How the Mole got his Pants: charming little short on making flax that set off a phenomenon

Zdenek Miler, “How the Mole got his Pants / Jak krtek ke kalhotkám prišel” (1957)

As it turns out, I’ve stumbled across the famous series of cartoons about Krtek the Mole that animator Zdenek Miler made over a period spanning 45 years, starting with “How the Mole got his Pants” in 1957. This first cartoon is a little charmer about how flax is spun and how clothing can be made from it.  Our little pal Krtek needs something to carry various tools in so he can perform his handy-man jobs and he gets the idea for a pair of overalls with deep pockets. He enlists the help of various animals like a lobster, a bird, a hedgehog and several species of insects to help him grow the plants, harvest the raw material and beat it, and then weave it into cloth. The plot is highly inventive with a very endearing scene of little bugs organising themselves into little work teams to set up the loom, throw the shuttle and weave the material for the overalls.

In contrast to the earlier cartoon I saw, “The Mole and the Clock / Krtek na hodiny”, this piece includes voice-over narration (the version I saw on Youtube was in German) which is helpful as the plot by itself is not clear with respect to all the details of flax production and needs more explication by voice, either in voice-over narrative or by having the animals speak to one another. I believe it was with the second cartoon in the series that Miler decided to do away with spoken voice altogether and just use his daughters’ voices to create sound effects such as laughter to emphasise the mood of particular scenes. The music here takes secondary place to the voice-over and tends to illustrate the mood of a particular passage, follow actions or call attention to a development in the plot.

The animation is deceptively simple but look closely and you’ll see the backgrounds and forest settings are beautifully rendered in pale green, blue and brown watercolours with very detailed portrayals of plants and flowers. Those viewers interested in painting or portraying scenes of nature and still life pictures of flowers, trees, other plants and of objects like looms should take note of the clinically yet minimally delineated two-dimensional background settings: they are obviously down-scaled for children’s perceptions but adults can find much to admire in the way individual flowers and trees are sketched and filled in. The technical minutiae of the flax-making scene are wonderfully drawn and depicted fairly accurately with all the little beetles tirelessly working together to set up the loom and make the cloth.

The Krtek series enjoyed tremendous success across eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and was exported to Germany, India and China as well. It is only very recently that the series has become known in the English-speaking world and already a commercial campaign to sell the series with Krtek dolls made up is beginning in the United States. Not that Krtek needs much to sell his charms. Curiously with his rounded head and ski-slope profile he resembles Josef Lada’s drawings of the famous soldier Švejk in Jaroslav Hašek’s famous novel “The Good Soldier Švejk” and that cannot be merely coincidental as Krtek is as obliging and resourceful as that lovable dog-catcher rogue.

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