For several years now, I’ve been emotionally leashed to the fate of a character from the brilliant graphic novel Saga. He got his own post here a few months back: Ghüs, the tiny harp seal-man who farms walrus-like cattle on the planet Quietus.
This character makes me feel EMOTIONS. The strongest of these is FEAR. He is too small, adorable, and good-hearted to survive among the killers in this war-torn universe. But there he is, offering friendly homespun wisdom while dressed in overalls or (if at night) footie pajamas.
Sigh. Ghüs is good comic relief, but I think Staples and Vaughn (his creators) put him there to make us fear. Sci-fi and fantasy are rife with similar archetypes, adorable creatures hopelessly outmatched by circumstance.
R2D2 is the most famous. Cute, friendly, makes lots of beeping sounds, mostly helpless. We often fear for him, watching as he rolls through battlefields, barely dodging laser blasts. C3p0 is also helpless, but somehow it’s R2 that gets our sympathies.
He takes a lot of abuse. Shot multiple times, dropped on his head, drowned in a swamp. Star Wars wasn’t scary to me as a kid, but the tensest moments were those when R2 was in danger. Why the hell wasn’t he shielded in the back of the X-wing? Even some cardboard padding would have helped.
BB-8 fills the role in the new films. He-she-it may be even cuter than R2. Did you feel a rush of sympathy when BB-8 was stuck in that net, captured by the junk scavenger?
Mogwai from Gremlins fits in this category, too. Watching him tremble and cower in the corner while the monsters go nuts? Gold.
Bubo from Clash of the Titans is perhaps my earliest memory of the cute creature sidekick. Following that, maybe Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal.
Even Raiders of the Lost Ark had a cute monkey for 20-30 minutes before it sampled the “bad dates.”
So why do these adorable creatures show up at all? Is it just for the kids? Certainly not in the case of Ghüs—no child should be reading Saga. I’m not even sure I’m old enough to be reading Saga, and I remember both Roosevelt administrations (well, the Ken Burns documentary).
Part of the reason is comic relief, though it’s not always successful (see: Bubo). Storytellers also use them to expand the spectrum of characters. If you are making a war or horror film, having an adorable beast allows some tonal complexity. It can even amplify the darker aspects of your story; if you make a war film and all your characters are tough as nails, the war itself may not seem as brutal. Ghüs definitely serves this purpose in Saga.
These characters also activate our nurturing instincts. Most of the ones I’ve mentioned act as analogs for children or pets (and sometimes are literal pets).
But maybe I’m overthinking this. It could be as simple as “people like cute things, here’s a cute thing, enjoy!”
The last I saw of Ghüs (spoilers for Saga, I guess), he was unconscious after defending Friendo (his walrus-cow) from a bounty hunter. I haven’t read past this point, but I’m hoping the little guy gets a happy ending.
Do you find any value in these characters? Have a favorite? Or do they annoy you? Maybe all of the above, depending on quantity. Those Ewoks spark a lot of conflicting emotions…
Have a good week, all. I’ve fulfilled my “cute” quota.
* Ghüs lives on the planet “Quietus,” a lovely pastoral world full of adorable creatures. But this is not the first time I encountered the name, which has far darker connotations for me. Nothing in all science fiction ever disturbed me more than the “Quietus” from the movie Children of Men—a commercial suicide kit available to any citizen who wants to punch out early from the collapsing civilization.