It is generally desirable that a film’s protagonist should be an engaging, gripping figure, but we all can name, I am sure, several dozen examples of a film where the sidekick, or the comic relief, or you name the disposable side character, is more memorable and generally beloved – this is particularly noticeable in the case of the Disney animated films, which so often had a hugely appealing secondary character tossed in to sell plush toys.
Marketing-based or not, some of those very same characters are pretty darned entertaining, which led me to create this un-ranked (except in that it is chronological) list of:
Ten Disney Sidekicks Better Than Their Film’s Main Character
Dopey, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Or really, any of the dwarfs; Snow White might not be the wretched placeholder that Cinderella and Aurora are, but she got the tradition of “Disney Princess = Boring Character” started off on the right foot. At least she is surrounded by seven marvelous walking ’30s-style gag machines, and the one I like best of all is the little man whose body language was inspired by a dog; never talking because he’s never bothered to try (shades of Harpo Marx), Dopey is responsible for the best slapstick in Disney history, particularly in that giddy, marvelous soap scene.
Thumper, Bambi (1942)
Sure, I like Bambi just fine – but he’s not got a patch on the tremendous masterpiece of character animation and juvenile voice acting that was this snotty little rabbit who knows better than everybody else. Would that more movie children with big eyes and wise-ass tongues could be half as convincing or appealing as Thumper, an animated bunny who expresses a full gamut of emotions without ever violating his essential animal nature. Even when, in the film’s best sequence, he shares with us the joys of the entirely non-rabbit act of ice skating.
Panchito, The Three Caballeros (1944)
Yeah, I went to one of the package films, and calling Donald Duck the film’s “protagonist” is questionable – as, for that matter, is my indication that the Mexican rooster is better than the American duck. But by 1944, Donald’s routine had gotten, let’s face it, a bit stale, and in Panchito’s very short screentime – consisting of virtually nothing other than singing the crazed, high-energy title song, and narrating a Mary Blair-illustrated story about Mexican Christmas customs – he represents a much-needed and exceedingly welcome shot of pure Tex Avery cartoon anarchy in the moribund arm of WWII-era Disney animation.
Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty (1959)
I think I am cheating with this selection: Aurora is surely not the protagonist of her own film, and Prince Phillip is dull enough that I think pretty much everyone would agree that the true heroes are the three good fairies who do so much to protect the cursed princess. But it’s my damn list. Anyway, I think it’s worth pointing out how much better Merryweather (the blue one) is than her compatriots: Flora (the red one) is bossy and rude and smug, and Fauna (the green one) has all the tough edges of a sack of marshmallows. Ah but our sarcastic, forthright Merryweather, always the smartest one who always gets ignored: she is the blazing spark of piss and vinegar that gives this icily gorgeous film its best shots of humanity.
King Louie, The Jungle Book (1967)
The movie constantly fights a battle with tepid juvenilia that it only barely manages to win, but there are certain flashes of joy, and almost all of them revolve around characters who want to eat or otherwise exploit Mowgli, the boy protagonist. And the best of these is when Louis Prima – arguably the best-cast celebrity in any animated Disney film – performs the film’s stand-out musical number, “I Wanna Be Like You”. It helps that Prima genuinely and passionately adored being in a Disney movie (uniquely, I think, among voice actors, he sent the studio story notes, although these were mostly ignored, particularly the one where he asked for Louie to die, since he knew he could nail a death scene), meaning that in his tiny moment of stardom – he has less screentime than anyone else on this list – King Louie would be marked by an outrageous excess of energy and vitality, just what it takes to give this well-intentioned but drifting cartoon one of its few passages of genuine enthusiasm as a comedy, as a story, and as an animated film.
Sir Hiss, Robin Hood (1973)
In my head, this list was all about the heroes’ sidekicks & not the comic henchmen, but I felt so terrible about leaving Hiss off of my villain list, in deference to the amusing but much less entertaining Prince John, that I just had to make room for him here. Because this character is the one thing I truly do love about the misbegotten all-animal Robin Hood: a put-upon sad-sack played incredibly well by Terry-Thomas who is, unquestionably, the only intelligent person on the villains’ side, and yet is the only one who can’t get a lick of respect or fear from anybody – anybody – in the film. I laugh at him because I pity him; I pity him because he reminds me of all of us who blindly think that just being talented and smart actually gets you anywhere in life.
Tigger, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Even the Narrator had to concede it by the end, informing Pooh sadly that the third sequence was “mostly about Tigger. But you’re in it”. I’ve said enough already about my love for this particular character; I will only point out now that the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is, he’s the only one. TTFN.
Sebastian, The Little Mermaid (1989)
Again with the dull-ass princesses; Ariel might be a huge step up over her forebears, but she still can’t support a whole movie. Enter Howard Ashman’s marvelous innovation, a Jamaican crab who looks a little too cuddly for a crustacean, and manages to hog the film’s best dialogue and its two best songs, the calypso showstopper “Under the Sea” and the magnificent hybrid of God knows how many types of music that is “Kiss the Girl”. Plus, he’s the co-star of the slapsticky comic gem “Les Poissons”. A shame that he kicked off the earnest vogue for irritating anthropomorphic wisecracking sidekicks, even more than that had already been a thing that people did; but hardly any of the infinite number of sassy talking animals have remotely his visual charm, his wit, or his impeccable taste in music.
The genie, Aladdin (1992)
Robin Williams’s performance may have opened up the floodgates for any number of unfathomably annoying sassy celebrity-voiced animated characters, but even with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t bring myself to dislike the character; it’s easily Williams’s best role, at any rate, if for no other reason than that his notorious cartoon mugging is a lot easier to take when it’s in the context of an actual cartoon. The genie is definitely of the “shot of adrenaline” breed of supporting characters: Aladdin is well on its way to sinking under the weight of its whitebread protagonists before he shows up and gives the whole movie a blast of zany that it never quite loses, although there are moments when it tries to. Besides, supervising animator Eric Goldberg got one of the all-time plumb assignments, transitioning between literally dozens of caricatures and other visual gags at a rapid-fire pace, and doing it without dropping a stitch.
Kronk, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Why not, I’ve already put one evil henchman on this list, and at least Kronk reveals that he has a functioning moral compass from time to time. The funniest character in (to my tastes) Disney’s funniest movie, it’s hard to say whether Kronk’s massively dis-proportioned angular design would be as amusing without Patrick Warburton’s genius deadpan line deliveries, or if Warburton’s performance would hold up as well coming from a less Chuck Jonesian visual, but we don’t need to worry about that sort of thing: for the character as he exists is whole and complete, and his slab-like presence is the glue that keeps the film together as the wiry Yzma and Kuzco bounce around like electrons. He could almost be the perfect supporting character, if he could keep from stealing the damn film away from his boss at every turn.