What rat movies are really about.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 29 2007 7:21 AM

Rat and Mouse Game

What rat movies are really about.

Read more from Slate's Summer Movies.

Wittle bitty rat. Click image to expand.
Wittle bitty rat

On June 27, the Wall Street Journal ran a story detailing the reasons that Ratatouill e—the $100-million film from director Brad Bird and Pixar Animation Studios—may be the studio's toughest sell yet. There's its ungainly title and its haute cuisine setting, but, primarily, there's the matter of its protagonist, Remy, who is a rat and who "spends most of the movie in the one place no one wants to see him: a kitchen." And while it does seem a challenge to move Happy Meals—not to mention, as the Journal noted, the Sur La Table cookware that's in the works—festooned with an image of vermin, grossness is the whole appeal of the rats that scurry through so much entertainment for children, each of whom offers a tacit commentary on Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

As you know—as you maybe knew before you could say "Mama"—Mickey is the dominant figure in family entertainment and possibly in Western culture. Mickey has made us laugh and cry. He has sold us hats and shoes and Britney Spears. He has had a gloved hand in locking up this country's intellectual-property policy: Disney lobbied exhaustively for the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, successfully battling to keep Mickey out of the public domain. He is a product as supreme as a Shakespeare sonnet and more hegemonic than the New York Yankees. And he is, as Nabokov once laid it out in an unpublished poem, "a rat of sorts/ Clad mainly in Tyrolean shorts." A literal pest has become the cuddliest critter in the world, and that, to paraphrase Walter Matthau, exemplifies the worst aspects of marketing that make America great.

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It's also a thing that rubs the right kind of person the wrong way. Maurice Sendak, for instance, has a vast collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia—it was this character, more than anything else, that led to him to his career in children's books—and even he deplores the mouse's simpering grin and soulless hustle and big-tent emptiness. Sendak's collection focuses on "the early Mickey, with the jauntiness and the outrageous behavior," he once told me. "He didn't become a shithead till much later."

So, we look to rats for jauntiness and outrage, and the rats look over their furred shoulders at Mickey and his lesser colleagues—Mighty Mouse (Mickey meets Superman) and DangerMouse (Mickey meets James Bond). There's a whole book for some crazy person to write about rodents in pop culture, with one chapter devoted to Alvin and the Chipmunks and another analyzing the werebeavers depicted in both Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and Pamela Anderson's Stripperella. Here we're concerned only with the suborder Myomorpha, the larger, grosser members of which turn up on screen anxious about influence and as eager as any punk or outcast or contrarian to wrangle with Mickey's legacy.

Novelist Gilbert Ralston specialized in equating rats with the unjustly outcast, and Hollywood went for it, first in adapting Willard, about a misfit who turns his four-legged soulmates into killing machines, and then in Ben, and once more in a Willard remake starring the peerlessly weird Crispin Glover. Where Mickey is idealized—walking upright, being overly accommodating, generally acting like a sell-out—the wee beasts creeping through Ralston, like their two-legged friends, will be accepted only on their own terms. And then we have Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, adapted for the screen by Don Bluth, in which the rats are supersmart—far more literate, tech-savvy, and socially minded than your average studio executive. The rats of NIMH aspire to inculcate some humanistic belief, where Mickey really just teaches you to buy stuff. From the rodent sensei of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Templeton from Charlotte's Web—who, as voiced by Paul Lynde in 1973, possibly qualifies as a gay icon—our rats are independent thinkers.

This is all by way of saying that the concerned parties shouldn't be too concerned about Ratatouille's prospects for box-office success and cultural impact. Remy will succeed partly by emerging as an anti-Mickey and partly because the big guy has taken him under his arm. Pixar is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, and as Brad Bird told the Journal: "[T]he Disney marketing team is the best on the planet at selling this stuff." Rat's the ticket.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.