One of the most interesting aspects of a Disney animated feature is its villain. These characters often end up as recognizable as their heroic counterparts, both in terms of their personalities and their art style. All of my favorite Disney animated features have a particularly memorable villain, all the way from Snow White to Tangled.
My all-time favorite film, The Lion King, contains one of Disney’s penultimate villains. Scar is easily recognized as the film’s antagonist the moment you see him toying with a mouse he’s about to eat. His darker orange and black color, along with the name-worthy scar on his eye, give you that visual cue. He speaks with a certain charm, but has a snarl and growl that makes you take note (both of which are performed beautifully by Jeremy Irons). You know from every aspect of his character that his is your villain, and that he’s worthy to be feared.
Those types of villains were commonplace through the first 75 or so years of Disney animated features. But in Disney’s last few in-house animated films we’ve seen a shift to a surprise villain. We’ve gotten villains that appear friendly in the beginning, but turn out to have a sinister side. Here’s what I’m talking about (spoilers follow if you haven’t seen these movies yet):
1. Hans (Frozen)
Hans (last name: Of The Southern Isles) changes from Anna’s main love interest to a conniving baby brother that wants control of Arendelle. Through the course of the movie, we’re led to believe that he is every bit as quirky as Anna and that he is brave enough to guard the kingdom until Anna returns with the true queen. But during the final act, Hans acts on his intentions of manipulating Anna in order to kill Elsa and take the throne. Anna herself ends up being collateral damage as he attempts to literally extinguish her. Luckily, Olaf not only provides the comic relief, but the right-place-right-time needed to save Anna.
2. Professor Callaghan (Big Hero 6)
Originally appearing to be the kind, scholarly mentor of Tadashi Hamada, Professor Callaghan ends up being the villain Yokai. Callaghan uses Hiro’s well-intentioned tech in a nefarious plot to seek revenge after his daughter was caught in what seemed to be a fatal accident. Hiro and his team of startup super heroes, along with Tadashi’s prized invention Baymax, are ultimately able to thwart his Callaghan’s plan and end up saving his daughter in the process.
3. Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Zootopia)
Assistant to Mayor Lionheart, Bellwether appears to be a hard-working but under-appreciated assistant. That, coupled with her desire for the “little guys” to be seen and heard, drives her to hatch a plot to make predators in Zootopia appear to turn primitively savage, causing fear and distrust of all predators across the city. She eventually replaces Lionheart as mayor, before her plan is discovered by heroes Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde.
In all three cases, we don’t find out the true villain of the story until well into the second act (or even third act) of the movie. That type of approach to storytelling in a Disney movie is interesting, and I think it comes with some positives and negatives.
Let’s start with the pros. First, it makes for a decent enough plot twist, even when you know it’s coming. Oftentimes, the reveal of a story element makes for a great experience whether or not it was obvious to begin with. Think of Anakin Skywalker’s turn in Star Wars Episode III. Everyone knows he will become Darth Vader, but seeing that for the first time is a positive experience (even if it’s shortly followed by one of the worst moments in the saga…but I digress). Revealing the villain and the reason for his or her actions can be a great part of the movie. And, in Disney’s case so far, it’s translated well.
Second, I think it’s a more realistic approach to a good guy/bad guy story. How often in our everyday lives do we truly know who the “bad guy” is? Isn’t it often cloaked in some type of deception? There are times when we encounter a Scar or Jafar, but I think most of us encounter a Robert Callaghan or Bellwether more often.
Finally, it’s just a good change of pace. A formula can get tired, no matter how well it works. Sometimes the mega-villain element needs a rest. That’s not to say you can never go back to it. But a few movies that follow a different formula isn’t a bad thing.
On the flip side, though, a good villain is sometimes one of the most memorable elements in a story. Beauty and the Beast without its Gaston isn’t the same movie. While I enjoy the movies above, I do believe they lack that type of hook. And I miss that. It’s nice having that villain that draws you in, that you see the entire movie trying to foil the hero, and having that time to get acquainted with them. You don’t get that with a surprise villain. In fact, in some cases, you end up spending half of the movie liking the character.
When we get down to it, we’re talking about two movies that deal heavily with super-human powers or abilities and another that has talking animals living together in the big city. Reality isn’t a huge concern in these movies. So mirroring what we see in real life has merit, but isn’t necessary. Fantastical movies sometimes do best with fantastical characters. I’m not sure that Hans fits that description, and I still think Frozen suffers from that.
I hope this isn’t something that Disney keeps coming back to. A few movies that change it up are okay, and these movies have each done well for them. I don’t want that to be motivation to stay on this hidden villain kick, though. I want them to get back to having compelling villains that appear throughout an entire movie. Maybe the upcoming Moana will be that movie.
I like having the crazy, outspoken, sometimes comical Disney villain. I’ll be watching and hoping that we get that great villain again soon.