A Rat's Tale
Director: Michael F.
Cast: Beverly D'Angelo, Jerry Stiller, Lauren Hutton
A Rat's Tale is one of the most bizarre
family movies I've ever seen. Though it certainly has its share of
flaws, I can't exactly label it as a "bad" movie - its various
kinds of ineptness never get aggressive enough to really make the movie
truly deserve the condemnation of "bad", and its attitudes and opinions
are certainly not offensive, unlike a number of bad family movies (such
as Secret Agent Club) are.
The problem instead with this movie is that the concept of this movie
dooms it from the very start. That might seem kind of surprising if you
know something about the movie already. You might say, well, haven't
movies, TV shows, and books given animals human-like characteristics
many times in the past? Yes, they have. And haven't many of these past
examples had these highly-evolved animals interacting with bona fide
humans? Of course. And in past movies and TV shows, haven't they many
times portrayed these interacting animals in a fashion that clearly
shows they are not bona fide flesh-and-blood animals, like when
Space Jam used animation to depict its non-humans? They
certainly have, and A Rat's Tale is another example
where artificial animals are created and interact in the "real" world.
Yet this time it doesn't work. Why? Read on.
This movie is based on the same-named acclaimed
children's book by Tor Seidler, which I have never read, so I can't say
how accurately this screen adaptation follows the original story.
Anyway, the majority of the movie takes place in Manhattan - or more
accurately, down in the literal bowels of the island, in the sewer.
That's where Monty Mad-Rat (cartoon voice actor Dee Bradley Baker)
lives, with thousands of other rats. A non-conformist of sorts (though
what he chooses to do instead is never made clear), he is mocked by his
rat peers for reasons equally as unclear, though it might be because
his father has an obsession-compulsion syndrome, resulting in his
having built over one hundred sand castles. But his social status and
the sanity of his father is the least of his worries not long after the
movie begins, since a badly dubbed human tycoon (Josef Ostendorf) with
the clever name of "Dollart" starts threatening the existence of the
rat colony by not just his plans to tear down the rat-infested wharf
district and build a parking lot, but to infest the sewers with a
special rat poison his scientist "Plumpingham" (Stiller) has brewed up.
The rest of the movie consists of several plots
intertwined together, including the efforts of the rats to raise a
measly $100,000 to buy the entire wharf district, rat scientist
struggling to brew an anti-toxin when they are missing the essential
plant "aloe ve-rat" (the first of many rat and sewer puns to be found
in this movie), Monty finding some magical powers from the sea shells
his aunt brought back from Mexico, Monty falling in love with the
upper-class "Isabella Noble-Rat", Monty struggling to court her when
he's a commoner and that she's engaged to the snotty "Lau-Rat Dadida",
and a number of other plot threads that are not only end up being more
or less irrelevant, but add to the struggle of keeping all the
characters and their various going-ons all straight in the viewer's
Though I guess the characters and the various plot
threads do somehow manage to all come together sooner or later, and
that it all does become coherent with some patience and with the help
of a good memory, all this effort the viewer has to go through is for
nothing. That's because the movie makes two big mistakes in the way it
decides to present this story, mistakes so big that not even the most
gallant effort made afterwards by everyone involved could save the
movie. The first mistake is with the animal species chosen - rats.
Though I have no problem with the white domesticated kind (which are
clean, affectionate, and intelligent), I otherwise agree with what the
character of Dollart says about rats: "They're the most disgusting
creatures on earth!" When I hear the word "rat", I immediately think of
the rats I saw rolling around in the garbage in Korea, and I'm grossed
out. Maybe there is some personal prejudice here, but I can't see anything
about your typical sewer rat that earns my respect or warms my heart.
They're not cute, they don't have the air of nobility some
dangerous-to-human animals like bears and lions do, they don't even
have the breathtaking savagery and cunning hunting tactics of animals
like sharks. If you haven't guessed by now, I hate rats,
and I think it's simply wrong to try and cast them in protagonist roles.
"Wait a minute," you might be saying. "What about Rizzo
the Rat from The Muppet Show? Isn't he a likable character?"
Yes, but the charm Rizzo has is a greasy kind. He makes no apologies
for being a rat, and doesn't plead to be loved. He has an almost
self-depreciating attitude, yet he shows utter comfort with himself,
and you can't help but be impressed by a non-conformist character who
is at peace. Compare him to the rats found in A Rat's Tale,
who instead do and say things that are practically pleas for love aimed
at the viewers, and heavy-handed attempts to try and convince us that
rats deserve our love and respect. When the protagonists of a movie
happen to be rats, we aren't moved when they say noble things like
"Humans need us as much as we need them"... or if one of them is
fatally injured and another one desperately tries to save him from
death... or if a boy rat and a girl rat get romantic and decide to swap
spit (rats kissing... UGH!) Plus, it's kind of hard to be sympathetic
towards a bunch of individuals of any species who seem to have
some degree of intelligence and determination, yet despite this choose
to live in such a disgusting environment, as well as being content to
spend their lives doing filthy and endless tasks like cleaning
Clearly, choosing rats to be protagonists (at least
protagonists in this particular movie) was a big mistake to start with.
The second big mistake comes with the choice as to how to
portray these rats. In the movie's favor, the creative forces
fortunately didn't choose to use real sewer rats, but the
choice they made instead isn't much of an improvement. They hired the
German puppet company "Augsburger Puppenkiste", which apparently has
achieved a respectable amount of fame across Europe. But the puppet
creations on display here are not up to the standards set by the
Muppets (or for that matter, the puppets in Let My Puppets Come). You see, the
puppets here are marionettes - marionettes that have frozen expressions
on their faces, bob around when they walk (more like shuffle) from one
point to another, and have multiple wires that are very visible
attached to them. All of this could be excused if we were watching this
live in a puppet theater, or on a kiddie TV show on PBS; in those
environments, we are set for something not low-tech, so we can accept
this more primitive art style. But here, it's the same thing that went
wrong when Thomas And The Magic Railroad got made. What
works on a low-tech scale in a small environment like TV often doesn't
work on the big screen; for example, sloppy-looking stiff marionettes
on visible wires don't fit in an environment filled with fancy CGI
special effects, sweeping music, crisp professional photography, and a
viewpoint that is wide-sweeping instead of close and intimate.
Apart from the terrible-looking (and completely
inappropriate) marionettes, the technical quality of the movie is
actually pretty good. Besides the various merits that were mentioned in
the end of the previous paragraph, the sewer sets are well-constructed;
never have I seen an artificial example of this particular environment
look so convincingly disgusting. As for the remainder of the movie that
has not already been discussed, it's pretty bland. Certainly hokey and
unimaginative at times, but as I mentioned before, it never gets
aggressive enough to really deserve a negative adjective. It's true
that the few human characters that make an appearance during the movie
are very familiar stereotypes; besides Stiller playing The
Clumsy Scientist and Ostendorf playing The Mean And Childish Tycoon a
la Danny DeVito, the movie has Beverly D'Angelo playing The Tycoon's
Ditzy Mistress and Lauren Hutton playing The Greedy Art Gallery
Proprietor (the latter actress being an odd choice to play a character
with the last name of "Jellybelly".) However, these characters get so
little time they don't even give a chance for us to feel annoyance or
tiredness of seeing them. Though we don't get a chance to find
anything to dislike about them, at the same time we don't feel anything
positive about them. In effect they are just there - and nothing more.
In fact, even if you can somehow put aside those two big
mistakes that the movie makes in portraying
this adventure, that's how the entire rest of the movie feels like - a
collection of ideas and characters that might not be entirely
bad by themselves, but that little to nothing is done with each of
these ideas and characters in the movie itself. I have not yet
mentioned the mysterious sewer number 237... the rat's own
laboratory... Monty's hide-a-hole... Monty's crazy uncle... the Mamma
Mia Italian-accented doorman (or doorrat in this case, I
guess)... and Jean-Paul, the Cajun alligator that patrols the sewers.
With all this stuff here, it is inevitable that there simply cannot be
enough time to not only properly order and pace all this out, but to
properly develop (for better or for worse) each character and
plot incident. It will not only be confusing for viewers to try and
balance all of this in their minds, but it will seem kind of pointless
to do so, because one won't really see the point of using enough energy
to give even a trivial thought about such unsubstantial material.
This gives A Rat's Tale another dimension in its being
one of the most bizarre family movies of recent years. Though one part
of it is bizarre due to those two serious miscalculations as to how to
present itself, the other part is equally as bizarre because it has no
real distinction. It ends up making the movie neither good or bad - the
movie is just there, and nothing more.
UPDATE: Markus Risser, webmaster of badmovies.de, sent this e-mail:
"First, the usual stuff: I really enjoy your site tremendously -
especially when I happen to know the one or other film you review,
gives me a feeling of belonging to a superior minority <grin>...
Just finished your review of A Rat's Tale (basically I do agree
with you) - being German and stuff I thought you'd might be interested
in some trivia 'bout this film...
"As far as I know (it could be that this is merely a result of media
buzz, as the film was hyped enormously in Germany, "Augsburger
Puppenkiste" being a national cultural icon - you can't grow up over
here - or at least couldn't in the 70's and 80's - without growing up
on their TV shows) the approach to this movie was a bit different than
"From what German media reported the "Augsburger Puppenkiste" was eager
to do a theatrical movie after thirty-forty years of doing TV shows.
What I'm trying to say is that, basically, the puppetry came before the
"Upon realizing what budget a full-scale animated theatrical movie
would need the company decided to go for a international co-production,
preferably with US money. Therefore, not a German children's book (as
it was usual with the TV show) was selected as source material, but the
story that finally got made. During that process the US stars came into
"Interestingly enough, although the movie was a mediocre hit in
Germany, critics over here panned the movie for quite the contrary than
you did - the TV shows never had any interaction with real-life human
characters (plain puppetry) and critics (as well as most fans of the TV
show) complained that the movie had far too much human stuff and too
little puppetry - and because of the "realism" through interaction with
human lacked the charm of the TV show.
"In brief, when I can believe what media reported over here, it was
quite vice-versa - first came the idea of doing a puppet movie with the
Augsburger Puppenkiste and only later, when it came to budgeting, it
was decided to bring US talent in, for international marketing reasons.
Maybe this is of some interest to you. Keep up the good work!"
for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check Amazon for the original Tor Seidler novel "A Rat's Tale"
See also: Let My Puppets Come,
Sherlock: Undercover Dog, Titanic: The Animated Movie