The Mole in a Dream: children’s animation short verges on surreal and sci-fi / apocalyptic

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole in a Dream / Krtek ve Snu” (1985)

Another film episode in the life of Krtek the Mole and this one’s a real doozy verging on the near-surreal and sci-fi / post-apocalyptic. I gotta wonder whether Miler was high on hallucinogens at the time he made this little classic. This time the focus is on an unnamed human adult male who meets Krtek and this gives animator Miler a chance to show he can do more than paint lovely forest and flower backgrounds and write little kiddie stories about Krtek and his animal pals. One fine sunny day Krtek emerges out of hibernation underground and watches peak hour traffic; he’s bemused at the sight of a motorist’s car stopping due to a flat tyre and the motorist getting out and, by remote control on a handheld computerised transistor radio box, commands the car to replace the flat tyre with a spare. Intrigued, Krtek hitches a ride on the car and is taken back to the motorist’s house which is completely computer-controlled and can do its own cooking, cleaning and caring for its occupants. There the man has dinner and a bath, and then settles down in front of the TV to watch a pop music program. Krtek gets himself a free meal in the man’s house while its owner, oblivious to his presence, falls asleep and has a dream.

In the dream, the house malfunctions and the man has to call the tradesman to come and fix the central control unit in the basement. Unbeknownst to him as he lives in the countryside, civilisation has broken down and the man near freezes to death while waiting for the tradie. Krtek and his friends (Hare, Hedgehog) take pity on the man by lighting a fire in his house, warming and reviving him. Excitedly the man chops ups all the furniture in the house to keep himself and his new animal companions warm. A bear – we’ll call him Bear – joins them all and they teach the man how to survive in the forest. They kindly find him a goat that can give him milk. A lion joins them all and as winter makes way for spring, they find an old gramophone player with a record and start playing music and dancing in a circle as if performing a spring celebration rite. A mammoth tries to join the party and near flattens the man and at this point he wakes up.

As with other Krtek cartoons I’ve seen, the animation style is kept minimal while at the same time it portrays objects and backgrounds in considerable technical detail, though not too much so for young viewers and for 1980s-era animation purposes. In those days, animators were still working with pen and paper and, in Miler’s case, paintings. (With CGI now, we may have lost a lot of the whimsical charm of cartoons like the Krtek series.) The animation enables Miler to show how a smart house might operate: the man in the film presses a button and talks into his transistor box and an assembly line delivers him food and drink, and cleans up the dishes – and Krtek by accident who ends up bleached and pressed into a template along with the crockery and cutlery; fortunately Mouse comes by and sprays black shoe polish over him.

There is a little message about how humans can learn to live in harmony with nature and how cocooning yourself in automated comfort can put you at risk of danger and death if technology breaks down. Nature can be harsh but also offers help if one learns to be resourceful (and Krtek is a very resourceful little fella!) and reaches out for assistance from others and co-operates with them. Situational humour arises in most parts of the film though there are a few unexpected scenes where the action is forced: a lion comes by, storks kidnap Krtek, a Tree of Life sprouts through and destroys the man’s house; I know we are watching a dream which has its own logic but still, my conservative mind finds the lion and the mammoth a little jarring. Lots of little Chekhovian guns abound to serve as linchpins for plot development or the preservation of personal dignity: a carpet gets burned early on with a big hole in the middle so the man uses it as a poncho, having lost all his clothes to a wild boar. Once the gramophone appears on the scene, the animals play with it but you know eventually they’re going to fiddle with the stylus and force it play the old shellac record.

Without a doubt this is the kookiest and funniest Krtek film I’ve seen so far and I want to see more! There are full-frontal nudity scenes (oh my!) and lots of gentle slapstick but no violence. The music is varied and ranges from acoustic instrumentation for most of the film to near-trance tribal electro-acoustic music at the end where the animals and the man dance in a circle. I’m amazed that censors in Czechoslovakia overlooked that neo-primitive shamanistic aspect of the film. I heartily recommend this film for all age groups, even the very young under-18s.

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