This Friday, Despicable Me 2 hits theaters in the wake of the $543 million-grossing original from 2010. Posters, blimps and billboards heralding the latest animated sequel can be glimpsed all over town, but they lack an important character in the franchise, the star of the first film, Gru, voiced by Steve Carell and feature, instead, the goggle-eyed minions who were but side characters in the first film. The minions have effectively stolen the show; in fact, Universal plans to release an all-minion feature, aptly titled Minions, in 2014.
This isn’t the first time supporting animated characters have nabbed the spotlight. Porky Pig broke away from the Warner Bros. pack after his stint in the short-lived Looney Tunes series Beans the Cat in 1935 and eventually became a mascot for Looney Tunes before Bugs Bunny hopped on the scene. Woody Woodpecker earned his stripes as a side character in Andy Panda, a 1939 Walter Lantz cartoon, before going on to topline his own popular series at Universal.
Often, studios conceptualize supporting characters in hopes the characters will become fan favorites, prompting lucrative spin-offs. Below, SSN analyzes the animated film and TV world’s most successful examples of supporting characters to have made the leap to starring roles.
Tinker Bell stole hearts when Disney released their version of the J.M. Barrie classic, Peter Pan, in 1953. Disney’s Tinker Bell had a feisty personality, a fierce loyalty to Peter Pan, and was green with envy when Wendy landed on the scene. Seeing the big star quality in one of their tiniest characters, spunky Tinker Bell became a company mascot, adding a sparkling touch to the title cards of their shows. Disney didn’t stop there, and in 2005, executives conceptualized an entire Fairies franchise around her, including movies, books, magazines, video games, television shows, theme park attractions and, of course, merchandise. In September 2005, Disney released its first novel, under the new property Disney Fairies, entitled Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. Landing on the New York Times bestseller list, it sold more than a million copies and launched a lucrative franchise. Since 2005, there have been 46 books, a magazine in Italy, a TV special, four direct-to-video films with a fifth releasing in 2014, two Pixie Hollow theme-park attractions and a massive multi-player online game.
Dancing lemurs, silly chimpanzees and, most of all, sneaky penguins parlayed their hit run in DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar into their own television show, video game and toys. What started as a couple of animated shorts spun off into a full blown CGI cartoon on Nickelodeon in 2009, continuing in 2013. The penguins have also been featured in eight direct-to-DVD films, two Nintendo games and tons of toys. The popularity of the penguins can be traced to their total commitment to keeping order in the zoo by pulling off mock military missions. In one episode, penguin Skipper asks, “Pop quiz, troops. What can’t we trust?” to which Kowalski retorts, “Three-day-old stir-fry mung beans.” The series is loved by parents and kids alike and has earned numerous awards, including an Emmy in 2012 for Outstanding Animation program. A feature film is currently in development at DreamWorks Animation, slated for a March 2015 release, with the current draft penned by MegaMind scribes Alan J Schoolcraft and Brent Simons.
Among the notable animated cats like Felix, the Aristocats, Garfield, Sylvester, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of charm, footwear and skill with a sword: Puss in Boots. When King Harold needed an assassin to take down the ogre Shrek in the 2004 sequel, he knew Puss in Boots as the right cat for the job. Originally, Puss in Boots stemmed from a French fairytale, written by Charles Perrault in 1628 about a cat whose adeptness at the art of deception gains him wealth, sort of like con-artist Neal in USA’s White Collar. DreamWorks’ original vision was more on par with The Three Musketeers, but after casting The Mask of Zorro’s Antonio Banderas, Puss in Boots emulated its star’s accent. In an interview with BlackFilm.com, Banderas remarked, “Once I jumped in there with my accent, he became Zorro.” Although the Eddie Murphy-voiced side character Donkey was popular, Puss in Boots was the breakout fan favorite from Shrek 2, prompting DreamWorks to begin development on a feature around the suave kitty in 2005. In 2010, the feline was featured in a Halloween special, but it wasn’t until 2001 that DreamWorks finally released Puss in Boots, netting $555 million worldwide. While Guillermo del Toro, who executive produced the first film, has reportedly completed a few drafts for the sequel, DreamWorks has yet to put the sequel in active development.
Not many side characters can claim they saved the hero’s life, but The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa, respectively the meerkat and warthog from the Disney blockbuster, did just that, rescuing the young lion cub Simba from heat exhaustion. They also introduced him to their laidback mantra, “Hakuna Matata.” Tony Award-winner Nathan Lane voiced the wise-cracking meerkat in The Lion King and Pumbaa, the exquisitely lazy warthog, has been voiced across all mediums by Ernie Sabella. Since the $950 million-grossing film, the hilarious duo have starred in their own animated Disney Channel series, which ran from 1995 and 1999. The buddies have also been incorporated into two Disney theme park attractions and made supporting appearances in the 1998 direct-to-DVD 1998 The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. For characters who enjoy easy livin’, they’re mighty busy : They were seen regurarly in the cartoon Disney’s House of Mouse during 2001-2002 and, in 2004, they starred in the final film of the trilogy, The Lion King 1 ½,which takes place before Simba goes back to his pride. While released in a few theaters, the sequel was mainly a direct-to-DVD title. In 2006, they were back to sidekick status in The Lion King-themed video game, Kingdom of Hearts. Although the comic duo doesn’t have another property in the works, you can bet the characters will be retail favorites for years to come.
20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios’ Ice Age films, following a group of prehistoric mammals fleeing the approach of the coming ice age, have grossed more than $700 million worldwide. Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel, wasn’t a part of the main storyline. Instead, he inhabits a parallel storyline preoccupied with his never-ending quest for acorns, that occasionally intersects with the actions of the lead characters. It wasn’t until Ice Age’s test screenings that Fox realized they had a potential star in the wings.Test audience’s reactions were so positive, in fact, that Fox immediately ordered more scenes of the nutty rodent. Fox has since put Scrat front and center in their Ice Age franchise marketing and produced three animated shorts featuring the character. The first short, Gone Nutty, from 2002 and featured on the Ice Age DVD, was nominated for an Academy Award. The second short, No Time for Nuts, was featured in the Ice Age: The Meltdown DVD in 2006. The squirrel’s quest was turned into the 2006 Wii video game, Ice Age: The Meltdown, in which it was Scrat, not the mammals, who took top billing. Fox released another Ice Age title in 2012 with Scrat as its marketing mascot. They also produced a third short, Scrat’s Continental Crack-up, which was screened in front of features in theaters and acted as a promotional tool for the fourth Ice Age installment in 2012. Although a feature-length Scrat adventure isn’t in the works, this isn’t the end as he’s now ascended to icon status for Blue Sky Studios, beginning with their logo seen before their 2013 film Epic.
If you ever need help finding a small fish in a big ocean, there is no one happier to help than Dory, a blue tang fish who—truth be told—is better at losing than finding things, thanks to her absent-mindedness. Marlin, that’s Nemo’s dad, meets Dory while on his quest to find his son, and the two strike up a testy yet adorable friendship. Pixar strayed from the Disney playbook of portraying sidekicks as good-for-nothing wiseacres and succeeded in building a truly unique and winning personality. Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is eager to comfort and reassure; she speaks fluent “whale”; and, most importantly, she has a sunny outlook despite her dunderheadedness. Since her 2003 debut in Finding Nemo, which grossed $900 million worldwide, Dory has been featured in three theme park attractions. Recognizing the inherent appeal of her character to fans, Disney and Pixar wisely chose to start production on a film starring the forgetful fish. Entitled Finding Dory, it’s being directed by Finding Nemo helmer Andrew Stanton. Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks—who voiced Marlin—have both signed on. It’s slated for a November, 2015 release.