LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - From secret agent guinea pigs to bopping hamsters behind the wheel, rodents are clawing their way to center stage as the cool new superheroes of movies and advertising.
Just as Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse changed the image of mice from household pests to cuddly critters more than 80 years ago, rats, hamsters and guinea pigs are shaking off years of being relegated to side-kick roles or objects of horror.
The latest example is Disney family movie "G-Force", which stars a trio of guinea-pigs with night-vision goggles and motorized exercise balls. It took Hollywood by storm last weekend, toppling the latest "Harry Potter" movie from No. 1 on U.S. box office charts with a $32 million debut.
But it's not the only movie that has won fans by utilizing the furry little critters. Despite being encased in a plastic ball, Rhino the manic hamster stole the thunder of the adorable white puppy and sassy cat in "Bolt", while "Ratatouille" saw a rat succeed as a chef in a fancy French restaurant.
"Rodents do seem to be working as a trend. A lot of it may have to do with the times. People want to be entertained, they don't want to be too serious right now," said Colin Jeffery, executive creative director at Los Angeles-based advertising agency David&Goliath.
David&Goliath is behind the TV ad campaign for the Kia Soul that stars laid-back, iPod-wearing animated hamsters driving the new car. The ad has become a YouTube hit.
"We wanted to do something completely different. The target audience is young and the obvious way of using graffiti and street-inspired themes seemed very tired," Jeffery said.
He said advances in animation techniques made it possible to bring emotion to rodents and smaller animals.
"A lot of it is down to the processing power of computers. They can master the movement of fur and animate the eyes and make it incredibly life-like," he said.
"G-Force" director Hoyt Yeatman said his movie was inspired by his 5 year-old son's affection for guinea pigs. "He dressed his guinea pig in a little helmet and back pack and began on a story about how this little guy would save the day.
"So you think cute and cool goes together well and I hadn't seen that many guinea pig characters on screen. I think everyone really wishes they could talk and communicate with their pet," Yeatman said.
Dale Taylor, vice president of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, said rodents were on the rise as companion animals with their image improving in the past 10 years.
"Years ago, we would have people come by to our shows and it would be Eeww! and Urggh! Now we have people talking about how charming they are," Taylor said.
"Rats will come and sit on your lap and have their heads and ears and tummies scratched. They are never grouchy and they want to hang out with you. Once you have had a rat, your heart will forever walk outside your body."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte