A Rat's Tale

Director: Michael F. Huse            
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" You know that expression "A frozen smile on his face"? Well, it's literally true heremovie - 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 mind.

Though I guess the characters and the various plot threads do somehow manage to all come together Jerry Stiller gets the bad news from his agent - he can't get out of the contractsooner 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 drainpipes.

Clearly, choosing rats to be protagonists (at least protagonists in this particular movie) was a big mistake to start with. The second big mistake Jim Henson, eat your heart out!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 The rats are stunned that they don't even look as good as computer graphics 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, sent this e-mail:

"Greetings Greywizard!

"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 you report.

"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 actual film.

"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 the project.

"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!"

Check 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