Questioning Everything Disney Little To Much

The Key to A Great Disney Villain

 I watched Tangled again this weekend with the family, and was quite impressed about how well it held together. It genuinely is the best animated picture that Disney has produced in quite some time, and I honestly hope that it is remembered fondly. As I was watching it, I noted that I really, genuinely disliked Mother Gothel. Gothel is hardly either the most quantifiably evil, nor violent, nor ruthless character in Disney lore, but she was still a great villain. That’s something I’ve always admired about Disney. While still maintaining a G-rating, the company is able to produce some of the most genuinely disgusting individuals ever put on film.

Personally when I think of great Disney villains, I inevitably think of Scar. Scar was the evil lion from The Lion King, the movie which is my personal favourite of the Disney animated canon. If The Lion King is Hamlet (but with lions), then Scar is Claudius (but voiced by Jeremy Irons). I think the ambitious evil lion pretty much sums up a lot of what makes Disney villains work very, very well. But I do think that there are a lot of general elements which add up to make Disney villains seem especially sinister.
The first and most obvious facet of a Disney villain – and the one that is perhaps the most fascinating – is that it doesn’t matter what their ambitions are. There’s no real correlation between the scale of their villainy and the actual hatred that they draw from the audience. Cruella DeVille, for example, doesn’t want to take over the world – she just really wants a dalmatian fur coat. Gaston is just the worst secondary school jock you’ve ever met – he’s a bit of a dick, but he’s not out to kill babies or puppies – and yet he’s absolutely loathsome. Both of these are as unpleasant as Judge Claude Frollo, the genocidal madman from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who represents perhaps the pinnacle of the “large scale evil-ness” in a Disney villain. Frollo is as close I suspect a Disney animated film will ever come to having a Nazi as a bad guy (given he wants to wipe out the gypsy population).
It isn’t even the crimes they commit in service of their goal which makes Disney villains a special kind of evil. Without worrying about children in the audience, regular movies can turn their bad guys into cold-blooded torturers and killers, and yet it’s extremely tough to think of that many live-action villains who approach the sheer level of villainy that their animated counterparts seem capable without batting an eye.
This is simply because Disney villains are rarely defined by their physical threats. No child in the history of cinema has ever had to worry about a Disney villain disemboweling the heroes (at least on screen, in the case of 101 Dalmatians) – and yet we’re still terrified of them. It’s easy to suggest that perhaps Disney villains are scarier because we typically see them when we’re younger – so it’s easier for them to make an impression. I’ll accept that logic, but I’m not entirely convinced by it. For example, Mother Gothel is a relatively recent addition to Disney’s “bad guy” talent pool, and actually ranks somewhere around the middle tier of Disney bad guys. I don’t think she’s iconic, but she’s a far stronger villain than some of their earlier creations.
I think it’s the emotional threat that Disney villains pose – the fact that they often don’t pose so much of a physical threat as they do a sort of a primal one. Take Scar, for example. Scar throws his own brother off a cliff, into a herd of stampeding buffalo. However, this isn’t the moment I truly hated him. No, the moment that Scar become the literal embodiment of pure unadulterated evil was the moment that he then convinced Simba, his nephew, that the kid was responsible for the death of his own father. It’s really strange to quantify it like that, but that was the moment where Scar truly seemed like the worst person in the world.
Mother Gothel has a similar thing going in Tangled. She’s not the most efficient villain ever, at least if you measure in terms of bodycount. She only really tries to kill Flynn Rider and – even then – she proves fairly crap at it (twice). However, it isn’t the attempted murder which is the most horrible thing about her, nor is it the fact that she’s introduced literally stealing a baby. It’s the way that she manipulates and undermines Rapunzel’s self-confidence, making her entirely dependent on the creepy woman who stole her from her real parents.
It’s surreal, but it’s those moments when she chips away at the girl’s self-worth which make her seem incredibly evil. She can’t turn into a dragon, or cast any particular ominous spells. Most of the heavy-lifting is done by two goons who wind up in prison for the movie’s climax – and she still seems like a very bad person. I still genuinely hated her, with the sort of passion that seems to be reserved purely for Disney villains.
It’s one of those interest phenomena, this idea that Disney villains are probably less likely to do something horribly and brutally violent, and yet seem far more menacing than most. In fairness, I’d argue it’s not a trait confined to Disney or even to animation, it’s just most obvious there. Inglorious Bastards gave us Colonel Hans Landa, who does very little of his own dirty work, spends most of the movie smiling, and yet still seems like pure evil in bottled form. Perhaps it’s the contrast which makes these characters stand out – the fact that their evil essence is so rarely expressed in physical terms, which makes it all the more potent. After all, we literally don’t know what they are capable of (while a film with a higher age rating might be inclined to literally show us, which I don’t think is that scary).
I honestly don’t know, I just know that there’s rarely anything quite as evil as a good Disney villain.
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