(A version of this article was published for Laughing Place on March 22, 2022.)
Fully developed characters are essential to great storytelling. Start with an inspiring hero, solid villain, a few supporting roles, and you’ve got the foundation for a good story. But every now and then, in the gray space of storytelling, comes a supporting piece that transcends the one-dimensional nature projected by most inanimate objects.
We recently discussed some notable semi-sentient characters in the Disney and Pixar animated universes. Now, let’s discover their live-action counterparts in the Disney universe, including the Star Wars Galaxy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
The Disney Universe
Live-action Disney doesn’t just mean Star Wars and Marvel. The Walt Disney Company has released (or purchased) quite a few stunning live-action films in its own right. Here are a few pseudo characters from Disney films.
The Enchanted Bed – Bedknobs and Broomsticks
In the throes World War 2, Miss Eglantine Price reluctantly agrees to escort three young British children to safety from the threat of a Nazi air invasion. Unbeknownst to the kids, Miss Price is a student of witchcraft. When the kids witness her flying on a broomstick, their attitudes change from reluctance to intrigue. En route to their safe place, the kids accompany Miss Price on an adventure back into danger to find a special spell book to finish her witchcraft training.
How does the group travel to and fro? By flying on their magic bed, of course. Miss Price cast a spell on one of the bed’s knobs, giving it the power to fly (and swim). The group encounters Nazi soldiers on their travels, but manage to escape through some crafty spell-casting. Throughout the film, the bed does little more than serve as a vehicle, but the unique enchantment with which it was charmed gave it a personality beyond the mattress. In the years since the film was released, the “flying bed” has taken on a popularity all its own, even more so than the characters in the film.
Herbie the Love Bug
In our piece on animated semi-sentient characters, we discussed the Incredibile, and the inspiration it took from Batman’s Batmobile. Take these high-powered battle cars, strip away all the weapons, give a friendly racing paint job, and add in a mischievous mindset, and you have Herbie the Love Bug.
Herbie was once the most famous car in the Disney universe (until Lightning McQueen rolled in). The poor little Volkswagen Bug was battered and neglected. But when the right human came along by the name of Jim Douglas, Herbie stopped at nothing to make sure he ended up in the driver’s seat for good – even if that meant taking control of the steering wheel , the gas pedal, the brakes, and every other car component.
Herbie never speaks a word (aside from a few well-timed beeps) but his intentions throughout the film are made loud and clear. When Jim learns to trust Herbie, the two work together like a new set of tires.
Trivia tidbit – what is the significance of Herbie’s number 53? Film producer Bill Walsh was a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame baseball player Don Drysdale, who wore number 53!
Flubber – The Absent-Minded Professor
Professor Ned Brainard (played by Fred MacMurray, the very first Disney Legend) is the classic scatterbrained inventor type, who accidentally invents a new material that defies the laws of physics.
Flubber – a portmanteau meaning “flying rubber” – has the unique ability to gain energy upon impact, making it a perpetually strengthening material. This all sounds great in theory, but in practice it becomes quite hard to handle, causing trouble over and over again. The application of Flubber to the shoes of a basketball team led to amusing results. The story’s villain – Alonzo P. Hawk – is tricked and eventually apprehended when he cannot stop bouncing due to the Flubber on his shoes.
In Flubber – a 1997 reboot of the original 1961 film – the goofy green substance takes on even more personality, developing humanoid-like forms and displaying more of a mind of its own.
Mary Poppins’ Umbrella
The one and only Mary Poppins is the most beloved character in all of Disney’s live-action films. Her curt mannerisms and wry sensibilities directly contradict her cheeky undertones. She carries a charmed carpet bag (which may be the inspiration for Hermione Granger’s charmed beaded handbag in the Harry Potter stories). Mary regularly performs humorously convenient tricks and spells. But perhaps the most intriguing physical object belonging to Mary is her magic umbrella.
The umbrella gives Mary the ability to float through the sky – providing a most dramatic way to enter someone’s life. It also acts as a wand of sorts (providing perhaps another stroke of inspiration for Hagrid’s umbrella in the Harry Potter stories). The iconic handle knob of the umbrella is a talking parrot, speaking memorably as a wisecracking voice of common sense. The umbrella is one of a kind!
Master Control Program – TRON
Many people have trouble relating to computers. Others are quite comfortable navigating the digital landscape. In TRON, computer hackers and digital security personnel battle a protective digital program, and in doing so become digitized themselves, personifying the functions of complex computer programs.
In the film, the “Tron” program is a security measure designed to protect the system and counter the functions of the evil Master Control Program (MCP). Sound confusing? To put it simply, the MCP is a rogue artificial intelligence operating system (or an overly aggressive digital bully), which delights in creating a warrior-like forum to take down less fortunate computer programs. The MCP pits programs against each other, acting as a digital game schemer. A pair of heroes team up with a handful of endangered programs (including Tron) to overtake the MCP. The MCP took on an animated humanoid appearance, but at its core, it was just an out of control digital pirate.
The Ark of the Covenant – Raiders of the Lost Ark
An object doesn’t have to move or wiggle or dance in order to display a sense of purpose and personality. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant spends the majority of the film being the treasure of legend, believed to contain the power of God. Sure enough, Doctor Jones finds the Ark (and the pesky villain Rene Belloq predictably steals it). That’s when the fun begins.
The Ark is not simply a valuable and ornate artifact. The power rumored to exist inside it is real, as it unleashes a wave of face-melting terror across the crowd of Nazi soldiers there to witness its grand opening. Fortunately for Indy and his companion Marion, he knew better than to look straight at the Ark. Wise move, Doctor Jones.
The Black Pearl – Pirates of the Caribbean
The legendary Black Pearl is the first of two “fastest ships” in this list (keep reading for the other). Originally existing as the Wicked Wench, this pirate ship emerged from a scorched death at the ocean floor thanks to a soul-trading deal struck by Captain Jack Sparrow and the tyrannical supernatural pirate Davy Jones.
When the ship emerged (with Jack) from the bottom of the ocean, it was forever transformed into a frightening ash-charred boat with black sails. The Black Pearl earned a reputation as the fastest and most dangerous ship on the Seven Seas. The Pearl – along with her crew – fell under a curse after Captain Jack was double crossed by his untrustworthy first mate Hector Barbossa. For a period of time, the Pearl was shrouded in a perpetual mist and sporting tattered sails. Having lived through two lifetimes, the Black Pearl has no shortage of stories to tell.
Maleficent’s Wings – Maleficent
Maleficent – Queen of the Moors – enjoyed outstanding power, and for some time, a peaceful kingdom. But an attack on her home by the neighboring King Henry soured that relationship forever. The King, on his deathbed, offered a reward to anyone who could kill the queen. Maleficent’s long-time childhood friend (and son of King Henry) Stefan had the chance to end her life. Instead, he spared her life and stole her mighty wings.
Deprived of her most powerful physical asset, Maleficent placed the curse we all know on Stefan’s baby Aurora. For another sixteen years, Maleficent lived a miserable life without her wings. But her wings never forgot her. Later in the film, when Maleficent seeks out Aurora and rescues her from a deep sleep, Aurora finds the wings struggling to be released from a cage in which they spent the last sixteen years. When Aurora releases the wings, they immediately fly to Maleficent, and once again form a bond to her body. With her rediscovered power, Maleficent is able to Save Aurora and herself from the now-crazed King Stephan, and eventually unite the two kingdoms.
The Star Wars Galaxy
Plenty of colorful characters populate the galaxy far, far away. A few objects (and even a metaphysical phenomenon) exist there as well. Here are a few noteworthy candidates in the Star Wars Galaxy.
The Millennium Falcon
The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy is much more than the bucket of bolts that hold it together. The Millennium Falcon is nothing short of Star Wars legend. It completed the famed Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. It picked off Darth Vader before he picked off Luke. It led countless successful missions for the Rebellion and the Resistance. And of course, it somehow found its way back to Han and Chewie after being kept in rags for years.
The Falcon may not have a mind of its own, but it displays talent, tricks, and an uncanny ability to survive much longer than any freight ship should. Plus, it makes a heck of a Lego set!
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” – Obi Wan Kenobi
Who said a semi-sentient character had to be a physical piece? The Force is the most important concept in the Star Wars Galaxy. It’s what gives the Jedi (and their Sith counterparts) their abilities. You can’t see it, hear it, taste it, smell it, or share a cup of blue milk with it. But if you are Force-sensitive, you can feel it. The Force is ever-present, and it has, through its users, changed the course of Star Wars history time after time.
Lightsabers are the elegant, illuminated weapons of the Jedi, capable of amazing things when wielded by a Force-trained user. But lightsabers in themselves have no real personality.
The Darksaber, on the other hand, is a whole mood. It has a history forged in blood and Beskar, and a temperament that must be accepted and understood in order to use it effectively. When Mando acquires the Darksaber in season two of The Mandalorian, and uses it several times in The Book of Boba Fett, it becomes clear that he is not in sync with the weapon. Mando fights to control the Darksaber, but the user will only succeed when they accept the attitude of the saber.
The Darksaber may not simply be given to someone. It must be won in combat. As a result, many in history have wielded the Darksaber, but very few have kept it for long. Even fewer have mastered it.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Physics and reality are but mere afterthoughts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is full of toys and tricks. Lots of them look and act really cool, but very few take on a character of their own. Here are a few that do.
Mjölnir – more basically known as Thor’s hammer – is one of the more legendary weapons in the MCU. The war-hammer was forged by Dwarves for the Asgardian Royal Family. It was used by Odin, passed down to Hela, and then to Thor himself.
The hammer is mighty in its own physical attributes, but what brings the weapon to the next level is the enchantment placed upon it by Odin himself. Only a worthy person may wield its power. Many others have tried unsuccessfully – and comedically – to lift it. Throughout most of Thor’s time in the MCU, only he alone could wield Mjölnir, though after a period of recklessness caused a war in his homeworld of Asgard, even Thor himself wasn’t able to wield the hammer. Mjölnir’s stubborn enchantment made Captain America’s ability to use it in Avengers: Endgame truly remarkable.
Captain America’s Shield
“That thing doesn’t obey the laws of physics at all!” – Spider-Man
If Thor’s Mjölnir can be thought of as a boomerang, then Cap’s shield functions like a pinball. A pinball that always finds its way back to start. Much like a boomerang. How does the shield do it? I have no idea. It just does it. Some things just don’t get explained, and this seems like one of those things.In case you couldn’t tell, I really don’t have a great reason why the shield has character greater than the weight of its vibranium. To put it simply, the shield is successful, all of the time, and it represents impeccable character.
Yondu’s Yaka Arrow
There seems to be a trend with semi-sentient weapons in the MCU, and for good reason. They kick butt!
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most stylish films in the MCU, and Yondu’s Yaka Arrow takes care of business with every ounce of flair you’d expect from a whistle-controlled weapon. This thing can dart to and fro, leaving behind a trail of remains in its wake.
If this arrow was in possession of a true villain, it would be lethal beyond imagination. But thankfully, Yondu is one of those “gray” characters in the MCU who may be lacking in judgment, but has a heart hidden somewhere deep in his blue body.
Doctor Strange’s Cape
Quite possibly cut from the same cloth as Aladdin’s magic carpet, Doctor Strange’s magical cape truly has a mind of its own. Fancifully referred to as the Cloak of Levitation, the magical relic is able to move and fly on its own, and allows its user to levitate and hover in the air along with it.
The Cloak saved Doctor Strange several times in his battles with Kaecilius, assisted in a fight with Thanos and his Black Order minions, and even got on the bad side of Drax the Destroyer, who irritatedly refers to it as “Blanket of Death.” The Cloak knows where to be and when, and in doing so has become one of the more beloved sidekicks in the MCU.
Did we catch all the semi-sentient characters in the live-action Disney universe? Can you think of any additional nominees that we missed? Reach out here with a comment, or send a direct message on social:
Check out our list of semi-sentient characters in the animated Disney universe. And if you’re a Harry Potter fan, read this magical list of semi-sentient characters in the Wizarding World.