A while ago I talked about the possible reasons behind the shrinking number of animated films featuring talking animals, so now let’s talk about something that’s been on the uptick; a trend that’s been proving its staying power both in box office numbers and in the public consciousness: the lovable, adorable sidekick.
In the course of a few years it’s become one of the most tried-and-true staples of feature animation. A sidekick/companion of sorts who manages on more than one occasion to steal the show and win the hearts of audiences everywhere, to the point of representing its respective franchise. And judging by the fact that we have a Minions movie coming out in 2015, a standalone Madagascar film focusing on the Penguins releasing next month, another Puss in Boots movie in 2018, and the fact that much of the marketing for Big Hero 6 is quite Baymax-heavy, that trend won’t be slowing down anytime soon. But how did it all get started? And why does the general public latch onto these characters the way they do? As with all things, let’s start at the beginning.
Sidekicks: A History
While there have always been sidekicks in animation (Iago from Aladdin, Cogsworth and Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, Gus and Jaq from Cinderella to name a few), I’m going to focus on the latest trend of sidekicks that get their own spin-off franchises.
The first film to fully introduce this concept was when the first Madagascar film bowed in theaters in 2005. Back then, the world was introduced to Skipper, Kowalski, Private, and Rico, a team of penguin adventurers who devised a plan to break themselves out of the Zoo. But when the animals are caught in public, sedated, and put on-board a ship to be taken to a Kenyan wildlife preserve, the penguins see a new opportunity and promptly takes over the ship and redirect it towards Antarctica. But in the midst of the chaos, the crates containing Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria fall off the ship and wash ashore on Madagascar.
Out of all the characters in that film and subsequent films in the franchise, the penguins were the clear showstoppers with their super-spy antics and dryly amusing banter. Even the creators seemed to realize that early on. The Penguins were given their own Christmas-based short film, followed by a a whole TV series in 2008 before finally culminating in the production of their own spinoff film.
That’s pretty significant by itself, but as for an animated film franchise that truly popularized the notion of the adorable sidekick: Despicable Me.
It wouldn’t be to out of proportion to say that Illumination Entertainment definitely caught lightning in a bottle with the Minions, a genetically mutated army of henchmen who serve the main character Gru. Also another situation where the creators realized what they had on their hands, the minions became the cornerstone of the marketing campaign for Despicable Me 2. Combined with the simplistic design and the appealingly brazen sense of humor, their popularity exploded in a way that was unprecedented, even in an industry where breakout characters were already common (The Penguins from Madagascar, Scrat from Ice Age, the aliens from Toy Story, etc). Quite a few articles were written then about the phenomenon and as a result, they have managed to rewrite the adorable sidekick into a coveted and proven marketing formula and their influence can be felt in countless other films that followed.
Having a breakout character and taking advantage of him/her/it can work. If done well, you can have a sidekick character who can contribute to the plot of their respective film in meaningful and profound ways. You can have a sidekick character who who’s personality and character quirks can be developed with care and can be made to appeal to everyone. The main ideal here is that their push to the forefront should be inspired by audience reaction to those said quirks and personalities.
On the other hand, characters that get a massive response from the audience do run a risk of being ridiculously overexposed. Going back to what I said earlier, there have been countless films that have tried to replicate the ‘minions’ formula to varying degrees of success. What’s worse, they can be used as a crutch for when the writers can’t seem to progress the story in a creative and interesting way (Frozen‘s use of Olaf still remains a divisive topic in several circles) and will sometimes get degraded into a last resort.
Ultimately, each studio is going to have a different approach to how they handle popular sidekick characters, but hopefully we see more cases of these types of these characters being utilized in a fashion that benefits the story.
What do you think? What other good and/or bad examples do you have of this trend?