Whether you live in a big city or the country, chances are good your encounters with rodents haven’t been particularly charming.
In the bizarre alternate universe of the movies, however, the beady-eyed trash-eating vermin are man’s new best friend. Mice and rats often cohabit peacefully with humans. More often than not, the cat of the house is portrayed as the bad guy. And that whole rat-aided bubonic plague problem that wiped out one third of Europe in the 14th Century? Forgiven. Forgotten.
“Ratatouille,” the latest Pixar computer animated film, features a rat named Remy, who is a culinary genius and teams with a young chef to take Paris by storm. While he doesn’t wear suits, drive in a little car or even walk on his hind legs, he still qualifies as lovable.
Expect to see Remy’s smiling face on plenty of merchandise — even though the case against rodents is strong. Rats can carry dozens of diseases that are dangerous to man, including rabies and typhus. Rodents are known to chew through wires, contaminate restaurants, destroy golf courses and cause untold crop damage. The typical rat leaves 25,000 droppings per year — which are probably piling up in your attic right now.
Credit the cinematic love of rodents to Walt Disney, the greatest pro-mouse lobbyist in history. From the moment that Mickey Mouse took the wheel in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, what required an exterminator in real life was suddenly considered cute on the silver screen. Since then, for every movie that features a rodent in a villainous role (“Charlotte’s Web,” “The Princess Bride”), it seems as if there are five films with rats, mice and other vermin as the hero.
Rodents probably reached their peak between 1977 and 1986, when four different animated films — “The Rescuers,” “The Secret if NIMH,” “The Great Mouse Detective” and “An American Tail” — featured mice as heroes.
But we may be going through another renaissance, with rats featured last year in “Flushed Away,” and “Ratatouille” already receiving great reviews.
Below are eight lovable movie rodents that you wouldn’t mind having over for dinner. All played a key role in the humanization of vermin. If all rats, gophers, beavers and mice were this nice, we wouldn’t need the Orkin man.
Mickey Mouse (“Fantasia”)Mickey is the Forrest Gump of rodent characters, enjoying successful careers in shipping, military service, petroleum distribution and sorcery. With no big-screen movie appearances since his cameo in “A Goofy Movie” in 1995, Mickey has settled into full-time work as theme park greeter. He always has a smile on his face — but Mickey is secretly stressed out about the fact that he’s almost 90 years old, and the life expectancy of the average mouse in the wild is only 5 months.
Gus and Jacques, “Cinderella”Cinderella had no real friends to help with her dating life, so the friendly mice Gus and Jacques basically acted as wingmen for the princess-to-be. With nothing in it for them (big deal, they get turned into horses for a few hours), the pair selflessly devoted themselves to getting Cinderella hooked up, from helping her get ready for the ball to breaking her out of an attic prison. And then who reaped all the riches and glory? The movie is called “Cinderella,” but if Disney wanted to be fair, they would rename the picture “Gus and Jacques.”
The Gopher, “Caddyshack”The Gopher in “Caddyshack” was completely misunderstood. If he and Carl Spackler (Bill Murray) had actually gotten to know each other, they probably would have been great friends. As it is, the gopher’s knack for survival was the catalyst for the near-apocalyptic destruction of the Bushwood Country Club. But while the ending of “Caddyshack” is ambiguous, you have to believe a better Bushwood was rebuilt because of his actions. And hopefully this rodent is getting royalties from all those “Caddyshack” dancing gopher dolls that sell at Walgreens.
Mrs. Brisby, “The Secret of NIMH”Mrs. Brisby was actually Mrs. Frisby in the book, but her name was changed to avoid a lawsuit from the Wham-O people. Whatever her name and whatever her species, she was a pretty amazing mouse — freeing her people with the steely resourcefulness of Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” and the dogged investigative skills of Erin Brockovich. Never mind that only 14 people went to see “The Secret of NIMH” when it came out in 1982, Mrs. Brisby is a memorable movie mouse.
Rizzo the Rat, “The Muppet Christmas Carol”When Rizzo first appeared in the final season of “The Muppet Show,” it seemed like a desperate Cousin Oliver move from the Muppet people. But his personality turned out to be closer to Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver,” which shouldn’t be a surprise considering his name was influenced by a “Midnight Cowboy” character. Rizzo’s star turn happened when he paired with The Great Gonzo to narrate “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” We’re rooting for him to get the CNN voice-over gig when James Earl Jones retires.
Stuart Little, “Stuart Little”Whether you’re a real kid or a small white mouse, it can’t be easy to get into a family where your mother (Geena Davis) has been married four times and your father (Hugh Laurie) is that mean doctor from “House.” Add to that a script that bears almost no relation to E.B. White’s book, even though it was written with the help of celebrity directors David O. Russell and M. Night Shyamalan. The steadying influence here is Michael J. Fox, who was born for this role. And that little car Stuart rides around in is pretty sweet.
Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”Perhaps it’s their background in architectural engineering, but Mr. and Mrs. Beaver seem like the only two characters in Narnia (other than the Jesus-like lion Aslan) who aren’t complete idiots. They have a good knowledge for local history and they’re also fairly noble creatures, agreeing to shelter the children when every faun knew that the White Witch was paying top dollar for their capture. And despite his intellectual ways, Mr. Beaver wasn’t afraid to throw down against the forces of evil during that big “The Outsiders”-style rumble near the end of the movie.
Roddy and Rita, “Flushed Away”Never mind the fact that “Happy Feet” won the Oscar, “Flushed Away” was the best animated movie from 2006 — and Roddy and Rita were 50 percent of the reason. (The singing slugs were the other half.) Voiced by Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet, the two rats have better chemistry than most live-action movie couples, and the role model Rita is the opposite from the typical Disney movie princess — spending most of the movie rescuing her leading man.
Peter Hartlaub reviews movies and writes about pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.