Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Best of the Worst: Disney Villains, Part One

Let’s face it: in a lot of the (non-Pixar) Disney movies, the villains make the movies. Often the main characters (*cough* pretty much all of the princesses except Belle) are fairly predictable and not all that interesting.

But those bad guys, with their obligatory black-themed outfits and one dramatic song per movie, they capture people’s attention. How do I know? Because one of my stock get-to-know-you questions, asked in many group settings, is, “Which Disney villain would you most (and least) want to face?”

This usually turns into a discussion of the various merits and downfalls of each villain. I’ve complied some of the more interesting observations here, along with some handy armchair analysis. I’m covering five this Wednesday, and another five next Wednesday, in no particular order of scariness.

For you writers out there, think of this as a reader poll about what will work the next time you’re planning an antagonist. For non-writers, maybe this will give you a better idea of who you’d like to take on the next time all of my hypothetical questions become reality (although, if that happens, I guarantee we’ll have bigger problems).

Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove

Yzma is one of the rare funny villains, and perfect for Emperor’s New Groove. That movie isn’t really about defeating her. It’s about the two people learning from each other and becoming friends. Because of that, we don’t have to take Yzma seriously.

What Works: Her interactions with Kronk, satirically dramatic monologues, and the tagline, “scary beyond all reason.”

What Doesn’t: Despite the tagline, we’re not actually scared of her. Except maybe when she turns into an evil kitten. That laugh…so creepy.

Gaston from Beauty and the Beast

Since arrogance is my number one pet peeve, I would love to punch this guy in the face. He’s just scary enough that we’re afraid for the Beast’s life when he storms the castle (the “Kill the Beast” song helps with that, I think), but for most of the movie, we can just laugh at his exaggerated self-centeredness.

What Works: Ever think about this? Gaston is probably what the Beast was before the enchantment. Both of them got a second chance…but Gaston wasted his.

What Doesn’t: Gaston would never work as a realistic character (which he’s not meant to be).

Mother Gothel from Tangled

I love the very different reactions I get when I bring up this villain in mixed company: the girls shudder, and the guys say something like, “You serious? She’s nothing.” That’s because the guys are thinking of arm wrestling/sword fighting a villain of their choice, and they could take Mother Gothel any day. The girls know that what makes Mother Gothel terrifying is the fact that Rapunzel loved her. That makes Mother Gothel more than a villain in the traditional hey-I’m-going-to-kill-you way. It makes her a liar, deceiver, and traitor, violating one of the deepest bonds we can think of (mother-daughter). I think girls are afraid of Mother Gothel because they know they’ve met people like her…and they know there are times when they’ve been like her. When you look at the subtle manipulation, the teasing insults that aren’t really funny, the tiny criticisms, even the jab at Rapunzel’s weight…it’s cattiness at its worst.

What Works: All of that.

What Doesn’t Work: I’d find Mother Gothel a little more interesting if she actually had part of her that did care about Rapunzel, which clearly isn’t the case. She’s a bit one-dimensional.

Jafar from Aladdin

I think most people decided that he has the creepiest voice (maybe the reason he didn’t get a villain song?). Jafar is pretty universally scary. His hypnosis was a big reason for people listing him—people like to be in control of their own actions. Also, the bit where he’s disguised as the old man makes everyone mad, because of the whole deception-betrayal thing.

What Works: He turns into a snake. Do I even need to say anything else?

What Doesn’t: The whole I-want-to-marry-the-princess thing is a little cliché.

Lady Tremaine (the Stepmother) from Cinderella

You always kind of wonder why Cinderella’s dad married this woman. She doesn’t start out with any overtly evil goals, just the daily grind of bossing around Cinderella and doting on her ugly, tone-deaf daughters. Most people aren’t that scared of her, but instead get frustrated about why Cinderella doesn’t just run away from home instead of singing as she scrubs the floor.

What Works: She’s a good contrast with her daughters. Besides that, you can tell that she has the power, and she dangles it in front of Cinderella’s face.

What Doesn’t: Most people probably didn’t even know Lady Tremaine had a name, because we think of her as Cinderella’s stepmother. And there’s the problem: this is one story that we all know the ending to. We never expect the stepmother to triumph, no matter how heartlessly she locks Cinderella in her room. We aren’t worried enough for Cinderella.

Next Week: Ursula, Maleficent, Dr. Facilier, The Evil Queen, and Scar.


  1. Mother Gothel is terrifying. The line at the end when she stabs Flynn ("Look what you've done, Rapunzel.") is the pinnacle of her oppression. It's unrealistic that Rapunzel could have turned out so well when she was treated that badly, but it's still one of my favorite Disney movies.

  2. Good, old-fashioned American belief in the ability to overcome your circumstances. It's Rapunzel's strength.

    I love the insight on Gaston. And not only are he and the Beast the same at first, but they both take completely different routes: the Beast improves, redeems himself you could say, and Gaston goes from arrogant and selfish to all-out evil and malicious.

  3. Mother Gothel is one of the Disney villains that scares me the most, simply because of how realistic she is. A lot of Disney villains are, like you pointed out with Gaston, hyperboles or, like Cinderella's stepmother, rather flat. Mother Gothel is terrifyingly realistic. There are people like that and relationships like that. The only question is why Rapunzel doesn't have serious disorders from an abusive life like that.
    Also, didn't Jafar sort of get a song? He gloated to the tune of "Prince Ali"...

  4. Haha! We used to sing the Gaston song to make fun of Bruck Chun from Jedi Apprentice! (You know, the nasty platinum-blond kid who was always picking on Obi-Wan and invariably got him to get angry too. I'm starting to think that the author created him just to highlight that Obi-Wan was still a kid with anger management problems.)
    I agree, it would've been much more interesting if Gothel had loved Rapunzel just a little bit. OOOH! Idea! I should let my evil princess get married and have a kid and then Winter (the hero) kidnaps the little prince/princess!!!