Q&A

What’s the Purpose of a Sidekick Like Heihei?

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Thinking through hero’s journey and story archetypes (newbie here!) and was watching the recent Pixar movie Moana. My question is, what do you see as the function of or reason for a story to choose a relatively inanimate/neutral sidekick like Heihei (Moana’s chicken, that, though providing some minor key plot points, does not have a perspective, personality, “stake in the game,” etc.) or Wilson (the volleyball) from Castaway?

These are both ocean-journey stories, where the hero(ine) needs uninterrupted deep personal reflection. Maybe that’s enough of a reason? It seems unusual, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Warmly,
Liz

Hey Liz, thanks for writing in!

As far as I can tell from reading behind-the-scenes info, the reason for Heihei’s existence is that he was originally supposed to be a completely different character with lines and personality, similar to Mushu from Mulan. During story revisions, it became increasingly clear that this character didn’t work, and the plan was to cut Heihei entirely, but by then the production crew had gotten super attached to him, so they wanted to keep him in the movie in any way they could.

I haven’t seen Castaway, but my understanding is that Wilson primarily exists to give Tom Hanks someone to talk to. There are other reasons, no doubt, like showing how Hanks copes with extreme isolation, but those are secondary. Stories do this a lot, especially stories in a visual medium, because it’s important for a character to be isolated, but the story also needs dialogue in order to be entertaining. Avatar: The Last Airbender pulls a similar trick on several occasions, with the flying lemur Momo serving as a sounding board when a human character needs to go off on their own. Heihei stands out a bit because Moana actually had plenty of other options for characters she could talk to, and he mostly seems to have been included because the creators couldn’t bear to cut him.

I don’t believe this character has a classification within the Hero’s Journey, but they are commonly referred to as animal companions, even when they aren’t animals. They aren’t usually characters in their own right; instead, they exist to provide reflection for the protagonist. Their exact nature will change based on the needs of the story, from a clever flying lemur to an inanimate volleyball, but their core function remains the same.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck!

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Comments

  1. Rickard Elimää

    It reveals the character’s inner thoughts, and is commonly used in theater, like Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (A Doll House), where the character is having a monologue with her cat. A telephone call, without hearing the other end, or talking to plants serves the same purpose.

    • Cay Reet

      I think more visual media, such as movies and TV series, need such characters to display the inner thoughts, because you can write what a character thinks in a novel or short story, but you can’t show it easily in a movie or a TV series. There, you can use a monologue to give the information you want the audience to have through such a companion they can talk to. A monologue without anyone to ‘talk to’ looks weirder than talking to a person on the phone, a cat, or a plant.

      • Adam Reynolds

        Mirrors also often serve the same effect, with characters literally talking to themselves.

        Another great example comes from The Martian, in which the written journals from the novel become video journals. What is useful about this example is that it allows it to take place over a longer period of time, because they are recurring entries. Not to mention that it also tells you something about Mark’s character, that he is still bothering to leave scientific records behind even though he has no idea whether he will survive.

  2. Shawn H Corey
    • SunlessNick

      But he’s not funny.

      • GeniusLemur

        That’s not unusual. I can count the number of comic relief characters that were actually funny on my fingers and toes. And I could still do it if I was a python.

        • Bunny

          Interesting point – I wonder why so many comic relief characters fall flat. I haven’t seen a whole lot of Disney princess movies, but so far only Mushu has worked. Olaf, for example, I just found annoying. Beyond Disney, well . . . what comic relief characters are there out there, especially in mainstream media? I can’t think of any right now, or at least none whose designated role is comic relief. Now I’m curious what makes comic relief work or not work.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It’s also worth pointing out that Heihei isn’t really comic relief in Moana, because every character is comic in Moana. The comic relief role is typically found in more serious stories.

    • Shawn H Corey

      A comic relief does not have to be funny. They are there to relieve tension.

  3. C

    Random movie fact! The makers of Castaway gave Wilson “lines” in the script for Tom Hanks’ character to respond to. It’s why sometimes the things he says to Wilson sound like an answer to a direct question.

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