Depictions of mustelids in animation can be a controversial subject, but the way an animal is portrayed in media can be more influential than one may expect. Typically people will form opinions about elusive animals like mustelids at an early age, from exposure to either cartoons or literature, and if there’s a lack of interest in learning more about them, these same beliefs tend to stick with people through adulthood. So while animals in art and animation aren’t necessarily real, misleading depictions can result in more confusion; especially when it comes to animals that are already largely stigmatized and/or misunderstood.
Unfortunately, when it comes to most visual media outside of Asia and certain regions of Europe, mustelids haven’t received the best depictions throughout modern history. Badgers and other mustelids have had it rough at times, but weasels in particular were nearly always given wicked, misshapen or brutish features; when in reality their faces could hardly give chills to the most timid of children. One could say these strange portrayals of weasels are like medieval drawings of elephants; based on depictions from people who have never seen one, becoming more distant from the source. When drawing weasels, there’s more to capturing their appearance than simply long torsos and necks.
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, (e.g., drawing a character with the face, tail and hooves of a horse and claiming its a rabbit, won’t make it a rabbit). In this case it would be better to claim that the character is an 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 classic weasel characters created by Disney, as well as other animation studios. Some of these companies have even depicted weasels and other mustelids with buck teeth; which is another bizarre feature, since mustelids are not rodents, and not a single one in existence has buck teeth.
Given nowadays cartoonists and animators have better access to photographic references, after depicting a real animal, rarely should viewers have to rely on dialogue, or the character’s surname to know what animal it’s supposed to be. If it’s a species that few people would recognize, this gives even more reason to use references. We’ll address this subject in greater detail later.
They are often typecast as miscreants
When it comes to their personality, weasels and other similar-looking mustelids are often generalized as the deceitful, 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. It should be noted that many animated films were adapted from classic literature, 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 egg-sucking/bloodsucking (which they can physically do neither), 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 dogs and cats. In addition, the expression “weasel out of”, and the misnomer term “weasel word” has only needlessly contributed to their bum rap.
Like in other forms of media, animation writers 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 animation studios 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 cat ears and rodent buck teeth can certainly be difficult to identify, but what is perhaps most baffling, is the attachment of the broad, elongated canid-like snout. What gave rise to such an exaggerated feature?
One possibility for the origin of the elongated snout could be from early animators using mink stoles as a reference for drawing weasels. Since both the mink’s skull and lower jaw was removed, the head on 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 quite as 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-nosed 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 by Disney; in addition to weasels being misrepresented by other Western productions who used Disney’s weasels as a reference. 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 style 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. Due to a limited number of animators during the time, several companies employed cartoonists who had previously worked for Disney; further spreading this practice. Overall, because of minimal knowledge of mustelids at the time, and lack of easy access to photographs and professional illustrations, few realized (or cared) that these were false 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. This likely derives from a strange, yet still popular misconception that weasel-like animals are rodents. Portraying mustelids with buck teeth would be similar to portraying wolves or tigers with buck teeth… Even if the rest of the character’s design looked great, 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 Zootropolis, despite most other animals being easily identifiable, Duke Weaselton carries on the standard of having to rely on classic caricaturizations to even remotely tell he’s a weasel, rather than a fox. Although rare, we will admit Disney has managed to depict weasels fairly in one film; with these two stoats appearing in Disney’s Secret of the Wings. Not only did they look decent, they were also not demonized. It’s only unfortunate they didn’t play a larger role.
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. It’s not about whether a character appears “cute” or “intimidating” to fit their role, but if they resemble their intended species to some reasonable degree. Whatever the reasons for the caricatured representation of weasels and other mustelids in animation, we are not against enjoying a classic style. We acknowledge and agree that just because a mustelid character bears little resemblance to their 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 enthusiasts have been frequently disappointed by the same old stereotypical personalities, and distorted depictions of these animals.
In conclusion, it may be a common presumption that toony weasel characters hold an excuse for being far less recognizable compared to their more realistically depicted counterparts, but as demonstrated by Moody F. in this Zootropolis-styled drawing of a long-tailed weasel, she shows it is completely possible to depict a weasel in a modern toony style, and still have it resemble its species.
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 the majority of 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 drawn similar in Don Bluth’s Secret of NIMH style would have made an excellent candidate for a mustelid-centred film.