Animusings

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

Blog Midterm Specimen – The Role Of The Sidekick

I chose to redo Blog Post #2 for my midterm specimen.  While I realize it was already twice as long as it needed to be, as time went on I also began to see some inaccuracies in what I wrote.  Ariel’s sidekick, for example, was really Flounder, while Timon and Pumbaa served as sidekicks to Simba.  Sebastian and Zazu were not so much sidekicks as teachers, wise men dispensing advice and struggling to maintain order.  I also realized that animated sidekicks could stand on their own without needing a comparison to cowboy sidekicks to define them.  So I took out my cowboy sidekicks and sent them off to the bar.  I hope they don’t get into too much trouble while they’re there.

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The role of the sidekick in films may seem to be a demeaning one, but it plays several important functions in the telling of a story.  Aside from comic relief, sidekicks assist in helping the viewer understand the events taking place in the story, assist in lightening the mood in darker scenes, add an element of depth to both the hero and the villain, and serve to enhance their personalities.  In animated films, the sidekick’s role is elevated several degrees to assist in the storytelling.

The first impression that generally comes to mind when discussing sidekicks is their position as a slapstick laugh generator.  They are obviously there to be laughed at.  Unlike the main characters, who are almost always beautifully and accurately drawn, they are funny looking, with exaggerated features, ill fitting clothing, and a clumsy manner of moving.  They generally appear in bright colors, and have a cheerful personality.  We just KNOW there is going to be some slapstick comedy gold awaiting us when they first appear on the screen.  We enjoy movies that make us laugh, but we don’t necessarily want to laugh at the hero, who may be dashing and brave in a Vin Diesel sort of way, but not exactly funny.  No one feels quite right laughing at Prince Charming.  Characters generally lose some dignity in getting a laugh, and that isn’t always appropriate to the story.  Having a funny sidekick, however, gives you plenty of opportunity to laugh WITH the hero rather than at him.  Or her.

In an animated film, both the protagonist and the antagonist generally end up with a ‘buddy,’ either a friend, assistant, or minion.  This added character serves as a representative of the audience, inserted into the film to ask the questions the audience wants to know and to provide the help that the viewers are yearning to offer.  Early feature films did not necessarily have this character, and we end up with long, dull dialogs where a character basically ends up talking to themselves on screen.  A classic example of this problem is a scene in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where the wicked Queen is brewing up trouble in her secret lair.  The Queen stalks about the lair, grabbing ingredients for her potions and basically muttering to herself about what she’s doing.  While this fits the ‘insane, evil witch’ persona, it’s awkward.  In the same film, we see Snow White, having a long, one sided conversation with a large group of random woodland creatures.  Like the Queen, she too appears to be wandering through the forest, talking to herself.  In a way, the animals represent the audience in that they express their sympathy and willingness to help to her, but they cannot speak to her or really help her when she needs it most.  This problem was eventually solved with the addition of sidekicks and henchmen.  The best example of these can be found in Disney’s Aladdin.  The titular hero is paired up with the monkey Abu, while the evil Vizier Jafar finds himself with a parrot named Iago.  Abu and Aladdin are able to accurately and quickly demonstrate life on the streets without having a long dialog.  Jafar, while still falling into the ‘most likely to be found muttering to himself’ category, are just as adept at revealing their plot to the audience as they talk it out with each other without resorting to long dialogs.  This helps keep the pace of the film up and also helps to build character.

The relationship between sidekicks and heroes, villains and henchmen serves to reveal the temperament of the character.  Jafar is rough with Iago, calling him names, striking him, and using him for hard manual labor.  Aladdin, on the other hand, shares whatever food he has with Abu, worries about him when he’s missing, and rushes to save him from a falling tower, endangering his own life.  In return, Abu is more than willing to help Aladdin out of a few tight spots.  In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, we see the vain and villainous Gaston freely and cheerfully abuse his sidekick, LeFou, who can never seem to do anything to please him, no matter how hard he tries.  This abusive relationship helps to show that Gaston is a man who thinks only about himself, and if he is willing to hurt a friend, he would have no problems going after what he perceives to be an enemy.

Sidekicks are also useful in lightening the mood during dark scenes.  Their exaggerations of fear give the audience something to laugh at, relieving the built up tension and allowing them to continue watching.  My favorite example if this is actually from The Muppet Christmas Carol.  The film is told from the storyteller’s point of view, with Gonzo standing in as Charles Dickens, and Rizzo the Rat who’s basically just tagging along – an audience member being told the story and asking all the right questions.  Their running commentary and noting of scary, creepy, and weird scenes, yet continuing to watch without fear lets the audience know that the story is not dangerous and not to be afraid.  Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” is really a somewhat dark tale of forgiveness, redemption, and charity, with scene that can be rather frightening to children taking place in a graveyard.  The silly antics of the storyteller and listener, who are making funny comments and providing slapstick comedy through the film, are inappropriate for this dark, dramatic scene, and they freely acknowledge this.  They comment on how scary the scene feels, turn to the camera and exclaim, “You’re on your own, folks.  We’ll meet you at the finale!”  In other words, this last scene has a message for you that is too important for our silliness, but they believe things will turn out fine because they’ll be back at the end.

Surprisingly, the sidekick does not necessarily have to be a friend to the hero.  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 eventually are the best of friends but neither will admit to being the sidekick.  It’s quite possible that neither of them are, or that that they are both sidekicks to each other.  The villain and his sidekick are not expected to show friendship, merely a mutual agreement in causing trouble, and their own arguments can serve both as humor and as complications to the storyline.

The lowly position of the sidekick in animated films is not just the comedy role it appears to be.  Pairing the hero and the villain with a lowly associate helps to define and enhance that character’s personality, and also serves as a bridge between the audience and the film to simplify the telling of the story.

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