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Why The Sidekicks Are The Best Part Of Disney Movies

There's a reason Disney is still dominating the world of children's movies that adults also love over a century since the studio released its first feature, 1937's Snow White. And it's not entirely to do with its influence on US copyright law, insistence on snapping up every major property it can afford, or all those remakes of movies that were already perfect in animated form.

Disney movies were the first films that many people ever saw. We grew up watching heroes and heroines going on adventures, falling in love, singing outrageously catchy songs, and battling evil. But while these main characters dominate merchandise and Halloween costumes, everyone knows that the heart of every Disney story is the sidekick. Even the most courageous Disney hero needs a friend to help them work through their problems — and their training montages — and to back them up when the going gets rough. Plus, sidekicks are the ones who'll make you laugh, whether through their mischievous behavior or because they get to deliver the funniest lines. Heroes are noble, but sidekicks are the ones you want to be friends with. (Even today, if you're being honest.)

These secondary characters may come further down the credits, but they're number one in our collective affection. Here's why the sidekicks are the best part of Disney movies, from their songs to their double acts to their big doses of Disney magic.

Disney sidekicks deliver essential comic relief

It's not that there's anything wrong with animated versions of fairy tales, Chinese legends, British folklore, Greek myths, and Hamlet-with-lions. But even the most ardent fan has to admit that the main plots of Disney movies tend to be pretty serious. There were plenty of Disney deaths that traumatized us as children, and these films deal with a lot of parental loss, abandonment, war, and general peril. And that's not mentioning the emotional manipulation of every Pixar movie

Plus a lot of the main characters aren't exactly funny. Their strengths tend to lie in looking pretty or being good at fighting — and occasionally both. The sidekicks in Disney are the ones who deliver the comic relief that rescues the movies from being too sincere to be fun. There's a reason Disney hired Robin Williams, one of the funniest actors to ever live, to play Genie in Aladdin – they needed a comedian.

Without Olaf, Frozen is a movie about two orphaned sisters losing their kingdom to a con man. Timon and Pumbaa don't just rescue Simba, they save The Lion King from being a devastating family drama. Meeko, Flit, and Percy deliver much-needed laughs as the people in Pocahontas move ever closer to war. Sure, Disney movies are based around teaching kids, like, morals and other useful stuff. But you want to make the audience laugh at least as much as they cry. (Pixar, take note.)

Disney sidekicks demonstrate the power of non-verbal communication

Many Disney sidekicks are animals, and while animals that talk to each other are a Disney staple, when it's a human/creature relationship, the pair has to find some other way of communicating. That means eyes that widen in surprise and narrow in suspicion, noses that flare with rage or disgust, eyebrows that furrow, arms that fold, hands that clap, and big smiley mouths.

Accessing the emotions of these sidekicks is a great game for the audience. There's something about being forced to pay attention to a character's body language and facial expression instead of just their words that makes you feel like you're really connecting.

Making sure the emotions come across without speech is a fun challenge for the people making the movie, too. Nathan Greno, co-director of Tangled, told The Diva Review that he and fellow director Byron Howard decided against having sidekicks Maximus and Pascal talk because they thought it would help the movie stand apart from Disney predecessors. They were also inspired by the comedy of silent movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. As Greno explained, "You can have all this fun, pantomime acting without any dialog. And the animators love that ... everything comes down to the acting with those [characters]."

They guide the main characters

All of Disney's main characters go on a real or metaphorical journey to discover who they are. Or perhaps they're looking for their family, true love, the strength of their mythical powers, or where they belong. And most of them are in desperate need of guidance. Hercules has Philoctetes (call him Phil), Pocahontas has Grandmother Willow (the world's wisest tree), Mowgli has Bagheera, Mulan has Mushu, Aurora has the fairies, and Quasimodo has the occasionally helpful and always well-meaning Gargoyles.

As useful as it is to have a character who guides the hero through training or growing-up montages and big life decisions, it's also important that they don't solve every problem. That's what makes them a sidekick instead of a hero. Sometimes, they even give advice that's directly against what the hero should do. Despite Phil's suspicions, we all know Hercules is supposed to be with Megara ... even if she is actually working for Hades. The tension this causes and the pressure it puts on the hero is all part of the journey — a hero ultimately has to come to wisdom on their own.

Everyone wants a Disney sidekick

If someone told you that you could have your very own eternally loyal, outrageously adorable anthropomorphized reindeer, chameleon, raccoon, monkey, tiger, or even snowman, there's no way you would say no, right? Even as an adult who has to deal with pesky things like buildings' no-pets rules and figuring out what reindeer eat and where to buy it, it would be hard to resist the opportunity to come home to something as expressive and friendly as Sven every day. As Kristoff says, reindeer are better than people.

Of course, this isn't an accident. Disney sidekicks are created to be the main characters' best friends, the ones who always understand them. For example, Glen Keane, animation supervisor and producer of Tangled, who also worked on classics like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast, told Movie Mom that Rapunzel almost didn't have Pascal, but that made her seem too alone with her thoughts.

"She's alone in the tower. ... If you don't have her talking to someone, you don't know what she's thinking," Keane explained, going on to add, "The little chameleon gave us a feeling of color. He could blend into different paintings and it just fit the idea of this girl who is an artist." Even if you didn't spend the first 18 years of your life locked in a tower, all kids — and adults — feel lonely and misunderstood at some point. Having a Disney sidekick to air your grievances to will probably always be a wish our hearts make.

Some Disney sidekicks are charmingly mischievous

Disney heroes and heroines are great and noble, and they have incredible hair, and they tend to do well in big showdowns. Which is fine. But often, it's the sidekicks who cause the kind of delicious chaos we turn to movies for in the first place.

If it wasn't for Meeko's insatiable need for snacks, he wouldn't have stumbled into John Smith (and John Smith's biscuit stash) and inadvertently shown Pocahontas that maybe this pale dude with a weird accent wasn't a total barbarian — not to raccoons, anyway. If Abu in Aladdin hadn't had a similar fixation on jewels, he wouldn't have grabbed the giant ruby and nearly gotten himself, Aladdin, and the Magic Carpet killed by the self-destructing cave. A warthog from Meeko's own heart, Pumbaa was hunting down a bug when he was pounced on by a lioness — and that's how Simba and Nala reunited.

This may explain why sidekicks need to be cute. If you're going to be doing dangerous things that can potentially get your hero in a lot of trouble, it helps to be able to widen your disproportionately large eyes at them while begging for forgiveness.

Some of them are refreshingly grumpy

Disney heroes and heroines tend to look on the sunny side of life. (Well, with the exception of Beast in Beauty and the Beast, but that's eventually remedied through true love.) Sidekicks are often the ones who play to our grouchy sides. Life isn't all birds doing your laundry, mice sewing your ball gown, and raccoons braiding your hair, and Disney main characters need a little snappiness to bring them back to Earth sometimes. You can't have Happy without Grumpy.

In addition to the dwarf that's named for the character trait, Disney's list of irritable sidekicks include Flit in Pocahontas, Iago in Aladdin, Zazu in The Lion King, Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, and Bagheera in The Jungle Book. But possibly the greatest of all the grumps is Philoctetes (Phil on a good day) in Hercules. The acclaimed trainer reluctantly comes out of retirement to coach the wide-eyed, would-be hero, but he never stops busting Hercules' chops — exactly what you need in a mentor. 

Like the others in this special batch of lovable grouches, sometimes Phil's grumpiness is funny, sometimes it serves as a contrast with Hercules's naivety, and sometimes it's countered by his softer side, but seeing godlike perfection brought back down to Earth by a furious satyr is always welcome.

Disney sidekicks have the best songs

Sure, Disney heroes and heroines have had the honor of singing some verifiable hits. But they tend to be grandiose, wistful and a little too showy. You're a Broadway star, we get it. You can stop holding that note now. The glassware is rattling.

It's the songs performed by sidekicks that get you singing, dancing, and — most important — smiling. For example, Aladdin and Jasmine's lovey-dovey ballad "A Whole New World" is beautiful. But everyone knows the best song of Aladdin is Genie's "Friend Like Me." Similarly, The Lion King's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is a romantic classic and a favorite for first dances at weddings. But "Hakuna Matata" is the one that gets everyone on the dance floor singing along — and you singing in the shower. "Let It Go" took over the world and parents' lives, but Olaf's "In Summer" is Frozen's greatest jam.

For further proof, check out Jiminy Cricket's "When You Wish Upon a Star" in Pinocchio, Lumière's "Be Our Guest" in Beauty and the Beast, Sebastian's "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" in The Little Mermaid, King Louie's "I Wan'na Be Like You" in The Jungle Book, every song by the Muses in Hercules, and Maui's "You're Welcome" from Moana. They're all the best songs of their respective movies, all sung by sidekicks. Plus, you know they're way more fun at karaoke. 

Sidekicks make up classic double acts

The only thing better than one sidekick is two sidekicks, especially if they have contrasting personalities that somehow gel perfectly and harmonize with each other.

Obviously, the greatest Disney pair of all time is Timon and Pumbaa (the 1994 versions). The cocky meerkat and nervous warthog can pull off fart jokes and heartbreaking pathos, plus without them and their bugs, young Simba would've been vulture food. The duo was such a hit that they even became the stars of their own series, Timon & Pumbaa, which ran for three seasons between 1995 and 1999.

Another classic sidekick double act with a similar opposites-attract dynamic is The Jungle Book's Baloo and Bagheera. Baloo is the fun parent that teaches you how to dance away your worries, while Bagheera wants you to just be more careful because there's a tiger around here. Flit and Meeko in Pocahontas are another goofy/stern pairing. Flit plays the protagonist's pet while Meeko is the naughty but lovable clown.

It's not always about two opposites. Mushu and Cri-Kee bond over being way out of their depth in Mulan, while Pain and Panic are comrades dealing with the stress of working for the boss of the Underworld in Hercules. Being a sidekick is a demanding job, and it helps to have a friend who can make you laugh through it — even if they metaphorically rub your fur the wrong way sometimes.

Sidekicks bring Disney magic to life

"Magic" is Disney's middle name. (Not Walt Disney's, to be clear. His middle name was Elias.) Even before the Magic Kingdom — home to Cinderella's castle — opened in 1971 as part of Walt Disney World, many of the studio's feature-length movies were all about magic. You're talking Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty ... you get the picture. And the sidekicks are often the ones bringing the magic.

For example, Tinkerbell is the one with the fairy dust that makes people fly in Peter Pan. Aladdin is great at parkour, but Genie and Magic Carpet bring supernatural abilities. All Aurora is good at in Sleeping Beauty is hurting herself on a spinning wheel and taking a really long nap. The fairies are the ones with the powers to protect her (while also whipping up a lovely cake and a dress). Without her Fairy Godmother, Cinderella would've been left with a pumpkin and a mouse infestation in place of a prince. And yes, Mulan is a courageous warrior, but Mushu is a guardian spirit (well, he was).

Disney's main characters bring a lot to the table (except, frankly, Aurora), but the real magic often lies with the sidekicks.

Disney sidekicks are the most adorable

Disney heroes and heroines were probably some of your earliest crushes (including some of the animals, but that's between you and your therapist). However, the sidekicks were the ones radiating adorableness.

Yes, Aladdin and Jasmine are possibly Disney's prettiest couple. But Abu's big eyes and need for love makes us want to give him all the food he can eat and jewels he can carry. And despite Rajah's tough exterior, he's really a big pussycat. Figaro the cat in Pinocchio manages to steal the cuteness crown from the world's most lovable puppet, and both Thumper and Flower are at least on a par with Bambi in the cuteness stakes, especially as babies.

Between 1998 and 2016, there was only one possible winner of "Cutest Disney Sidekick," and it was Baby Pegasus from Hercules. Even his snores were enough to melt a frozen heart (Disney pun intended). However, in 2016, a new contender emerged in the form of Pua, Moana's pig friend. 

Whether you're Team Pig or Team Flying Horse, everyone can agree that neither of these characters gets nearly enough screen time. Pegasus grows up pretty fast, so his baby version only has a few scenes. And Pua is left behind from Moana's big adventure. He was originally supposed to accompany her, but producer Osnat Shurer explained to Entertainment Weekly, "In a classic hero's journey, the hero leaves all comforts behind." Or possibly, it's because their cuteness would distract from the plot.

They're incredibly loyal

To borrow from Genie's song, you ain't never had a friend like a Disney sidekick. Many of the Disney main characters can't rely on their families — if they even have them. It could be that their mother has locked them in a tower so she can use their magic hair to keep her young. Or maybe their father keeps trying to marry them off to random princes who clearly aren't worthy. Or maybe they do have parents, but they're gods in Mount Olympus, where the hero isn't allowed to go until they've proven themselves. That's where a sidekick comes in.

When you can't turn to a family member, you can always take your problems to your chameleon, tiger, or flying horse friend. They will always have your best interest at heart, even if they can be a little too overprotective sometimes. And if you find yourself having to face a scary situation — like a sharp-toothed, tiara-thieving burglar, a creepy sorcerer with a dubious goatee, or many mythical Greek monsters — you can count on your sidekick to fight your battles alongside you. And if you have a fallout, probably over a love interest, you'll eventually reconcile because a Disney sidekick is always on your side.

Disney sidekicks can be heroes, too

Sidekicks aren't only good for cracking jokes and listening to problems. Sometimes, they actually manage to save the day for the hero — even though you just know they won't get any credit for it.

Bagheera and Baloo both save Mowgli from predators in The Jungle Book. Sergeant Tibbs not only finds the 101 Dalmatian puppies, he takes part in their rescue and battles Cruella De Vil's minions for them. In The Princess and the Frog, Raymond discovers Facilier's plot to replace Naveen with Lawrence and warns Tiana. And Hercules would've never beaten the Hydra or the Titans without Pegasus. 

Then you've got Mushu, a tiny dragon who brings some major firepower — he lights the cannon on the mountain and the firework that he and Cri-Kee commandeer as part of Mulan's plans to defeat Shan Yu. In Tangled, Maximus overcomes his rivalry with Flynn to show up in exactly the right spot during the ruffians' prison break operation. Timon and Pumbaa serve as live bait (as Simba puts it so insensitively) to distract the hyenas while Simba and Nala look for Scar in The Lion King. And if the Magic Carpet hadn't swooped in, Aladdin and Abu would've never made it out of the cave. 

You get the point. In addition to being lovable, loyal, funny, expressive and often magical, Disney sidekicks can make all the difference when their hero has to take on the villain and find their happily ever after.