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Headscratchers / The Secret of NIMH

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  • One thing that bugs me about the movie is that the rats of NIMH aren't really any more intelligent than the other animals in the movie (with the exception of Dragon). Take Mrs. Brisby for example: She wasn't one of the mice that were experimented upon, and yet she is apparantly smart enough to understand the concept of electricity and learn to read. And then there's the Great Owl, who (at least as far as we know) wasn't part of the experiment either, and yet he seems to be at least as wise as Nicodemus. So really, what did the experiment change for the rats of NIMH?
    • The owl is intelligent because... it's an owl and owls are special SO THERE. No really. It's probably that intelligence varies by species.
    • The book gets into animal intelligence a bit more. Mrs. Frisby did learn to read a little bit, but she had to strain her mind nearly to the breaking point to do it, and she managed it only because her husband, who was also part of the experiment, taught it to her. The difference seems to be between wisdom and academic knowledge. The animals can all talk to each other (which takes some suspension of disbelief in itself, I know), and the owl has a great deal of experience and knows all there is to know about the forest. But while it wouldn't have the first clue what to do with a light switch, the rats of NIMH use machinery, electric power, antibiotics and sedatives, and are at least on the edge of surpassing human intelligence (and are still getting smarter all the time).
      • That's interesting. I could also point another possibility: we're dealing with a world in which (like there are both anthropomorphic ducks and real animal ducks in the Donald Duck universe) there are BOTH naturally anthropomorphic animals and normal animals. The N.I.M.H. experimenters manage to transform "animal" mice into anthropomorphic mice.
      • The book's page also elaborates on this. As in this story it is clear everyday animals have certain concepts are able to rationalize some human parts. However without the drugs to uplift them, some things are probably forever beyond them. The movie blurs this line a bit more by anthropomorphize the characters more than the book ever did. It also has to be remembered our main source is Mrs. Frisby/Brisby who lived with one of the mice and their kids. She might have known a lot more just by this fact. Had the POV character been another random mouse, they might have not been as human-wise. As in it was Jonathon who understood the concepts and taught Mrs. to talk using them.
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    • When Nicodemus beckons Mrs. Brisby to read his journal, she remarks that her husband taught her how to read and that the children are better at it than she is. This makes sense as Jonathan's "intelligence" will have passed down to his offspring.
    • Why do the mice and shrews dress up like humans? The other animals don't.
  • Speaking of which, who IS the Great Owl? Is it ever explained what he is or where he fits into the rest of the film's plot?
    • He's just the Great Owl, one of the oldest creatures in the forest and thus very wise. His role is to point Mrs. Frisby to the rats, who she would never contact unless she knew they'd actually help. I'm not sure what more needs to be explained here.
    • In This Troper's opinion, the Great Owl scene is Don Bluth 's proto-Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. Nothing about who or what the Great Owl is supposed to be is explained, how the Great Owl knows about the rats of NIMH is never explained, it's never explained if the Owl is some sort of magical being or whether he has any connection to the experiments at NIMH. It's not even really explained why Auntie Shrew thought consulting him was a good idea. She just kind of randomly suggests to Mrs. Brisby that "the Great Owl" would know what to do without really elaborating on who this character is. Is the intended implication that the animals of the forest consult the Owl about their problems on regular basis? Well, that's never really explained either. And of course, the Owl never appears again and is barely even referenced after his scene.
      • Mrs. Brisby tells Mr. Ages she saw the owl and he spends the next flabbergasted minute trying to convey to her that nobody sees the owl and lives to tell the tale. Mrs. Brisby also tells Nicodemus about her visit to the owl and he refers to the owl as a good friend and comrade.
      • While it's not a true BLAM, the scene could have been excised and Mr. Ages could have just told her about the rats.
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    • Given the way the owl's eyes glow just like Nicodemus's, I would say it's pretty apparent that he was another of the animals from NIMH (unless he somehow got into the spice).
      • More likely, both their eyes glow because they're both mystics, and Nicodemus knows the Owl because they've compared notes on that subject.
    • Really, it's simple when you realize that the Great Owl is actually filling the part of a Great Wyrm: an ancient, solitary dragon that has a very predatory (and well-earned) reputation but is a store of incredible wisdom for those brave enough to parlay with him in his lair. Like many neutral Great Wyrms of fantasy, he also is aligned with an ancient, powerful mage: Nicodemus. His eyes glowed to make him even more dragonlike, and he had cobwebs on him: something no bird would ever tolerate for long, but a dragon taking a 10-year nap might accumulate. (And they even make his wings look more draconic!) The only thing missing was smoke and brimstone curling out of his nares.
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    • Maybe he ate one of the Nimh rats that still had uplift-drug in its system, or the missing mice that got blown through the air ducts, and his intelligence was enhanced that way, a la The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents.
  • I want to know how injecting a rat to give it higher intelligence will suddenly make it know how to read. You have to be taught to read, no matter how intelligent you are.
    • The book, "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" goes into a lot of detail about how the rats were taught to read. The Institute wasn't a "cruel place" where evil experiments were practiced on a variety of animals. It was strictly rats and mice that were given a "new strand of DNA", plus steroids of some kind. Nicodemus recounts how the rats were placed in a room, shown a picture of a letter while a recording of someone saying the letter played. Justin played quite a large role in the rats' eventual escape; he was the first to figure out how to read; he was the first to actually get out of the cage, etc. The book also explains how the rats developed the Plan, how they were able to obtain rat-sized tools and equipment, how they met the Great Owl, etc.
      • It is implied they learned to read over time ("then, ONE day... ", not "then, the very next day... ") The makers had to choose which scenes to animate and which not. They couldn't afford to make a 2 hour animated movie back then.
      • Also, some children really do just 'learn to read' - they spend time around people who read, and pick it up. (One literary example, a character based heavily on the author, is Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.) There are certain types of brain development that pave the way for reading, which is why a child may naturally learn as early as age three or as late as age eight and still be a proficient reader by fifth grade. People who learned by picking it up will even describe it the same way; they were looking at the symbols and suddenly they understood.
      • They had a television set (use by the guards I think) in the lab IIRC, so maybe they watched Sesame Street or something like that.
  • Even though this is one of my all-time favourite movies, there is one thing that bothers me - the lack of explanation for "moving day". I understand that it's the annual plowing of the field, but how many times has it happened before? Do the family just vacate the house until the plowing is over? Where do they go to? When they return do they have to dig their house out of the dirt? Why is their house there in the first place, when there is a spot safe from the plow several feet away?
    • Maybe it's a discarded cement block wedged in the dirt they fashioned into a house, and it's just unlucky it happens to be in the path of the plow.
      • Maybe they had moved into that particular field shortly after Jonathan died. And in the four years since, that field was... lying fallow?
      • Remember that mice, rats, rabbits, shrews, and all kinds of rodents only live for a few years. Perhaps moving day was once a year as you'd expect, but these animals may have a different perception of time due to their short lifespan. To a mouse that may only live three or four years, a single year between moving days might feel like a decade.
    • This was explained in the book, too. The family only ever expected to use it for a single winter. They knew that it would be destroyed by the plow, but used it anyway because it was a very lucky find—it's much warmer and drier than any other shelter they could expect to find to spend the winter. The conflict comes from Timothy's sickness and Moving Day coming too soon. If Timothy had never become ill, they would have left with plenty of time to spare to their summer house (which is located next to a river and is too open and chilly to use in the winter) and looked for a different place to spend the next winter. As it turns out, Timothy's sickness becomes a blessing in disguise, because it means the block is moved to a secure place and can be used as a permanent winter residence.
  • Where the HELL does the ending come from? Ms. Brisby suddenly 'opens her heart' and the stone gives her the power to levitate her house? Because?
    • Rule of Cool, and the fact that they added a lot more mysticism in the movie that wasn't there in the book. Just compare book Nicodemus to movie Nicodemus.
    • Don Bluth even admits that her pendant is a MacGuffin and the final scene is to give the story a dramatic climax rather than "rats log roll the house two feet."
    • The creator wanted so. No, rly. Mr. Bluth made the change simply because he felt like it. This troper likes the change.
      • I once heard that Mr. Bluth was going on the idea that there was a lot more to this world than simple intelligence can reveal. Nicodemus and Mrs. Brisby tapped into some of these forces with the strength of their hearts and not their brains. Even as a fan of the book I like it.
  • WHY does the Great owl have big glowing eyes?
  • On further questioning of the Great Owl, why does he look so damned much like Nicodemus? This troper, honestly, just thinks of the owl being a shapeshifted Nicodemus. I mean, they both have the crazy mustaches, knobbly hands/talons, glowing eyes... Too similar to be a coincidence.
  • Why was the laboratory the NIMH rats were tested in so filthy in the movie? Unless the movie is set in the 1920's or something it should be spotless, even housing rats.
    • Either (a) the way we saw is how the rats remember it, as a place of horror and torture, or (b) it was the lair of some evil genius who didn't care about things like cleanliness. "My army of super-intelligent rats will help me CONQUER THE WORLD!"
  • Why were there written instructions on the inside of cages containing rats who were being taught how to read, telling them how to open their cages from the inside?
    • There weren't. Justin notices that the instructions are on the outside the cages; he just happened to crane his head out just so to actually notice them. In any case, the researchers never expected the rats to actually be able to read such a complex sentence, much less decipher its meaning and figure it out.
    • Or to understand any human word they hadn't specifically been taught, like "cage" or "latch".
  • Why didn't Nicodemus use his Telekinesis to stop the house from falling on him? It was clearly established that he had the power to make things levitate.
    • 1) Age had gotten to him, he couldn't react fast enough
    • 2)Telekinesis requires concentration. Not that easy to stop something huge falling down in it's tracks.
    • 3) Uh, exactly where was it established that he had telekinesis?
      • When Nic and Mrs are leaving he summons his staff to him with a gesture, and when he gives her the pendant, the box it was in floats away offscreen.
      • So maybe it wasn't Nicodemus using telekinesis, but rather, those specific possessions of Nicodemus's being enchanted to come when he called.
    • A giant cinderblock filled with dirt is just a touch heavier than a twig. Also, he did get decked pretty hard by the ropes and rigging before the block got him.
    • There's also the fact that Nicodemus is a prophet, and would thus believe in fate.
      • Nicodemus being a prophet is the sequel's invention. He was not called one in the original movie.
      • Indeed. Though while not a prophet in the "believes in Fate" sense, it is possible he used his Magitek scrying device to gaze into the future, foreseeing his own doom and thus deciding not to fight against it since he was so old anyway.
  • To rephrase a point brought up by a lot of people, if the rats idolize Jonathan and Timmy so much that they give them statues why the hell doesn't Mrs. Brisby have one as well? She was the one who warned them about NIMH coming to they could leave for Thorn Valley in the first place! If it hadn't been for her, they'd have been recaptured or worse!
    • For that matter, why do the rats idolize Jonathan so much? Yes he helped them escape, and later died while attempting to drug Dragon. It makes sense that they would want to return the favor to his family. But build him a statue and call him their "greatest hero"?
    • Both questions, once again, are answered in Fanon. Jonathan was not only a hero in the original escape, but he was Nicodemus's closest friend and a talented inventor and wizard. His frequent visits and general niceness made it so that all the rats (but Jenner) liked him. As for Mrs Brisby, there is a not-insignicant number of Rats who side with Jenner on the idea that the rodents who did not come from NIMH aren't really sentient and don't deserve any rights. After their poster-child and leader Jenner's death, it was probably thought best to let Mrs Brisby's efforts go mostly unmentioned so as not to piss off the remaining Jenner supporters enough for them to start a civil war, which is the last thing the rats need at this point. Any new society must make compromises.
  • I remember in the first movie that Nicodemus said that NIMH's experiments slowed down the aging of the mice and rats, which was why Jonathan never told his wife about NIMH - he and the children would still be young while she got old and died. So it makes sense that she'd be graying by the time the sequel began, but how was she still alive for the ending of the sequel? Furthermore, if that's the case, wouldn't Aunt Shrew be dead by the time of the sequel as well?
    • This bothers me as well. Alongside the fact that Mr Ages is shown in the flashback sequence to be the same age as Jonathan, so his aging should have slowed down at the same rate as Jonathan's but he clearly looks older than Mrs. Brisby. It could be that Jonathan married her when he was quite old and looking a lot older than her already, but I doubt that because Nicodemus says in the past tense "He would have grown old" so he must have been and looked around the same age when they got together. Unless Mr. Ages strain of chemicals is slightly different?
      • Mr Ages is clearly older than Jonathan in the flashback.
    • I never understood why this is the reason Jonathan had to not tell Mrs. Brisby about NIMH. Wouldn't she notice him and the kids not aging as much? Shouldn't such an obvious physical effect make it more important for him to tell her, not less?
      • It would make her sad, so he planned on saving it until she grew older.
  • Where the hell was the Great Owl during the time period of the sequel? Missing? Dead? If he's dead, then that makes Jeremy and Cecil seem ten times more disrespectful for using his image to scam other animals out of their money (I'd complain about them having money in the first place, but I think I've added enough to this page).
    • There's a line dropped by Cecil that implies that The Great Owl is gone because he's molting. A pretty lame excuse, but they at least had an explanation.
  • Why do Brisby's children, Auntie Shrew, and Mr. Ages all have neat, well-kept clothes, while Mrs. Brisby only has that cape/shawl that's torn and ragged?
    • Fridge Brilliance: Mrs. Brisby is likely the most active of them all. She has to feed her children all by herself once her husband is dead, wandering further afield than Auntie Shrew (who seems to confine her life to the field itself). Plus, being a mother, she would have made sure her kids were well-dressed, even if it was at her expense.
  • Where did the necklace come from? Why didn't the movie explain this? It results in a Deus ex Machina, so the least they could have done is told us about it.
    • Complete Fanon here, but it is believed that Nicodemus and Jonathan were both particularly receptive to the setting's Background Magic Field (which was also involved in how the rats became sapient — long story). Thanks to their newly-acquired scientific wits, the two set about studying said Magic and creating Magitek. While some of what we see in the Rosebush Colony is just borin ol' electricity, the more out-there devices like the moving branches Mrs Brisb encounters, the blasting spear wielded by Brutus, and Nicodemus's scrying-device-thingy, were all magic-based creations. Their masterpiece was to be a stone that allowed even Muggles to use Magic; Nicodemus, seeing the potential for misuse in such a device, insisted it be keyed to "courage of the heart". In particular, Jonathan felt bad that his wife, on top of a shorter lifespan, had no magical abilities; hence why he meant the stone to go to her. All this is the meaning of the sentence inscribed: the Stone is the "key" that Mrs Brisby could use to unlock "any door" (e.g., the obstacles that stand between her and living a dignified, happy, fully realised, human-like life like the Rats of NIMH).
    • One could make the case that it's better off as is, a mysterious device sans Techno Babble that is perhaps so old that even Nicodemus has no idea where it came from or how it works.
  • Just how did the children survive after the house was completely submerged in mud? It was under there for a while. Not to mention that you only see three kids — Timmy is still in bed.
    • That's a lovely bit of fridge horror, that is. If you want to think about that sort of thing, it could be handwaved that they survived because of the magical amulet. Since Mrs. Brisby used it to save her children, it's possible that it went beyond simply moving the stone, and also resuscitated them/turned back time for them specifically/whatever explanation you'd like.
    • As a possible and simpler explanation: The house didn't fill up at the same rate that it sank. We saw that pretty clearly. It was also leaning on a diagonal, with the corner of the main room filling up first. This troper always assumed that Timmy's room was in the part of the block that was tilted up as it sank, and that it hadn't begun to fill with mud yet when the block was lifted out by magic (which also shot the mud out of all the holes).
  • So...The real NIMH. They don't really test on poor little animals, do they? If they do, please say they are smart enough to not stick their intellectually enhanced specimens in easily opened cages.
    • They possibly do, it's likely a thing done. Animals are used often for medical tests, particularly rodents. This troper imagines that they DO take steps to ensure the animals are treated well.
    • Currently and for a couple of decades already, ethical protocols for the usage of animals in scientific experiments is common practice in most countries, and practically in all the West. Conditions today are much better, though can be improved. The use of rodents for medical investigation has diminished considerably for several reasons, both practical (like the fact that they aren't really that similar to humans so using them as test subjects is not as effective as once thought) and legal (again, the ethical protocols and most anti-animal cruelty laws are very harsh in many countries so using animals is sometimes very expensive and very legally complex). That's why experimentation with animals is not that common and currently many scientists go directly with human subjects. And of course there are many ethical considerations to apply also, but the fact that humans can consent to the experiments and many volunteer as it's sometimes paid and/or a way to have a free treatment makes it easier in some cases, more than finding the permissions for a chimpanzee for example.
    • The term "NIMH" actually comes as a Take That! against a guy named John B. Calhoun who made some horrible experiments on rats and mice in the National Institute of Mental Health known as the "Mouse Utopia". That was the real life Mad Scientist.
  • I recall hearing during the making-of featurette for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that the animal wranglers couldn't simply capture rats off the streets or from out in the wild; the rats they worked with had been specially bred and tamed, because street or wild animals generally carry diseases, lice, etc. So my question is this: would a science lab really capture feral rats off the streets of a city? Wouldn't they obtain their rats (and their other animals) from a breeder, to make sure they were tame and disease-free?
    • This is a rough question to give an answer because it might be prone to bad generalizations. There are very good reasons why there are domesticated rodents. However there also could be experiments out there with more specific requirements. As in some may say "a rat is a rat" but some might prefer wild over domesticated. As there are some stimuli and intelligence that an animal will have if they live in the wild that they won't ever have if raised in captivity.
    • The time period the film was set may also play a role. It's possible at that time the scientists at NIMH weren't aware of all those possible diseases; that this was before tame rats had been bred for scientific use; or that even though this was before ethical protocols were put in place, they didn't want to draw attention to what they were doing and were thus forced to capture rats off the streets, rather than obtain them from people or organizations who would question their actions and motives. It could even be theorized that discovering the street rats had diseases or couldn't be tamed is why the breeding of tame rats for experimentation was begun.
    • Rats have been bred in captivity since Victorian times; the ancestors of today's laboratory rats were collected by ratcatchers who bred the occasional albino or hooded rats they'd caught for sale as pets. There's no way that lab rats wouldn't have been available in the era where the story is set. Rather, the experimenters wanted rodents that had led stimulating independent lives, not been bored stupid in a bin cage since birth.
  • The moving of the Brisby home was very dangerous. Timmy's case is obvious, he can't go outside, but why weren't the other children evacuated for this? Or they could have had Mr. Ages, Justin or someone go into the home to take care of the kids and make sure they stayed calm and safe?
    • In the case of Justin, it's likely that either they were afraid the children would be frightened by a rat coming into their home no matter how kind and friendly he was, or the rats were still trying as best they could to keep themselves a secret (yes, they're openly moving the cinderblock, but if no one inside sees who's doing it or how...). Also, Auntie Shrew was inside, and considering how she reacted to the idea of going to the rats, it's a good chance she wouldn't have even let Justin in, let alone explain anything. Mr. Ages might have had better luck, which is a headscratcher for sure, but then again Auntie Shrew didn't like him much either it seems. And finally, the idea was probably to move the block as quickly and easily as possible, in such a way those inside wouldn't even be aware of it, or it would be over before they knew it; if all had gone well and Jenner hadn't interfered, that's likely how it would have gone. They didn't know about NIMH coming, so had no real reason to rush (since the plow wouldn't be fixed for a while yet), and again, if not for Jenner this wouldn't have mattered. So, no need to scare the family or involve them needlessly. And it was likely also the case that without Mrs. Brisby there, Nicodemus or Justin didn't feel it right to impose and make decisions involving her family (in fact again, without her there to vouch for them, Auntie Shrew wouldn't have listened to any of them), and Jenner certainly wouldn't have cared about reassuring the family.
  • For that matter, why didn't Mrs. Brisby simply move her children into the rat colony for shelter, and forget about saving the cinder block? Yes, we know Timmy's too sick to make the journey all the way to the river, but with big strong rats to help they could've carried him in his bed to the rats' colony, then kept him warm and safe until he was well enough to relocate to the Brisby summer home.
  • What the hell was Jenner doing at the end? His plan to kill Nicodemus went off without a hitch, he basically had the Rats of NIMH wrapped around his fingers, and what does he do when Mrs. Brisby comes in to warn them of N.I.M.H coming in to exterminate them? He goes crazy and tries to kill her, right in front of the rest of the Rats of NIMH. While killing any innocent person for simply warning of potential danger would call his ability as a leader into serious question, this was Mrs. Brisby he just tried to kill, the wife of one of the Rats of NIHM's most beloved members, to whom they felt they owed enough to delay their plan to ensure the survival of their society just to save the house and family of said widowed wife. At no point did Jenner develop a personal reason to want Mrs. Brisby dead, and neither is he presented as a particularly stupid plotter, so why didn't he just try to keep his cool and use his silver tongue to dismiss her warnings to the group, instead of bluntly attacking her and completely discrediting himself in front of everyone?
    • I'm invoking heavy fanon here, but… the fanonical explanation is actually very clever. See, firstly, half of the rats are Fantastic Racists of the Smug Super kind, who think non-NIMH-improved rodents are nothing but animals. Jenner is, of course, the head of this particular movement. So killing her in plain sight wouldn't be that career-killing a move. Furthermore, he tries to kill Mrs Brisby to get his hands on the Stone. His whole life, Jenner had been trying to get his hands on some of Nicodemus and Jonathan's Magitek device, and while he can't use the Stone himself (it's restricted to people with "Courage of the Heart", remember?), he thinks himself clever enough to build a similar device he could use if he has the original Stone to work with. Ruling the Rats is nice, but unlocking the Stone's powers would make him quite literally a god. Thus, he lunges out at what seems like his best chance at getting it — this scene being the closest he's ever been to the Stone.
  • Why was Jenner so determined to keep the rats from leaving anyway? You could argue that he desperately wanted to rule, but he could've ruled somewhere else too, and he knew NIMH was coming and would likely take him back to a life of imprisonment or death.
    • The reason Jenner didn't want to leave is because he's strongly against "The Plan" ( the rats leaving the rosebush, abandoning the lifestyle and technology they made there and moving to Thorn Valley). He even killed Nicodemus, thinking it would put a permanent stop to "The Plan." Additionally, he didn't know about NIMH arriving to find them, as Mrs. Brisby was the first to hear about it, and is in denial about her warnings and tries to make her out as a hysterical liar. Add to that Jenner didn't come off as particularly stable a being.
    • Also, Jenner was willing to fight NIMH. If he had stolen the Stone, it isn't hard to imagine he would have won.
      • Except that ''Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it's there.'' Jenner was ultimately a coward and probably wouldn't have been able to use the stone effectively.
      • Jenner was many things, but cowardly was definitely not one of them.
      • That's up for debate. The narrative provided by Justin makes it sound as though he's only gotten bolder about openly attacking Nicodemus over time, which could suggest that a lack of genuine reciprocation has encouraged him. Too, his plan to get rid of Nicodemus - an incredibly old rat who needs the aid of a walking stick, wheezes audibly, and speaks laboriously - involves crushing him to death under a brick, which - as Jenner is well aware - is currently occupied by at least one young, very sick child who is explicitly too sick to move, and who could be hurt or killed in the commotion of the entire thing falling what equates to several mouse-sized stories, particularly with so much furniture and other trappings being loose enough to tumble about in the fall. If Jenner is no coward, why not challenge Nicodemus directly? The other rats appear to run on a system that's somewhere between Honor Before Reason and Obstructive Bureaucracy - even Sullivan, Jenner's lackey, seems motivated more because he's buying what Jenner is selling, and the other rats have been entertaining Jenner's open outcry against Nicodemus long enough to suggest they would at least respect an outcome where Jenner defeated Nicodemus in a fair duel. Does he think Nicodemus or one of the other rats would cheat as hard as Jenner was willing to?
      • He is evil, though, so the courage of his heart is corrupted.
      • See just below:
  • Jenner's plan was doomed from the beginning because he did not know enough. First, living in the Rosebush longer was not only immoral (which he knew and didn't care about), but also impossible since N.I.M.H. agents were coming soon (and that he did not know). Later, he wants to get the Stone. But all he knows is that it's a magical stone with telekinetic powers. He doesn't know about the "courage of the heart".


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