This story is part of an occasional series of articles from the Prague Wanderer, a webzine created by New York University students in Prague. Learn more about the Prague Wanderer here.
Mickey Mouse is one of the most recognizable figures in the world. The black-and-white mouse in red suspenders and white gloves captured the heart of the world in his movies and through extensive merchandising.
He launched the careers of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. First appearing in the film “Steamboat Willie” November 18, 1928 at Colony Theatre in New York City, Mickey has gone on to be featured in more than 120 cartoons and even more toys and related products.
But in Europe, there is another onyx-colored rodent who rules alongside Mickey as a children’s animated icon. Krtek, a usually trouser-less mole living in the woods with his animal friends, is a match for Mickey in likability and merchandising opportunities, albeit on a relative scale.
Created in 1956 by Zdeněk Miler in Prague at the Barrandov studio for a children’s cartoon on the production of linen from flax, his first official appearance was in a 12-minute film entitled “Jak Krtek ke Kalhotkám Přišel,” or “How the Mole got his Pants.”
Miler, now 87 and still living in Prague, was influenced by Disney’s well-known character in creating Krtek, but his ultimate inspiration came from a walk he took that night.
As told to the New York Times in an article celebrating Krtek’s 50th anniversary, Miler described the scene: “It was already dark. It was kind of hard to see. I tripped over something and I fell.I turned around to see what I fell on. It was a mole’s borrow. I said, “Here’s a good idea.”
In 1963 he began creating new short films or “episodes” featuring Krtek.
Now there are 44 episodes about five minutes each, and six that are nearly 30 minutes. The last short film was made in 2002, although new books continued to be published through 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the character.
Though Krtek’s adventures seem to stay clear of politics, they were not without their social commentary.
The New York Times reported, “Bureaucrats were poked fun at. He lamented the destruction of the environment. He showed a rabbit graphically giving birth. One film had Krtek traveling the world, stunned at an American mole’s superior burrowing technology.”
Krtek was one of the few things the Communist government could proudly export to the western world, which kept the little mole’s adventures free to entertain children consistently throughout the decades.
Mickey Mouse’s appearance has changed over the years from a rounded body to a more sophisticated figure. And Krtek’s appearance has also been polished over the years, but whereas the television and film vehicles for the character Mickey Mouse have transformed over the years from short films to live action children’s variety shows, the form of Krtek’s adventures remain today almost identical to what they were in 1963.
The Pop Culture Holiday Blog, (TPCHB) describes the plot of most short films featuring Krtek: “The mole is walking through the forest, comes across some sort of obstacle, and solves it. No anvils dropping on characters’ heads or dynamite swallowed by anyone (not that I don’t love those things also), just sweet, gentle stories beautifully rendered. They’re refreshing in that way.”
One such episode, entitled “Krtek as a Painter”, shows Krtek popping out of his hole one morning to find a large collection of paint cans in the woods. He soon discovers he can trick the villainous fox by painting himself and his companions, and they spend all night painting the entire area with bright polka-dots and stripes, causing much confusion for the poor fox. The woods are returned to their natural state, however, when is begins to rain, and all the creatures return to their naturally-colored lives.
Currently airing in more than 80 countries, Krtek certainly has the international reach of Mickey. This is in part because all but the first short film are completely without words. They are instead supplied with the giggles and universally understood noises of creator Zdeněk Miler’s daughters.
Very little is needed to move Krtek from the Czech Republic to other countries, other than perhaps a translated title.
But the United States in not among those dozens of countries which enjoy the little mole. According to TPCHB, “Part of the problem may have been that Krtek was from the communist nation of Czechoslovakia and his rise to fame occurred at the heights of the Cold War and Anti-Commie America.”
Still, it has been decades since the creation of Krtek, and the Czech Republic has not been a Communist country since 1989. What has kept Americans– or at least American children’s programmers — from Krtek?
The New York Times asked that question to Miler and other Czech animators.
The article concluded that “Krtek may be just too slow for the frantic land of Cartoon Network. Krtek films are, in fact, slow, but also lyrical and so hypnotically distinct that they can feel less like watching movies than climbing into another human’s head.”
The article also points to the stark contrast between American cartoons and those which have captivated the rest of the world. “In America, anvils were falling. A coyote strapped on Acme rocket skates. A slobbering duck kept getting his beak blasted off and, sadly for him, it may actually have been wabbit season. It was quieter here in 1954, when a frustrated Czech animator went for an evening walk in the woods searching for his own blockbuster of a cartoon character.”
Krtek’s appeal to non-American audiences however has survived changes in regime and the coming of new generations. Even those who have grown past their prime Krtek years still enjoy watching the little mole go on his little adventures.
To see the global and lasting impact of Krtek, one can look to Facebook group “Krtek rocks my socks!” Says group member Denise of Manchester, “I saw just two cartoons when I was really young and have a memory of being happy and crying at the same time… Now I watch the cartoons of You Tube all the time.”
Parents also pass down their love for this character to their children, and in this way Krtek has unofficially spread to almost every country. Michaela of Alberta, Canada says, “I loved Krtek growing up in the Czech Republic. My husband in Canadian and when I showed him Krtek he just totally fell in love with the cartoon. While I was pregnant with our son we went to Prague and bought as much Krtek stuff as we could find. [He] has his room decorated with Krtek and I hope he grows to appreciate him as I did when I was a child.”
Though Krtek hasn’t launched any pop careers, he is part of the childhood of several generations across the globe. Here in Prague, he can be seen popping his head out of every souvenir shop in the form of soft toys, or gracing the cover of a lunch box or set of bedding.
He follows you everywhere, a happy, gentle face smiling at you from behind the glass windows. He doesn’t say anything. He only giggles.
Joanna Bettelheim is a fourth year student at Sarah Lawrence College with a concentration in Women’s Studies.