Rikki-Tikki-Tavi's adorable design was inspired by one of the best Looney Tunes shorts of all time

"Rikki is all cute eyes, cute tail and cute dashing about" — and so is the squirrel that came two decades before him.

The Everett Collection

Read to Me

If there’s one cartoon TV special that Seventies kids know better than anyone else, it's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi tells the story of a delightfully-named mongoose who gets adopted by a family he fiercely defends against villainous cobras who wish to reclaim the family's home as their territory. It was one of those specials that so frequently re-aired, it would be hard to find a Seventies kid who hadn't been touched by the mongoose's tale.

Then in 1985, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi went to video and a new generation of kids met the mongoose. Celebrating its release, The New York Times praised how detailed the landscape and architecture were, noting how scary the snakes were and painting a picture of the special's hero: "Rikki is all cute eyes, cute tail and cute dashing about."

Most people know that Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book) wrote the short story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," but you may not realize that the character design for Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was actually inspired by a Merrie Melodies short from 1953 that's counted among the best Looney Tunes cartoons of all time.

In "Much Ado About Nutting," there's no dialog, just a squirrel in Central Park, trying to scrounge up the biggest nut he can find. It won't take long once you look at the squirrel to see Rikki-Tikki-Tavi's "cute eyes and cute tail."

The whole cartoon follows as the squirrel dashes about, trading up between larger and larger nuts and going from mere peanuts to the enormous coconut he doesn't realize will be impossible for him to crack. It's a charming classic cartoon that never disappoints by always failing to deliver the squirrel the prized nut he is seeking.

Two decades later, the same animator behind "Much Ado About Nutting," Chuck Jones, was tapped to bring Rikki-Tikki-Tavi to life, and he repurposed much of the design from this squirrel for his adorable rendition of the mongoose, leading to a very special design that Jones cooked up just for the Kipling character.

If you've seen Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, then you know that the mongoose's strength is all about speed. That's what makes him a fierce fighter capable of taking down the cobras.

Jones wanted to portray this speed with a little flourish and to do so, he fed into a very curious instinct and nonintuitively decided to slow down the time it took for the mongoose to fully appear onscreen.

Jones' big idea was to have an "imaginary" Rikki who appears first in the scene, a blur with strangely stretched proportions that was more of an outline of an image, reminiscent of how Jones styled Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff. It would then take about four seconds for the rest of Rikki to fill into the proper shape, starting with his nose when it reached the point in the scene where Rikki stopped running.

This was a magical effect for kids watching, as those bright eyes and that cute tail popped back into the frame again and again. Rikki felt as fast as the reputation that preceded him, and for kids in the audience, it was so easy to believe in his power to fend off the snakes. Everyone wanted Rikki-Tikki-Tavi to win.

The finishing touch of bringing Rikki-Tikki-Tavi into the frame was for sure the best part, as Jones described in his notes to animators from the book Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings: "The last movement is when his whiskers pop out and vibrate."

In "Much Ado About Nutting," Jones’ earlier cartoon, you see the squirrel's whiskers twitch, too, and now you'll know to read that as a sign of what's to come as Jones' quirky cartoons kept evolving to give us the underrated TV hero Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

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jjatlake 7 months ago
I was watching this cartoon yesterday and thought to myself, "This squirrel looks a lot like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi."
JoeSHill 7 months ago
I enjoyed Chuck Jones' animation works but being something of a person who raised mongooses, his animated CBS TV special in 1975 had me a bit confused, because his animated version of a mongoose actually looked like a common cartoon squirrel, and it's interesting because both a squirrel and a mongoose have one thing in common-their speckled fur. but the mongoose has the shape of a Ferret and is a cousin of Civets, Genets, Binturongs, and Meerkats, and has lenticular eyes, so Jones obviously knew this and choose to deviate from reality to create his cartoon version. he was a great animator, but I had a nasty experience with his daughter back in 1984, so the less said, the better! but "RIKKI-TIKKI TAVI" was still somewhat entertaining, and it was still a great trademark of Chuck Jones animation works, as the former Warner Bros. animator was also a vice president for Children's programming at ABC from 1967 to 1973 where he created his live ABC Saturday Morning TV series, "CURIOSITY SHOP" in Fall 1971.
DonStankalis 7 months ago
After reading Chuck's 2-book biography His style is evident in the 1955-63 Warner Bros. toons, as well as his stint producing the Tom and Jerry theatricals from 63-66. He is also a fan of the Jungle Book series
daDoctah 7 months ago
Jones was always one to give his characters cute, soulful eyes. You can see it not only in the images above, but in Pussyfoot (the kitten taken in by the bulldog Marc Anthony), in Max (the Grinch's dog), and the characters he did for the movie GAY PURR-EE.

The one time making a character "cute" came back to bite him was when he created Sniffles the Mouse for Looney Tunes. Later he talked of how much he hated that little guy.
Moody 7 months ago
I never saw this cartoon but I do remember reading the story in school. I wonder if kids today have read it.
MrsPhilHarris Moody 7 months ago
I don’t remember the cartoon either, but did read the book.
moax429 Moody 7 months ago
I remember the "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" special very well, as well as another one Jones did around the same time, "The White Seal."

Why aren't these on DVD? Maybe Chuck Jones' estate owns them?
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