There is a passage in Steve Baker’s book Picturing the Beast that asks the reader to close their eyes and think of how animals feature in our culture. Baker points out that, rather than imagining “real, living animals”, the reader will probably see “representations” of them: animals on the TV, or in books.
When I follow Baker’s instructions, all I see is rodents. Cartoon rodents, specifically: Remy the rat; Stuart Little the mouse; Templeton the huge, anatomically-perfect CGI rat, who makes me suspicious about how exactly the animation team went about their work on the live-action version of Charlotte’s Web.
Rodents are hugely prevalent throughout our audiovisual culture. A-list actors, from Willem Dafoe to Hugh Jackman, have all had a go at voicing animated rats, while Michael J. Fox beat out the likes of Bill Murray to play a mouse who dresses like a boy at your local skatepark.
Even TikTok is engulfed with rodents, with creators using the hashtag #rattok to show off their furry friends. Surely I am not the only person who has watched Flushed Away or Ratatouille the Musical, the magnum opus of #rattok, and wondered: “Who is doing the PR for rats, mice, squirrels and gerbils?”, “Why are they everywhere?”, and “How did they manage to sidestep the 75-200 million people who died from the Black Death?”
No discussion of the cultural relevance of rodents would be complete without a mention of Mickey Mouse. The character, now an instantly recognisable emblem of the Disney corporation, was conceived in 1925 due to legal issues with Mickey’s predecessor, Oswald the Rabbit. Mickey was partly inspired by Walt Disney’s own experiences with a mouse at one of his studios, though overwhelmingly, Mickey is simply an altered version of the original Oswald design. In this sense, the inception and popularity of Mickey raises more questions than it answers. If the world’s most famous rodent (except for pizza rat) was just a happy accident, how did rodent protagonists stick?
Well, Mickey isn’t really a mouse. He’s the product of anthropomorphism, where humans project their own characteristics onto animals; he has long, human-like legs and wears clothes just like his successors, Stuart Little and mouse Matthew Broderick (The Tale of Despereaux). Even Ratatouille’s Remy, who is less anthropomorphic, stands on his hind legs and has cartoonish eyes that allow him to express emotion like a human. While this could be said of other animals, rodent protagonists dominate Hollywood, rivalled only by cats and dogs who hold an unequivocally positive status within society.
But the real life perception of rodents is still largely negative, as seen historically in films like Willard (1971) and currently in the news. In December 2020, The Sun warned of a “ratmageddon” at Christmas time, while in March this year The Guardian reported on a “biblical” rat plague in eastern Australia. Hollywood can’t change bad press, they can use it to their advantage. Any animal can be anthropomorphised, but the largely negative perception of rodents offers writers the opportunity to create stories with rodent protagonists that parallel the experience of marginalised and persecuted communities in the human world.
In Don Bluth’s An American Tail, mice are used to explore the experience of Russian-Jewish immigrants as they emigrate from Shostka to the US. In Flushed Away, there’s a clear exploration of class: Upper-class Roddy is forced into the sewers, where “working class” rats live. When Roddy decides to stay in the sewers, the moral of the story becomes clear: 1) friends and family trump material possessions and, 2) don’t be an uppity little Knightsbridge twa- I mean, rat.
Scholars like Laure Murat have even suggested that Ratatouille’s Remy is a queer-coded character. Remy rejects the heteronormativity of his family to become a chef who operates by pulling Linguini’s hair under his chef’s hat, an ingenious re-working of “the closet”. When Remy becomes a chef in his own right, Ratatouille becomes the story of successfully coming out.
Rodents offer the ultimate underdog story, a narrative formula that dominates Hollywood cinema. They’re physically small, which provides filmmakers with the opportunity to represent the physical world from a new perspective (see: the nonsensical The Great Mouse Detective). They occupy a liminal space in society where they are both pets and pests, and are instantly recognisable as both these things. It could be said, too, that they’re useful when it comes to introducing concepts around marginalisation to young audiences.
It is hard not to question, however, why it’s easier for Hollywood to put a rat that makes soup onscreen than, say, the actual people they’re meant to represent. And this isn’t just limited to rodents; representation within Hollywood cinema, particularly animation, has always been an uphill battle. A Duke University study of 100 children’s movies that focused on class revealed that only 4 percent of the primary characters could be classified as “poor”. Out of the 23 films made by Pixar since 1995, Soul (2020) is the first about a Black person.
Cinema holds a mirror up to our own society; films like Brave (2012), Moana (2016) and Soul (2020) are a reflection of contemporary concerns about inclusivity and representation. At the same time, rodent protagonists gradually fell by the wayside. Since the peak of rodent-mania in the mid to late 2000s (where Flushed Away and Ratatouille were released within the same 12 months), the genre has dwindled. The last prominent entry was the critically panned The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature (2017), which doesn’t really use rodents as an allegory for any real-world issues as much as exploit the novelty of talking animals.
The decline in rodent cinema and increased representation aren’t a direct correlation. Rodent films do, however, make up a prominent part of Hollywood’s evolution from metaphorical stories of persecution to those that are more literal. The emphasis here is on the word “more”: using animals as a vehicle for societal problems is obviously still tempting for some (*cough* Zootopia).
While Pixar has moved from non-human characters like Lightning McQueen in Cars (2006) to films like Coco (2017) - where actual people take the lead - their reliance on animal tropes still seeps through the cracks. Though the central character in Soul is Black, he does spend a lot of the film trapped in a cat’s body. The same goes for Disney’s first attempt at indigenous representation, Brother Bear (2003), where, for the majority of the film, the central character is stuck as a bear. And in The Princess and the Frog (2009), which gave us Disney’s first Black princess, Tiana herself spends much of the runtime as a frog.
Representation in Hollywood is still in its growing pains, and animation may have to leave rats – and anthropomorphism more generally – behind to reach its full potential. It’s probably for the best: We can still get our rodent fix in the form of memes and viral videos.