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From 'Chicken Run' to 'Ratatouille' - Celebrating World Rat Day with the best cinematic rodents

From 'Chicken Run' to 'Ratatouille' - Celebrating World Rat Day with the best cinematic rodents

Happy World Rat Day!

The long-tailed rodents usually get a bad reputation, as most people see them as unclean vermin – and mice get all the good press.

Just think about all the commonly expressions and insults featuring the word 'rat', and you'll realise the cuties are usually linked to crime, squalor, illness, betrayal and death.

But beyond the age-old associations with disease and the spreading of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe – which omit the fact that these social animals are actually cleaner than you may think – rats are seen in many cultures as symbols of prosperity and wisdom. They may be the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s nemesis, but as a totem animal, they’re a powerful emblem. Plus, in dream interpretation, seeing rats in your sleep is a good omen.

They deserve more respect, so today of all days, here’s Euronews Culture’s countdown to the best rats on the big screen. They may sometimes be used as visual shorthand for villainy, but these five cinematic rodents are either misunderstood, heroic, or quite simply show-stealing.

Special mention goes to the poor Venetian bunch in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade who are scared senseless by our Fedora-wearing hero’s fiery antics in the library catacombs. Imagine if some swaggering adventurer came to where you lived and set fire to the place. How rude.

5) Nick and Fetcher

Nick and Fetcher
Nick and Fetcher - DreamWorks Pictures

Seen in: 'Chicken Run' (2000) & 'Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget' (2023)

The original Chicken Run by Peter Lord and Nick Park is a classic parody of The Great Escape, and features two rodents that steal the show.

Yes, as the name suggests, a film about a group of anthropomorphic chickens attempting to escape their fate of becoming pie filling does have poultry as the stars of the show. However, Nick (voiced by Timothy Spall in the original film and comedian Romesh Ranganathan in Dawn of the Nugget) and Fetcher (Phil Daniels in the first and Daniel Mays in the sequel) are two compadres who help Ginger’s cooped-up bunch with their daring escape plot.

Granted, the Pinky and the Brain-echoing duo are not the most help, as Nick cynically comments and Fletcher... Well, Fetcher is not the brightest bulb in the pack. However, they’re allies, have some of the best lines (“In the unlikely event of an emergency, put your head between your knees and...” “Kiss your bum goodbye!!”), and share philosophical discussions about what comes first: the chicken or the egg.

Hardly the musings of a filthy species now is it?

4) Splinter

Splinter
Splinter - Paramount Pictures

Seen in: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series – from 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (1990) to 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem' (2023)

Splinter, the mutant rat mentor to the four crime-fighting turtles, may live in the sewers, but he’s a symbol of wisdom in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

Not counting the numerous TV series and video games, the teacher / sensei / adoptive father figure has appeared in seven feature films – both live action and animated – and usually represents the calm in the storm. Indeed, he’s usually portrayed as a stoic sage who never raises his voice, even when aggravated by the four mutant reptiles.

More than that, he gives onscreen rats a good name by embodying the principles of devotion, family love, and the admiration for TV soaps and Ice pops.

In the most recent film, last year’s critically lauded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the character is voiced by none other than martial arts legend Jackie Chan. This iteration of the character was a highlight, and upped the father-figure traits more than previous versions.

So, another case of rats being a force for good, as opposed to the criminal or diseased symbol rats usually get saddled with. Speaking of which...

3) Professor Ratigan

Ratigan
Ratigan - Disney

Seen in: 'The Great Mouse Detective' (1986)

Yes, rats often get portrayed onscreen as villains... But what villains they are.

Professor Ratigan in ONE OF THE BEST DISNEY FILMS EVER (now that’s said) is a criminally underrated antagonist in this Victorian-London set reworking of Sherlock Holmes. The titular Holmes figure is a mouse, thereby reinforcing their cute supremacy in the collective psyche; but as everyone knows, villains have the most fun.

Darth Vader (minus the burning bit), Hannibal Lecter, Michael Meyers, Voldemort, The Joker, Anton Chigur – they're all living their best lives. And Professor Ratigan is no exception.

The (boring) hero Basil and his retired army surgeon mouse acolyte David Q. Dawson have to face off against the dapper criminal mastermind who has kidnapped a toymaker to create a clockwork robot replica of the Queen of the Mice - so that Ratigan can usurp her place as "Supreme Ruler of all Mousedom".

How this didn’t win Oscars, we’ll never know.

Ratigan outdoes his human counterpart Moriarty in every department, has a peglegged bat as a sidekick and a handy escape plan in the form of a dirigible.

Seriously, Oscars.

He outwits his mice nemesis at every turn. OK, it doesn’t end well for him (for shame, Disney, for shame!) but falling off Big Ben is not a bad way to go. It’s certainly dramatic. His Buster Keaton demise also echoes that of Jack Nicholson’s The Joker, further proving that Professor Ratigan remains in the same devious and fiendishly clever league as the Clown Prince of Crime.

Rest In Power, you stylish rat mastermind.

2) Rat

Rat
Rat - 20th Century Fox

Seen in: 'Fantastic Mr Fox' (2009)

The secondary antagonist in Wes Anderson’s best film was a rat named Rat.

One of the most memorable players in this gorgeous stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation, Rat was voiced by the one and only Willem Dafoe – who, incidentally, is hard at work on Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu, in which he reportedly acts opposite 2,000 real rats.

Rat serves as a security guard for the apple cider cellar, and is revealed as just a rodent who likes to drink cider in solitude.

We’ve all been there, mate.

Yes, Rat is a malicious figure – with red eyes and scars to prove it - and he doesn’t exactly elevate the rat reputation, especially when he kidnaps Mr. Fox’s son Ash. However, he’s got moves, he sounds like Willem Dafoe (always a plus), his name harks back to Cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and in the end, he’s just a lonely creature who just wants to be left alone to indulge in the occasional drink...ing binge.

Did anyone stop to ask why Billy No Mates needs to drink?

Does he have trauma to deal with?

A dark past to forget?

This is the trouble with modern audiences – we're so quick to factlessly label and never take the time to consider the circumstances. Frankenstein’s monster was never a bad guy, just a victim of a misunderstanding. Freddy Krueger chases people in their dreams, but he probably forgot to chase his own. And don’t get us started on Maleficent, who was not invited to the social event of the year, and got insulted when she showed up. No wonder she snapped!

Rat deserves justice. He certainly didn’t deserve to be electrocuted during a scuffle with a know-it-all fox.

1) Remy

Remy
Remy - Pixar

Seen in: 'Ratatouille' (2007)

Was there ever any doubt as to what the top pick was going to be?

There will be many a discerning cinephile to eruditely argue that Wall-E and Inside Out are Pixar’s high watermarks. Nice tries, but the crown – or chef’s hat – belongs to Little Chef.

You’ve got to hand it to Pixar on this one, as the elevator pitch of a country rodent scurrying around a kitchen and restoring a Parisian restaurant to its former glory by helping a bumbling wannabe-chef cook the ultimate French Provençal vegetable dish is… odd. But Brad Bird and his team transformed this whimsically nuts idea into a gorgeously animated celebration about following your passion, reminding you that creative excellence can come from anyone. More than that, he and his animators delivered a beautifully surreal thesis on the nature of criticism and a potent meditation on the uppity devolvement of gastronomy, which has forgotten its roots in favour of inaccessibility, prejudice and snobbishness.

Only a rat could have set things straight.

Particularly impressive is the way the film makes culinary prowess joyfully cinematic, with slapstick goodness and visual representations of flavours and odours. These elements ensure that Ratatouille remains, 17 years on, a timeless classic that works as a colourful ride for the kids and a Proustian meditation for the older viewers about how we lose sight of what moves us because of the pessimisms of adult life.

And there’s simply no denying that this cinematic masterpiece and its little furry hero has done more to improve the reputation of rodents in film than any other on-screen creature before him.

So, whether you’re catching up on this Oscar-winning glory or revisiting it for the millionth time (and appreciating all those little details like Anton Ego’s skull-shaped typewriter, or how our young chef protagonist is wearing Incredibles underpants), Ratatouille is a sensory and emotional delight that’s downright delicious. All thanks to a rat.