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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #2 Olivia Flaversham

Basil never does get her name right.

Basil never does get her name right.

Possibly the best kid in any movie ever– the fact that she’s a mouse is immaterial.

Miss Flaversham is the heroine of The Great Mouse Detective (1987).  I always had the impression that she was meant to be four-years-old, but that’s probably wrong.  Anyway, on her birthday, her toymaker father is kidnapped by Fidget the Bat, so she turns to Basil of Baker Street for help.  Dr. Dawson finds her on the street and takes her to the dectective, who, after hearing her description of the attacker (a bat with a peg leg) agrees to take the case.

She winds up being kidnapped by Fidget and used by Ratigan to make Mr. Flaversham create a robotic double of the queen, so the villain (Vincent Price) can take over the government.  Fortunately, Basil manages to defeat Ratigan and all is well.  The case marks the beginning of Basil and Dawson’s collaberation– none of which would have happened without this determined little mouse.

A character like Olivia could easily become cloying (like the woman in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) or fade into the background, but she never does either.  She’s sweet and innocent, but she’s also tough, smart, and incredibly brave.  She knew who to get help from, and she wouldn’t let him brush her aside.  Later she stomps on Fidget’s (only) foot when he tries to keep her from hugging her father, and stands up to Ratigan when he uses her as a hostage.

She does break down in tears/terror a couple of times, but both times it’s perfectly in character and justified.  She knows she needs to find Basil, but can’t get to Baker Street on her own.  Then when Ratigan throws her into the gears of Big Ben.  Anyone will appreciate the terror involved when faced with the possibility of being crushed to death by a machine.

The detective also never gets her name right.  Unlike most people I know (including myself) she never falls into just letting him call her what he wants but corrects him every time and is visibly irked by getting “whatever” in response.  She’s an excellent role model, not only for the kids who see this Disney classic, but also their parents as well.  We could all stand to learn something from her courage, resilience, and no-nonsense attitude.

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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #3 Kaa

I still wish I could do that.

I still wish I could do that.

Ever since I saw The Jungle Book twenty years ago or so, I was really enamored of the giant, hypnotic snake.  I wanted powers like that, too!  It would be so cool to be able to put a spell on anyone I chose with my eyes and/or my singing.  Especially since it meant, once I started school, that no one would dare spit on me ever again.  Seriously, what is it with people and that?

But as I got older and realized I would never develop Kaa-like powers, I still loved the character.  Black leopards like Bagheera are pretty tough and dangerous (that’s in British understatement, by the way), so it’s pretty amazing that Baggy is as afraid of Kaa as he is.  Yet Kaa is fallible.  Mowgli can push him off a tree, he has sinus issues (if you listen when Baggy smacks him into a branch he whines “Oh… my sinussss….” before turning his hypnotic powers on the panther), and his tail frequently gets tied up in knots.  He’s also afraid of Shere Khan.

This food chain effect is interesting, to say the least.  Kaa also has the movie’s villain song– “Trust in Me”– which was back in the day of a villain song being rather rare.

The last time we see Kaa, after he’s threatened by the hypnosis-immune tiger, he seems to be getting a twinge of conscience about trying to eat Mowgli.  The boa says, “Oh, who does he think he’s fooling?  ‘The helpless little lad?’ Ooh, he gives me the sssshivers!  Picking on that poor little helpless boy?  Yes….”  Then Mowgli wakes up and pushes his coils off the tree, and the big snake decides the boy is not worth eating anyway.  But that twinge when he calls Mowgli “that poor little helpless boy” gives him some depth.

Like they’d later say in Finding Nemo he’s “not a mindless eating machine.”  It’s even plausible that he’d give up without his moral musing.  Both times he tried to eat Mowgli, he wound up getting smacked around, and most lately, threatened and searched by the jungle’s top predator.  Much better to go after safer prey.

Oh, and he’s voiced by Sterling Holloway– best remembered as Winnie the Pooh.  Think about that next time you watch the silly old bear and try not to laugh.

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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #4 Captain Amelia

"I'm Captain Amelia. Late of a few run-ins with the Procyon Armada, nasty business, but I won't bore you with my scars."

“I’m Captain Amelia. Late of a few run-ins with the Procyon Armada, nasty business, but I won’t bore you with my scars.”

Oh, the best Disney movie that no one knows about!  Treasure Planet had the misfortune to be released alongside Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, so it went down in history as Disney’s biggest flop.  Which is unfortunate, because this steampunk, sci-fi retelling of a Robert Louis Stevenson classic is nothing short of terrific.

The characters and actors are all terrific, but in the end, for me anyway, the choice was obviously Captain Amelia.  This anthropomorphic feline is perceptive, can lead a crew through disaster, kick some serious butt, be romantic, be stern, and be a working mom.

And she’s voiced by Emma Thompson.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

We first meet her when she somersaults onto the ship deck and teases First Officer Arrow, then has her first conversation with Delbert (the canine doctor) and Jim.  She knows something is up with the crew, and doesn’t put up with any of Jim’s insubordinance– making him Silver’s cabin boy.  Fortunately for all their survival.  This initial meeting also establishes the belligerent romantic tension between her and Delbert– this provides a lot of comedy relief as well as some great moments of getting crap past the radar.  This makes it believable when she later tells Delbert he has wonderful eyes.

But she’s tough, too.  We see her guide the crew through a very dangerous encounter with a black hole.  Though they’re pirates, they applaud her when the ship has reached safety.  But she’s visibly saddened by the loss of Mr. Arrow.

She can handle herself in a gunfight.  Jim and Delbert are pretty useless with pistols, so their escape from the ship is mostly due to her.  Her getting badly injured by their crash landing is a blow to Jim and Delbert.  But this is where the romance begins in earnest, and it doesn’t seem like a screenwriter’s contrivance.  And though the injury bit is foggy and does mean she needs Delbert to carry her for a while, she recovers pretty quickly.  Well, rest is often the best medicine, so it still works.

At the movie’s epilogue, when the Benbow Inn has been rebuilt we see that Delbert and Amelia are married with a litter of… whatever species they are.  But she’s still in uniform, and he holds three of their offspring while she holds just one.  They then let Morph babysit them while Mom and Dad dance with the other party-goers.  This very strongly implies that she has not given up her career as a captain and will continue on to further adventures.  Undoubtedly with Delbert and the kids, once they’re old enough.  He’s adventurous, too.

I’d call Captain Amelia a feminist character.  No, Treasure Planet isn’t perfect and doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (Jim’s mother and Captain Amelia never speak with each other, for instance), but the Captain is still a strong, independent character who is easily on par with any male in the movie.  She also doesn’t get shoehorned into the “mom” role, either.  Her comparable character in the book also gets married and has a family pretty much as soon as the adventure is over.  But unlike him, Captain Amelia, I’m sure, leaves the door open for more adventures in space.  How could she not, when she shares her name with Amelia Earhart?

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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #5 Widow Tweed

This scene never makes it on "best of" lists.  Quite an oversight.

This scene never makes it on “best of” lists. Quite an oversight.

I loved The Fox and the Hound as a kid.  I remember watching it while my parents and their colleagues packed up the house, so we could move across town.  The TV and VCR were among the last things packed.  Besides the awesome action and moral, one of the reasons I liked it so much was Tod’s human, Widow Tweed.

She was voiced by the talented actress, Jeannette Nolan– who had been in film for nearly 40 years at this point.  She played tough frontier and mountain women, too– most notably in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Twilight Zone episode “Jess-Belle.”  She could do sympathetic, unsympathetic… you name it.  She brings a ton of energy, style, and brass to this animated woman.

It’s believable that this dairy farmer would take in an orphaned fox kit.  When she interacts with Tod and names him the audience gets a sense of how lonely she was.  She can’t stay mad at him when he accidentally causes a ruckus in the barn.

But she has a ton of grit.  When her neighbor, Amos, starts shooting at Tod (and by extent Tweed– the fox was in the back of her truck), she slams on the brakes and stands in the path of the oncoming car!  She doesn’t back down– whether from his yelling, the older dog Chief’s snarling, the fact that she might very easily get hit.  She puts up with Amos’ sexism (he only ever calls her “woman”) and kicks him out of her house when he barges into her house looking for Tod after Chief gets a broken leg.

Realizing that Tod can’t be safe living next door to Amos and his dogs, she then makes the difficult, heartbreaking decision to release him on the game preserve.  She has a lovely monologue during the drive that expresses perfectly how she feels, without becoming maudlin.  But she never wavers when she has to drive away.  Tod’s collar and leash comes off.  She hugs him and goes away.  Interestingly the movie never has the fox express any feelings of betrayal or abandonment at being left in the wild– maybe he realized, too, that this was the best option.

Tweed makes a final appearance in the movie’s closing scene.  Amos, fresh from his ill-fated attempt to kill Tod on the game preserve, has had to swallow his pride and ask her for help with the foot that was caught in one of his own steel-jaw traps.  And she helps him, though she’s not above having some fun at his expense at the same time.

The result is a tough, good old woman.  We don’t see many characters like her nowadays.  Actually, they were thin enough on the ground in 1981.  Clearly something is wrong with this picture.

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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #6 Mr. Smee

"SMEE!"

“SMEE!”

Another Peter Pan cast-member!

Ever since I was a kid, and keep in mind, I probably saw this movie for the first time when I was around two or three, he was one of my favorite characters.  Mr. Smee, like Trusty, doesn’t seem like much at first, but instead of totally disarming the audience towards the end, glimpses of what make him awesome come all throughout the movie.  And he has them chuckling the whole time.

First and foremost, yes… Mr. Smee is none too bright.  In fact, he’s pretty dim.  But he’s very brave.  He’s the one who shoos away the Crocodile when it comes too close to the ship, and the beast listens to him!

He’s quick to forgive.  When we first meet him, the other crew members threaten him with various weapons, but in his interactions with them throughout the rest of the movie, it’s obvious that he doesn’t hold any grudges.  Given the knives and swords involved– that’s pretty impressive.

Smee also has a code of honor that the rest of the crew, especially Captain Hook, utterly lacks.  He tells off the captain for shooting an off-key singer.

“Oh dear, dear, dear Captain Hook.  Shooting a man in the middle of his cadenza?  Ain’t good form, you know.”

Later he wants to leave Neverland rather than become entangled in the Peter Pan-Tinkerbelle-Wendy conflict.  “This is no place for respectable pirates like us!”

He also thinks that Hook’s obsession with killing Peter Pan is unhealthy– which it is.

But more interestingly, Hook knows that Smee is indispensable.  The captain is perfectly willing to kill just plain crewmen for minor infractions like singing off key, but when Smee does the same thing he only gets shushed or smacked on the head.  The pirate knows he can’t keep things together without his dim-witted assistant, which is saying something, considering Hook’s arrogance.

Oh, and he loves his mother.  It’s a villain cliche, but very funny here.  Comic-yet-effective villains are great, and Smee juggles his efficiency with his ineptitude, as well as serving a nice counterpoint to Hook’s hysterical ruthlessness.  It’s a win-win for audiences.

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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #7 Trusty

"Don't reckon I ever mentioned Ol' Reliable before?"

“Don’t reckon I ever mentioned Ol’ Reliable before?”

Lady and the Tramp (1955) is another movie with a great, full cast.  There’s humans, dogs, that goofy beaver, and even the two evil cats.  Oh, and the humans, I suppose.

Everybody probably knows someone like Trusty: long-winded, something of a broken record, old-fashioned, sentimental, sweet, prone to exaggerate… but people as awesome as Trusty are probably a rare breed.

Admittedly, for most of the movie Trusty doesn’t seem like much.  He’s an old bloodhound, retired from duty in the Rangers (or whatever), and yammering to anyone who’ll listen about Grandpappy Ol’ Reliable.  Jock the Scottie insists that Trusty has lost his sense of smell, and aside from trying to help salvage Lady’s reputation after Aunt Sarah gets her from the Pound, he seems pretty useless.

Then the rat attacks, and Tramp is carted off to the Pound and certain death.  Then we start to see what the old dog is really made of.  He has a strong sense of right and wrong. He is willing to admit his mistakes.  He’s determined to do the right thing.  And he’s got a lot of courage– racing the Dog Catcher and holding the wagon is dangerous, as we well know.

When he starts to chase after the wagon, and Jock brings up the “lost your sense of smell thing” Trusty is clearly offended but doesn’t waste time.  He’s confident in himself, and is capable of doing what needs to be done.  And time doesn’t seem to have slowed him down much, either.  That wagon was going pretty fast, and he chased it down, fine.  Recovering from getting pinned down by it was no picnic either.

But as willing as he was to exercise the bragging rights that feat awarded him, Trusty was still willing to acknowledge his shortcomings (mainly his memory) with a sense of humor.  He was also willing to let Jock help him, although he didn’t necessarily need it.

A character who pleasantly surprises (or even disarms) the audience is always a joy.  Trusty fits the bill nicely, and reminds us that there’s often more to people, and dogs, than meets the eye, and age doesn’t necessarily equal competence.  It’s a good lesson for pretty much any time.

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Top 10 Disney Supporting Characters #8 Mrs. Packard

Word of God says she's a former showgirl.  Probably a comedienne.

Word of God says she’s a former showgirl. Probably a comedienne.

Ah, Atlantis… easily one of my favorite animated Disney flicks.  It has a Steampunk feel, which makes the politically-correct history believable, a star-studded cast, a fairly serious treatment of religion (look at the scene where Kida prays before the tombs of the kings and the Crystal), and lots of really interesting characters.

It was really hard to pick one, but finally I centered on the one my family still quotes to this day– even after fourteen years.

Mrs. Wilhelmina Packard is the cranky, sardonic switchboard operator and communication officer of the expedition.  Between reading out sarcastic, monotone announcements, “Whoever removed the ‘L’ from the ‘Motor Pool’ sign… ha ha, we’re all very amused,” she’s gossiping with an old friend of hers, Marge.

While the submarine is attacked by the Leviathan and the order to abandon ship comes through she pauses long enough to say, “He took his suitcase?  Marge, honey, I don’t think he’s coming back.  We’re being attacked now.  No no, I’ll call you.”

But she’s good at her job.  She alerts Commander Rourke when she hears the Leviathan and knows it’s bigger than a pod of whales and not an echo.  When Helga argues, she snaps, “You wanna do my job?  Be my guest.”

And when things get especially bleak she adopts her catchphrase– the one my family still uses.  “We’re all gonna die.”  None of us are smokers, though, so we lack the cigarette flick effect, but it’s always great when she says it.  She doesn’t give a damn about dying, you can tell.

I think Mrs. Packard still appeals to me because she has the makings of a Hitchcock character, like the sardonic nurse, Stella, from Rear Window.  Although Atlantis uses Packard to make a lot of the cruder jokes, she could just as easily talk about how Thorwald had better get the trunk with the dead body out of his apartment before it starts to leak.  But even Stella made a bathroom joke about how she predicted the Crash of ’29 because of the director of General Motor’s kidney ailment.

Maybe one’s an ancestor of the other.  Now that’s a really scary thought.

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