Depictions of weasels in animation can be a controversial subject, but the way an animal is portrayed in media can be more influential than one may expect. Many people form opinions about mysterious and elusive animals like weasels at an early age from what they’ve learnt from cartoons or literature, and if there’s a lack of interest in attempting to learn more about them (which is usually the case), these same beliefs tend to stick with people through adulthood. So while animals in fictional media aren’t necessarily real, certain misrepresentations can result in lasting inaccurate or negative perceptions; especially when it comes to animals that are already largely stigmatized and misunderstood. This article is primarily focused on weasels, since they tend to be the most controversially depicted mustelids.
Unfortunately, when it comes to most media outside of Asia and certain regions of Europe, mustelids haven’t received the best representation. Badgers and other mustelids have had it rough at times, but weasels in particular are nearly always typecast as antagonists and given wicked, misshapen or brutish features; when in reality their faces could hardly give chills to the most timid of children. Of course, not everyone has trouble separating fiction from reality, but we’d be in denial to say some of these depictions haven’t contributed to their stigmatization.
Weasels haven’t been so “weasily identifiable”
Art and animation is, and should be a creative experience, but when attempting to portray a real-life animal, a reasonable degree of that animal’s anatomy should be present. This is because even if a real animal is portrayed as anthropomorphic, we cannot take away the fundamentals of what visually defines that animal. For example, drawing a character with the face, body and hind legs of a wolf and claiming it’s a ferret (just because it was given ferret-like ears), won’t exactly make it a ferret. Arguably, whenever too many key features of an animal is missing, it is no longer stylization, but rather a misrepresentation. In this case it would be better to claim that the character is a hybrid or invented species.
By far the most common visual alteration comes from cartoonists and animators giving weasels the facial structure of canids and rodents. This was, and still is the case for numerous weasel characters created by Disney (which often look more like rounded-eared dachshunds), as well as other animation studios. Although less of an anatomy issue, some companies have even depicted these animals with buck teeth. Which is another strange feature, since mustelids are not rodents, and not a single one in existence has buck teeth. When drawing weasels, there’s more to capturing their appearance than simply long torsos and necks. We’ll address this subject in greater detail later.
They are often typecast as dimwitted miscreants
When it comes to their personality, weasels and other similar-looking mustelids are often generalized as the unintelligent, thieving, irredeemable coward; for no particular reason other than… well, they’re weasels. Despite being members of the same family, otters (and badgers to some degree) seem to be the only well-known mustelids that aren’t largely stigmatized, or portrayed negatively in animation. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that many animated films were adapted from classic literature and even comics, so the typecast roles of weasels did not arise in one form of media.
Although the reasons behind the stigmatization of weasels vary, it mostly stems from them being perceived as sneaky creatures that viciously attack small mammals and chickens. However, this behaviour is not unique, and is shared by other, more beloved animals such as wolves, bears, foxes and eagles; including some free-ranging dogs and cats. In addition, the expression “weasel out of”, and the misnomer term “weasel word” has only needlessly contributed to their bum rap.
Unfortunately, most forms of media will often fixate on the negative reputation of weasels, and rarely utilize or look into their other traits. Mustelids in general are stealthy and clever; like most other wild animals, this much is true if they are to survive. However, such traits don’t necessarily mean that they should always be portrayed as monstrous villains, as being stealthy and clever can open the door to positive roles as well.
What gave rise to weasels looking like canids and rodents?
Apart from fur colouration, it is a unique combination of particular body parts that creates and defines a real-life animal. So why do so many cartoonists and animators choose to create a weasel character, and then completely redesign its species to something else, if they’re not interested in what weasels actually look like? Weasels given canid digitigrade legs, pointed feline ears, and rodent buck teeth can certainly be difficult to identify; especially if they’re drawn tailless. But what is perhaps most baffling, is the attachment of the elongated, “sausage-shaped” snout. What gave rise to such an exaggerated feature?
One possibility for the origin of the elongated snout could be from early cartoonists and animators using mink stoles as a reference for drawing weasels. Since both the mink’s skull and lower jaw were removed, the head of these stoles were typically disfigured. With no bone structure remaining, the snout would be pinched and stylized into a long, pointed shape; followed by an addition of artificial eyes. Although not commonly seen today, these mink stoles were likely the only weasel-like thing the average person saw to use as a reference at the time. On the other hand, exaggerated nose and snout lengths have been traditionally associated with characters that were meant to appear dishonest, so it’s hard to say if mink stoles were the only reason.
Whether or not the long snout originated with mink stoles, it still doesn’t explain why this look became so popular. While searching for more details, we believe (although they’re not the first weasels to appear in animation), The Weasels in the 1949 animated film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad helped widely popularize the long-muzzled weasel. While a great Walt Disney production, which eventually lead to the famous Toon Patrol gang in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this highly rated film likely contributed to the continuation of this style, and similar variations by other animation studios. The long-muzzled “toon” look may not be the only style of weasel by Disney, but it is by far the most well-known and referenced. Some examples are (#1 Disney), (#2 Disney), (#3), (#4), (#5) and (#6). Despite being complete distortions from the real animal, this style managed to become widely stereotyped as the “weasel look”.
As we can see by the six prior examples, the caricaturization of these weasels between Disney and other companies seem too similar in design to suggest a mere coincidence. We believe over the course of the mid-twentieth century, various productions seemingly took this style and adapted it in slightly different ways, resulting in its mainstream use. Several companies also employed people who had previously worked for Disney; perhaps further contributing to the spread this practice. Overall, because of minimal knowledge of weasels at the time, and lack of easy access to photographs and professional illustrations, few living beyond the countryside realized these were misleading depictions. The look became so commonplace in art and animation, that today we manage to see a weasel even when the character lacks fundamental weasel features.
Disney however, is not to blame for weasels and other mustelids being drawn with buck teeth; a feature that was particularly prevalent in Nelvana’s 1999-2002 Redwall TV series. This dental mishap likely derives from a peculiar, yet popular misconception that mustelids are rodents. Portraying these animals with buck teeth would be similar to portraying wolves or tigers with buck teeth… Even if the rest of the character’s design looked decent, seeing large, herbivorous incisors on a predator would be difficult to ignore.
There are other, more modern visual alterations of weasels besides the classic toony style. In the 2016 film Zootopia, despite most other animals in the film looking very much like their species, Duke Weaselton carries on the standard of having to rely on classic caricaturizations to even remotely tell he’s a weasel, rather than a species of fox. It may be a common presumption that toony characters hold an excuse for being far less recognizable compared to their more realistically depicted counterparts, but as demonstrated by Moody F. in this Zootopia-styled drawing of a long-tailed weasel, she shows it is possible to depict a weasel in a toony style, and still have it resemble its species.
In conclusion, we want to be clear that we criticize not to cause animosity towards certain characters or films, but to help bring attention to these less discussed issues so we may see future improvement. Whatever the reasons are for the caricatured representation of weasels, we are not against enjoying a classic style. We acknowledge and agree that just because a character bears little resemblance to its real-life counterpart, that doesn’t mean the character lacks all merits, or even ruins the production. We don’t wish to come off as hypercritical, but many mustelid fans have been frequently disappointed by the same old typecast roles, and misrepresented depictions of these animals in animation. Given nowadays we have better access to both animal facts and photographic references, there’s no reason why things can’t improve.
We’ve yet to see a mustelid-centred animated feature film
Felids, canids, fish and even bugs have had their films, but will there ever be one about mustelids? There’s a lot of amazing artwork of these animals drawn by independent artists online, yet this talent seldom makes it to the big screen. It is in our opinion that we are long overdue for a predominant mustelid animated film; one that features a variety of mustelid species, drawn by artists who understand their anatomy and movements. A film with a good storyline that can be appreciated by all ages, and neither portrays these characters as excessively demonized, or overly cute.
We see so many remakes, sequels, and similar plots in animation these days featuring the same ol’ animal species, why not change things up with the diversity and unexplored world of mustelids? There’s approximately 60 mustelid species to choose from! Garry Kilworth’s Welkin Weasels, or Alan Lloyd’s The Kine Saga drawn similar in Don Bluth’s Secret of NIMH style, would have made excellent candidates for a mustelid-centred film.