It’s Year of the Rat. A rat is one animal that has not often been associated with pleasant things, from the spread of The Plague to the mundane “rat race” of life, being harbingers of a sinking ship, or the unlucky test subjects in labs.
However, those born in Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac are often noted as being intelligent, quick-witted, ambitious, and practical. They are also sometimes a bit stubborn.
To celebrate and better appreciate rats everywhere, here are some fun and geeky facts about fictional and pop culture rats.
1. One of the most famous rats in children’s literature is Templeton, the ravenous and crude rodent friend of Wilber the Pig in E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web. Not liked by the other barn animals (as he prefers to spend his time “eating, gnawing, spying, and hiding”) it is Wilber who first tries to become his friend. Templeton was voiced in the 1973 animated film by comic actor Paul Lynde, and in the 2006 live-action and CGI remake by Steve Buscemi.
2. Pixar’s hit film Ratatouille, about a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who longed to be a French chef, won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2007 along with several other filmmaking awards. It got its own trackless ride-through attraction in 2014, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, with one coming to Epcot’s France Pavilion at Walt Disney World in Florida this summer, just in time for Year of the Rat.
3. Before Ratatouille the Dreamworks and Aardman Animations animated film Flushed Away featured rats as the main characters. It focused on an upper-class pet rat, voiced by Hugh Jackman, who is tossed down a toilet by a conniving sewer rat and learns to survive life outside his posh existence. Although Aardman (known best for its Wallace & Gromit) often uses stop motion animation, Flushed Away was created as a computer-animated film because the plasticine clay used for the models wouldn’t react well with the so many scenes that included water.
4. Another famous rat movie wasn’t so cute, the 1971 horror film and Edgar Award nominee Willard, based on the 1968 short novel by Stephen Gilbert. It starred Bruce Davidson as Willard Stiles, a timid social outcast who develops an eerie love for rats. However, these rats go full monster invasion, and Willard is soon taken out by his own rat, Ben. Ben, of course, lived to be the star of his own creepy sequel, Ben, in 1972. Michael Jackson’s award-winning ballad, “Ben,” by the way, was written for the original film.
5. In the 2003 remake of Willard with Crispin Glover in the main role, Davidson is seen in portraits in the movie as Willard’s father. The movie used more than 500 highly-trained rats who had numbers inked on their tails so the trainers could tell them apart.
6. Muppet character Rizzo the Rat, the streetwise rat with a Jersey accent, was named after the Midnight Cowboy character Ratso Rizzo and first appeared on the episode of The Muppet Show as one of the rat horde following around actor Christopher Reeve. He soon became a scene-stealing favorite and has uttered some of the show’s more racy lines.
7. Although Rizzo has more than 1,200 siblings, he is the only one with a restaurant based on his character, PizzeRizzo at Walt Disney World Resort. He gained this honor even though he unsuccessfully tried to pass himself off as Mickey Mouse in the Muppet Vision 3D attraction.
Here he is challenging his friend Rowlf to take on California’s famous Skateboarding Dog in a hand-held camera segment.
8. The character Rat Fink, seen everywhere from punk concerts to car shows to flea markets, was first designed by Kustom Kulture legend Ed “Big Daddy” Roth as a drawing for his refrigerator. In 1963, this bug-eyed, snaggle-toothed, drooling anti-hero counter to Mickey Mouse had blossomed into Roth’s most famous creation, selling countless model kits, t-shirts, and other memorabilia.
9. Heavy metal band RATT was one of the big faces of the “hair band” era in the 1980s but dates back as far as 1973 with a band called Firedome. The name was changed to Mickey Ratt by 1979 and shortened to just RATT by 1980. They are still touring today in their “New Breed” incarnation featuring original vocalist Steven Pearcy and bassist Juan Crocier, but their biggest hit was 1984’s “Round and Round,” famous for being comic Milton Berle’s music video debut… and yes, it ends with a close up of a rat.
10. Of course, rats are often typecast as villains, including the notorious Professor Padriac Ratigan in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. Based loosely on the Sherlock Holmes enemy Professor James Moriarty, Ratigan was voiced in the movie by Vincent Price. He used to be a walkaround character at the Disney parks but was soon discontinued because he frightened children. No love for the poor professor.
11. The Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats, led by music legend Bob Geldolf, was named for a gang of children mentioned in singer Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory.
12. There is really no more heroic rat than Master Splinter, the mutated rat who is a martial arts instructor and adopted father of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The different versions of the story give him different origins, but in Kevin Eastman’s original comic, he was the pet rat of a ninja named Hamato Yoshi who learned the ninjutsu art from watching and mimicking the movements of his master. He has been voiced by several different actors in the various television and big-screen adaptations, but the most interesting is Kevin Clash, also known as the voice of Elmo on Sesame Street.
13. In the popular science-based children’s show Beakman’s World, based on the comic strip of the same name, one of Beakman’s assistants is his “lab rat,” Lester. His crude “guy in a rat suit” persona was often the focus of running jokes including one time referring to himself as a “serious actor with a bad agent.”
14. Rats appear in several video games, as everything from fluffy little rat-like critters The Neeks in Donkey Kong games to zombie-like rats in Dark Souls, but League of Legends’ Twitch The Plague Rat, is particularly horrifying as he wields a toxin-shooting crossbow and can turn invisible.
15. To help people learn more about and better appreciate rats, the home version of Ratatouille includes a short film “Your Old Friend the Rat” celebrating the history and worldwide domination of these little critters. The short is narrated by Remy, who despite the studio’s disclaimer at the end of the film, insists “Our voices will not be denied!”
That’s a very motivated little rat.