reel talk

Where Are the Disney Villains of Yesteryear?

Photo: Disney

When I was growing up in Turkey, I obsessed over Walt Disney movies even though I couldn’t really see them: We had no VCRs — hell, we barely had one TV channel — and theatrical rereleases didn’t make it to our shores. So instead of seeing the movies, I’d listen to soundtrack LPs and pore over their covers, which featured images from the films. But among those LPs, there was one cover I couldn’t bear to look at. It featured Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, seemingly mid-flight, her massive cloak aflame; too scary for my 6-year-old eyes.

Actually, I’m lying. I did look at that LP cover, repeatedly. But then I’d turn it over and try to keep it away from me. I was probably worried that at some point it might come alive, that Maleficent might jump off the cover and … well, do what to me, I don’t know, as I hadn’t seen the movie yet. There was a magnetism to her, even confined to that one still image.

Years later, I did finally see Sleeping Beauty, and the real thing didn’t disappoint. Here was a fearsome, elegant, terrifying villain. The film didn’t dare to humanize her, but you could get lost trying to plumb the depths of her sadism. At one point, she reveals to her captive Prince Phillip that she intends, a hundred years from now, to release him — so that he can, as an old, dying man, finally go and wake up his betrothed, the still-young and slumbering Princess Aurora, thus putting the lie to the notion that “true love conquers all.” Hisss.

Maleficent was special, but she also belonged to a long line of classic Disney villains who were really villains. Whether wizards, pirates, evil queens, or animals, these characters wallowed in their depravity. Some of them actually summoned the forces of darkness. Others just snarled and connived as they hatched their evil plans. The Evil Queen in Snow White asks that Snow White be killed and her heart brought back as proof. Captain Hook makes little children walk the plank. Honest John the Fox and Gideon the Cat in Pinocchio collude with the Coachman to send little kids off to Pleasure Island, where they are turned into donkeys and sold to work in salt mines. The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland is a mad, unpredictable tyrant fond of beheadings. Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians wants to skin puppies for their fur. Puppies!

Walt Disney and his writers usually didn’t dream up these villains: People like the Brothers Grimm, and James M. Barrie, and Lewis Carroll did. But the Disney folks did, once upon a time, have a special understanding of how to turn these villains into characters that could haunt your dreams — whose pictures kids might turn away from, even while nursing a strange fascination with them.

Quick, try to remember: Who was the last great, genuinely terrifying Disney villain? It seems like it’s been a while. Frozen has a duplicitous Prince and an opportunistic Duke of Weselton, but they don’t really count; if anything, one of that movie’s strengths was that the character who might traditionally have been the villain, Elsa the Snow Queen, was actually one of the film’s heroes.

Meanwhile, the ostensible bad guys in many films of recent vintage have tended to be more multi-dimensional. Pixar villains, like Lotso from Toy Story 3 and Syndrome from The Incredibles, often come armed with backstories: They’re less forces of evil and more like broken souls who went astray. On the non-Pixar front, Doctor Facilier from The Princess and the Frog was a game attempt at an old-fashioned villain — a variation on Jafar from Aladdin, it seemed — but he didn’t feel particularly threatening. Not unlike Jafar, he was more of a goofball.

Now, to be fair, Disney Villains are still a thing, corporately speaking. In fact, they’re a whole franchise, not unlike the Disney Princesses, fueling games, theme-park attractions, short films, etc. But unlike the princesses, who have been going pretty strong of late with Elsa and Anna and Rapunzel from Tangled, the villains have had a marked drop-off. Who has nightmares about the Duke of Weselton?

There are many reasons for this. Disney has embraced revisionism in many of its recent films, and has done well by it. And much of this revisionism is welcome, and long overdue; Frozen’s upending of clichéd romantic love stories being a prime example. And one way to reinvent and modernize these stories is to try to understand the villains, sometimes even to redeem them. Consider Mother Gothel in Tangled: She’s there in the original fairy tale, of course, but in the film, she’s more a selfish, passive-aggressive, manipulative, bad-mom type than a real witch. Indeed, part of what makes Tangled so compelling is this bizarre relationship — a kind of abusive co-dependency — Gothel has with Rapunzel.

So Disney’s recent move away from classic villains is, on some level, a good thing, in that it allows them to delve into some heretofore unexplored types of relationships, and to find psychological complexity where once there was none.

But I can’t help but feel like something has been lost as well. The Evil Queen, Maleficent, the Coachman, Shere-Khan. We didn’t spend a lot of time getting to know them. They were mysterious, elemental, totemic. And so, we could fill them with our own fears. They were charismatic enough that we brought our own complexity to them. These bad guys also put our heroes into sharper focus: Try to imagine Snow White without the Evil Queen, Peter Pan without Captain Hook.

Maybe a good example of what I’m talking about can be found in a Disney movie that tries to borrow its power from a movie Disney didn’t make. Watching Oz the Great and Powerful, didn’t you sometimes just miss the Wicked Witch of the West? Did learning her backstory in the prequel — that she was an innocent driven to desperation and revenge by the romantic callousness of a man and the manipulations of her older sister — make her more or less terrifying?

Indeed, the best part of the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful was the shot where we briefly saw the form of the Wicked Witch appear in a plume of smoke. She might have been spectral, inchoate, but we all knew who she was; even those of us who hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz in decades recognized that form instantly.

And similarly, Maleficent would be nothing if not for, well, Maleficent. If that character hadn’t been so compelling once as a villain, she wouldn’t be compelling now as a protagonist. In fact, after coming back from the new Angelina Jolie movie (which I’ll properly review tomorrow), I felt compelled to put in my DVD of Sleeping Beauty to see the old Maleficent, the terrifying one. There she was, sneering, proud, summoning the forces of Hell and cackling her way through this beautiful fairy tale. I’d just watched an entire new movie about her, but I missed her more than ever.

Where Have All the Disney Villains Gone?