March 31, 2013 posted by

Rats In Animation


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.

nimh_ratWe 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.

benandme-comicFriendly 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.


  • Besides being disease carriers, competitors for human food, and big enough to be dangerous in a fight, rats have those naked tails that are really off-putting. Squirrels are basically rats with bushy tails and everybody loves them. If rats had furry tails, they’d be just big mice, and maybe that would help the image.
    I don’t remember the original book very well, but I recall being annoyed by the animated BEN AND ME because it made it look like the mouse came up with all of Ben’s ideas. A little of the mouse helping Ben along would have been fine, but making Ben into a boob helpless without the mouse was taking it too far. The author, Robert Lawson, wrote a couple of later books on the same plan about Paul Revere’s horse and Captain Kidd’s cat, and had seemingly learned his lesson by letting the historical figure live up to his reputation and actually do things while just having the animal tell the story from its point of view.

    • Another children’s novel in the same theme was “I discover Columbus; a true chronicle of the great admiral & his finding of the new world, narrated by the venerable parrot Aurelio, who shared in the glorious venture. Set down & illustrated by Robert Lawson.”

    • I remember that Frisbie warned us, “Never allow a rat to get close to you unless you know that it’s a ‘tame’ rat raised from birth to be used to people, and to be free of disease. Any wild rat is almost certainly a disease carrier, and if it hasn’t been in close contact with humans for all its life, it will be afraid of you and bite you severely.
      Also, don’t try to pick up or hold a rat, even a tame one. If you enclose a rat with your hand, it will get scared and bite. The way to ‘pick up’ a rat is to place your open hand in front of it and allow the rat to crawl up your arm, which it will almost certainly do to find out what is at the other end of your arm.”
      During the 1960s, the s-f fans in Los Angeles often formed car caravans to drive to the Worldcon when it was back East. One year we passed through Zion National Park, where the picnic grounds were full of signs saying, “Do not encourage the chipmunks and ground squirrels to come to you! They are carriers of rabies and bubonic plague!” Hah! As soon as we had unpacked for lunch and had food in our hands, the chipmunks came out of nowhere, ran up our legs and along our arms to our hands, bit our fingers to make us drop our food, dived off our hands after the food, and zoomed out of sight with our food in their mouths.
      Also, rat’s tails are not really any more naked than man is “the naked ape”. Most men have hairy bodies, and rats have hairy tails. They just are not as heavily furred as their bodies.

    • Also, see my August 3, 2014 column’s comments about the khanyou. “Khanyous. Paleontologists said that this prehistoric mammal, which split off from the evolutionary ancestors of the rat 44,000,000 years ago, became extinct 11 million years ago – until visiting biologists discovered them being sold, live, for food in a Laotian marketplace in 2005. The khanyou looks roughly like Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a tail like a squirrel: an oversized rat with a furry rather than a naked tail, or a giant rat with a squirrel’s tail.” I linked to video footage of a khanyou, which shows that there is a big difference between a rat with a squirrel’s tail, and a real squirrel. Would people love the khanyou just because it has a bushy tail? Without going to Laos, we’ll probably never know.

  • Fascinating insight. This is the kind of talk that can really can make people think and discuss, and you’ve told it masterfully with solid examples from the US and UK.

    The same subject could, I feel, also be put forward for other animals automatically cast as “villains” – cats, wolves, sharks even – and whether the same stereotypes ought to be looked over and revisited.

  • and don’t forget Templeton!!

  • Rattigan was great! Apparently, the role was a personal favorite of Vincent Price.

  • Also, don’t forget the Sammy Davis, Jr. rat in Hanna-Barbera’s “Heidi’s Song”. His musical number, “Everybody Wants To Be A Rat”, directed by Bob Taylor, was a tour de force of “Rat Pack” mentality brought to animate life.

    • Yes, the Head Ratte. Good call.

    • I remember that Mark, though looking back at the film these days, it comes off like what the noobs will call a ‘Big-lipped Alligator Moment” given how it just spurs out of nowhere and is done with after the song is over.

  • Mickey Mouse’s rival Mortimer seemed to be more ratlike than mouselike. King Leonardo’s chief villain was Biggie Rat, whose gig was trying to put the idiot Itchy Brother on the throne of Bongo Congo. Pizza mascot Chuck E. Cheese isn’t the most appealing character, but he’s no worse than his costumed and/or animatronic buddies.

    Vultures and buzzards are frequent villains; at best they’re dour standins for undertakers. The ones that appear in the Splash Mountain ride are merely gloating, but there appearance bespeaks a funeral.

    Wolves, of course, are such arctypal villains that they can be recast as victims and everybody gets the joke. Foxes can go either way, as clever heroes saving their own skin or as sly predators or con men. Even in fox hunt cartoons, they can be trickster heroes or persecutors of a lovable dog.

  • While I see it’s not mentioned Mr. Patten, I reminded myself of Manny Rat, the antagonist in Russell Hoban’s “The Mouse and His Child” (also adapted in an animated feature film with Peter Ustinov as the voice). Enjoyed that film when I was 5 and bothered to buy a Japanese R2 DVD when it came out some years back despite lacking an English audio track.

  • In at least one episode of Pinky and the Brain, Pinky expresses a great deal of indignation at being called a rat, whereas the duo always made it a point to refer to themselves as mice.

    By the way: Hi, Fred!

  • There’s also an excellent graphic novel called “A tale of one bad rat”, but don’t let the title fool you. The rat in this story is anything but.

  • Those of us who have pet rats can confirm what Mr. Patten has written here. Rats are like tiny, barkless dogs, or dogs trapped in gerbil bodies. Unless badly mistreated, they are intelligent, good-natured, friendly, and affectionate. And even an abused rat can learn to trust people again.

    I would like to point out something that should really be mentioned: rats rarely do well when kept singly; they often become depressed or neurotic without the company of other rats. For that reason, it is more humane to keep at least two rats. Moreover, the expense of keeping two is no greater than the expense of keeping only one, and the benefits to the rats and their owner are significant. They will be much better-adjusted and much friendlier and affectionate. In fact, they will often compete for their human’s time and attention!

    I sympathize with those who find rats unnatural, fearsome, and disgusting, because that was my own attitude before I became acquainted with rats. They are such charming creatures, however, that I wonder how I managed to survive all those years without rats in my life. As odd as it seems to be writing this, their love and affection have completely transformed my life. The only real drawback to having rats is their very short lifespans. It can definitely be hard to get attached to an animal and lose it so soon. But most people find that the privilege of having rats in their life outweighs the pain of the inevitable loss. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about getting a hamster or a gerbil to consider rats as well.

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