From Mick to Mufasa: The Top 10 Movie Mentors of All Time

Elias Stein

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Clueless, a movie that, among other things, is about a very popular girl mentoring a less popular girl. We’re using that as an excuse to write several thousand words about fictional movie mentors,1 so get ready.

What makes a great movie mentor? To start, he or she should have a great deal of life experience, preferably within one or more specific fields (Benny the Jet taught Smalls all about baseball, Morpheus taught Neo about the Matrix, Sister Mary Clarence taught nuns Motown songs, etc.). He or she should also be smart enough and wise enough to take the lessons learned from those experiences and apply them to situations that aren’t specifically tied to their areas of expertise, often in ways that are initially surprising and/or confusing to their protégés. A good movie mentor should also be patient, sporadically funny, reliable, and also occasionally flawed. The most interesting ones also have some invisible means of financial support that never gets discussed. And the very best ones, in the broader view of his or her circumstances, should have been losers. (More on this later.)

Sorting through all the mentors in all the movies is no tiny task. So, to make the job more manageable, there were some rules set in place. They’re very simple:

  1. No movies from before 1980 were considered. This is the Shaolin Monk Rule. Nearly every karate movie has some sort of mentor in it, and if we’d spent any time considering all the ones from the movies before 1980 we’d have been here all day. So the cutoff date, for movies about karate movies or anything else, is 1980. Apologies to the Wu-Tang Clan.
  1. The mentor cannot be the star of the movie. This is the Terminator 2 Rule. The mentor has to be a complementary piece, because mentors are always complementary pieces. Arnold was the star of T2, so he’s out even though he was an ace mentor. And just to be safe, let’s go ahead and disqualify Arnold from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines as well. Not because he was the star, but because that movie was the worst.
  1. The mentor has to be fictional. This is the Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver Rule. It’s a very simple rule. If you’re real, you’re out.

Before we get to the countdown, there are some Movie Mentor Awards we need to hand out.

The Most Practical Mentor

Shea: If we apply a fairly firm application of the term “practical,” it has to be Vince Vaughn’s Trent in Swingers, right? How can it be anybody else? Trents are very real and very practical.

Jason: I’m going with Rita Vrataski from Edge of Tomorrow. Tom Cruise plays William Cage, a cowardly military spokesperson suddenly dragooned into active service on the eve of a crucial battle. He has no fighting ability and hasn’t held a weapon since basic training. That’s the bad news. The good news is, at the moment of his death during said battle, his blood mingled with the blood of an alien that has the power to reset time. Cage is now functionally immortal, and every death he experiences transmits him right back to the moment he first arrives at the forward operating base.

Luckily, there is one other person who has experience with this time-looping, and she’s on the base: Rita Vrataski, a.k.a. “The Full Metal Bitch.” She once had the power to loop time but lost it. Crucially, she’s also, like, really good at soldiering.

Shea: FYI, “The good news is, at the moment of his death during said battle, his blood mingled with the blood of an alien that has the power to reset time” is a sentence someone describing something not very practical would say.

The Least Practical Mentor

Shea: I’m going literal again. I’m talking about the mentor you’re actually least likely to encounter in real, true, actual life. Do you know who you find on the opposite end of the practicality scale from a Trent? Splinter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s the least practical mentor. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that any of the Star Wars mentors could make their way into this spot, but space is infinite, so it’s more likely we run into an alien with a weird speech pattern in a galaxy far, far away than we do a very large Japanese rodent who wears clothes and speaks English and teaches ninjutsu in a sewer under New York.

Jason: Chandler from North Shore.

Surfing movies are great not only for the majesty and grandeur of surfing, but for the eccentric and stylish way those movies reject capitalist norms. Surf movies, like skateboarding movies, are countercultural sports movies. Invariably, surfing movies are about rejecting the illusions of the 9-to-5 world and finding some authentic truth through a righteous bonding with nature. It’s never clear, in any surfing movie, how anyone is able to make enough money to eat, much less purchase surfing gear, which, by the way, is really expensive.

In North Shore, a young surfer from Arizona (of all places) travels to Hawaii’s North Shore, where he quickly runs afoul of the local surfing culture. Enter Chandler, a grizzled surfer adherent to a quasi-spiritual form of surfing that eschews flash and tournament culture for a pure, organic style called Soul Surfing. Despite his Soul Surfer status, Chandler is between two worlds. He supports himself by designing and building custom surfboards. But, even when working in a capitalist context, a Soul Surfer doesn’t sell out his convictions. When the all-flash tournament shark Burkhart (Laird Hamilton) complains that the board Chandler made for him doesn’t have enough maneuverability and is based on “a single-fin mentality,” Chandler sticks to his beliefs.

“I only make boards one way,” Chandler says, calling down the mighty Soul Surfing thunder. “The right way.” I love this guy, but I don’t know how he ever remained in business.

The Best Animated Mentor

Shea: It’s Mufasa. All other animated mentors can FOH. The things he taught Simba ranged from the concrete (how to pounce) to the philosophical (“Being brave doesn’t mean you have to go looking for trouble”). Mufasa was such a good mentor that he legit came back from the dead to do some more mentoring when Simba needed it. If a dude comes back from the dead to keep doing his job, guess what. He’s the best at that job. It’s why I have so much respect for Jason Voorhees. He just keeps on coming.2

The Best Menial Job for a Mentor

Jason: The best menial job for a mentor to have is what I call “the wise hermit.” The best mentors have no actual job. They simply exist, perhaps in a cave, or a shack, or some other squatter’s hovel, outside of the jurisdiction of the civilized world, waiting patiently for fate to call upon their wisdom (though many mentors do not realize their waiting has a purpose) or for a new novice to be delivered into their charge. Pai Mei (Kill Bill Vol. 2), Yoda, Obi-Wan, and many more are good examples of this. Oftentimes, the place where the wise hermit lives bears no relation to their visible means of income. This only serves to make them more mysterious. Miyagi lives in a walled compound in a custom-built home inspired by Japanese architecture. Within his compound are numerous classic cars. When Daniel first goes to Miyagi’s home, he puts Daniel to work doing things like sanding the newly built wooden walkway that traverses the mentor’s Asian-style garden. This dude is a janitor.

Shea: Yoooooooooo. I’d never considered how Mr. Miyagi paid for all of that stuff until this exact moment. There’s no way he could’ve done it on a janitor’s salary. And he for sure didn’t get enough from the government for his stint in the military to pay for it. Oh no: Imagine that Mr. Miyagi was dealing heroin. Maybe he took it up because his fisherman father was having trouble paying the bills? Maybe that’s why he really had to leave Japan?? Maybe that’s how his wife and kid actually died??? FOH with these new Terminator movies. I need a Karate Kid prequel to get green-lit immediately.

The Best Mentor Explanation of Something Complicated

Jason: Detective Somerset in Se7en.

Somerset: “One pound of flesh, no more, no less. No cartilage, no bone. But only flesh. The Merchant of Venice.”

Mills: “I didn’t see it.”

Where would the tenderfoot Mills be without the guidance of soon-to-be-retired Somerset? It’s Somerset who discovers “Gluttony” written behind the refrigerator at the first crime scene he and Mills visit. Somerset is the one who realizes what the killer’s overarching message is, explaining it to Mills and their commanding officer even as he struggles to stay uninvolved. Somerset identifies the classic works of literature that the killer references in his clues and provides Mills with a reading list.

Shea: I wish I had a very big buzzer, a buzzer big enough that I could buzz it here in Houston and you could hear it wherever it is you live (probably inside the stomach of a whale or something very strange like that), because that’s how wrong you are right now. After Somerset finds “Gluttony” written on the wall, it’s pretty clear the killer is about to go through the rest of the seven deadly sins, killing one person per. That’s easy to figure out. The person who deserves to win this category is, of course, Morpheus from The Matrix. He had to explain to Neo that the world Neo was living in was actually a computer program and that Neo was still alive because his body’s energy was being used to power the computer program because machines were running the world. And it only took him, like, six minutes to do that. It took me longer to explain to my sons how the doorbell works.

The Best Mentor One-Liner

Jason: Road House made people realize that the world needed a movie about elite bouncers. The plot is basically a samurai film set in a dive bar. The Double Deuce is a rollicking cesspool of a watering hole located in a hair follicle in the armpit of Missouri. Someone needs to clean this place up. So the Deuce’s owner calls on Dalton, a “cooler” with a background in special forces who’s known as the best in the business. His mentor is Wade — played by Sam Elliott at the height of his powers — a lanky, graying, hirsute mine of bouncer wisdom with a drawl that sounds like a sagebrush making love to the sunset over the Rio Grande. Wade arrives about halfway into the movie on the back of a motorcycle because of course he does. Convenient timing, because Dalton is out on the loading dock getting waylaid by four bad guys. Said bad guys have Dalton pinned against a post, his arms held back, one guy delivering punches to his abdomen with workmanlike vigor. Wade saunters out, taking in the scene with a swaggering sangfroid, as if it held no surprise whatsoever. With the hint of a grin on his face, he addresses his former charge over the pummeling drumbeat of gut punches. “How’s it going, mijo?”

The Best Scene Between a Mentor and Protégé

Jason: The end of Whiplash.

Whiplash is built on an interesting twist on the standard novice/mentor dynamic. When aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman is accepted into the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, he’s enamored of the idea of studying under the tutelage of the famous conductor Terence Fletcher. Through sheer determination, he gains the drum chair in Fletcher’s ensemble. And there the torture begins. Andrew learns a lot from Fletcher — about the desire to be great and the discipline required to channel that desire. About practice. About the correct tempo for a bossa nova. Mostly, though, he learns about pain, because Fletcher is an exceedingly cruel mentor who, at any moment, might reduce one of his students to a pile of charred bone for not being all the way in tune.

At the end of the movie, Fletcher, now dismissed from Shaffer because of student complaints, unexpectedly calls on Andrew to fill the drum seat for an important concert he’s conducting. Onstage, as revenge for his dismissal, Fletcher calls an elaborate tune that he knows Andrew doesn’t have the sheet music for. Andrew walks off the stage in disgrace. But instead of slinking away, he turns back, mounts the drum riser, and, in defiance of Fletcher, plays Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” which he ends with a flamboyant drum solo that sounds less like an expression of musical creativity than a declaration of independence.

Shea: Great pick. I concede this category. Let’s get to the top 10.

10. Fast Eddie Felson, The Color of Money

Shea: Here are some of the other worthwhile mentors Fast Eddie beat out to make it into the top 10:

Proximo, Gladiator
Senzo Tanaka, Bloodsport
Blitzer (John Candy), Cool Runnings
Whistler, Blade
Baloo, The Jungle Book
Chazz (Will Ferrell), Wedding Crashers
Cher Horowitz, Clueless
Doc Hudson, Cars
Katsumoto, The Last Samurai
The Teacher, Only the Strong
Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer), Dangerous Minds
Joey Knish, Rounders

Do you know why he beat them? Because he took Vince, a very dumb and mentally undisciplined kid, a kid hustling pool for $20 a game in a ratty little bar that offered a ratty little future, and turned him into a goddamned great white shark that ate up everything and everyone placed in front of him. He mentored Vince on hustling so well that he was eventually hustled by Vince, too, which is kind of the whole point of being a mentor. Plus, I just can’t think of too many things harder than making Tom Cruise smart.

9. Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Star Wars movies

Jason: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope finds Ben Kenobi, one of the most promising Jedis of his generation, in exile, a has-been living in a cave on Tatooine — the Vinci, California, of planets. His résumé is a litany of space-opera choke jobs: watching in impotent fury as his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, is cut down by Darth Maul; letting Anakin Skywalker turn to the dark side and then, after defeating him in combat, failing to finish him off, thus leading to the deaths of billions and the virtual extinction of the Jedi; not figuring out that Emperor Palpatine was a Sith Lord. It’s all bad for him but good for his eventual protégé. The thing that separates a movie mentor from a regular movie character who may happen to be well versed in Jedi knowledge or the ancient traditions of karate is that a mentor has wisdom beyond their competence in a given craft, wisdom that a young protagonist needs. That wisdom is the product of hard life experience, of suffering. This is why the best movie mentors are losers. Losers have the hardest-earned advice.

And what do we want from a great mentor? Advice. An elite mentor — in fiction as in life — has been around the galaxy a few times and leverages that lifetime of experience to point out the hidden pitfalls and potential tragedies that line the hero’s journey. Obi-Wan Kenobi did that.

8. Xian Chow, Kickboxer

Shea: There’s one moment that always comes to me whenever I think of Xian, and that’s when he takes Jean-Claude Van Damme to the bar, gets him very drunk, then goes around and tells all the guys in the bar that JCVD said terrible things about their mothers. Being a good mentor means believing in your protégé, and that means you have to be able to put them in harm’s way, physically or existentially, while trusting that the protégé will come through it intact. And I can’t imagine a better example of believing in someone than getting that person drunk and then sending a bunch of angry Taiwanese kickboxers at them. The closest comparison was in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi arranged it so Daniel had to fight in that karate tournament, but that was a sanctioned event, and those were just high school kids. JCVD could’ve been killed in that bar. Xian was so much more real than Mr. Miyagi.

7. Morgan Freeman, Too Many Roles to Count

Jason: Because of the sheer number of mentoring roles he’s taken on in an extraordinary career, Morgan Freeman deserves his own category. A probably incomplete list: Red (The Shawshank Redemption), Somerset (Se7en), God (Bruce Almighty/Evan Almighty), Lucius Fox (the Nolan Batman films), Hoke (Driving Miss Daisy), Dr. Alex Cross (Kiss the Girls), Sam (Unleashed), Sloan (Wanted). Then there are the historically based mentors, which we aren’t counting: Principal Clark (Lean on Me) and Sergeant Major Rawlins (Glory). I would also argue that he’s mentoring the human race on the importance of penguins in the Earth’s biosphere in March of the Penguins.

6. Jason “Furious” Styles, Boyz n the Hood

Shea: He is a truly top-notch, first-class, A-plus mentor. Here are just a few of the things he says to his son, Tre, whom he is raising alone:

His take on fatherhood: “Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can raise his children.”

When Tre implies that Furious doesn’t do anything around the house: “I don’t have to do nothing around here except for pay the bills, put food on the table, and put clothes on your back.”

His response after his son says he should’ve killed the person who broke into his house: “Don’t say that. Just would’ve contributed to the killing of another brother.”

After Tre’s friend gets killed and he sees that Tre has a gun: “Now I want you to give me the gun.” [Silence.] “Oh, I get it. You gonna end like Doughboy … like Little Chris in a wheelchair.” [Silence.] “Give me the motherfucking gun, Tre!”

When he talks to Tre about sex: “How many times have I told you? If a girl says she’s on the pill, you use something anyway. Pill ain’t goin’ to keep your dick from falling off. I don’t know why you insist on learning things the hard way, but you’re gon’ learn.”

When he’s done cutting Tre’s hair: “Pick up that hair.” (This one might not seem all that great, I suppose, but it’s that it came after he cut his son’s hair in the kitchen. Cutting your son’s hair is just a great and wonderful bonding moment.)

And that’s excluding the speech he gives to Tre and the others gathered on the street corner about gentrification and the struggles facing black culture and the black community. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t land higher here.

5. Mickey, the Rocky movies

Jason: Everything that comes out of Michael “Mickey” Goldmill’s mouth is a treatise on mentorship, maybe nothing more than this: “The fact that you’re here and doing as well as you’re doing gives me — what do you call it? — motivization. To stay alive. Because I think people die sometimes when they don’t want to live no more. And nature is smarter than people think. Little by little we lose our friends, we lose everything. We keep losing and losing until we say, you know, ‘What the hell am I living around here for? I got no reason to go on.’ But with you, kid … boy, I got a reason to go on. And I’m gonna stay alive. And I will watch you make good. And I’ll never leave you until that happens. Cuz when I leave you, you’ll not only know how to fight, you’ll be able to take care of yourself outside of the ring, too.”

4. Sister Mary Clarence, Sister Act

Shea: She taught nuns to sing Motown. She taught nuns to lie. She taught mob bosses they can’t just do whatever TF they want. She taught loser inner-city kids that they were more than just loser inner-city kids. She taught non-Catholics that Catholicism can be obviously dope if you want it to be (and she probably taught Catholics that, too). She taught the guy from City High that he was a star. She taught Lauryn Hill to chase her dreams and now we have Fugees. Thank you, Sister Mary Clarence. Thank you so much for “Ready or Not.” “Ready or Not” is so fucking good.

3. Yoda, the Star Wars movies

Jason: “Wait, Yoda is a loser, too?” you may ask in astonishment.

Yes! One of the most powerful Jedis in history was also one of the biggest losers in the galaxy.

But that’s OK; as we’ve established, taking some hard-fought L’s is a crucial ingredient in the creation of a great mentor.

Let’s see. Yoda …

  1. Failed to discover that Senator Palpatine was actually a Sith Lord.
  2. Failed to defeat Darth Tyranus (a.k.a. Count Dooku) in combat, which allowed him to escape with the secret plans for the Death Star, costing the galaxy billions of lives.
  3. Failed to prevent the massacre of the Jedi at the hands of the Empire’s clone troops.
  4. Peaced out like a punk, crawling through a utility tunnel after he failed to defeat Palpatine. “Into exile. I must go. Failed, I have,” he croaked as he fled Coruscant in Jimmy Smits’s flying car.

After piling up those losses, Yoda runs for his life and ends up on Dagobah, the most garbage swamp planet in the entire galaxy. That’s where fledgling Jedi Luke Skywalker finds him, living in a hollowed-out tree stump.

Up to that point, things had been pretty easy for Luke. He blew up the Death Star basically by feel, becoming the hero of the rebellion overnight. Still, he was incautious with his use of the Force and impatient about his training, especially after the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Despite the deaths of his uncle and aunt, Luke didn’t really understand the stakes involved in learning the Force. It’s a game to him.

And that’s where Yoda comes in. He’s been to the edge of the abyss and gone toe to toe with Darth Sidious. He’s scampered through a sewer pipe in disgrace to Bail Organa’s levitating whip. Who better to show Luke the dangers of straying from the side of the light?

“Will he finish what he begins?” Yoda asks the disembodied voice of Ghost Ben Kenobi.

“I won’t fail you,” promises Luke. “I’m not afraid.”

“Afraid. You will be. You will be,” croaks Yoda, with certainty.

2. El Mero Mero, Blood In, Blood Out

Shea: The level of respect and admiration I have for El Mero Mero is something I probably will never be able to fully explain. Let me try, though, and I’m going to use the scene in which Miklo and El Mero Mero meet, because that’s the most important philosophical moment of the whole movie.

Blood In, Blood Out follows three family members — Cruz, Paco, and Miklo — as they age from teenagers to adults in East L.A. from 1972 to 1984. A quarter of the way into the movie, Cruz is attacked by a group of gang members (Tres Puntos) and is severely injured. As a response, Paco and Miklo and other members of their crew stage an ambush on Tres Puntos. Everything goes sideways quickly and Miklo ends up killing a guy, for which he’s sent to prison. While there, he learns about La Onda, an exclusively Latino prison gang. Miklo, who is half-white and constantly grappling with not being recognized as fully Latino, decides that being in La Onda will do just that for him. El Mero Mero is the unofficial leader of La Onda. He’s staid, smart, fiercely loyal.

When Miklo finally gets the chance to speak with him, he opens by speaking in Spanish, to which El Mero Mero responds by saying, “You speak Spanish, guero.3 So do parrots.” Miklo, defensive, responds by saying that he was sent to prison for killing a Tres Punto as a way to say “I’m very real and will give my life to protect a fellow Latino.” When he says it, El Mero Mero, who’s sitting in his bunk writing on a notepad, grips his pencil tightly. He was sitting in a position that hid his face behind shadows, but now he shifts himself to the edge of the bed so you can see his face. He stares forward and starts speaking. “Chicanos killing Chicanos is what they want.” When he says “they,” he very clearly means “white people,” and he also very clearly glances up at Miklo for the duration of his point. “Blacks and Chicanos killing each other is what they want. That’s how they run this place. Once we get together, they don’t run shit.” He pauses for just a second. Then he finishes. “You got a lot to learn about being Chicano, guero.”

It’s perfect.

1. Keisuke “Mr.” Miyagi, The Karate Kid

JasonFor most of The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso is an annoying whiner of epic proportions. Daniel pre-Miyagi is such a terrible human being that he’s actually upset about having to move cross-country from Newark to Southern California. That’s why one of my favorite scenes in The Karate Kid is the one in which Daniel, having just been run off the road by the Izod-shirts-made-flesh known as the Cobra Kai, throws his BMX bike into the Dumpster of the apartment complex where he lives with his mother.

“All you wanna hear is how great it is out here,” he cries at his mother in his Jersey-inflected bleat. “Well, it may be great for you, but it sucks for me!” This kid deserved every beating he took. He’s been in town for five minutes, has already taken a few passes at another dude’s girl, and yet he somehow can’t figure out why people want to throw him down a hill.

And here’s how “great” things are for Mrs. L: She’s a single mom,4 she drives an unreliable olive-green station wagon that looks like a hand grenade crossed with a boiler, and she makes ends meet on their crappy week-to-week hotel apartment by hustling tables at the greasy spoon across the street from the Cobra Kai dojo because her job at Rocket Computers fell through. Meanwhile, she gets Daniel the hell up and out of Newark to a place where he can ride his bike year-round and play soccer on the beach and go to one of those schools that have no hallways because the weather is amazing, and she can’t even get a little gratitude.

This kid needs a mentor.

Enter Mr. Miyagi, the layabout superintendent of the LaRussos’ apartment building. Same as the others, he’s a loser. He’s a functional alcoholic who’s too busy tricking out his fleet of cherry 1940s roadsters, catching flies with food utensils, and meticulously trimming bonsai trees to be bothered with cleaning the apartment complex’s fetid communal swimming pool. He’s a broken man with actual problems. Daniel has girl trouble and hates living in Reseda. Miyagi is a Medal of Honor recipient whose wife died during childbirth in an internment camp for Japanese Americans.

And yet, a central part of the mentor-neophyte relationship is that each needs the other in equal measure. Daniel needs to learn karate and the wisdom to use those skills wisely. Miyagi, meanwhile, needs Daniel’s youthful energy. The dude was a few years from going full-hoarder until his relationship with Daniel gave him a reason to deal with his past that doesn’t involve day drinking.

He taught Daniel the crane kick and the incredible restorative power of a vigorous massage. Daniel taught him to love something again other than topiary and vintage cars.

And that is why Mr. Miyagi is the greatest mentor in movie history.

Filed Under: Movies, The Karate Kid, Rocky, Star Wars, Blood in Blood Out, Seven, Morgan Freeman, the lion king