by Seb Manley
Life, as we all know, is hard, and the life of a rat is especially so, at least in the world of Brad Bird’s thrilling, classical-feeling animation Ratatouille (2007). At various points in the film, rats are evicted from their homes, shot at with shotguns, imprisoned in jars, insulted (‘disgusting little creature,’ spits a restaurant patron) and attacked with ladles, mops and bottles. The perpetrators of these assaults are all humans, of course, the same humans who the rats must stay close to in order to find enough food to survive. As the rat colony’s anti-human leader says to his son Remy, the film’s main rat character, ‘The world we live in belongs to the enemy’.
And this does seem right, for rats and other non-human animals who make homes in human-built environments: not only do these animals face human ‘enemies’, as many animals do, but they also live in places where they are seen as trespassers, encroaching on areas that rightfully belong to humans. The writer Sue Donaldson and the philosopher Will Kymlicka (in the book Zoopolis) call animals of this kind ‘liminal’ animals and suggest that such creatures are to a large extent ‘invisible’ to humans, who tend to divide the world into ‘the wild’, where animals live, and urban areas, where humans live (along with Fido and Mr Tibbs and whoever else). Donaldson and Kymlicka think that we should put a lot more thought into accommodating liminal animals, many of whom could not survive away from human settlements or cannot make their way ‘back’ to the wild habitats of their ancestors. In fact, they think that liminal animals such as rats should be seen as citizens of a kind, and given rights that take into account their status as co-inhabitants of human settlements. Rats, in the new, more animal-tolerant world Donaldson and Kymlicka imagine, would be seen as ‘denizens’: animals who, like human migrants, share in only some of the responsibilities and practices of citizenship and are therefore granted certain basic, ‘universal’ rights but not other, more ‘relational’ rights, which would however be granted to domesticated animals. (Maybe this all seems a bit barmy to you, but I think the authors have things at least partly right; certainly we owe animals more consideration than we currently give them, and it seems quite possible that our consideration should take into account the different ways animals relate to humans.)
Ratatouille does not make the argument that Donaldson and Kymlicka make, obviously, but it does contain several scenes in which rats seem strikingly similar to oppressed and stigmatised human ‘outsiders’ trying to make their way in an intolerant society. Remy’s fellow colonists are constantly on the search for food, but are viewed with disgust by most humans who encounter them (even some of the nice ones). In the later stages of the film, groups of hungry rats kick about in the rubbish-filled back streets near the restaurant where Remy secretly works, hoping to gain access to the kitchen food stores.
The harsh reality of rat life in a human-controlled world is, I would suggest, an ‘issue’ in the film, even if it is one that is secondary to the more emotional issues that characterise the relationships between the main characters. At the end of the film, the issue is resolved to an extent, the rats occupying their own restaurant above one run by humans, who willingly provide Remy (now working as a chef on both floors) and the other rats with all the food they need (granted, this might not be a solution that would work in real life, but D&K do advocate creating spaces for liminal animals where they can live comfortably without posing risks to human health).
Of course, a plea of some kind for greater compassion or respect on the part of humans towards other animals is a feature of a great number of modern animated films (1), but society seems to do a pretty good job of taking no notice. Perhaps, as the critic Jonathan Burt suggests (2), these and similar films are never really as ‘pro-animal’ as they seem, given that they support and are supported by an industrial system that is invested in the consumption – and, by extension, the trivialisation – of animals (film production companies often have marketing tie-ins with companies selling animal products). Or perhaps the ‘messages’ of such films just have less of an effect on people’s attitudes than we sometimes imagine. I don’t really know, but I think it’s possible to have a much better living arrangement with our animal co-dwellers, and it’s nice to see one realised, even if it is in a film.
1. Examples include Madagascar (2005), Chicken Run (2000) and Over the Hedge (2006).
2. See Jonathan Burt, ‘Madagascar’, Society and Animals, 14 (2006), pp. 308–312: http://www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/620_reviewsection.pdf.
Donaldson, Sue and Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).