Thoughts on storytelling and the world of animation. Caution! SPOILERS!

Blog #2: The Inglorious Sidekick

Going to the movies in the early 20th century was quite a different experience from what we know today.  You could spend a whole Saturday at the theater, admission paid just once, and watch numerous short films, news reels, animations, serials, and a featured film.  A serial film was a single story split into 12-15 segments, one shown each week, with a cliffhanger at the end of each so you would be sure to come back next week to see what happened.  I became well acquainted with ‘B’ movie singing cowboy serials during my stint at the TV station, and even wrote up a small page on what you could expect to find in a western movie.   I became rather fond of the silly sidekicks who permeated the genre, and thought I would write about animated movie sidekicks as compared to cowboy movie serials.  Four major differences stood out to me.

Smiley Burnette

Classic Sidekick

If you haven’t seen many westerns, the cowboy sidekick is a classic role.  He is usually unattractive, but very friendly and mild-mannered.  He is generally clumsy, awkward, and dumb, and mostly interested in the next meal.  He is very loyal to his friend, and also makes friends with unusual animals.  His main purpose is to add comic relief to the film and provide assistance to the hero.  You should be familiar at least with Pat Buttram of Green Acres fame, whose  role as Mr. Haney should give you a general idea of what to expect.

Observation 1 – Which side is the sidekick on?

cowboy B film henchmen

You can tell they're the bad guys because of the scowl

The Cowboy Sidekick is always with the Hero.  The antagonist gets a henchman at best.  Henchmen do not giggle, or get drunk, or sing, or dance, or fall over randomly, or need rescuing by their friend.  They scowl a lot.  They obey their master’s bidding without complaint.  They get into fights.  Frankly, I don’t think they have very much fun.

Iago and Jafar from Aladdin

The Animated Sidekick, on the other hand, can be either with the hero or the villain, or possibly both characters get one in the same movie.  Take the Disney movie Aladdin.  While the title character got his sidekick in the form of the monkey, Abu,  The Evil Vizier Jafar was also granted a sidekick named Iago, who has both a sense of humor and obeys the principles of animation in regards to anticipation, squash and stretch, and other would-be-painful-if-he-were-human-so-its-ok-to-laugh moments.   Iago also gets to sing.  He gets funny lines.   He gets paired up with a scowling, conniving, angry character bent on ruling the world.  It’s an odd juxtaposition, but serves to make Jafar seem a bit less scary while still maintaining his dignity as the Evil Vizier.   Similarly, Royal Advisor Rasputin from Anastasia gets paired up with a mild-mannered little bat named Bartok, while Anastasia herself acquires a little dog as her loyal companion.

One example where ONLY the villain gets a sidekick is Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.  Lefou (The Fool, in French) is classic sidekick material, and serves basically as a punching bag for Gaston.  The Beast is surrounded by so many characters that it’s hard to define any one of them as sidekick material.  Belle’s father might count as a sidekick for her, but it’s rare to have a father serve in that role, and he tends to get her into more trouble than to be a supporting role for her.

Observation 2 – The sidekick as comic relief

The Cowboy Sidekick is always comedic.  The Hero might get a funny line or two, but the sidekick is there for the laughs and will go to

Zazu from The Lion King

painful extremes to get them.  The Animated Sidekick is not always slapstick funny.  One example is Zazu from The Lion King.  As the king’s steward, he takes his job seriously, and takes on the role of father figure as best he can. For the most part he maintains his dignity with minimal squashing.  Sebastian from The Little Mermaid also falls into this role, following the Princess to attempt to keep her out of trouble, although he gets in quite a bit of trouble himself.  When compared to Prince John in Robin Hood, Sir Hiss becomes the more serious character, particularly after one of Prince John’s temper tantrums.

Observation 3 – How many sidekicks does it take . . .

As far as I can tell, there is generally only one Cowboy Sidekick at a time.  The Hero may have relatives, and a love interest, but only one ‘official’ sidekick.  Animated Heroes can get multiple sidekicks.

In Mulan, the young girl is loaded down with sidekicks, including a dragon, a horse, a cricket who may or may not be lucky, and a bevy of fellow soldiers.  Simba the lion cub gets Timon and Pumbaa as sidekicks, and could possibly count the wise Zazu as well.  Cinderella and Snow White are both inundated by woodland creatures, who I suppose, taken collectively, could be counted as one full sized sidekick.  And then, of course, there’s all those dwarves.

Observation 4 – The sidekick as a friend

The Cowboy Sidekick and the Hero are always friends.  Frankly, I’m really not sure WHY the Hero puts up with the silly oaf he’s been saddled with (hah!) but you can’t argue the fact that they get along just fine.   The Animated Sidekick does not necessarily get along with the Hero at first.  in Shrek, Shrek and Donkey spend most of the movie arguing and fighting, before learning to accept each other, but Donkey is clearly in the sidekick role.   Mulan and Mushu butt heads frequently before learning to work together.  And then there’s Buzz Lightyear and Woody from the Toy Story series, who are the best of friends but neither will admit to being the sidekick.  It’s quite possible that neither of them are.

Click on images for more information about the characters on their respective sites.

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7 thoughts on “Blog #2: The Inglorious Sidekick

  1. I guess its a little obvious but I had never consciously thought of the sidekicks having personalities that juxtapose the hero or villian they side with. Especially with carefree characters like Ariel and Simba, they clearly need at least one sidekick that’s sane. Simba specifically seems to be time oriented, Zazu is the first sidekick that follows Simba into trouble but when he goes through his father’s death and becomes more mature does he get the happy-go-lucky Timon and Pumba. While Ariel, keeping her personality generally the same through the three to four day story has an array of sidekicks besides Sebastian. I clearly remember the sidekicks always being comic relief but never categorized them into different kinds of comedy. I don’t know much about western serials or films but that was a nice comparison to bring in, never would have thought of it that way!

  2. Lisa Struckmeyer on said:

    Your analysis of various sidekicks was interesting. I suppose the continuous need for a sidekick character speaks to the fact that in film, it is imperative that the hero’s thoughts and motivations are made aware to the audience; hence, the sidekick. Otherwise, the lead would be talking to themselves or the director would have to insert narrative sequences more than usual. Do you agree? It seems the sidekick serves that purpose as well as allowing the lead (and therefore the audience) to rationalize their choices.

    • elaineziman on said:

      That’s so true! The sidekick also serves as a representative of the audience. A little clueless but interested in what’s going on. Some movies LIKE to leave the audience in the dark, but the sidekick also serves the purpose of plot explanation. I could also better define the difference between henchmen and sidekicks, but maybe I’ll save that for the ‘exam.’

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  5. Did you consider any animated series sidekicks? I can only offer two examples off the top of my head: Birdman and Avenger from Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, and Zapp Brannigan and Kif Kroker from Futurama. Birdman and Avenger sort of fit into the hero/lawyer and sidekick/legal aid molds (despite the fact that Avenger is a non anthropomorphic). I really don’t know what category to put Zapp and Kif in though. Zapp is considered the hero and Kip the sidekick, but Zapp is worthless as a hero and Kip is always miserable.

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