Krtek, the Czech cartoon mole known throughout communist Europe for decades, is seeking to break into the $21 billion U.S. toy market with the help of Apple Inc. (AAPL:US)
The launch of the stuffed-animal version of Krtek (pronounced Kir-teck) aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavour on this day last year spurred 22-year-old Czech student Karolina Milerova, the granddaughter of Krtek’s late creator, Zdenek Miler, to commission IPad and IPhone apps designed to entertain kids from Prague to Peoria.
Exporting the six-decade-old “Little Mole” through new media is a first step toward establishing the most popular Czech animated icon in America to spur sales of books, movies and toys. That would give local vendors, such as toymaker Moravske Ustredna and publisher Zeme Pohadek, a way to vie for the hearts of children more used to such names as Walt Disney Co.’s (DIS:US) Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros’ Bugs Bunny.
“My granddad’s desires were to help kids and promote Krtek more in the U.S.,” said Milerova. “IPad’s applications are a great way to do both.”
Miler, an admirer of Walt Disney’s works who died last November at age 90, created the mole to explain to kids living in then-communist Czechoslovakia how linen is made. The first cartoon was titled “How Krtek Got His Pants.”
The black-and-grey Krtek, with a bright red nose and saucer eyes, soon became a hit across eastern Europe and spread to other communist countries like Cuba and China. He later was introduced to western European countries, including France and Germany, where he is still popular as “der kleine Maulwurf.”
“Krtek has never had a foothold in the U.S.,” said Blahoslav Dobes, the head of Moravska Ustredna, which donated the Krtek stuffed animal to astronaut Andrew Feustel to carry aboard the Endeavour and has already taken preliminary steps into the U.S. market. “We think there’s a big potential. We want to develop that market.”
Krtek’s easy transferability to other countries with different languages lies in the fact that Krtek and his forest friends don’t speak: Instead they hum, squeak, sigh, mumble and chirp to communicate.
Miler also shunned violent behavior, putting him in contrast with contemporary cartoon pals such as Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, said film experts including Lukas Gregor, an instructor at Filmova Skola Zlin.
“Miler put a lot of tenderness in his work,” said Zdenka Deitchova, who worked with Miler at Studio Bratri v Triku and is the wife of Gene Deitch, who helped draw American cartoon characters such as Tom and Jerry, Popeye and Tom Terrific. “Kids from all over the world understand them without the need for further explanation.”
The production rights for most of Krtek’s 60 cartoons are owned by Zeme Pohadek, a Prague-based production and publishing company that bought the rights from Kratky Film in 2003. It has sold 2.2 million Krtek DVDs since then and owns licenses with French, Chinese, German and Scandinavian broadcasters.
Moravska Ustredna holds the license to manufacture toys for most of Europe, and countries like Japan, China and Russia.
After the 16-day final Endeavour flight, Feustel, who took a book of Czech poetry with him on an earlier mission, and his wife Indira, who has Czech roots, toured the Czech Republic to promote science and technology to children.
“We hope that through his adventures in space, children and youth will become interested in math and science and technology, and will grow those educational experiences toward future careers,” Feustel said at the time.
Milerova, a student at Prague’s Anglo-American College, set up the Zdenek Miler Foundation to manage charity work with kids shortly after he died on Nov. 30, 2011. Miler, who liked the idea, created a worldwide trademark for Karolina to allow her to promote Krtek internationally.
The first app, a Krtek-themed Pexeso, which is a Czech version of the game known as Concentration in the U.S., was designed by ULikeIT s.r.o., a Czech app maker. A second e- coloring book is in design. Proceeds from app sales go to the foundation to help educate orphaned and disabled children.
“My grandfather was so happy to see Krtek on Endeavour,” said Milerova. “I want to continue to promote Krtek over there with books, movies and toys. I feel morally obliged to do so.”
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