February 22, 2024

Everyone loves a good Disney villain. The characters are some of the most memorable in the Disney canon, from the cackling Ursula to the boisterous Gaston to the inventive Scar. However, despite that, there has been quite a bit of change in the newest Disney animated fare. Villains are becoming quite rare, and the classic “Disney Villains” maniacs even more so. Often the story will have no villain at all, or if there is, there may be a “twist” – revealing their villainous nature only towards the end of the film, with no time for an iconic villain theme song. These new movies haven’t lost a well-worn audience, they’ve lost an iconic part of what made earlier Disney movies so good, and it’s time to start bringing them back.


Why Disney Villains Are So Iconic

ursula the little mermaid
Image via Disney

The films of the “Disney revival” (generally running from 1989 to 1999) are some of the most beloved stories the studio has ever created, bringing the studio out of its slump and into a new brief golden age that still exists. well remembered today. To begin the little mermaid, the decade brought new animated classics with musical theater-inspired structures, many additional songs and stories, focusing on the main characters’ struggles rather than the comic relief around them. These films remain so successful and iconic that in recent years Disney has found a lucrative new business in remaking the films (to somewhat mixed critical reception), updating Disney’s classic tradition of re-releasing films to theaters every few decades. A key component of almost all of these renaissance films is that almost all of them have an iconic villain as their companion, often a charisma and scene-stealing character with a song to explain their villainy to the audience. Even in the case of poorly received films of that time The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Herculestheir villains are often considered the highlight of the film The most humpbacks The surprisingly mature and dark Frollo (Tony Jay) and Hercules’ The wise and funny Hades (James Woods).

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What is it about these villains that gets so much attention from the audience? A big part of it likely comes from their big personalities: these characters are mostly fun, and it’s hard for audiences not to enjoy rooting for the villains, especially during their iconic musical numbers. Scar’s “Be Prepared,” Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” or even Gaston’s… “Gaston”, these songs are no less to show what the villains want or to express some internal strife, but rather a celebration of “themselves” an egotistical monument to their success – in the language of musical theater, they are “I am” songs, unlike. classic hero “i want” song. A good example of this gap can be seen the little mermaid Ursula’s (Pat Carroll) “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is the song “I am”, and Ariel’s (Jodi Benson) The iconic (and almost deleted) “Part Of Your World” “I want” is the song. These characters come into the narrative fully formed and fully confident, and as a viewer it’s fun to watch a character revel in their villainy. Since the villains are already fully established and rounded out it means that the story doesn’t have to bifurcate too much in its focus, it can save almost all of its character development time for the heroes of its stories.

Adding more rounded characters to a movie’s story may improve the overall story, but when you want to tell a particular story, some flat characters can still make it better. Renaissance-era Disney villains tend to be pretty one-size-fits-all standard villains, but that’s by design, it’s not like the writers “forgot” to add depth to them. They serve as solid comedic relief to the plot, but also serve as good obstacles to the main character’s development.

Why Disney Villains Are Not So Mainstream Anymore

Mother Gothel and Rapunzel in Tangled
Image via Disney

As with most modern Disney trends, the lack of classic villains in the newest animated films is a 2014 powerhouse. Frozen Despite the previous two princess films The princess and the frog and Entangled both using Renaissance-style villains, Frozen pioneered the evil twist, and in a film that sought to criticize previous Disney films as regressive or too trope-heavy, that decision carried weight and impact. Since then, there has only been one villain in the studio’s recent animated films that fits the role of a classic Disney Villain, and that is Tamato. (Jemaine Clement) from Moana, and he doesn’t just appear in one scene, he’s not even the main villain. Other films, for example Enchantment ditch a villain altogether, instead telling a story driven by great characters who have to work together to overcome their conflict.

This is not entirely a negative change. Despite the fun of a campy Disney villain, they inherently limit the types of stories that can be told. Like when you’re telling a very isolated story about the interpersonal dynamics of a family Enchantment, having an outside comedic force would divide the audience’s interest and leave less time for the film’s massive cast of main characters to express individual scenes (the film already has a problem with characters like that). Ravi Cabot-Conyers‘ Antonio disappears from the narrative). This isn’t just for Disney’s animation division, there’s also been a push for complex and nuanced villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the popularity of certain characters like Killmonger. (Michael B. Jordan, which is purposefully written to have valuable and understandable problems that even the heroes have to deal with. The brand has also revisited older villains that were once in the ranks of the classic Disney Villains with films such as Maleficent and Cruellaadding nuance to what were some of the studio’s most classic and complex villains.

A complex villain isn’t always a bad thing, but the studio’s almost complete abandonment of it feels like an overreaction. It also feels like an implicit critique of these older movies, as if all of these movies are super simplistic “good vs. evil” stories, just because they’re Disney Villains. Just like the movies Aladdin You have some pretty great villains in Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) their presence does not detract from the perspective of the story. The film focuses on the internal struggle of its title characters, the villains are merely obstacles to further their respective plots, and the plot is resolved by the journeys of the protagonists rather than the defeat of the villains.

Disney Villains can still work today

The ethical fault rested squarely on Jack Horner's shoulders
Image via DreamWorks

One of the best examples of how classic Disney villains can still work didn’t come from the Disney studio itself, but in the form of Jack Horner from long-time rival DreamWorks (John Mulaney) from the last big hit Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. Just like the original Shrek, and that led to his displeasure with Disney’s CEO at the time Michael Eisner, Horner’s bit of criticism and commentary on Disney itself. Horner responds to the prevalence of sympathetic, complex villains that Disney is increasingly leaning toward, obviously, in a scene where a character asks Horner directly if he has a reason for his evil ways, and Horner dismisses the idea entirely. Not only is the parody funny, but Horner is so funny as the villain that DreamWorks works without realizing what he’s mocking. Not only does it have no sick songs, but it embodies all the qualities that old Disney villains embody so well. Sure, he’s hammy, over-the-top, shamelessly evil, and ultimately nothing more than a fun obstacle for the heroes to overcome on their personal journeys. His presence doesn’t make the movie a standard “good vs. evil” morality tale, the moral remains the same with or without him, but he makes every scene he’s in better because he’s fun to watch.

That’s the core that recent Disney movies lack when it comes to classic Disney villains: plain fun. Criminals should not be the only obstacle (or even the main obstacle Last Wish case) the heroes give it a face, and they don’t have to be in every movie Disney puts out, but some stories could be improved with a little of that old-school charm. They add comedy and conflict to the narrative without detracting too much from the main themes or stories that run through the film. They ensure that the film never feels so serious that it will be difficult to watch without giving up on the tension. If the heroes constantly crack jokes and are overconfident, it’s harder to root for them. If the villains do it, it makes it feel like a satisfying obstacle for the villains to overcome.

Disney has always taken advantage of its enormous catalog and pedigree in presenting itself as a brand. Whether it’s the use of his mascot Mickey and friends, the constant remaking of his old hit movies, or even the fact that Disney’s theme song is an instrumental of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Pinocchio Disney, perhaps more than any other brand, is banking on and trusting nostalgia, hoping to rekindle feelings of childhood wonder with every new movie, park, and franchise. However, Disney villains are part of that old identity, and while the new movies may have the nostalgia of those older movies, without the iconic villains themselves, they’re missing one essential ingredient: some nostalgic fun. with the longevity that has led to the re-creation of their old films today. The studio can still tell interesting stories without funny villains, but those older stories were able to tell impactful stories about identity by injecting some compelling villainy. movies like Last Wish show you can have your cake and eat it too, a bit of classic slyness might be just what these newest Disney films need to stand side by side with the classics of yesteryear.

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