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The Most Underrated Disney Cartoon Sidekicks

When you think of Disney, you think of brave princesses, plucky kids, and grandstanding villains. But where would these titans of good and evil be without their sidekicks? Go ahead, try to picture Snow White without a coterie of big-eyed critters gamboling at her heels. Consider the image of Ursula, tempting Ariel into signing away her voice, minus her sinister eels. Without their sidekicks, Disney characters are considerably more lackluster. They might not get top billing, but these animals, employees, monsters, and surrogate parents are just as crucial a part of the Disney machinery as soaring ballads and top-notch animation.

Some sidekicks get their due. Frozen's Olaf, for example, has been practically inescapable since the movie's debut. Even those without little ones can't help but be familiar with the goofball snowman's catchphrases and songs. But for every beloved Olaf, there's a crowd of similar sidekicks consigned to the shadows of the Disney empire. We're here to change that. These are the most underrated Disney sidekicks around.

Tantor is a Disney sidekick who's actually quite brave

Tarzan's entire deal is being utterly at one with nature. However, his elephant friend, Tantor, is suspicious of literally everything that exists beyond his own body. As a knobbly-kneed elephant calf, he irritates his mother by asking if their watering hole is "sanitary," and he's sure to warn everyone about the ever-present threat of piranhas (which, as the adults around him debate, may or may not exist in Africa). 

In adulthood, he's no less phobic. This makes for a lot of laughs, but it also highlights his greatest strength — Tantor is deeply, devotedly brave. It's one thing for Tarzan to chase leopards, as he never bothers to wonder what might happen if he gets bitten. Tantor assumes he absolutely will, and that the bite will probably fester, and he will die of sepsis before the day is out. And yet, despite his anxiety, he accompanies his weird human pal on adventures anyway. After all, being there for his friend matters more to him than his fear. Moreover, as is revealed when Tarzan's animal friends find Jane's camp and proceed to make music with its many strange objects, Tantor is one heck of a trumpet player.

Maximus is a truly devoted steed

It's hard to make a horse into a sidekick. Other animals are cuddlier, more compact, and significantly less odd-looking when placed in indoor environments. Sure, sometimes things get a little exotic when it comes to Disney sidekicks — tigers, goats, and chameleons all exist within this pantheon — but those are all still within certain bounds of cuteness. Try to imagine a horse trotting casually around Princess Jasmine's tower-top boudoir. It's awkward.

Tangled manages to make a horse sidekick work by refusing to treat him like any of these merchandisable mascots. Maximus is a military horse, devoted to his duty even in the absence of his soldier. As such, he has no interest in being adorable. Sure, he acts like a puppy when Rapunzel's around, but even then, the interaction is all about how goofy this behemoth of the battlefield looks when he's thumping his tail against the ground. Maximus is delightful because he clearly has no idea what movie he's in. As far as he's concerned, Tangled is the story of one equine's devotion to his duty, in spite of all obstacles and against all odds. Who knew a Disney princess movie could so comfortably encompass a character out of War Horse?

Scuttle is secretly Ariel's best sidekick

In The Little Mermaid, Scuttle is Ariel's guide to the human world. He does not, however, actually know anything about humanity. It's unclear whether or not he's flagrantly making things up on the spot, or if he truly believes forks are called dinglehoppers and that they're used as combs. But honestly, it doesn't matter. His "insights" bring Ariel immense joy, and when the going gets tough, he's there for her, anecdote at the ready. 

Scuttle is easily overshadowed by Flounder, who's nearly always at Ariel's side, and Sebastian, who might be one of the most charismatic Disney sidekicks ever created. But while they bring cuteness, authority, and music into her life, Scuttle brings a certain scruffy charm — and evidence of Ariel's goodness. Other denizens of Atlantica might find Scuttle odd, what with his rumpled appearance and strange fixations, but Ariel only sees a brilliant friend who never makes her feel small, stupid, or silly for her love of the human world. Through Scuttle, the audience comes to understand Ariel as a misfit, despite her lovely looks, singing voice, and royal title. And, of course, as Scuttle is the one who yanks the shell containing Ariel's voice from Ursula's neck, it's through Scuttle that she gains her happily-ever-after. Hopefully she repays him by teaching him the truth about forks.

Ray shines bright in The Princess and the Frog

Ray kind of feels like a character created on a dare. He's an insect, for one thing, and the way he's anthropomorphized doesn't actually play up the sparkly aspects of his firefly nature. No, Ray is drawn with mouth full of missing teeth, a patchy beard, and a hole-riddled pair of wings. To say that this Cajun-accented firefly is a far cry from Snow White's woodland friends would be a profound understatement.

But Ray's raggedness is what highlights his achingly earnest goodness. He's a bit of a weirdo when compared to a doe-eyed mammal, but he doesn't need to be fluffy to be a good friend to Tiana and Naveen as they try to regain their humanity. Ray is most defined by his love for Evangeline, a star he believes to be a particularly beautiful firefly. His song, "Ma Belle Evangeline," is a slow-paced ode so romantic that it manages to put stars in the ever-pragmatic Tiana's eyes. Ray might be funny when he assumes someone saying they're from far away means they're from Shreveport, but it's this comic nature that allows his luminous heart to truly light up the screen.

Phil is the perfect combo of Disney sidekick and sports trainer

Hercules delights in contrasting its earnest hero's aw-shucks goodness against world-weary characters whose sarcasm sails right over his head. Hades speaks with the lofty sneer of a Hollywood mogul, Meg assumes the worst in everybody, and the people of Thebes dismiss Hercules as "just another chariot-chaser." It's really saying something, then, to call Phil the most sourly cynical of the bunch. Once a trainer of heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Perseus, their various failures have beaten him into bitterness and resignation. It takes a lightning bolt from Zeus himself to get him to take Hercules on.

Hercules is a smorgasbord of cultural references. It riffs off superhero flicks, satirizes '90s commercialist excess (Air-Herc sandals, at an agora near you!), and reimagines the Muses as high-energy goddesses of gospel. To this mix, Phil adds sports movie tropes, and somehow, this harmonizes beautifully with the other elements. Phil brings Hercules' heroism home, proving the demigod's goodness isn't just about reuniting with his divine family but improving the lives of all who dwell beneath Olympus. He is, simultaneously, a Hellenistic satyr and a character straight out of a modern boxing movie, but these two halves meld so seamlessly, you'll wonder how no one ever thought to fuse Jason and the Argonauts with Rocky before.

Jumba and Pleakley are the perfect cartoon odd couple

Jumba is a devious scientist devoted to creating the most violent, unstable creatures he can. Pleakley is a nasal paper-pusher, employed as the Galactic Federation's Earth expert. Together, they are sent to retrieve Stitch from Lilo's care. An odd couple par excellence, they stand out from the rest of Disney's sidekicks in a variety of ways, but of course, it's that deviation from expected storytelling that makes Lilo & Stitch such an oddball triumph of a film. They're not cute, childlike, or in thrall to our heroine. That's what makes them unforgettable.

It helps that David Ogden Stiers and Kevin McDonald absolutely revel in every line they voice. As Jumba, Stiers blends outright lunacy with utter disdain for Pleakley's rule-following into something scary, hilarious, and weirdly endearing. As Pleakley, McDonald is hilariously shrill but also genuinely lovable. He's so blinded by awe when a mosquito lands on his arm that he almost makes you forget how irritating mosquito bites are. These two start out as an interstellar criminal and a government drone, and they end up becoming ersatz uncles to a lonely little girl. They might not look like they belong in a Disney fairy tale, but they embody its warm-hearted values as well as any woodland creature.

Mittens' story in Bolt breaks our hearts and makes us think

Bolt is a dog who's never known the world beyond the set of Bolt, the TV show he unknowingly stars in. Mittens is a cat who lives life on the mean streets of New York City. When Bolt, who truly believes he has superpowers, ends up in Mittens' dingy alley, her cynicism is utterly alien to him — but he needs her help, regardless. So begins an unlikely friendship ... and Mittens' journey towards trust.

Mittens wasn't always an alley cat. Once, she had a person of her own, just as Bolt has his beloved Penny. But Mittens was abandoned, and so she grew cynical, cruel, and extremely good at intimidating pigeons out of their food. Mittens stands out as a sidekick because her plight is one that cuts right to the bone. So many of us have pets we love and can't imagine ever abandoning, and yet abandoned pets remain such a major problem. Mittens' story is awful, but also, it's utterly true to life. To see her bitterness is to confront a sorry reality we all live with head-on ... and to see her grow to trust again is to understand that a better future is possible.

Everybody loves Fix-It Felix

Wreck-It Ralph has it rough. Dude lives in a dump, and it's not even a dump where he can scavenge for anything decent. Nope, Ralph sleeps in a pile of bricks (and one stump), from where he watches the Nicelanders throw killer penthouse parties for Fix-It Felix Jr., the hero of the video game in which Ralph is the villain. Felix is just as much of a good guy as his arcade cabinet's art depicts him, with none of the Nicelanders' condescension towards Ralph. At worst, he's guilty of ignorance, but when he's confronted with how little he's considered Ralph's tough lot in life, he springs into action immediately. His friend is broken in a way he never considered, and Felix is nothing if not a repairman.

Felix is just as straightforward in his infatuation with Sergeant Calhoun, the hard-bitten heroine of Hero's Duty, a first-person shooter. This is where Felix truly shines. It's utterly endearing to watch him attempt to impress a gun-toting soldier by speaking of the "honey glow" she brings to his cheeks. In the end, Calhoun can't help but fall for him — and why not? As any fan of Wreck-It Ralph can tell you, Felix is impossible not to love.

Big Mama is a caring and complex Disney sidekick

Before the opening minutes of Up were making us cry, Disney was turning on the waterworks with The Fox and the Hound. Copper, a hound puppy, and Tod, a young fox, pledge to be friends forever during the spring of their youth. But the world is cruel. Big Mama, the warm-hearted owl who (literally and figuratively) took Tod under her wing after he was orphaned, tries to make this clear to him in the kindest possible terms, but it's no use. Only violence makes it clear to Tod and Copper that a fox and a hound cannot be friends.

Big Mama, voiced by the inimitable Pearl Bailey, occupies a unique position in this movie. She represents the viewpoint that Tod and Copper ultimately overcome, and yet she's the movie's moral center. She sets the story in motion, connects the denizens of the forest, and brings Tod together with Vixey, his mate. In this, she represents the movie's greatest achievement — true complexity. Just as Big Mama can be incorrectly doubtful, so too can Amos Slade, bloodthirsty antagonist, end up doing the right thing, as he eventually does. This is a movie about many different creatures, coming together to live better lives. Sometimes they get it wrong, but that doesn't condemn them to anything. Life goes on, as full of hope as it was the day before.

Even though he's a cartoon parrot, we can all relate to Iago

When you think of Iago, you think of his voice. Gilbert Gottfried pulled out all the stops for this performance. Iago's voice sounds like it is being ground out from between two sandpaper-covered millstones. But we're not talking about a sinister growl here. When Iago rants about the crackers the Sultan stuffs down his throat, he doesn't bring to mind the terrifying evil of "Night on Bald Mountain" so much as the workaday rage of Office Space. He sneers, he seethes, he plots. Even when he defects to the good guy's side in The Return of Jafar, he keeps on complaining about pretty much everything.

No one should be Iago in his entirety, but we all have a little Iago within us. It's the part that just can't take another day of dealing with people, the part that daydreams about revenge, and the part that just wants to yell about everything that isn't fair at the end of a long day. Iago might be a sapient parrot, but darn it if he doesn't speak to the grind of modern life. We think of his voice first because it's distinctive, but also because it's putting our own pettiest thoughts and most festering grievances into words. Just remember, it's okay to think angrily about these things every once in a while, but you really shouldn't be sending random guys you plucked off the street into mysterious tiger-shaped caves.

Kronk might be the best character in The Emperor's New Groove

He can carry a person on his back across miles of rugged Incan countryside. He's a passionate cook with a killer spinach puff recipe in his back pocket. He's a cross-species polyglot. He is Kronk, and he is the unsung hero of The Emperor's New Groove. Now, this isn't exactly a movie hurting for big personalities. This is, after all, the film in which the legendary Eartha Kitt gave life to Yzma, in a performance as instantly iconic as the ones she won Tony Awards for, decades prior. Yet even in her fabulous shadow, Patrick Warburton's Kronk stands out as a strange, wonderful, and utterly singular creature all his own.

Kronk exists at the intersection of two character traits — absolute cluelessness and absolute brilliance. He ruins Yzma's every attempt at sabotage through acts of astounding ignorance, but each of these acts is also a display of dazzling skill. Sure, he's not helping her murder Kuzco, but he is delighting diners, teaching kids how to speak squirrel, and showing off his own personal variation on Double Dutch. The dude is, simultaneously, a total ditz and a towering Renaissance man. It takes a movie of riotous energy, loving weirdness, and towering talent to pull that sort of character off — and thankfully, that movie is The Emperor's New Groove.