Czech illustrator and animator Zdeněk Miler, the creator of the most famous and beloved mole in history, has died at the age of 90. His cartoon character Krtek or Krteček (“Little Mole”) has been delighting children (and their parents) for 55 years — and even travelled to space this year, in the form of a puppet taken aboard the Endeavour space shuttle by a US astronaut with a Czech mother-in-law.
Miler spent some two years creating his first cartoon starring the intrepid little mole (known as Der kleine Maulwurf in German, Kisvakond in Hungarian, and Myyrä in Finnish). “How the mole got his trousers” (Jak krtek ke kalhotkám přišel) was released in 1956 — and won a silver lion in Venice.
Production for additional episodes began in 1963, and some 50 more Krtek episodes more were created over the next four decades. At first, the mole spoke, but Miler wanted to broaden the character’s international appeal, so music began to play a far more important role.
The characters hardly ever speak, and even then it is generally just to say “Hello” (hálo), though they often squeal in delight or give the occasional sigh (ach jo!); the exclamations and other sounds were taken from recordings Miler made of his own young daughters.
Krtek was a huge overnight success in the former Czechoslovakia, much of Eastern Europe and Germany, and later won hearts in Western Europe and as far afield as India. Much to Miler’s regret, the little mole never caught on in the United States.
The last animated short starting the little mole appeared in 2002. Miler retained the rights to the series and turned down many lucrative offers, not wanting the character’s innocence to be corrupted. Krtek’s likeness is, however, ubiquitous in Czech nursery and elementary schools, appearing on everything from underwear to back packs.
The animated Krtek took to space in the third series of the cartoon character in 1965, where he flew to a deserted island and was helped to repair his rocket by a crab. US astronaut Andrew Feustel (whose wife, Indira, had a Czech mother and had grown up with the creature’s adventures) brought two puppet moles on board the Endeavour six-man mission in May 2011. He presented one to Miler upon his return from space.