Why? I don’t know. It’s just what my brain does. Or maybe because sidekick pets are so fun and lovable! (Okay, maybe not all of them.) In terms of universal like-itude I wouldn’t put them in the same bracket with Mister Rogers or pizza*, but they’re pretty darned terrific. And if you’ll bear with me through this dissertation, you might be surprised to learn how many varieties there are.
Having said that, the original premise (which Paul and I discussed during our last podcast) was that all sidekick pets can be classified as one of three basic types: Monkey, Dragon, or Elf. But before we blast apart and reconfigure the concept into something usable, it’s important to know when you’re actually dealing with a sidekick pet, as opposed to a regular sidekick, secondary character, or even a primary character.
Although my original thinking mostly revolved around classic cartoon mascot-type characters (Gleek the space monkey et al), as I ran critters through my loose mental model, it occurred to me that they exist in different forms within many types of fiction (cartoons, sci-fi and fantasy literature/movies/TV, etc.). This led to the epiphany that they’re really just manifestations of the familiar concept of…er…”familiars“. So much so that I’m also going to use “sidekick familiar” as an alternative to “sidekick pet”.
I’ll also note at this point that the distinction between sidekicks that are pets (i.e. the primary character they’re associated with (which I’ll refer to as their “primary” from here on out) is also their caretaker) and those that are more or less independent (and therefore granted the “sidekick familiar” distinction) isn’t important, since they serve the same basic function.
And what function do they serve? Let’s start with philosopher Pierre A. Riffard‘s (via Professor Wikipedia) eloquent definition of the term “familiar” (short for “familiar spirit”):
“A familiar spirit (alter ego, doppelgänger, personal demon, personal totem, spirit companion) is the double, the alter-ego of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own it remains closely linked to the individual. The familiar spirit can be an animal (animal companion).”
Not too shabby! And if you condense down other accumulated wisdom easily found about familiars and combine it with the above definition, for our purposes you get:
A sidekick pet (or sidekick familiar) is a character that completes or complements a primary character, often giving that character powers and/or abilities they do not by themselves possess. They are also often really, really cute.
So do we have enough information to determine if Gleek is truly a sidekick pet/familiar? How about Scooby Doo? Or Hodor from George R.R. Martin’s ASOIAF? Or even KITT from Knight Rider? Who can say?
A flow chart can! And I happen to have put one together for the occasion (it’s there on the left, but you’ve probably already pored over it by now, which is fine.) For those who don’t like flow charts (I can’t imagine anyone not liking flow charts, but I’ve seen crazier things in this world), you can also just mull the basic sidekick pet/familiar characteristics:
- Primarily associated with another character or characters.
- Doesn’t have much of a visible life of its own.
- Isn’t usually the center of action, and doesn’t usually initiate action.
- Often has unique or rare powers that can be accessed by its primary character, and/or is really, really cute (or if not cute per se, accessibly attractive in one manner or another.)
To spare you the suspense: Scooby Doo is NOT a sidekick pet/familiar. Despite being closely associated with Shaggy and the rest of the teen gang, not having a seperate independent life, and being really, really cute, he’s almost always at the center of the action, and often (inadvertently) drives it. So what is he? Either a regular sidekick or a principal character, but that’s a debate for another time.
Okay; so now we can tell a sidekick pet when we see one. WHOOP-DEE-DOO! No, really; it’s kind of exciting. Because it means we can get under their fezzes, scales, hulls, and helmets and really see what makes ’em screech, clank, burble, and crack wise.
Somewhere near this paragraph you’ll see an image labeled “The Sidekick Pet/Familiar Triangle”. No, it is not a graph proving that Squiddly Diddly is responsible for thousands of lost ships. (Even if he were, Squiddly Diddly is not a sidekick pet. Nor, for that matter, is he very squid-like.) It is in fact a powerful tool for divining exactly what kind of creature you’re dealing with, and how it relates to like-purposed characters.
You’ll first notice the three major classifications in blue, and that each has a second description in parentheses. Although I call the major categories Monkey, Dragon, and Elf, those are really proxies for powers of Intelligence, Strength, and Magic. I briefly considered adding Dog as a separate category, representing Loyalty, but decided that dog sidekick pets/familiars generally serve the same roles as monkeys, and that loyalty isn’t really a power: noble as it is, for this mental exercise it’s purely a secondary characteristic. And it’s these secondary traits (dark brown font) that can help nudge harder-to-define characters in the right direction.
If it’s not already too crazy for you, also bear in mind:
- A monkey isn’t always a Monkey, or a dragon a Dragon, or an elf an Elf.
- Few characters fit strictly into only one major classification; many exhibit at least trace amounts of all three.
- Not all sidekick pets/familiars are aware of their role, and some would probably resent being so classified.
So let’s break ’em down by category, after which we’ll put it in action:
- It’s at the top and listed first because they’re the most common type of sidekick pet/familiar (and also, in my bulletproof opinion, the most awesome, especially if a fez is involved.)
- Main power is Intelligence: carrying out tasks for their primary, often employing guile; if small, using their diminutive size to accomplish their primary’s goals; distracting the primary’s opponents by flinging whatever they might have on hand, etc.
- Secondary characteristic is Loyalty, which will help distinguish it from the Elf classification. Although a primary’s Monkey (Dog) may suffer from incompetence or other weaknesses, it would be unusual for them to act counter to the primary’s wishes.
- Example Monkeys include Blip (Space Ghost), Muttley (Wacky Races), Azreal (Smurfs), and the trained monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- Is set apart by its use of Magic as the main go-to in achieving goals for its primary: achieving non-mechanical / non-natural flight; confusing the minds of the primary’s foes with a nod of their head; making the Harlem Globetrotters appear out of thin air.
- Often has strong Intelligence, and many Elf characters have a fair amount of Monkey in them (ewwwww!)
- Often also has a higher degree of autonomy than Monkeys, and may even harbor motivations counter to its primary’s (though not so much as to qualify it as a secondary or primary character itself.)
- Elf sidekick pets include The Great Gazoo (Flintstones), Dobby the house elf (Harry Potter), and Genie (Disney’s Aladdin).
- Main power is Strength, in the form of brute force or other primarily physical power (flight, speed, produce fire or spit poisonous loogies, etc.)
- More likely to exhibit strong loyalty to its primary than an Elf, or even most Monkeys.
- Although most sidekick pet/familiar Dragons exhibit a fairly high degree of Intelligence (particularly in understanding their primary’s language), it is the Dragon’s Strength that keeps it in oats/relevant.
- Notable Dragons are Shadowfax (LOTR), the Stark childrens’ direwolves (A Game of Thrones), and Gigantor.
But since we know that most sidekick pet/familiars don’t fit strictly into only one category, how can we represent each character’s unique composition? With another chart, of course! And this one’s a doozy (apologies for those viewing on low-bandwidth devices):
As you can see, I’ve arranged a variety of sidekick pet/familiars around the Sidekick Pet/Familiar Triangle, in an order that corresponds to their composition (yes, some of them are open to debate in terms of their placement. Some are arguably not sidekick pet/familiars at all!) (btw, if you recognize more then 10 of them, congratulations–you’re between the ages of 35 and 45.) You’ll also notice that I’ve drawn green lines leading from some of the characters to dots on the triangle’s tip, edge, or interior, indicating which characteristics it most hews to, and to what degree. Using these as samples, let’s see exactly how it works…
Blip and Muttley’s lines both end at the apex of the triangle–they are both pure Monkey (Dog).
- Although Blip can fly, it’s only with the assistance of a jetpack, which is not unusual technology in his universe (Space Ghost). Otherwise, he’s just an extraordinarily intelligent monkey, without notable Strength or Magic.
- Likewise, Muttley exhibits no notable Strength or Magic; mostly he helps carry out his primary’s plots, and mutters “Sassen-frassen-mussen…”
Gleek is both literally and figuratively on the line between Monkey and Elf, but is much closer to the former. (Please excuse that although I used the cooler-looking Gleek reboot image, my analysis is based on his original 1977 self.)
- Despite his disco-cum-fabulous styling and attire, any 19th Century organ grinder would recognize Gleek for the helpful scamp that he is, using his Intelligence for the benefit of his Super Friends, Zan and Jana.
- HOWEVER, because a cape-and-tights-clad monkey wasn’t strange enough for his creators’ vision of extraterrestrial simian life, they endowed him with a touch of Magic, which mostly consists of being able to produce a bucket out of thin air. Not enough to push him very far into Elf territory, but sufficient to displace him from the salient at the top of the Triangle.
- Gleek doesn’t exhibit any particular Strength, which keeps him on the line of the Triangle (versus the interior).
After you get over the perfectly natural “How DARE you call the noble Shadowfax a sidekick pet or familiar?!” reaction enough to unclench your fist, scroll or navigate back to the flow chart and run him through it. I’ll wait…
…uh-huh. He’s primarily associated with and serves one character (Gandalf); he might have his own independent life, but it’s not seen or explored; he doesn’t initiate action; he’s got rare powers; and yes, he might resent us saying so, but he’s even really, really cute (or at least attractive in a stately way; same diff!)
So with his status as a sidekick
pet familiar established, let’s see where he fits vis-a-vis the Triangle:
- Gandalf calls on Shadowfax primarily for Strength–getting him around Middle Earth lickety-split. And from his fearless demeanor, you get the sense that he would do a fine job of protecting the White Wizard in dark alleys.
- He also demonstrates Intelligence in his service with Gandalf, mostly regarding his deft execution of complex spoken word commands.
- Strictly speaking, Shadowfax should probably not get credit for Magic, as he commits no particular magical acts. However, with no other reasonable explanation for his exceptional abilities, it’s left to the catchall box of Magic to explain it, which is barely enough to move him into the interior of the triangle.
- Looking back at the Field Guide, you’ll see that if you increased Shadowfax’s active Intelligence, you’d get something like KITT from Knight Rider. (You could argue that KITT is a regular sidekick, to which I would say FLOWCHART. KITT’s rare abilities that verge upon magical, coupled with his cute (cool) looks tip him into Pet/Familiar territory.)
Not only does our last example clearly look like a genie, but his name also happens to be “Genie”. But in terms of what kind of sidekick pet/familiar he is, Disney’s Genie should arguably be closest to the center of the triangle. (IMPORTANT: this analysis only applies to Genie from the movie Aladdin (1992), not the television series, genies on the whole, or any other particular genie.)
- Magic is clearly Genie’s main power, which he uses for his primary’s benefit (except as noted below).
- That said, Genie applies a great deal of Intelligence in using his Magic to grant Aladdin his three wishes.
- Genie’s Dragon-ness (Strength) is both implied by his physical appearance, and demonstrated by his shapeshifting abilities. Although his shapeshifting is made possible by Magic, the character himself becomes capable of performing amazing physical feats = Strength. It’s not as prominent as his Intelligence, let alone his Magic, but it’s significant enough to move him pretty close to the center of the Triangle.
- Genie’s Loyalty is more consistent with Elf (tends to be more wily than loyal) than Monkey (vicey-versey). Although it’s not by his choice, and he does end up back on good terms with his primary at the end, Genie does indeed act counter to Aladdin’s purposes during the narrative (i.e. pisses in his cornflakes).
So what have we learned? Yes, that I have once again squandered my brainpower. But at the very least I hope that this exercise has helped open up your mind a little bit, and at best the charts could become tools for settling arguments about sidekick pets. Or start them. Either way’s cool with me.
My final thought as I thought about sidekick pet/familiars was about how awesome it would be to do a cartoon or series where instead of being add-ons and afterthoughts, the story would really be all about the sidekick pets. Then I realized it’s already been done: it’s called “Pokémon”.
*yes, I did just imply that if you don’t love pizza, you are cold-hearted and/or a freak, especially given how many types of pizza are available these days. Even Koko the Gorilla loves pizza. And do you know who Koko loved? That’s right: Fred Rogers. Pizza.