,'' the plot centers on children growing up without benefit of parents; the screen version is described as ''a romantic coming-of-age story.''

In filming it, Coppola became so enthusiastic that he decided to rush yet another Hinton novel before the cameras: ''Rumble Fish,'' in which ''the events take place at night and the young protagonists race against the clock.'' In an unusual maneuver, ''Rumble Fish'' is being filmed by substantially the same crew that shot ''The Outsiders,'' and some cast members will appear in both pictures, which are set in Tulsa, Okla. Already a hit with young readers, it seems that S. E. Hinton may soon become a household name among moviegoers, too. Beatles' best film recycled

Beatles fans have cause for rejoicing. The first -- and best -- Beatle movie is back on screen: A Hard Day's Night, directed by Richard Lester and now featuring a new prologue, as well as a rerecorded Dolby sound track in stereo.

Already circulating in the United States and Canada, the picture was also revived at the recent Cannes Film Festival, and will soon be on its way to a new generation of viewers in many countries. In its first release, ''A Hard Day's Night'' received two Oscar nominations, and good reviews from almost everyone.

Meanwhile, over at Capitol Records, repackaging old Beatles material has become a regular industry. The latest package is called ''Reel Music'' (SV-12199 ) and features 14 songs from Beatle movies. As fans of the group know, their film career began with the great ''A Hard Day's Night'' and ended with the weary ''Let It Be.'' In between came ''Help!'' and the cartoon ''Yellow Submarine,'' plus the mediocre TV film ''Magical Mystery Tour.''

Though these movies were a mixed bag in cinematic terms, they contained a lot of great music, including some of the group's most inventive tunes. Hence the ''Reel Music'' album offers a concentrated tour of their career.

''And I Love Her'' and the hard-to-top ''Can't Buy Me Love'' come from their relatively early period, leading to such classics as ''You've Got to Hide Your Love Away'' and ''Ticket to Ride'' from the mid-'60s. ''I Am the Walrus'' was their most radical hit, musically speaking, and ''Yellow Submarine'' their most memorable novelty song. ''Get Back'' and ''Let It Be'' eloquently summarize the last days before their final breakup.

In short, there's not a dull cut on the disc, and the ''souvenir program'' includes crisp photos and info on each Beatles film. It's well worth the price of admission.

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