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.
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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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.