History & Top 20 Characters

The way an animal is portrayed in media can be more influential than one may think. Typically people will form opinions about elusive animals such as 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. Unfortunately when it comes to most visual media outside of Asia and certain regions of Europe, mustelids haven’t been given the best image throughout the twentieth century. Non-otter/non-badger mustelids have had it rough at times, but those among the weasel family in particular were nearly always given wicked or fearsome misshapen 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. Read more about weasels in animation history...

Times haven’t changed much for weasels in visual media

Art and animation is, and should be a creative experience, but when attempting to portray a real-life animal, a reasonable degree of attention to detail is important. Most often the reason early artists distorted and caricatured the features of weasels so drastically, was to essentially make a otherwise non-intimidating creature appear more menacing, to fit their usual typecast roles as villains. Another common visual alteration comes from animators giving weasels and other mustelids the facial structure of a Canidae or rodent; then simply colouring them with weasel-like fur markings. This was frequently the case for ferrets and weasels in Nelvana/Alphanim’s Redwall TV series. Similar productions have even depicted these mustelids with buck teeth—which is another bizarre feature, since mustelids are not rodents, and not a single one in existence has buck teeth. When an artist has done their research on species’ anatomy, rarely should you have to rely on dialogue, or the character’s last name to know what animal it’s suppose to be.

Their roles are often limited due to double-standards

When it comes to their personality, weasels and other ‘slinky’ 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 seem to be the only mustelids that aren’t considered guilty by association, and are rarely stigmatized or portrayed negatively. Throughout history weasels have been perceive as sneaky creatures with an aggressive appetite for certain small mammals and avians (especially chickens). While more beloved animals such as bears, foxes, eagles, wolves, and even some dogs and cats have been accused of the same behavior, yet are nowhere near as despised as weasels; simply for having a more popular visual appeal. Being singled out amongst carnivores with similar behaviors, accompanied with the expression weasel out of, and the misnomer term weasel words has only needlessly contributed to their bum rap. Mustelids in general are stealthy and clever in the wild; this much is true if they are to survive. However, such traits don’t necessarily mean that they should always be portrayed as villains, as being stealthy and clever can open the door to positive roles as well.

They’re not so weaselly recognized

Apart from fur colouration, it is a unique combination of particular body parts that creates and defines an animal. So why do so many 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? While searching for an explanation, we found the 1949 animated film Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad helped popularize a unique style of weasel that is still widely drawn today. While a great Walt Disney production, which eventually lead to the famous Toon Patrol gang in the 1988 live-action/animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this influential toony style has often been the reason weasels and other mustelids have been misrepresented in productions that probably intended to capture them with more accuracy, but simply took Disney’s style as a reference. This is evident in many modern films, where other animals within the same production resemble their species’ anatomy, while the weasel-like animals do not. Typically the character is drawn with an elongated ‘sausage-shaped’ or bent muzzle extending twice the length of its own head, given anorexic proportions, and the nose the shape of a wine bottle’s cork; resembling more of a malnourished, doberman hybrid of some sort than an actual species of mustelid we’ve ever seen.

To be clear, our criticism isn’t about whether or not a character appears “cute” or “intimidating” to fit their role, but if they resemble their intended species to some reasonable degree. Those among the weasel family actually have short tapered muzzles, relatively flat noses, and are well-proportioned for their size; so it’s literally the opposite of Disney’s style, yet still somehow became widely stereotyped as the “weasel look”. Whatever the reasons for their caricature representation, we are not against those who enjoy, or even prefer Disney’s style. At the end of the day it’s all a matter of personal preference. It’s only unfortunate when people who know little about weasels use Disney as a default reference for what real weasels and other mustelids look like, rather than doing their own research.

In conclusion, 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 completely possible to draw a weasel in a toony style, and still have it look like one.

Taking realistic, semi-realistic, toony and Japanese animation style differences into consideration, below we’ve provided a list of 20 mustelids in animation we feel in our opinion deserve recognition for looking like (or close to), the species they were meant to represent. Although we don’t ‘need’ these characters to be perfect paragons of goodness, many of them were also given less typecast personality traits. While in our opinion we feel the mustelids below are well-depicted, constructive criticism is occasionally given in hopes of encouraging improvements for future animators.

Due to limiting our list to 20, it is subject to change as more well depicted characters are discovered.
(1) Rommel

From the Sunrise television series Gundam Build Divers.
Species: Stoat (Mustela erminea)

Rommel is a powerful, deep-voiced, male stoat strategist who leads the 7th Panzer Division. A tactical and forward planning leader, he is highly respected in the series. What is most interesting about his personality, is despite being a serious high ranking official, he is extremely permissive about being petted or held while in public view. His name is likely in reference to the German general and military theorist Erwin Rommel; who also commanded a 7th Panzer Division.

His semi-anthropomorphic anatomy is spot-on, and is perhaps the best representation of a non-feral stoat in modern animation. He appears to always be in his ermine coat, and the creators didn’t neglect to include the iconic black-tipped tail of his species.

(2) Pantalaimon (European pine marten form)

From the New Line Cinema, BBC One and HBO TV series Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Species: European pine marten (Martes martes)

This British fantasy TV series is based on the book series of the same title by Philip Pullman. Pantalaimon is a dæmon, and is the companion of the heroine Lyra Belacqua in the series. He changes into many forms, and one of them is of a European pine marten. One of his favorite forms is a stoat, but he later “settles” in to the pine marten form—the final form that the daemons take is supposed to reflect the personality of their people.

From what we see in the trailer for this film, the European pine marten form of Pantalaimon is given amazing accurate features for CGI. We’ve been waiting for a long time to see another marten species appear in media, and this one did not disappoint.

(3) Weasel, Measley, Fido and Cleo

From the Farthing Wood television series by Telemagination.
Species: Least weasels (Mustela nivalis)

This family of (larger than average) least weasels are quite the rambunctious sort. Nevertheless, most animals within White Deer Park are quite fond of them. They show concern for other animals in the area and offer to help when they can. Their weasel anatomy and length of muzzles sort of varies throughout the series, but they’re still a charming family worth mentioning.

(4) Hervé Le Furet (left) and François (right)

These two ferrets are the mascots for a French insurance comparator site.
Species: Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo)

You can find plenty of commercial shorts staring these two on YouTube (all in French of course). Rarely will we see animation of mustelids as pleasant as this on the big screen, but in the meantime, you can at least enjoy watching ferrets attempt to find you reliable suppliers for all your insurance, mortgage, bank and energy needs.

(5) The Otterton Family

From the Disney 3D computer-animated film Zootopia.
Species: North American river otters (Lontra canadensis)

Though we don’t see much of Emmitt Otterton, and nothing at all of the unnamed children other than in this photo, Mrs. Otterton is portrayed as a sweet wife, who tries to be brave as she struggles to find her missing husband throughout the film.

Disney may have a habit of sticking to their old weasel designs, but they do capture otters well.

(6) Okojo-san

From the Japanese manga series Okojo-san by Ayumi Uno.
The Animated adaptation is by Radix (now Radix Ace Entertainment Co., Ltd )

Species: Stoat (Mustela erminea)

Written in an absurd and humorous tone, the series features a male stoat with a leaf on his head, which serves as a visual aid in showing senses and emotion. The once wild Okojo-san escapes from a pet store and is found unconscious by college student Haruka Tsuchiya, who mistakes the animal for a ferret and brings it home to an apartment complex. From there on he has to learn to adapt to the human world, facing eccentric neighbours, their pets and household items on a daily basis. As soon as the ermine awakens, he displays a personality that is very representative of his species: Proud and confident, he see’s himself as a tough guy and everyone or everything he meets as a challenge to be won. He often bites over a little more than he can chew, which adds to the overall exaggeration of the series. A male ferret named Tatchin and a few other stoats show up to play alongside the main character, making this one of the few works of media where mustelids are truly allowed to shine in the limelight.

Although primarily in his white winter coat throughout the series, Okojo-san does have a summer and mid-phase coat. The word “okojo” means stoat in Japanese, and seeing a white one is regarded as a sign of luck. This may explain why so many stoats in Japanese media are primarily drawn in their winter coats.

(7) Iwashi

From the Hakumei and Mikochi television series by Lerche.
Species: Japanese weasel (Mustela itatsi)

It’s not often you see a species of weasel in animation that isn’t a ‘generic weasel’ or stoat. Iwashi is a male Japanese weasel, and is Hakumei’s senior colleague. A reasonable amount of effort was put into his species anatomy and fur markings.

(8) Otter

From the Nelvana animated television series Franklin.
Species: North American river otter (Lontra canadensis)

Otter is a female North American river otter who was once a close friend of Franklin’s. She moved away to the city earlier in the series, and returns to visit in a later episode. Much has changed in the village since she has been away, and she struggles with bittersweet memories due to these changes.

(9) Name Unknown

From the Pierrot anime adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s’ The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.
Species: Unspecified species of marten

He appears in episode 11, teaming up with a fox who tries to catch the geese. Not much ”character” or personality to speak of given the limited screen time and role, but a representation nonetheless. While the species isn’t clear, it bears resemblance to the sable, the American marten, the pacific marten and the Japanese marten in both anatomy and colouration.

It’s difficult to near impossible to find martens of any sort in animation, games or literature; which is strange given how beloved and well-known they are compared to other mustelids.

(10) Fretje

From Trippel Trappel Dierensinterklaas by il Luster Productions.
Species: Ferret (Mustela putorius furo)

This is a simple and family-friendly Dutch Christmas movie that follows a trio of animals headed by Fretje the ferret, on their quest to deliver their gift wishlist to Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) for Saint Nicholas Day. The trio face challenges from other animals and the city around them on their way to the steam ship where Sinterklaas resides. Despite Fretje briefly deviating from the mission once they reach the ship, the trio manage to find Sinterklaas, and bring their own titular Dierensinterklaas to all of their friends.

This movie is difficult to view outside of Europe due to heavy copyright restrictions. DVDs exist, and are locked to region 2. There are digital copy sources where the film may be watched anywhere in the European Union, as long as the purchase is made from the Netherlands.

The fluid animation, design and flexibility of this character is a great example of an animated ferret in a toony feral style.

List of Mustelids in Animation | History & Top 20 Characters

Mustelids in Media