When legendary animator Chuck Jones decided to make a short film out of Rudyard Kipling’s story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” he was faced with a challenge: How could he imbue the cobra-killing mongoose with a sense of personality and make it relatable, all without taking away from the fact that it was an animal?
“[His] first concern was always believability,” Robert Patrick of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity tells Mental Floss. “That informed all of his stylistic decisions.” So when creating the titular character, Jones decided to draw from real mongoose behavior: namely, how quickly they move (you can watch one mongoose evade a cobra strike here). He did some research—“there is at least one book on the mongoose in his library,” Patrick says—and came up with a method that Hugh Kenner describes in Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings as “an art based on the post-retinal image. You see a blur without feeling sure what you saw.”
Jones drew up a model sheet that described how the mongoose should enter the frame. “When Rikki enters the scene, let him fill an imaginary Rikki until his nose reaches the proper point,” he wrote. “[T]hen the rest expands and the last movement is when his whiskers pop out and vibrate.” He also noted how the mongoose should leave: “When Rikki leaves the scene, follow the angle of his pose. Hold tail until head is well out—the snap tail along path and out.” You can see it in action in the clip below:
According to Kenner, Jones described this method in 1977 as akin to a number of cars stopped at a light: “When the light changes, the 15 cars won’t move off en bloc,” Kenner writers. “No, car 1 must move ahead several feet before car 2 can even start moving, likewise car 3, car 4 … so the string lengthens as it gets into motion.” (He also used this analogy to describe how Wile E. Coyote fell.) This take on the character's movement made it one of the most fondly remembered things about the film.
Jones wasn’t just concerned with Rikki’s movement; he also paid close attention to the character’s face, which was key in making the character relatable to humans. “Keep ears pointing forward so leading edge shows,” he wrote on the model sketch, dated May 21, 1974. “All parts of face move up and away from center. Flatten top of nose in front view—it works better. OK, it isn’t logical—it still works better.” He also asked for a “heavier line” in certain areas to “accent perkiness.”
Production on Rikki-Tikki-Tavi began in late 1973 or early 1974, according to Patrick. “Chuck was an inveterate reader, and a huge fan of Rudyard Kipling,” he says. “I'm sure Kipling's Jungle Book stories was inspiring and a favorite of his; it appears on his essential reading list of books that every literate, English-speaking person should read at least once in their life.”
The 25-minute TV special aired in 1975 and featured the vocal talents of June Foray (Mulan, Looney Toons) as Nagaina the Cobra, Wife of Nag, Teddy's Mother, and Darzee the Tailorbird’s Wife; Les Tremayne (Adventures of the Gummi Bears) as Father; Michael LeClair as Teddy; Lennie Weinrib (Voltron) as Darzee the Tailorbird; and Shepard Menken (The Phantom Tollbooth) as Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, with Orson Welles performing the voices of Nag the Cobra and Chuchundra the muskrat. The actor also provided the film’s narration; hopefully it went a little more smoothly than the time he recorded voiceover for that frozen peas commercial.