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A painting of Krtek on a primary school in Wuppertal, Germany. Image: Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There comes a time in every recreational marijuana user’s life when, aiming to recapture the safety of the womb, you misfire and land instead among memories of early childhood. The sensation is practically the same, if you replace the warmth and reassurance of amniotic fluid with the infinitely swimmable liquid of the Internet’s technicolor scroll. You have, in short, discovered the cartoons of your childhood on YouTube.

When my parents moved to Australia before my brother and I were born, they brought with them a cardboard box of video cassettes, Polish and Chinese titles handwritten on scotch tape along their spines. I once asked my father why he felt it so important for us to be tethered to his homeland in this way – I half-expected philosophical ramblings, but had forgotten that the reality of child-rearing as a working-class immigrant was far more mundane. He hoped the cartridges would teach me Polish by osmosis, or at least instill in me a desire to learn it. In my memory, the cartoons only spoke in exclamatory gestures. When forced to speak Polish today, it feels distant but familiar, as though it lies dormant in the spine, having searched exhaustively all these years for an avenue with which to audibly surface.

It is a testament to the wisdom and mystery of YouTube’s algorithm that every nameless cartoon of my youth could be found in three attempts or less with the vaguest of signifiers such as ‘Talking Slavic Goat.’ There was one that escaped me though. I trawled the internet in search of a memory; three tufts of hair that stood alert like antennae, ready to receive the world. Whenever I tried to hone in on other specifics, though, the images would flash and then drop off like nerve endings fired into empty space. But finally, somewhere on page 3 of search results, I found Krtek Ve Městě (Mole Goes to Town). ​

Krtek ve Městě. Image: Film Česky, YouTube

The Krtek cartoon series was created by Czech animator Zdeněk Miler – a graduate of the Prague Academy of the Arts. In 1956, Miler was commissioned to produce an educational animation on the production of flax linen. Unable to imagine a suitable lead animal that Disney hadn’t already claimed for themselves, he tripped over a molehill walking home one day when inspiration struck, and the 11-minute Jak Krtek ke Kalhotkám Přišel (How Mole got his Trousers) was born. In reality, moles are at least three evolutionary processes away from being cute, but Miler captures something intangible about the mole’s spirit; Krtek has large, child-like eyes, soft pink paws and a grin that threatens to stay. Miler wanted his cartoons to be universally understood; characters use a made-up language comprised ​mostly of his own daughter’s baby-talk, the rest of the narrative largely conveyed through music. Dozens of episodes were made that fulfilled official criteria while satisfying Miler’s personal ideological demands.

An alternative timeline thus emerged in the history of children’s animation, one which was unafraid to confront the darker elements of the human psyche.

Miler’s work is immediately atypical. Soviet era cartoons consist mainly of educational videos in the style of socialist realism. An essential food source is traced from farm to table to a cherub-cheeked schoolboy handing out poppy-seed pastries to burly, homoerotic wheat-farmers as the Great Leader looms approvingly in the sky like the Teletubby sun. Mickey Mouse and the larger Disney empire was banned from the Soviet bloc because, as Steven Watts writes, ‘If Disney’s post-war movies presented vignettes of an American way of life, Disneyland erected a monument to it.’ Soviet animators were thus compelled to reimagine their continental counterparts with a brutalist bend, as in ‘Vinni Pukh’, the Russian Winnie the Pooh, or the Soviet retelling of The Jungle Book. An alternative timeline thus emerged in the history of children’s animation, one which was unafraid to confront the darker elements of the human psyche.

Vinni Pukh (Winnie-the-Pooh), 1969. Image: © IMDb

Miler’s work, on the other hand, appeals to some deeper truth whose artistic value is intrinsic rather than instrumental.

The 28-minute Krtek Ve Městě (1982) opens with the camera gliding across an edenic forest. Krtek (the mole) and his friends, a hedgehog and a rabbit, are eating wild strawberries on the grass when they are interrupted by the unmistakable roar of something mechanical. A field of pine trees lay horizontally on the forest floor, extending into the horizon. They are immediately carted away on the back of orange semi-trailers that spew thought-bubbles of smoke into the air. Krtek and his friends are left huddling on a single tree-stump consoling one another, surrounded by a waste-land of stumps that resemble tomb-stones of environmental loss. What follows as the land around them becomes a construction site for urban progress is a ridiculous series of deferrals to positions of higher authority.

Under capitalism, kafkaesque bureaucracy makes it that no one can be held accountable, and those who should be held accountable seem capable only of band-aid solutions.

A crucial element of Krtek Ve Městě is its absence of personified evil. The humans that Krtek encounters are faceless, interchangeable and well-intentioned, albeit alienated by an endless propulsion towards progress. Where Captain Planet and the Planeteers’ super-powered activists battle eco-villains to restore environmental order, in Miler’s imagination, no super-villain hatching a plan for world domination from his gothic spire could ever approximate the true horrors of modernity. The marked difference between Soviet and American styles of environmental animation lies in an ideological tension between passivity and activity. There are no promising young children who will save the day in Krtek Ve Městě, because such children are necessarily a part of the problem by virtue of birth within a capitalist economy; the fast-paced action sequences of Captain Planet approximate a technogaianist attitude in which flashy, new technologies (read: a super-powered green-haired deus ex machina) save the day and absolve humanity of guilt without confronting the very systems that wreak ecological destruction. On the centrelessness of power in modern modes of government, Krtek Ve Městě reaches two conclusions: Firstly, that under capitalism, no one can be held accountable, and to attempt to prove otherwise is to enter into a kafkaesque labyrinth of bureaucracy; and secondly, that those who should be held accountable seem capable only of retro-engineering band-aid solutions.

Krtek ve Městě. Image: Film Česky, YouTube

The most popular cartoons for children today (according to YouTube views, at least) resemble a schizophrenic pastiche of bright colours and random events with little cause or effect. This is no happy accident, but rather the Disney cultural apparatus’ most fully realised form.

Type ‘Peppa Pig’ into YouTube and experience the televisual equivalent to getting gang-banged by a bag of Skittles. Episodes are six minutes but arrive pre-packaged in hour-long segments. In one episode, Peppa Pig goes to the market with her family to purchase fruit, fish and cheese. They are accosted by a fox whose market stall sells all manner of cheap, plastic goods. Mummy and Daddy Pig kindly reject the fox’s sales pitch for a plastic, dancing fish because they ‘don’t need it.’ When it suddenly starts pouring with rain, Mummy and Daddy Pig buy four umbrellas and are delighted to discover that if you buy four, you get a plastic dancing fish for free. Every Peppa Pig episode finishes in a similar vein. The characters begin laughing hysterically, for no apparent reason as the Narrator explains that ‘Peppa loves markets. Everybody loves markets.’

The moral backbone of each episode relates to good citizenship rather than the cultivation of personal virtues, as Peppa Pig and all of her contemporaries educate children in how to become a maximally functional and co-operative unit of a socially cohesive whole. I felt a deep violation after falling down the rabbit hole – the uncomfortable feeling of time telescoping into itself. I imagined the time-slices of every possible future, full of hope and fear and bodies governed by unknowable forces, condensed into the retina of a three-year old child watching Peppa Pig Christmas Collection with a glazed-over expression.

Where so many of Krtek’s Soviet contemporaries were instructive in how to be a maximally efficient part of a specific kind of whole, Miler’s paradox is in producing a product that is anti-consumerist by nature.

This isn’t to say that children’s cartoons were necessarily better in the past. Inherent in the entertainment machine’s mechanism is a commitment to instilling the value of consumption into young people as a necessary means of sustaining itself. Where so many of Krtek’s Soviet contemporaries were instructive in how to be a maximally efficient part of a specific kind of whole, Miler’s paradox is in producing a product that is anti-consumerist by nature, that actively resists itself and in so doing dares itself to not be watched, which is why Krtek Ve Městě is a statistical anomaly – a blip in an otherwise seamless program. Krtek does, however, live on: He remains a popular cartoon in countries as far-flung as Kazakhstan and Japan. In 2011, Krtek was taken by US astronaut Andrew Feustal to an International Space Station, and just last year, Krtek was appointed official mascot of Alfa Romeo’s Formula 1 racing team. Over half a century on, late capitalism trades in the currency of dramatic irony as Krtek becomes subsumed by the very systems he set out to critique.

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Towards the end of Krtek Ve Městě, the mole, the hedgehog and the rabbit eventually make their way to the roof of a skyscraper. They look towards the sun, and for a moment the urban landscape is eclipsed by its beauty until it too becomes shrouded in grey smog. Three white geese circle overhead and the animals wave them down with the fervour of being stranded – not in the middle of nowhere, but in the middle of everywhere. On the backs of the geese, the three animals fly off into the distance. Their figures recede into tiny specks of nothing until all you are left with is a wide, open sky.