When bad henchmen happen to good villains

I saw Up the other night, with my wife and daughter. I liked it fine, but certainly did not think of it as one of the great works of art of our era, as others seem to have.

I’ll deal with some of those issues later. Right now, I want to point out a recurrent character arrangement that is characteristic of most children’s films, and seems to have crept into books as well. It certainly appeared in this one.

It’s this: the evil character, villain, criminal mastermind, bully, whoever, always has two moronic, clueless sidekicks. The leader doesn’t have sinister henchmen, resentful slaves, or co-opted intellectual ideologues. He has buffoons, always two.

I first noticed this in the weirdly complex and deranged Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000). The evil Diesel has doofus locomotives to admire his evil, provide comic relief, and execute commands poorly and incompetently, giving the heroes a chance to succeed. Its plot ease and comic relief that are the real functions.

In wartime propaganda, the enemy leader’s minions are often portrayed as incompetent toadies, cowards, sexual perverts (not common in children’s versions, at least openly, though sometimes appearing as fetishistic attachment to some object or procedure), cross-dressers, and sufferers from obscure and embarrassing maladies. Think of Goebbels, Himmler, and Goering in WWII propaganda.

What’s interesting about this scheme is not whether or not it makes sense in real life (Goebbels and Goering were evil, but far from comical and incompetent), but how stereotyped and unvarying it is. It ranges from Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter books to the shark Bruce in Finding Nemo, with his hammerhead and mako companions. You could lift the pop-culture-laden, befuddled dialog from one movie and plop it down in another and not even notice.