When Andrew proposed this topic to me, I started thinking a lot about the way that Disney films have evolved in recent years. These changes have generally been for the awesome, giving us more well-rounded, active heroines - like Tangled's Rapunzel, Brave's Merida, Frozen's Anna - heroes with a sense of humour and something other than their royal title going for them - Flynn/Eugene, Kristoff - and some fantastic subversion of tired old tropes, like love-at-first-sight and true love's kiss, or the idea of fighting over the Princess's hand. We've even had some heroines who were so strong and inspiring in their own right that they didn't need no man, and ended their stories liberated and happy about it - Merida and Elsa.
What we haven't really had recently is... any great new villains?
Think about the classic Disney villains you grew up with: The Lion King's Scar, The Little Mermaid's Ursula or Beauty & the Beast's Gaston. Think about how much you loved and hated those guys, how you'd happily sing along with their big theme song and maybe even felt just as strongly about them as you did about the hero. I know all the words to 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' to this day even though that film came out when I was around seven. And my nieces, born decades later? THEY know all the lyrics, too.
Maaan, that's a good villain song.
These guys were not particularly nuanced, let's be real. They weren't meant to be. They were evil. They stood for darkness, and they were often drawn in a way that made it clear the filmmakers intended us to find them unattractive (Ursula's tentacles and rounded figure, Scar's comparative skinniness, darker mane and his facial disfigurement) which would be problematic if we didn't actually find them super amazing and cool instead - seriously, give me Ursula's tentacle dress over Ariel's shell-bra any day.
They were there to offer a direct contrast with the main character's cuteness and innocence - and for the most part they owned their own wickedness and offered no apologies for that.
Even Gaston, heralded as the specimen of physical perfection, and lauded and loved by everyone in his village, is drawn and characterised in such a way that no one for a single instant thinks he's anything like sympathetic. His hairy chest, stinky, holey socks and arrogant brow turn us off, and his song makes it clear his soul is as shrivelled and rotten as a Cox's Pippin that's been hidden under the bananas at the bottom of the fruit bowl for a month.
So no, villains like this were never, ever intended to make us root for them.
But somehow... we liked them anyway.
Each of them embodies something, some character or person who might almost be real.
Scar stands for men who do not fit with the macho stereotypes of our culture, who despite having excellent qualities of their own, are pushed aside, ignored and under-estimated because they are not physically dominating. But despite Scar's intelligence, he's still not able to see through the hypermasculine ideals that tell him he's unworthy. He's not strong enough to reject their paradigm. So instead of walking away and finding something that would make him happy outside of those ideals, he fights, lies and kills in an attempt to gain the 'Prize' which his society has taught him all real men must seek.
Ursula stands for women who are condemned by our patriarchal society for being 'bossy' - powerful and ambitious - and don't conform to ideals of unthreatening, conventionally attractive 'prettiness'. She too, despite immense gifts of her own, struggles throughout the whole film to gain an ultimately empty prize - a power that will signal she is equal to the King who has rejected and exiled her. Why does she want to be his equal? Why not see him for the blustering bully he is, and use her magical talents to build her own world, her own community? She can't. She craves his recognition, even if she must kill him to get it.
And Gaston is that guy, the one we aaaall love to hate. He presents himself as a Nice Guy who any girl ought to be glad to get - and any girl who isn't grateful for his attentions must be stupid, a b*tch, insane. He embodies toxic masculinity at its height. Despite immense physical strength and skill, he really has no redeeming personal qualities, and honestly believes his most repulsive actions are right and justified because no one has ever, ever questioned him or told him 'no'.
We'd hate to be stuck in an elevator with these guys, but they light up the screen. We enjoy them. Each one gets their own song, their moment to dominate the story. When they sing, whatever the apparent topic, it's actually all about THEM. There's no doubt that each of them is the hero of their own narrative. They aren't nice people. They aren't subtle, or sympathetic. But they are interesting and well realised. Like an extreme version of a real person you might cross the street to avoid in the real world.
In recent Disney movies, though, the increased time spent on characterising the heroes and heroines and developing them into fully rounded, interesting protagonists seems to have had a sad impact on the quality of our villains. In fact, as strong characters in their own right, they seem almost to have disappeared.
Why no love for villains, Disney? I mean, I get that after the success of the live-action Malificent film and the popularity of Evil Queen Regina in the TV series Once Upon a Time you maybe wanted villains to evolve. That you wanted something more nuanced and potentially sympathetic, rather than the operatic cackling of yonder years. Maybe you took that 'A villain is a hero who outlived his story' thing to heart. But... that's not what you've achieved. Instead of giving us more human and real villains, you've mostly cut the heart right out of your antagonists.
Take Mother Gothel. What is her terrifying super power? Passive aggression. Despite interesting character design that suggests she might once have been the heroine of her own story, she never actually gets to tell us anything about herself. She's defined as a stereotype of a toxic mother figure who refuses to let her children grow up or leave - and that's interesting. But instead of letting the talent of the actor voicing her shine out in some massive ballard of selfish justification we get 'Mother Knows Best', a song which is all about Rapunzel. It tells us nothing about Mother Gothel that we don't already know. In an otherwise fantastic film it feels hollow and disappointing.
Brave offers up a mythic story of a prince who craved power so much, he transformed himself into an immortal monster and destroyed his own family and kingdom. I love Brave, and I love the way that myths, ballads and folklore are woven throughout the narrative as a warning to Merida and her mother. But there's no catchy villain song. You might argue that Merida doesn't get to sing either, but actually there are songs in the soundtrack - great songs, like Learn Me Right and Touch the Sky - which are clearly positioned to stand in for the heroine actually breaking into song herself. Because of the way the film is written, there's honestly no way that can happen for the villain. He's barely a villain, really. He's a BEAR. Not even a talking bear. Just a big scary bear.
Frozen's Hans is the one who gets to me most, though. There's a lot of praise for this film for the way that it subverts Disney tropes and pokes fun at them, and don't get me wrong, I do love it for that. But because Hans is a bait-and-switch villain, unmasked only at the very end, we never get to know him as a villain at all. He reveals his villainy to us and is dead about three minutes later. His justification, while easily understandible (younger son seeks power through lying and deceit, hello baby Scar!) is never fully realised because, again: WE DON'T GET A SONG. He only gets to sing a love song with Anna at the beginning of the film. It's a great, sinister joke in retrospect, but it doesn't count as characterisation when he was just singing exactly what Anna wanted to hear.
Why not give us Hans cackling operatically as he reveals the emotional torture of always being overlooked in favour of his older brothers, despite knowing he's by far the cleverest of them all? Why not give us a great, unforgettable villain moment? The story could have spared three minutes for that, even if it came at an unconventional place in the narrative.
Instead, Elsa and Anna's victory over him seems all too easy because we've barely had time to accept his character reversal. We never have time to truly know and hate him. Instead of making him seem more significant as an antagonist, someone we desperately want to see thrown down, this hasty change wipes away all the previous characterisation and makes him into a practical nonentity. An EVIL nonentity, but a nonentity all the same.
I haven't seen Moana yet, but I'm told (no spoilers!) that it might suffer from similar problems in terms of its resolution and antagonist. So it seems this problem is ongoing.
Disney, how are little boys and girls going to dress up in curtains and tin-foil crowns and sing the songs of villains with bloodthirsty relish the way that my nieces sing Poor Unfortunate Souls... if you don't give us any villain songs or even any decent villains anymore? Up your game. Bring back the classic Disney villain, before we forget how much fun it can be to see our heroes go up against a truly loathesome opponent.
Who is your favourite Disney villain, and why? Let me know in the comments! :) Read you later, guys.