Whether through extensive studying of actual animals, a fleeting memory, or research, filmmakers have often turned to the more strange and random sides of nature to develop their ideas for some of the most famous and iconic animated characters ever. So what influenced these creatures, and why? Learn more about the incredible real life animal inspiration behind your favorite film and television characters.
1. Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot – Bandicoot
When video game developers were searching for a protagonist for their new game, they realized they needed an animal that was “cute, real, and no one really knew about”. Thankfully, Australia is full of animals meeting those requirements. Torn between several options, the team decided to model the game’s main character after a small marsupial called a bandicoot.
The character is described as a genetically enhanced eastern barred bandicoot who gains superpowers after a failed experiment. Unlike the video game character, real bandicoots are more interested in digging up earthworms with their long snouts than saving the day. Sadly, these nocturnal small marsupials may need some intervention from a video game hero: they are considered a threatened species.
2. Taz, Looney Tunes – Tasmanian Devil
Considered an apex predator on the Australian island of Tasmania, it’s no wonder that the largest carnivorous marsupial inspired one of pop culture’s most popular wacky cartoon villains. Taz the Tasmanian devil appears as destructive, quick-moving, and in possession of a voracious appetite.
It got its devilish moniker from the unsettling sounds it makes as it gorges on prey, and from the notion (now proven false) that it had an insatiable appetite for farm animals. After a highly publicized battle, the Tasmanian government came to an agreement with Warner Bros. in which the cartoon could be used to bring attention to raise awareness and funds to save the special creature from a population-threatening disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD).
3. Yun Mibu, The Lion Guard – Clouded Leopard
Considered to be a rare and highly secretive animal, the clouded leopard is absent from most forms of media, overshadowed by other, more imposing big cats. This changed when a cartoon version of the elusive kitty was featured on The Lion King spin-off, The Lion Guard. In the episode, the animal friends encounter a clouded leopard named Yun Mibu.
The character’s Chinese name, meaning “cloud”, is a homage to the big cat’s native Asian habitat. Once abundant across the Asian continent, the endangered cat is now only found in India, Southeast Asia, and China. Like the cartoon depiction, cloud leopards are expert climbers. Sadly, the threat the population faces is not the stuff of fiction. The unique cloud-like markings of their fur make them a target for poachers, while their natural habitat is slowly being destroyed.
4. Master Shifu, Kung Fu Panda – Red Panda
With their masked faces and button noses, the red panda already looks like a cartoon character. It’s no surprise that Hollywood transformed this charismatic critter into a popular movie character, the wise Master Shifu in the animated film Kung Fu Panda. A stark contrast from the playful bamboo-munching real animal, Master Shifu often appears serious and grumpy.
This small arboreal mammal is found across southern Asia, from the Himalayas to southwestern China. Expert climbers, they’ve earned a reputation as escape artists, having made headlines with a brazen escape from The National Zoo in Washington D.C. Despite sharing a name, the red panda is not actually genetically related to the giant panda. What’s more — their habitat generally doesn’t overlap!
5. Flotsam and Jetsam, The Little Mermaid – Green Moray Eels
No villain would be complete without a loyal henchman or two. In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ursula employs her two “hench-eels” to do her bidding. Flotsam and Jetsam appear in the movie as the nasty sea-witch’s cronies and spies. Their glowing yellow eyes and sharp teeth perfectly personify their characters’ evil nature. The manipulative pair are based on an equally vicious creature: the green moray eel.
Found from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, these large eels are one of the biggest in their family. Centuries before The Little Mermaid, these fierce-looking creatures were thought to be sea serpents. Green moray eels often open their mouth to allow water to pass through their gills, revealing long and sharp teeth. Those fearsome chompers, combined with lengths close to eight feet, make it the perfect inspiration for any scary story.
6. Arthur Reed, Arthur – Aardvark
Most viewers of the educational television show Arthur would have trouble identifying what type of animal the main character is. Unlike most of the other anthropomorphic animal characters on the show, illustrators removed many of Arthur’s more realistic aardvark-like characteristics. While fans of the television series and book know that Arthur Read is an aardvark, few people can identify the real animal in a lineup.
Aardvarks are nocturnal mammals found across most of sub-Saharan Africa. They burrow and dig in order to find ants and termites hidden in their hills, using their sensitive long snout to sniff out tasty insects concealed in the dirt. Unlike the always-friendly Arthur, real aardvarks are solitary animals, preferring to only leave their nests under the cover of night.
7. The Road Runner, Looney Tunes – Roadrunner
A familiar sight during Saturday morning cartoon-viewing is the fast moving Looney Tunes character, the Road Runner. The long-limbed bird has enchanted viewers for generations in its never-ending battle against determined yet hapless foe, Wile E. Coyote. This quick-thinking speedy creature is based on an equally fast bird of the same name.
These fascinating birds have actually been recorded running at speeds up to 27 mph. Cartoons aside, roadrunners have a powerful reputation as being protectors in traditional southwestern and Mexican tribal mythology. Unlike the show, fellow desert-dwelling coyotes are able to capture and eat these speedy birds. While videos of real-life Wile E. Coyotes chasing roadrunners have gone viral, the canine predators usually prefer easier prey.
8. Rocko, Rocko’s Modern Life – Real Wallaby
In the 1990s, animation had evolved to include more shades of adult humor and social commentary, which became far more apparent with the Nickelodeon cartoon Rocko’s Modern Life. The animated television show featured a cast of anthropomorphic characters, starring an Australian talking wallaby named Rocko.
Wallabies belong to the same taxonomic family as their larger clan members, kangaroos. The adaptive and small marsupials are native to Australia. Joe Murray, the show’s developer, was reportedly inspired by an oblivious wallaby he once observed in a zoo. Unlike his distracted inspiration, Rocko frequently deals with conflicts throughout the series. The show, which initially encountered pushback from studio executives due to its racy content, has become a cult hit.
9. Tabaqui, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle – Striped Hyena
In writing the popular stories of The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling drew on real fauna and mythology he had absorbed during his early childhood and early adulthood in British colonial India. The Netflix adaptation Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle continued his legacy of including real creatures and their often mythological traits. One captivating character with an equally interesting story is the tiger Shere Khan’s messenger, a striped hyena named Tabaqui.
Striped hyenas are found across Africa, Central Asia, India, and the Middle East. As the smallest members of the hyena family, their unusual appearance and nocturnal behavior have given them prominence in regional folklore. Similarly to the Kipling story, striped hyenas could occasionally interact with wolves, bears, and even tigers. Despite being powerful predators, hyenas generally do not seek conflict with tigers. They have, however, been reported as hunting alongside wolves.
10. Lorax, The Lorax – Patas Monkeys
Like most stories by the seminal children’s book author Dr. Seuss, readers have long wondered where the talented writer took his inspiration from. Now, new research and speculation suggests that the fictional characters in The Lorax may have been inspired by a real species of monkey, the Patas monkey.
One theory fueling this revelation is that the author wrote the book’s manuscript while on vacation in Kenya, home to these monkeys. Like the pivotal Lorax character, Patas monkeys are highly dependent on the trees. Not only do the monkeys share the same environmental plight as the Lorax character; the two share that fabulous mustache! The children’s book has largely been credited with raising awareness about the environment.
11. Sonic, Sonic the Hedgehog – Hedgehog
Arguably one of the most easily recognized pop culture characters ever, Sonic the Hedgehog, had a very mundane beginning. When Japanese artist Naoto Ohshima was creating a character for Sega, he simply looked at a list of animals that could roll into a ball. On that list was a very familiar guest to gardens across the world: the humble hedgehog.
Despite lacking blue spiky hair and gloves, real hedgehogs are equally as fascinating. Even before their video game debut, the omnivorous creature has played a large role in European folk culture. Like their blue-haired counterpart, the spiny animals typically have a positive reputation and are considered to be hard workers.
12. Rocket Raccoon, Guardians of the Galaxy – Real Raccoon
Most people typically associate raccoons with being those nasty thieving pests who rummage around in garbage cans rather than cruising around on rocket ships. This changed when the crafty critter appeared in a Marvel comic, and later in the film Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket Raccoon is a highly intelligent member of the superhero team tasked with saving the day.
The CGI effect for the Bradley Cooper-voiced character were developed by observing the actions and movement of real-life raccoons. Animators studied the raccoon in order to make this fan-favorite character seem more realistic and less cartoon-like for the live action film.
13. Rufus, Kim Possible – Naked Mole-Rat
Prior to the popularity of the animated Disney spy series Kim Possible, few people had ever heard of an animal called a naked mole-rat. The mysterious burrowing rodent became a household name thanks to Kim’s sidekick, Rufus. While the animated version captured the hearts of audiences, the real-life creature continues to stump scientists.
Naked mole-rats are unique in many ways, including the way they live. Similar to insects, they live in colonies with a breeding queen. Able to adapt to harsh conditions, the rodents are also seemingly immune to cancer. Despite their real superhero powers, creators joked that they only included the creature in order to be able to say the word “naked” on a children’s show.
14. Joanna, Rescuers Down Under – Goanna Lizard
As in many stories, villains typically have an equally ferocious crony at their side. In the animated film Rescuers Down Under, the evil hunter antagonist owns a slithering dragonlike goanna lizard. The goanna lizard, aptly named Joanna, plays her role by terrorizing the other captive creatures.
While some creative liberties were taken, animators studied a real goanna in order to perfect the animated reptile’s movements. Like Joanna, the real animals also have a fondness for eggs. The Australian lizard is equally comfortable in a tree as they are on the ground, and will eat just about anything. Growing up to eight feet in length, and with a dangerous bite, they are highly not recommended as pets.
15. Perry the Platypus, Phineas and Ferb – Platypus
While developing the television show Phineas and Ferb, show creators insisted that one of the main characters ought to be an uncommon animal, one that couldn’t be found in a pet shop. Eventually, the show’s creators settled on an animal so strange, it still leaves scientists baffled: the platypus.
On the show, Perry the Platypus lives a double-life as both a spy and a pet. Found in eastern Australia, the real animal behind the cartoon is no stranger to contrasting identities. As an egg-laying mammal possessing a soft furry body with a duck-like bill, not to mention venomous spurs on the feet of the males, the real platypus is stranger than fiction. With a myriad of strange characteristics, it wouldn’t shock scientists if platypuses moonlighted as spies as well.
16. The Fossa, Madagascar – Fossa
Fossas made their big-screen debuts in the animated film Madagascar. These feline-like carnivorous mammals appeared as the ferocious villains, threatening to eat the lemurs. As apex hunters in Madagascar, their portrayal as ruthless killers is not that far from reality.
Adept at climbing trees, arboreal lemurs are no match for the stealthy fossa. While the film highlights their fondness for lemur flesh, there are some key inaccuracies. One of the biggest differences is that, in contrast to the pack of fossas seen in the movie, real fossas are solitary, highly territorial animals. The deadly predator also possesses a negative reputation at home, where local folklore sees them as selfish and bringing bad luck.
17. Pascal, Tangled – Chameleon
One of the surprising breakout stars from the Disney film Tangled was Rapunzel’s chameleon. While many films feature a sidekick, directors insisted that the princess’ friend would be a unique animal that would complement her equally unique personality. Ultimately, they decided to use a chameleon.
Taking inspiration from a fellow animator’s pet chameleon named Pascal, the animation team studied the real animal in order to accurately capture the reptile’s movements and physical features. While they initially designed Pascal to move and act like a real chameleon, they felt it was too “cold” and gave him a more cute and cartoonish appearance, which fans seem to adore.
18. Timon, The Lion King – Meerkat
Voiced by renowned actor Nathan Lane, Timon the meerkat stole the hearts of audiences around the world, becoming one of the most recognizable animated characters ever. The small critter made his appearance in the animated classic The Lion King, sparking an interest in the sub-Saharan small carnivore. Like their cartoon counterpart, meerkats enjoy munching on bugs and other creepy-crawlies.
And while Timon physically resembles the real animal, there are some differences. In the film, Timon is able to walk upright the entire time. In reality, meerkats walk on all fours, and can only stand for short periods of time in order to survey danger. As social animals living in colonies, it would also be unlikely that Timon would stray far from his family — let alone befriend a predator like a lion!
19. Pikachu, Pokémon – Squirrel
With the explosive success of the Japanese Pokémon franchise, many fans were wondering, what exactly is a Pikachu? With large cheeks and small round eyes, many animals have been discussed exactly could have been the real animal inspiration behind this unforgettably adorable animated creature.
While many guesses are valid, one of the show’s animators has admitted that she became inspired by a very common rodent, the squirrel. Graphic artist Atsuko Nishida explained that she had become very interested in squirrels, and wanted her character to have the same full cheeks and prominent tail. As the character evolved, it became more mouselike in appearance, but still maintains some squirrelly characteristics, such as standing upright.
20. Vulptex, Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Culpeo Foxes
One of the new creatures recently added to the Star Wars universe are the fleeting vulptices seen in the second film of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi. Looking similar to foxes, these elegant creatures were pictured as being completely covered in crystalline shards, giving them an ethereal, majestic appearance.
In the film, the creatures are said to live in the mineral rich world of Crait. In real life, the film was shot on the largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Many believe that the fox-like vulptices are based on a native fox species called culpeo foxes. Behind the scenes footage of the Star Wars films show animators studying pictures of the foxes.
21. Finnick Fox, Zootopia – Fennec Fox
Another fox that has captured moviegoers’ attention is the fennec fox. The world’s smallest species of canid, the fennec fox was seen in the popular Disney film, Zootopia. Based on the real animal, Finnick Fox possesses the same gigantic, disproportionate, bat-like ears and small nose.
His doll-like appearance allows his character to successfully scam the animal residents of the anthropomorphic of Zootopia. In real life, fennec foxes are less scheming, but still cunning little hunters. Found across the deserts of the Middle East and northern Africa, the tiny carnivore is adept at catching small prey. Large ears help regulate their temperature by dissipating heat. Unlike many other species of foxes, fennec foxes have been successfully raised as pets.
22. Mort, Madagascar – Mouse Lemur
One of the most popular characters from the film, Madagascar, was the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed lemur named Mort. Fans were captivated by the tiny lemur and his naiveté. The real animal inspiration behind the adorable character is also the world’s smallest primate, the mouse lemur.
The mouse lemur’s fluffy coat helps deflect heat, keeping them cool. Their comically large eyes help these nocturnal creatures to find prey when the sun goes down. Like most lemurs, they are omnivorous, and spend most of their life in the trees. Unfortunately, also like many of the other lemurs featured in the film, mouse lemurs are a threatened species.
23. Sven, Frozen – Reindeer
Before the popularity of Disney’s Frozen franchise, reindeer were typically associated with Santa Claus. Also called caribou, reindeer are native to the frozen lands of the Arctic, covering Northern Europe, Siberia, Canada, and Alaska. The majestic creatures live in large migratory herds, where they roam across frigid landscapes.
In the film Frozen, a reindeer named Sven helps Princess Anna find her sister Elsa. The goofy reindeer was inspired by the real animal brought into the animation studio. Filmmakers also traveled to a reindeer farm in Norway in order to capture the animal’s natural movements. While the original depiction of Sven was more stoic, similar to a real reindeer, animators soon changed him to have more doglike mannerisms.
24. Tamatoa, Moana – Coconut Crab
One of the most popular songs from the hit Disney film Moana was the David Bowie-inspired song, “Shiny”. Performed by the monstrous giant crab Tamatoa, the song reveals how the antagonist became obsessed with all things shiny and materialistic. And in fact, this musical crustacean is based on a real-life giant crab stalking the tropical landscapes of the Indian and Pacific Ocean: the coconut crab.
The enormous crab, which inspired the Disney character, also has a naughty reputation for stealing things. Sometimes known as a “robber crab”, the giant terrestrial crab will eat anything it can get its large claws on. In a contrast to its reputation as being a fruit eater, terrifying footage has even emerged of the crab eating birds.
25. Ewoks, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – Brussels Griffon
When ewoks first appeared in the finale of the original Star Wars trilogy, moviegoers didn’t know whether to be disturbed or want to cuddle with the furry beasts. Decades later, audiences are still enamored with the strange hairy beast native to the fictional moon of Endor.
With their hirsute appearance, big dark eyes, and small noses, many people believe that Ewoks resemble teddy bears. The real inspiration came from an equally adorable source, a small dog breed known as Brussels Griffon. These tiny, often bearded, dogs bear a resemblance to the warlike ewoks. In addition to their obvious similarities, George Lucas owned several of these dogs. It was rumored that makeup artists used images of the flat-faced puppies as inspiration.
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