Where Have the Disney Villains Gone?

Captain Hook. The Wicked Queen. Ursula. Jafar. Cruella DeVil. Chernabog. Scar. The Big Bad Wolf. Gaston. Maleficent. Hades. For decades, we’ve regaled in the madness and insanity of the Disney villains. Oh sure, we want to be heroes and heroines who save the day, rescue the prince or princess, and defeat the bad guy, but there’s an insurmountable appeal to indulging our darker selves. But why haven’t there been as many memorable great Disney villains in recent memory?

For all intents and purposes, most can agree that the last truly great Disney bad guy was Dr. Facilier, AKA the Shadow Man from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. Let’s take a look at the animated features from Disney since then. Be warned, spoilers ahead:

Tangled: Mother Gothel. A pretty good villain, but she hasn’t quite gained the status some of the other villains have.

Winnie the Pooh: This film is pretty devoid of antagonists altogether, unless you want to count the Backson, who was revealed to be real in a post credits scene. But it is a Winnie the Pooh movie, so this gets a pass.

Wreck-it Ralph: King Candy, AKA Turbo. Basically designed to look and sound like Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter, King Candy was a truly devious psychopath, but his goofy façade undercut the true menace that lay within. However, even with the plot twist reveal, it fell a bit flat. Though points on the King Candy/Cybug merger. I don’t think I slept for a week after the movie came out.

Frozen: Hans of the Southern Isles. Even those who love the villains all agree Hans is a grade-A dillweed. He skirts by any and all trappings of appearing as a bad guy, until he uttered that one phrase…and became the worst guy in any Disney movie. I mean, sure, the others kill, slaughter, cheat, steal, and lie, but Hans…Hans was a real bad guy.

Big Hero 6: Yokai, AKA Mr. Robert Callaghan. Once again, we have Shyamalan-esque reveal when we get a truly villainous look and actions of Yokai. However, not only did the filmmakers try to throw us a red herring with Alistair Krei, but the man under the mask turned out to be a sympathetic villain, turned to horrible actions from desperate circumstances.

Zootopia: Assistant Mayor Bellwether. For the most part, the movie is devoid of a true bad guy, and throws us various antagonistic figures from Finnick to Mr. Big to Manchas to Mayor Lionheart. But again, we are thrown off the scent time and again until we are shown the true mastermind is the small, mousey assistant mayor with diabolical plans.

Moana: Tamatoa and Te Kā. Tamatoa, the greedy monster crab is probably the closest we’ve seen to a traditional Disney villain, but of course the big baddie was Te Kā, a wrath-possessed corruption of the gentle goddess Te Fiti. And lest we forget she was defeated in arguably the most poetic way a monster could be defeated.

While these guys are all varied and unique, why don’t they carry the same sense weight, fun, or outright memorability?

The funny thing is, after 56 animated features, there’s a lot of good villains, but many have had just okay villains, bad ones, and some really didn’t have “villains” so much as antagonists. They may have been more necessary in some movies than others, where good and evil are pretty cut and dry. There’s no moral ambiguity when it comes to the pirates in Peter Pan or the good and evil fairies in Sleeping Beauty. But then you have something like Dumbo, where, if hard pressed, you might point to the pink elephants (hallucinations that are scary but not harmful), the clowns (who are just jerks), or the gossipy elephants (Who are just self-interested and catty, rather than really villainous). Even Bambi has “man”, where they are never even shown, so for all we know, they’re just hunters that need to feed their families.

The package era (1943 – 1949) featured six movies that had a few bad guys, but none that really stood out, except the Headless Horseman. But the bad guys from the fifties and sixties were big, bombastic, and sinister. Lady Tremaine, Queen of Hearts, Hook, Si and Am, Maleficent, Cruella, Madam Mim, Kaa, Shere Khan…

And then during the dark ages, the animated features suffered. And we had some pretty paltry villains that paled in comparison to the ones of Walt’s time. Edgar the butler, Madam Medusa, Heffalumps and Woozles, Prince John…these guys seriously lacked the intimidation. By this point, the animation staff had gotten older and were afraid to really challenge audiences for fear of being too scary for kids.

But then in the eighties, we had the Horned King from The Black Cauldron and Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective. Now, I want to talk about these two because they fell into a trap a lot of novice writers fall into: “evil” villains.

We humans like to believe evil exists as a polar opposite to good, and some go so far as to believe it is objective and personified by corrupted entities. Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who went to the infamous Nuremberg trials, and witnessed the court testimony of one of the key people in Hitler’s Third Reich: Adolf Eichmann, who was basically an office drone. He carried out Hitler’s commands complacently and without question, forcing Arendt to rethink the notion that one has to be monstrous to do monstrous things. She called it “the banality of evil”. It’s tempting to think about all the bad people you’ve ever encountered in your life and think of them as “evil”, isn’t it?

For example: think of some of the worst monsters in history. Hitler. Stalin. Pol pot. Saddam Hussein. Osama bin Laden. Charles Manson. These guys did horrible, atrocious things. That’s undeniable. But…did they cackle? Twirl mustaches? Did they ever claim to be evil? The answer is no. No one ever considers themselves “evil”. They did what they felt was either necessary or what was perceived as the right thing to do.

But we are only human. And we tell stories. And we tell them from our perspectives. And in our stories, we are innocent and well-meaning, but the people who cut us off in traffic, are rude to us at Olive Garden, or deny our bank loans, well, they’re the bad guys. They do these things to be evil despite our pure natures. And stories about heroism must end with badness being eradicated. People who do bad things must face retribution. They must be killed or banished. Evil must die and let good prevail so all can be right again.

So on one hand, you have the Horned King, a monarch who looks like a zombie. The movie doesn’t tell us if he is an established ruler in Prydain or if he’s a leader in an uprising in the war, or what. He’s just evil. He looks evil. He talks evil. He uses dark sorcery. When he is vanquished, we don’t feel sorry for him because he was clearly evil. Zero attempt was made to even give a hint of his motivations because, you guessed it, he’s evil. That’s all we need to know.

Now Ratigan is also an evil characters, but there’s a difference. He wants to become king of England. He’s driven by power and has far more character than the Horned King (Thank you, Vincent Price!). But Ratigan loves bragging about how evil he is. In his song, “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”, he sings about all the horrible, corrupt things he’s done that don’t really add up to his aspirations (“Worse than the widows and orphans you drowned”? WTF?!). He frequently claims to be evil and regales in how much he loves it. While it makes for a fun character, he has almost no basis in any sort of reality.

Before long, we had Disney’s animation renaissance, where we had all those awesome movies and villains from Ursula in 1989 to…well, not many care for Mulan’s Shan-Yu or Tarzan’s Clayton, so let’s say Hades. After that, the animated films floundered again and we had numerous antagonists, with few exceptions, that didn’t really fit the mold: Kron, Yzma, the Firebird, Rourke, Gantu, John Silver, Denahi, Alameda Slim, and Bowler Hat Guy.

These aren’t the villains people refer to when they say there aren’t great villains anymore, but it is worth bringing up. Much like the baddies of the seventies, they mostly were either wishy-washy or just not memorable. But largely since many of these films were critical or commercial failures, these bad guys just kind of receded away. But then The Princess and the Frog came out and we entered a new era in successful Disney animated features, where we are now. But even he isn’t evil so much as greedy and utilizes voodoo to reach his goals. And with villains that aren’t weak or unmemorable, but neither are they “evil”. They’re…different.

Three of them were plot twists, as I pointed out. We’ve grown jaded and cynical these days in our movies, anticipating what’ll happen because we’ve seen enough movies to predict how they’ll go. In movies like Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sleeping Beauty, and Hercules, you know who the bad guy is the moment they step on screen. They look bad, they talk bad, and we’ve come to expect it. But now we’re getting villains late into the stories, after they’d been hidden from sight. Kind of like in…in real life, come to think of it.

As I stated earlier, in real life, bad people don’t have Fu Manchu mustaches, black capes, or lairs in volcanoes. They don’t have hundreds of underlings ready to execute every malicious whim their leader has. They don’t have loud, campy songs glamorizing how evil they are. They…just do what they think is right. Does that make them right? Of course not, but I think this is why we don’t have bad guys like Maleficent or Jafar anymore.

We want our real life bad guys to have all those trapping because that make them identifiable. What could be more empowering than being able to quickly and effectively tell who’s a person with ill-intent? We all think we already are, but when you consider just how many people disagree with you, you see how easily any of us, all of us, can be deceived. But I think a key reason why we don’t have the great villains anymore is because we need to learn to identify who the bad guys really are. It’s obvious to avoid the guy who calls himself a “dark lord” or “evil genius”, but it’s slso irresponsible to teach us to be scared of everyone. From Hans to Bellwether to Callaghan, these bad guys put up all pretenses if being people we could trust, only to stab us in the back. And others, like Te Kā, are monstrous, but need love and patience to reveal the true goodness within. And since Disney is so far-reaching and influential, they have a moral obligation to promote good lessons, whether they want to or not. That’s why the recent movies have even taken on mature lessons, like Zootopia‘srace allegory, Moana’s conflict between responsibilities and desire, and of course, Frozen’s dealings with depression and dismantling traditional views on love. Lessons that were once reductive and simplistic also got ham-fisted into our favorite Disney movies and have since mastered nuances.

And among these lessons? You can’t just kill badness in the world. People may be misguided or stubborn in their immoral ways, but they aren’t evil. Everyone has motivations for what they do. And the new movies reflect that.

But that’s not to say we can’t have our flashy, bombastic, campy bad guys and gals who cackle with glee over their latest scheme, twirl their mustaches, sing about how much they love being evil, or summon the forces of Hell to fight for eternal darkness. We love indulging our bad sides. We love the escapism of having a clearly diabolical psychopath who is easy to identify. And that’s why we love them. And continue to love them.

Because it’d be evil not to.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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