The great Czech illustrator and animator Zdeněk Miler – creator of the famous Krtek or Krteček (Little Mole) enjoyed by children and parents worldwide – turned 90 years old this week. On the occasion of Mr Miler’s birthday (incidentally his famous character is now 55) the Vltavín Gallery in Prague opened a new exhibition honouring his work. Called Zdeněk Miler dětem, the show above all is for children and features drawings, watercolours and original paintings on transparencies (called cells) which were used in the animation process to bring the Mole and friends to life.
In the Czech Republic, Zdeněk Miler’s krtek is nothing less than a national treasure – a modest, friendly and sensitive little character the illustrator, director and animator first conceived of back in the 1950s. Miler created almost 50 short cartoons using the character, many of which are known to generations of Czechs by heart. The first animated short, called Jak krtek ke kalhotám přišel (How the mole got his pants), was shown in 1956 and told the story of how forest animals – from a spider to birds to a crayfish – help the mole process flax for a new pair of pants. That first episode of Krtek’s adventures still remains the most famous, Kateřina Tučková, the curator of the show, says:
“My favourite of this series is also that episode with the trousers. The story was shown at the Venice film festival in 1957 and was awarded a main prize.”
How important is the mole character for generations of Czech children?
“I think very much. Truly many generations grew up with the Mole and his stories. For us, Mr Miler is a Czech ‘Walt Disney’; that’s how important he is for us as a nation.”
What are some of the works on display here? I noticed you could divide it into at least two different categories...
“Well, it’s a retrospective of course and as such it is intended primarily for children. There are drawings and paintings from the Little Mole stories and his friends: a rabbit, hedgehog, frog and so on. Mr Miler did about 50 or short films and you can see some of them here. Much of the work is hung at eye-level for kids and they can also play draw or paint themselves and spend a couple hours here.”
“That’s correct. There are several images from Zdeněk Miler’s personal archive, the reason being that a lot of them remained the property of Bratri v triku, the studio where he worked. Also, some of the original material was damaged or lost.”
Taking a look around, the enthusiasm of parents and visiting children is immediately apparent: pure joy from toddlers running from framed picture to picture, recognising the Mole and other Miler characters. Kids play on a carpet in one room and watch episodes on a flat-screen TV. One of the visitors, Anežka and her son Vítek (maybe around two-years of age) tell me more:
“We knew about this show and knew we had to visit. The mole means something for generations and is a part of my own childhood, so we knew we had to see it. The character communicates in a simple manner which I think can be understood by children everywhere. That’s the key to his appeal and success.”
Indeed, while the very first episode was narrated, Zdeněk Miler wanted it to be easier for the mole to communicate with everyone, and the original sounds he made – various exclamations or interjections – were recorded with his two young daughters at the time. To this day the Little Mole communicates through peals of laughter and simple words like Tam! (There!), Jo jo (Yes, yes) or other simple gestures or sounds. Curator Kateřina Tučková again:
“It shows the genius of Zdeněk Miler that he found a very simple form or expression which is understandable for children all over the world. Anyone can understand the very sweet and happy figures in his stories. That’s why, I think, the Mole and his friends are so famous.”
Many of the episodes of Krtek have an educational message such as Krtek a robot (Mole and the robot) where work with a little automaton the mole buys with a diamond he dug up goes somewhat wrong. The message is rarely black-and-white and never moralising or heavy-handed. The lessons learned are subtle and even sometimes a touch ambiguous, as in real life, like when the mole dresses as a vagabond to test the generosity and empathy of his friends, the rabbit and the mouse and so on.
There are also three longer formats – roughly 30 minute films which tackled even more serious themes that appeared at least in part, aimed not only at children but their parents as well: Krtek ve městě (Mole in the city) – which shows the devastation of the forest and Nature, replaced by smog, the city and modern industry.
Equally engaging is Krtek ve snu (Mole in a dream) – a ‘fantastical’ story about the end of natural resources (namely oil) and the return to the wild, where a man, the mole and other animals return to a more precarious state of existence where they have to secure the most important basic needs: shelter, security, warmth and food.
Both episodes are unforgettable and stand up to many repeat viewings. The curator of Zdeněk Miler dětem, Kateřina Tučková, again:
“There are very important points in the stories and some of them have to do with children’s upbringing. In short, there are parts that are educational.”
Most of the episodes, too, are set in the mild climate and landscape of Central Europe that Zdeněk Miler knows so well and his fans recognise, with the artist placing strong detail in flora specific to the region. Viewers will say it is very European or even Czech.
“It wasn’t easy to travel under Socialism so Mr Miler of course inspired by Central European elements.”
On the week of Mr Miler’s 90th birthday it’s worth mentioning that best wishes came not only from viewers and fans in the Czech Republic but also from around the globe. The Little Mole, as the owner of a large toy chain store in the Czech Republic told me a few years back, is one of the country’s best-known exports, his books translated into 19 languages. And, Czech Radio’s flagship Radiožurnál reported that birthday greetings came from as far away as Japan, where many children there have adopted the little Czech mole as a favourite character. One Japanese illustrator sent this message:
“All the best on your birthday and we wish you good health in the coming years! We look forward to new stories about the mole!”
In Prague, at the opening of Zdeněk Miler dětem, organisers were also happy to see a year’s planning come to fruition. Although media access was limited at the request of Mr Miler’s family, the author of the Little Mole and so many famous books and films, came away very happy, Kateřina Tučková says:
“We are very interested in his work and so we met him and his wife a year ago and talked about doing this on the occasion of his 90th birthday. His wife played a big role in organising it.”
“Well, because of Zdeněk Miler’s age he tires easily. But on the evening of the 21st you could see he was bursting with energy. He had friends and family around him and I think he was very pleased.”
Zdeněk Miler dětem continues at Galerie Vltavín in the city centre until April 10.