What Happened to Great Disney Villains?
February 28th, 2017
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. The best villains come from the most unlikely places, don't they?
(The Disney logo is shown)
NC (vo): Who'd have thought such a seemingly kind, magical and enchanting enterprise could turn out so many diabolical geniuses? (Beat) Oh, they also made some good movie villains, too.
(An image of Ed McMahon is shown)
NC: Still, Disney is known for having some of the best movie villains in cinematic history.
(Footage of various Disney villains are shown)
NC (vo): Maleficent, Frollo, Gaston, Scar, Lady Tremaine, the list goes on. All of these baddies stay with us as some of the most deliciously despicable characters that we love to hate. They range in appearance and personality, yet they're always distinctly despicable, which makes them distinctly enjoyable. These are villains that have, and will, be remembered for years.
NC: So, um...what happened?
(Footage of more recent Disney villains are shown)
NC (vo): Don't get me wrong. Disney villains in today's animated films are perfectly serviceable. They're mean, developed, and further the story.
NC (vo): These are not necessarily bad villains, but they're not ones who are really talked about much either. They do their job, but don't go beyond the call of duty. It's safe to say they're not gonna be in that many villain line-ups when Disney tries to sell their merchandise.
NC: It's also not to say that all the past Disney villains are perfection either.
(Images of what villains are about to mentioned are shown, as well as more footage of more villains)
NC (vo): I doubt Edgar is gonna be on any Top 10 lists, or the Horned King, Sykes, and...asshole deer (Ronno). But there's no doubt that people can name a lot more Disney villains from the older days of Disney than the more recent days. Shere Khan, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella De Vil, Jafar. Whether for comedy, misery or both, they just have more personalities that stick with us.
NC: So, why is this happening?
(Footage of recent Disney villains are shown)
NC (vo): Were there just more memorable bad guys in the old days or is there a distinct difference between how Disney does villains now compared to how they used to do them before? The villains of nowadays just don't leave a mark as strongly as their predecessors.
NC: I guess we should clarify what qualifies as that. Well, I guess it means being a villain that people love to watch.
NC (vo): Whether humorous or scary, they're the characters you could see starring in their own movie. In fact, some of them even did. (The poster for the 2014 film Maleficent is shown) Not well, but they did.
NC: In my opinion, the last really great Disney villain that people love to quote is Hades.
(Footage of Hades is shown)
NC (vo): He was energized, funny, menacing, and considered by many to be the best part of the movie. This was the last real scene-stealer.
NC: So, how come the majority that came after him don't stand out as much, even though they do their jobs perfectly fine?
(Footage of recent Disney movies are shown)
NC (vo): Well, first, let's look at the numbers. There's just a lot more Disney films. Technology has stepped up, business has boomed, and Disney has pushed out a lot more flicks.
NC: Because of this, it's more likely that we overlook some films that had good antagonists.
(Footage of the two villains about to be mentioned are shown)
NC (vo): Rescuers Down Under had George C. Scott voicing an evil poacher and having the time of his life. But it got lost in the winter rush, thus few people remember him or have even seen the movie. Treasure Planet had a pretty complex villain, one of the best known in literary history, and portrayed pretty strong. But because hand-drawn films were on the way out, few people saw this one, too.
NC: On top of that, with more movies coming out, there's more of a rush to meet deadlines.
NC (vo): Not that there isn't tons of time devoted to these villains and that it doesn't clearly show, but... (The poster for Snow White is shown) big budget animated films used to produce a film roughly every three to four years. (Posters for Moana, Finding Dory and Zootopia are shown) Now, there's a minimum of one a year, meaning the time they had to develop villains was also expanded.
NC: But even when more films started to come out, there were still some pretty cool nemesisis...seses...sises.
NC (vo): Ursula, Jafar, Gaston, and so forth.
NC: However, as time went on, a new focus was starting to take center stage.
(Footage of Snow White is shown)
NC (vo): You see, when animated films first came out, they were so mind-blowing that you didn't always need the best story. Snow White is a simple fairy tale with simple characters, and the story ran on a more emotional logic than...logical logic. Therefore, there was more focus on how to get feelings from the visuals rather than what they were saying. So the nasty imagery was very nasty to make the pleasant imagery seem all the more rewarding.
NC: So back then, it made more sense to have the villains and their surroundings be more...
(Footage of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella is shown)
NC (vo): ...creative, design-focused, and as terrifying as possible. Just look at Sleeping Beauty. Nobody really remembers the personalities of the prince and the princess, but they all remember the personality of the villain. Cinderella is nice enough to want to root for, but it's more out of the fear of how controlling and dominating her stepmother is. That's what made the happily ever after seem all the more happy, because it harnessed the emotion of fear.
NC: Bottom line, making the villains more interesting was not only more fun for the animators to draw...
NC (vo): ...think about it. They're not usually allowed to depict this kind of imagery in something for kids...but it also made the cheerful moments all the more cheerful. Going through your everyday life is fine, but if you survive a horrible threat, that same day can feel pretty amazing.
NC: This was the tactic that was cleverly used by Disney.
NC (vo): But the problem is, it did it too well. Some of the main characters were coming across as too dull without enough traits to make them unique, an element mocked later by Disney themselves in movies like Enchanted.
NC: So, Disney had to focus on, what you could argue, they should have been focusing on the whole time: the main characters.
NC (vo): Princes went from having almost no lines to being charming, likeable guys, and princesses went from elegant blandness to expressive and energized personalities. More time was being put into making them more relatable and updated...taking time away from making the villain more nasty. Mother Gothel and the Shadow Man (Dr. Facilier) are not bad villains, but more time is on our leads than them, not allowing as much time to shine as there was in the past.
NC: But, maybe that's for the best.
NC (vo): The villains at least seemed on par with their heroes rather than upstaging them. They still got attention and we loved to fear and cheer them. However, the classic fairy tale "good vs. evil" was starting to be challenged by more modern audiences. If characters were going to be more three-dimensional and complex, the heroes needed more flaws and the villains needed more humanity. Great character writing often acknowledges people aren't just born good or bad. They're made by their surroundings, which are often addressed in good stories to understand them better.
NC: People were evolving beyond the basic "good vs. evil" story. They wanted something more interesting, more challenging, more...human.
NC (vo): Thus began Disney's latest craze: the unknown villain. What do I mean by this?
NC: I mean, I'm gonna go into spoilers for all of these movies just to talk about their villains. (Posters of all the movies about to be mentioned and shown footage of their villains appear next to NC)
(An image of The Sixth Sense is shown)
NC (vo): You all remember when Sixth Sense came out and suddenly, every movie needed to have a twist at the end? Well, not only did Disney catch on to that craze, but it often made sense to use to get their message across.
(The posters of the movies mentioned are shown)
NC (vo): Movies like Zootopia (Dawn Bellwether), Frozen (Prince Hans), Atlantis (Commander Rourke), Tarzan (Clayton), Treasure Planet (Long John Silver), WALL-E (AUTO), Wreck-It Ralph (Turbo/King Candy), Up (Charles F. Muntz), Monsters, Inc. (Henry J. Waternoose), Big Hero 6 (Robert Callaghan), and Toy Story 2 (Stinky Pete) and 3 (Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear)...
NC: ...all have surprise villains.
NC (vo): They're people made to look like average characters, but are halfway, or even at the end, revealed to be the bad guys. This takes time away from focusing on them being evil and are not given enough time to usually be developed, at least as they were in the past.
NC: Now don't get me wrong. This has been used before, and very cleverly.
(Footage of the two villains about to be mentioned are shown)
NC (vo): Two of my favorite villains are Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and Sid from Toy Story, but both of these villains work in a very organic way. Gaston is the same throughout the entire film. He's egotistical, funny, intimidating, and wants nothing but Belle. By the end, he's exactly the same, but the circumstances have pushed him to fight harder for what he wants, and we as the audience members see him for the threat that he is.
NC: Sid, in many respects, is similar, but works a little differently.
NC (vo): You know he's not a good kid, but you also know he's just a kid. Nothing he's doing is illegal or evil, he's just a troublemaker being a troublemaker. By the end, his motivation is still the same, but he's pushed it to a point where the toys fight back, forcing him to see more of his childish humanity. Both of these characters seem well-defined from beginning to end, despite a change in them going from annoying nuisance to main threat. This allows them to feel more distinct, memorable, and in many ways, relatable. We either know people like this or have been people like this.
NC: Compare these to two modern Disney villains, Hans from Frozen and (Stinky) Pete from Toy Story 2.
(Footage of those two villains are shown)
NC (vo): They start off as seemingly well-defined characters until the rug is pulled out from under us and we discover that they were villains the whole time. But the problem is, because they do it as a twist, they become completely different people we have to be re-introduced to, making them less distinct, less memorable, and less relatable. Gaston and Sid, from beginning to end, sound like the same character.
(Footage of Gaston is shown)
Gaston: (First half of film) It's not right for a woman to read. Soon, she starts getting ideas and thinking. (Second half of film, with his tone of voice not changed) One little word, Belle. That's all it takes.
Gaston: Have it your way.
(Footage of Sid is shown)
Sid: (First half of film) Well, we have ways for making you talk. (Second half of film, with tone of voice not changed) And counting: 10, 9...
NC (vo): Compare how these two (Stinky Pete and Hans) sound from beginning to end when their evil roots are revealed.
(Footage of Hans is shown)
Hans: (First half of film) I was thinking the same thing, 'cause, like... (sings) I've been searching my whole life to find my own place. (Second half of film, speaking slyly to Anna) No, you're no match for Elsa. I, on the other hand, am the hero.
(Footage of Stinky Pete is shown)
Stinky Pete: (First half of film, speaking gently to Woody) Why, the prodigal son has returned. (Second half of film, speaking angrily) Fair?! I'll tell you what's not fair.
NC (vo): Their tone, mannerisms, and even personalities seem very different, meaning we can't get a handle on their character as well. These characters are done a lot with Disney films recently, which is not bad. Often times, they work out fine and help serve the story or message. But when it's done this many times and with this many villains, not only does it start to get old, but we're kind of losing that connection to, well, enjoying our dark side. Nobody finds Hans, Bellwether, AUTO or Henry J. Waternoose cool villains. We don't enjoy watching them be evil, we just see them as nuisances that get in the way of our hero. Now, they're good at being in the way and being roadblocks, but they're not charming, fun or charismatic like these villains are. And that's because they weren't allowed to be villains throughout the majority of the film, so you can't enjoy them as much in that role.
NC: We don't get to see the...
NC (vo): ...devilish smirk of Frollo, the gratifying laugh of Jafar, the evil just enjoying being evil on Night on Bald Mountain. That's what makes these villains so much fun.
NC: But, the fact remains these are stories that aren't supposed to belong to the villains, they're supposed to belong to the heroes.
(Footage of various Disney heroes is shown)
NC (vo): While the villains have to take a step backwards, though, granted, a small step to be sure, the heroes in Disney films are much more interesting and engaging than ever. Truthfully, these are the people we're supposed to learn from, supposed to look up to, supposed to want to be. Their message and characteristics are much more interesting and complex than that of dozens of older Disney films. While these older movies are still classics and using both simplicity and complexity in the right places, Disney knows they need to evolve. People change, rules change, and people find different ways of getting those rules across.
NC: One of the more interesting recent developments is that Disney doesn't always need villains.
(Footage of two movies that have no villains, Inside Out and Finding Dory, is shown alongside footage of the climax of Sleeping Beauty)
NC (vo): Sometimes, it can just be a series of circumstances and conflicts that have to be overcome, and they don't always tie in to just one individual causing it. The older villains used to be about battling the grand evil, and that no matter how threatening the danger, undying hope and strength can result in beating it.
NC: Modern day stories focus on a different kind of struggle.
NC (vo): Struggles about identity, belonging, seeing that things are not always as black and white as they seem. These are relevant issues and messages to get across today, and their antagonists have to reflect that in a way that best fits the story. It's not meaning to tone down the fun of the villains, it's just, it's seen as what's needed at the moment.
NC: So, are Disney's animated villains as great as they used to be? No. But there's a good and even admirable reason why.
NC (vo): The same way Disney is trying to distance themselves from all their characters being too similar, the same can be said for changes that are needed to their villains. The important lessons and creative ways they're trying to get across those lessons don't always call for villains like in the old days.
NC: Would it be nice if some did? Yes. And I hope they look into that if, for any other reason, just variety.
(Footage of various Disney films is shown once more)
NC (vo): But Disney is on a hot streak because they know how they relate to people, and they know how to challenge and evolve. Disney wants to be relevant and it wants to be helpful, and it will do so in the way that each time period needs. While the evilest of the evils seem old school now, maybe they'll come back in the near future, because we always live in changing times and people's focus and dilemmas change with those times. Disney is always going to do its best to follow the dreams and problems of people and reflect them cinematically for all ages. So who knows what the future holds? Maybe villains will get better, maybe heroes will get better, maybe they'll both get better. Whatever happens, we still have a long line of baddies who we look back on and smile at how they always did their best to give us their worst.
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to.
(He gets up and leaves. The credits roll)