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. Badgers and other 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 our full article 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 likely 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. By far the most common visual alteration comes from animators giving weasels and other mustelids the facial structure of a Canidae or rodent. This was frequently the case for numerous weasel characters created by Disney, as well as those by Nelvana/Alphanim that appeared in the Redwall TV series. These companies, along with others, have even depicted 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 a professional artist has done their research on species anatomy, rarely should a person who’s unfamiliar with caricaturization have to rely on dialogue, or the character’s last name to know what animal it’s supposed to be. If it’s a species that few would recognize, that gives even more reason to do one’s research. We’ll address this subject in greater detail later.

Their roles are often limited

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 largely stigmatized or portrayed negatively in animation. The reasons behind the stigmatization of weasels and other mustelids vary, but mostly comes from them being perceived as sneaky creatures with an appetite for certain small mammals and avians (especially chickens). However, more beloved animals such as bears, foxes, eagles, wolves, and even some dogs and cats have been accused of the same behaviour, yet are nowhere near as despised as weasels; simply for having a more popular appeal. Being singled out amongst animals with similar behaviours, 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—like most other 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 canines and rodents?

Apart from fur colouration, it is a unique combination of particular body parts that creates and defines an 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? While searching for an explanation, we found The Weasels 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 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this influential toony style likely contributed to weasels being misrepresented by other productions, due to them using Disney as a reference. Some examples are #1 (Disney)#2 (Disney)#3, #4, and #5. Despite being complete distortions from the real animal, this style managed to become widely stereotyped as the “weasel look”. What’s most baffling is how otters are rarely depicted this way, despite having similar weasel features.

As we can see by the five prior examples, the caricaturization of weasels between Disney and these 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 weasel 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. Disney however, is not to blame for weasels and other mustelids being drawn with rodent incisors. This is likely just related to a popular misconception that mustelids are rodents. Overall, because of minimal knowledge of mustelids at the time, and lack of easy access to photographs and professional illustrations, few realized these were false depictions. The look became so commonplace in animation, that today we manage to see a weasel even when the character lacks fundamental weasel features.

There are other, more modern visual alterations of weasels besides the classic toony style. In Zootropolis, despite all other animals in the film looking like their intended species, Duke Weaselton carries on the standard of looking nothing like a weasel. It’s a shame, because this would have been a great opportunity for Disney to not pander to the stereotypical weasel look… given the message of the film was about the negative effects of stereotyping. Although rare, we will admit Disney has managed to depict weasels well in one film. In Secret of the Wings, these two stoats were depicted fairly well. It’s only unfortunate they didn’t play a larger role.

In conclusion, we want to be clear that our criticism isn’t about whether or not a character appears “cute” or “intimidating” to fit their role, but if they resemble the intended species to some reasonable degree. Whatever the reasons are for the over-caricatured representation of mustelids, we are not against those who enjoy, or even prefer these styles. We acknowledge and agree that just because a weasel character bears no resemblance to a weasel, that doesn’t mean the character lacks all merits, or even ruins the production. It’s just… not a weasel. We don’t wish to come off as presumptuous, but many mustelid enthusiasts have been frequently disappointed by the same old stereotypical personalities and depictions of these animals by major Western companies. 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 draw a weasel in a modern toony style, and still have it look like one.

The short version

To summarize, Disney started the caricatured weasel look, other Western companies copied it, we became accustomed to the look—which encouraged animators to pander to public expectations, and thus the look perpetuated. And although Western animation studios are not solely to blame for the stigmatization of mustelids, they have contributed to it. Sure, we could have shortened this entire article down to a couple of sentences, but then it wouldn’t have been as fun of a subject.

We’ve yet to see a mustelid-centred animated feature film

There’s a lot of amazing artwork of mustelids 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 mustelid characters as excessively demonized, or overly cute. 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.

Our top 20 list of animated mustelid characters

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. Lastly, while some character species may not be confirmed, most within this list can still easily be identified by their distinctive features and country of production.

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

(2) 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 (hence the pun ‘Ermine’ Rommel); who also commanded a 7th Panzer Division.

His semi-anthropomorphic anatomy is spot-on, and is perhaps the best representation of a 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. His full character sheet.

(3) 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 detailed features for CGI. It’s difficult 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.

(4) 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 generally well-depicted.

(5) 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.

(6) 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.

Despite rarely depicting weasels correctly, Disney does manage to capture otters well.

(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) Uso-kun (うそくん)

From the A-1 Pictures anime television series Vividred Operation.
Species: Otter, non-specific

Uso-kun is a sentient stuffed otter and the alter-ego of the inventor and scientist Kenjirou Isshiki. Kenjirou switched bodies with the otter as the result of an experiment. One source says his species is a sea otter, but it shares no features of one. Though no confirmation was given, he’s more than likely meant to be an Asian small-clawed otter.

(9) Name Unknown

From the Pierrot anime adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s’ The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.
Species: Marten, non-specific

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.

(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