Disney occupies some interesting territory when it comes to constructing villains for their animated films. On the one hand, they’re making movies for little kids and our modern society generally frowns upon exposing our fragile youth to the face of true, terrifying evil. At the same time, however, their fairy-tale source material often includes some pretty nasty people as the primary villains in the stories and, indeed, good fairy tales can’t really function without good villains. To their credit, Disney has managed to walk this line in order to come up with some pretty stupendous villains – bad guys and gals that have occupied our imaginations every bit as forcefully as the likes of Darth Vader and the Monster Under the Bed. What follows are my top five, in the order of Least Evil to HOLY CRAP THAT’S EVIL.
#5: Cruella DeVille
To be fair, Disney didn’t create Cruella – she was born out of the novel upon which the animated movie was based – but she occupies a unique and loathesome spot in the pantheon of Disney’s Baddies, as she’s the only one actively trying to kill and skin puppies so she can wear them as a coat. Wow. Puppies. That’s pretty damned cold, especially when she goes to such (crazy) lengths to get such a coat.
Then again, puppies are still only animals, and what Cruella is doing might get her a few years in prison and some serious community service time, but she really isn’t any more evil than Michael Vick, and we all forgave him, didn’t we? Honestly, the worst thing about her in terms of society is her reckless driving and the second-hand smoke exposure. What she has making up for it, though, is panache – it’s hard to find a villain with quite the same dramatic flair as Cruella.
Evilness Scale: Pretty Evil.
#4: The Wicked Stepmother
Skinning puppies is one thing, but the systematic and conscientious emotional torture of a minor is a whole other kettle of fish. Cinderella’s stepmother makes her own stepdaughter into a domestic slave and deliberately attempts to destroy the young girls will to live FOR NO GODDAMNED REASON AT ALL. She doesn’t even really get anything out of it other than spite.
I really have to hand it to the artists and voice talent that made the stepmother come alive in the old Disney flick, because this woman is vile. You don’t laugh at her; not at all. There is nothing funny about the Stepmother. She is the very embodiment of horrible, petty meanness. From allowing her own daughters to rip off Cinderella’s dress in the front hall to locking the girl in her room just to prevent the merest chance of the girl escaping her power, kids and adults loathe this character from the moment she steps on the screen. Wow, evil.
But, again, not really off-the-charts Hitler-wanna-be evil, either. She belongs in prison (and needs to meet with a therapist), but she’s ostensibly still a member of the human race. Those higher on the list can’t really make that claim.
Evilness Scale: Wickedly Evil
#3: Ursula the Sea Witch
Honestly, Ursula makes this list because she’s exactly in the middle of the road. She is engaged in some classic, bottom-rung evil activity here (stealing souls, killing people, etc.), but she lacks a certain…panache? She’s well past emotional abuse and animal cruelty, certainly, but is she at a level much higher than ‘standard evil witch’? Not sure.
The thing that separates Ursula from other standard witch-archetypes (think the Wicked Queen of Snow White or even Mad Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone) is her musical number. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a masterpiece of evil song-singing. Ursula blows to doors off most of her competition with that stuff, and the fact that she steals Ariel’s voice is fiendishly clever. Beyond that, however, I’m not overly impressed. I would rank the Wicked Stepmother higher were it not for the fact that she still provides for Cinderella’s room and board and seems to never indulge in physical abuse. It’s a near thing, though.
Evilness Scale: Textbook Evil
Okay, so say your neighbors don’t invite you to a party. You don’t really want to go, anyway, but you see the cars lined up around the block, hear the loud music, and think to yourself ‘I’m going to crash.’ Now add on the thought ‘and see if I can curse their infant daughter to die in sixteen years and watch the fuckers squrim for the next decade and a half trying to avoid it.’ Is that pretty evil or what?
The thing that Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent has that the lesser villains lack is how she sets up her victims to create the maximal amount of suffering with the minimum amount of effort on her part. She could have just blasted the princess Aurora into ashes, but no – she figured it would be meaner to let the kingdom keep her long enough to fall irrevocably in love with her and then take her away. Wow, that’s cold. And patient, too, which is even more terrifying.
Take what she tells Prince Philip when he’s in her dungeons: I’m going to let you go…but only after you’re so damned old that claiming your princess with true love’s kiss will be robbed of all meaning. Your beloved will be shocked and disgusted by you, you’ll die shortly thereafter, and it will all be horribly, gloriously fucked up. And I, Maleficent, will be willing to wait that long for my evil punchline.
Evilness Scale: Daaaaamn….
#1: The Coachman
Any of you see Pinocchio, lately? Well, if you haven’t, let me remind you about the guy who, for my money, is the most horrifying villain Disney ever put in a movie: The Coachman. Here is a guy who rounds up little boys who misbehave, tells them he’s taking them to a theme park, and then, after encouraging them to act like animals, he turns them into donkeys and then either enslaves them or sells them to glue factories.
He doesn’t do this to one boy, either. Not to a dozen or a score, but to hundreds and hundreds of kids over a span of probably years. Himmler and Goebbels have nothing on this psycho. Why does he do this? That’s just it – whereas all those other villains have ostensibly understandable motives for their wickedness, this sociopath does this just for the hell of it, apparently. If he wanted to make money, he wouldn’t bother with this. If he just hated little boys, you’d think maintaining a theme park for them to play in would be a bit counter-intuitive. No, he just likes making little kids suffer horribly for his own psychopathic enjoyment and then, when he is no longer amused, he has them killed and melted down into glue.
Holy shit, people, we show this to our children. Jesus.
Evilness Scale: Nightmare Fuel
My daughter received an Easter present from my sister the other day–the movie Hop. First off, this was a very nice gift and my daughter (who is two) thoroughly enjoyed the bunnies and chicks and action sequences. My wife and I, however, having now seen the movie twice now in as many days, have been left with a rather confounding question: Who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?
Hop occupies that weird non-space between so-called ‘children’s movies’ and those intended for adults. It is visually and thematically geared towards kids (or so they tell themselves) but includes enough ‘adult’ comedy to keep parents from wanting to kill themselves every time they see the movie. The problem with this, however, is two fold:
- Children don’t need their movies to be stupid for them to enjoy them or to find them worthwhile. A good children’s movie is a good movie, full stop. I need only gesture vaguely in the direction of Pixar Studios to prove my point.
- Adults do not enjoy being pandered to. They enjoy it even less than children, believe it or not.
So, you know, when we adults watch a grown man trying to become the Easter Bunny (yes, you read that right), we do not find it amusing. It is disturbingly bizarre.
In brief, the movie is about a perpetually unemployed young man who, through serendipity, meets the runaway son of the Easter Bunny, EB, who has come to Hollywood to become a drummer. However, while the Easter Bunny frets over the disappearance of his son, Carlos, the chief chick in the Easter Bunny’s workshop, stages a coup to overthrow the Easter Bunny, only to be thwarted by EB and the young man, who has now realized his lifelong dream is to actually be the Easter Bunny. In the end, both EB and Fred (the guy) become co-Easter Bunnies and Fred finally earns the respect of his overbearing father (which is, perhaps, the weirdest scene in a movie I’ve seen in a long time).
If I’m giving the movie far, far more credit than it deserves, we can maybe see it as a postmodern deconstruction of the holiday movie. It is, beat for beat, the basic plot of dozen Christmas movies, except applied to a holiday that enjoys nowhere near the same popular support, interest, or mythology. Thus separated from our childhood nostalgia, the movie seems crass, empty, and downright weird, even though it’s the same story as the ‘heartwarming’ Santa Clause or Elf.
In order to make it ‘palatable’ to adults, it features the comic stylings of Russel Brand as the voice of EB. While I have nothing against Russel Brand, most of the time I find myself asking the question ‘when did Russel Brand become a thing?’ while the CGI bunny talks like the Artful Dodger. (I have concluded, by the way, the Russel Brand became a thing because somebody saw him walking down the road and said “Is that Captain Jack Sparrow?”, and the rest, as they say, is history.) The movie isn’t funny, mostly because it’s trying so hard to be, and because Russel Brand seems to be the only person trying to tell jokes; the movie is, for some bizarre reason, a Russel Brand vehicle. And this is presumably a long time after everybody realized he isn’t really Captain Jack Sparrow.
In the end, though, the real reason why Hop exists is because of money. It began, as most evil things do, in the head of some marketing specialist at a major movie studio. The question was asked ‘why aren’t there any kids movies about Easter?’ and the answer was ‘because everybody else thought it was a stupid idea.’ Millions of dollars in sales, however, is never stupid, and so the producers went to their rolodex to find a bunch of people not proud enough to turn down the money they would be offered to write a ridiculous movie about an easter bunny coming to America.
Perhaps I hear you sneering at those writers (and actors, and director) who dared to make Hop, but shame on you. These people are trying to make a living, so leave them alone. I was in a screenwriting class once, wherein we were asked to explain to the professor (himself a well-respected screenwriter) what movies we had seen over the past week. In this class I was surrounded by film snobs who went out of their way to point out the edgy, fancy, artistically challenging films they’d seen. Me, I typically watched whatever happened to be on basic cable when I was sitting in front of the TV, and one week I had watched Anaconda. When I told my professor this, I could hear the skin tightening on my classmate’s faces as they sneered. My professor, though, said this: ”I know the guy who wrote Anaconda. He’s a good friend of mine.”
“Really?” I figured he was putting me on, or that I was about to lose a lot of respect for the man right then and there.
My professor then told me a story, and it went like this: Once you get a certain number of successful movies made in Hollywood as a writer, your name goes in a rolodex (or now, I suppose, smartphone) on a producer’s desk. When they want a movie made based off their marketing data, they call somebody in that rolodex. So, when the news that a giant snake picture was due came to a certain producer’s desk, they called the professor’s friend (call him ‘Bob’) on a Friday afternoon.
Producer: “Hey, Bob, I need a giant snake picture!”
Bob: “Errr…I don’t have any giant snake…”
Producer: “We’ll pay you $25,000.”
Bob: “Giant Snake picture, coming right up!”
By Monday morning, Anaconda was sitting on the producer’s desk. Bob bought a boat.
BTW, Hop made 38.1 million dollars on its opening weekend. Just sayin’.