Are rats “nicer” than mice?
In animation, it depends entirely upon the plot. Both mice and rats have to be anthropomorphized so much that any real difference does not matter.
In real life, rats are definitely smarter than mice. A “tame” mouse will not relate to humans at all; it just runs about aimlessly. A “tame” rat will react to humans, and exhibits much more curiosity.
I have admittedly very limited experience with both. I once visited a friend’s friend who raised caged show mice for exhibition. My main memory is of a mother mouse who had just given birth to a litter of twelve. When she lay down to suckle them, it looked like she was being mobbed by tiny insatiable hooligans.
I have a bit more experience with rats. Around 1980, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society decided to bid for the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention. The Worldcon is hosted by a different city’s fan group each year, and is voted on two years in advance, with bidders campaigning during the two years before that; so we had to start campaigning in 1980 for the voting in 1982 for the 1984 convention. We won, so the LASFS began organizing the 1984 Worldcon in late 1982. I was a member of the organizational committee, and so was a fan named Alan Frisbie. Both of us had been LASFS members for several years, but we did not know each other outside the club’s weekly meetings.
We usually had our Worldcon planning sessions at the LASFS clubhouse, but on one occasion Frisbie and I had something more involved to plan between us, so he invited me to his home to discuss it. He lived alone, and his living room was filled with floor to ceiling bookcases. He directed me to sit in a comfortable chair right by one of the bookcases. We were talking for awhile when there was a tiny sneeze right in my left ear. I turned my head, and was eyeball to eyeball with a large rat! Frisbie said casually, “Oh, that’s my pet rat. She likes to explore around my house. She’s probably curious about your hair cream or your earwax. If you hold out your arm, she’ll crawl up it to sniff your head.” So I did, and the rat did.
I thought that was a one-time occasion, but Frisbie started bringing his rat, Reynolds, to our Worldcon planning sessions. He wanted to make her the official mascot of the 1984 Worldcon, L.A.con II. I doubt that many of us really approved of the idea, but we figured: it’s late 1982, the convention is in Summer 1984, the average lifespan of a rat is two years and she’s already several months old; sure, let’s approve it to make Friz happy. She’ll be dead by convention time. But she lived, and she died at L.A.con II, by a combination of extreme old age and nervousness at being petted by so many strange humans.
There was a smaller s-f convention, later during the 1980s, where one of the dealers was a “goth horror shop” festooned in black, selling skeletons of sparrows, skull earrings, and the like. It had a live “genuine plague rat” (a commercial laboratory rat) as a mascot. The rat was very popular with the children at the convention. That was where somebody noted that the rat was really interacting with the children, in comparison with hamsters or gerbils or guinea pigs or mice that never do anything except squeak to be fed or try to run away.
Friendly mice have long been popular in animation and children’s books. Mickey Mouse. Gus and Jaq in Disney’s Cinderella. Jerry of Tom and Jerry. Mighty Mouse. The Mouse and His Child. Miss Bianca, Bernard, and the Mouse Prisoners’ Aid Society. The Tale of Despereaux. The anonymous mouse in Mouse Hunt. Speedy Gonzales. An American Tail. Nelvana’s pre-Rock & Rule TV special, The Devil and Daniel Mouse. Amos Mouse in Disney’s adaptation of Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me. Ralph S. Mouse of The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Rats? Just about the only positive rats have been in The Secret of NIMH movie adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and Pixar’s Ratatouille. Okay, Templeton in Charlotte’s Web and Roscuro in The Tale of Desperaux. There are Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, Rizzo the Rat of the Muppets, and Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they are portrayed as unratlike as possible. Otherwise there are the villainous Rattigan in The Great Mouse Detective, the villainous rats in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, the evil Botticelli Remorso in The Tale of Desperaux, the rats that attack the baby in Lady and the Tramp, and the rats in the horror movie Willard and its sequel Ben (although arguably they are only acting naturally; it’s the human villain in Willard who makes them “evil”, and Ben himself is heroic). When rats have been non-villains, they have usually been designed to look as unratlike and as human as possible, as in Nelvana’s Rock & Rule and in Aardman Animations’ Flushed Away. There have been semi-good guy rats as supporting characters, although they are usually portrayed more as amoral opportunists, such as Nick and Fetcher in Aardman’s Chicken Run.
There are several fantasies about rats that ought to make good animated movies. Walter: The Story of a Rat by Barbara Wersba is about a rat who lives in the home of a children’s book writer, whose hero is a mouse. Walter undertakes a campaign to get her to write about rat heroes. In Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the cat Maurice talks a group of rats into joining him in a scam based on the Pied Piper legend; the rats will terrorize a town until a piper is paid to lead them away from it. But the rats and the human boy who is their stooge as the piper worry about the ethics of this … Suzanne Collins has written five novels inThe Underland Chronicles about 11-year-old Gregor who falls into a land under New York City inhabited by talking animals based on NYC’s vermin. The main animal characters are rats and bats. Tor Seidler has two children’s books, A Rat’s Tale and The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat. In the first, when a NYC rat community is about to be destroyed by exterminators, the rats try to collect enough human money to buy them off. In the sequel, the rat heroes of the first are almost burnt to death in an arson fire. Haughty Randal Reese-Rat is suspected, and must become a detective to clear himself.
These and many other books would make excellent animated cartoon or CGI or stop-motion features, and would help break the stereotype that rats are always villains.