Modern Disney movies don’t understand villains.
I’ve developed a comprehensive checklist:
- [Y/N] Is there a prolonged scene where the villain’s motivation is justified in relatable terms?
- [Y/N] Is the villain a misunderstood but basically good person?
- [Y/N] Do you feel that the villain’s death or defeat is tragic?
- [Y/N] Does the villain survive the film?
The answer to all the above questions for almost any new Disney or Pixar film is “yes”.
Now I want you to think about the older Disney villains: Maleficent. Jafar. Ursula. Scar. These characters are universally the most compelling part of the movie that they’re in. These are villains with staying power; iconic, nigh perfect antagonists. And for each of them, the answer to each point on the questionnaire is a resounding “no”.
Why the reversal? What happened? Where did all the evil go?
There seems to be a mentality nowadays that bad guys need to be “fully developed characters.” For example, a popular method of watering down modern villains is to give them a detailed backstory. This is usually a mistake, particularly for a simple children’s film.
Let’s take a look at The Incredibles. What does the movie lose by showing that the protagonist, Mr. Incredible, basically created the antagonist Syndrome by being a jerk to him? First, it requires that Mr. Incredible act slightly out of character. He’s a good, caring guy, and what we see of him throughout the rest of the movie doesn’t suggest that he would be a jerk to a kid. Secondly, humanizing Syndrome muddles the clarity of the storytelling by making us confused about what we, the viewers, are supposed to be wanting to happen and what we’re supposed to be feeling. When Syndrome dies horribly, we certainly aren’t cheering.
It’s sort of nauseating, actually.
So, is anything gained by the inclusion of Syndrome’s backstory? It depends on what the movie is trying to do, what the movie is trying to be. Let’s examine what happens when we give The Lion King a more nuanced, modern treatment, by way of contrast:
Simba is hanging off the edge of Pride Rock, dangling above the roaring inferno. Scar leans over him and whispers in his ear … “I’m terribly sorry about all this. It is an unfortunate necessity that your life end here. The pridelands are already facing enough economic hardship without political uncertainty at the top. Also, I know full well that if I let you live, you’ll continue your campaign of racism and genocide against the hyena refugees, which I cannot allow. It is with a heavy heart that I must now let you die.”
Compare with Original:
“I KILLED MUFASA!!!!“
Have I enhanced The Lion King with my “improvement”? Only if we are rewriting The Lion King to be an entirely different story. Injecting ambiguity and complexity where clarity and simplicity are called for doesn’t facilitate storytelling. Complexity alone is not and never has been an indicator of good storytelling. Ambiguity can indicate maturity, but conviction and simplicity can as well. The Old Man and the Sea is simple nearly to the point of being simplistic, but nobody would call its style an indication of immaturity.
But complexity and ambiguity have their place. We can look at modern TV shows like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, or most classics of literature, and imagine what these stories would be like without the shades of grey. More boring, I think you’d agree. Ambiguity is woven into the DNA of these stories.
So the lesson here is that some stories demand finely nuanced and sympathetic treatment of their characters, including the villains (e.g. Jaime Lannister), and some require clear-as-day depiction of evil (e.g. Grand Moff Tarkin) and if you use a heavy hand where a deft touch is required – or vice versa! – your story suffers for it.
Shades of grey are so in right now, and that’s why we see bizarre decisions in modern Disney and Pixar movies. The villain in Up is just a poor old man, intentionally similar in many ways to the protagonist – a dark mirror of his choices. There are no clear villains in WALL-E or Frozen. The villain in Big Hero Six ends the movie sitting in a police car, regretting his tragic decisions. The antagonist in Ratatouille is defeated with food and becomes a good guy. Don’t get me started on Maleficent and Oz the Great and Powerful – for crap’s sake, these two movies are entirely about ruining the perfection of formerly solid villains…
Actually, do get me started about Maleficent and Oz the Great and Powerful. Let me pose a little brain-teaser. Out of this pair, which movie is more pro-women, more “feminist”: Maleficent or Sleeping Beauty? How about this pair: Oz the Great and Powerful or The Wizard of Oz?
It’s easy. The older movies are more feminist in both cases. In particular with regard to their treatment of the villains.
In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a classic bitch who gives zero fucks. She has her own shit going on and it has nothing to do with any man, at least not in a romantic sense. She is extremely powerful and dangerous and a worthy adversary. You could argue that she is the dominant force in the story. Then, in the 21st century bastardization of her character, (Maleficent), we “discover” that her entire motivation is due to the actions of a man, due to love, and scorn, and plenty of other regressive, boring dramatic elements. I confess that I only watched Maleficent on an airplane with the sound off, but I’m pretty sure I got what I was supposed to get – a movie should still work without the dialog, after all.
In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch is another classic bitch who ain’t got no time for this shit. Again, she’s scary, strong, and independent. Her motivation is that Dorothy killed her sister. I mean, shit – that ain’t enough drama? We have to remake this thing (Oz the Great and Powerful) and “reveal” that the Wicked Witch is just a lover scorned? And also make her look kind of stupid and weak while we’re at it?
I’m seriously waiting for them to decide they also need to make Ursula: The Untold Story which will inform us that she used to be King Triton’s consort until he found a more suitable match or some bullshit. Ursula is literally my favorite Disney villain. For lots of reasons. Just listen to this:
I intentionally linked the audio track without the animation, so you can focus on how fantastic the voice acting is. (Innit?) And one thing is totally clear in her voice: Ursula is just evil. She’s manipulative, hateful, psychopathic. And this is great. You don’t humanize Hannibal Lecter.
If you simply go chronologically forward in time through the list of Disney movies you can observe for yourself that past a certain point there are literally no more horrific deaths for deserving villains. There aren’t even any deserving villains – gone are the true Grimmsian witches and avaricious monsters, and replacing them we have antagonists who remind me more of Walter White than the White Witch of Narnia. And by that I mean the White Witch in the books, not the one in the movie who has probably been given a complex backstory. I don’t know, I haven’t watched the Narnia movies. The old-school villains were truly evil; they were treated with appropriate levels of respect, and by “respect” I mean “violence.”
I surmise that whatever happened, happened in 1999.
The Little Mermaid (1989), Ursula is gruesomely impaled by a ship’s splintered bow.
The Rescuers Down Under (1990), eagle-poacher McLeach is chased over a waterfall to his death by crocodiles.
Beauty and the Beast (1991), Gaston is basically thrown off a tower by Beast to be dashed on the rocks below.
Aladdin (1992), Jafar is trapped for eternity in a sensory deprivation cell with an annoying parrot. Surely a fate worse than death.
The Lion King (1994), Scar thrown into a firestorm and mauled to death by hyenas.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) main villain falls off a cathedral into Hell.
Mulan (1998), villain exploded by rocket.
A Bug’s Life (1998), Hopper eaten by bird.
Tarzan(1999), villain hanged by vines until dead. Lots of death in this movie.
After that point, with a few exceptions (like The Incredibles, which, as I mentioned, muddles its message vis-a-vis the question “does Syndrome fully deserve to be horrifically sucked into a jet engine?”) we don’t really see any more hardcore villain deaths.
In conclusion, I don’t know for sure who is responsible for the wussification of Disney animated features, but I hope he or she steps on a Duplo while walking down the stairs in the dark.
I would like to be able to accuse some executive or decision-maker at Disney, but there don’t seem to have been any dramatic changes in leadership at this time.
However, 2001 saw a huge wave of layoffs and cutbacks at Disney in the course of the early 2000’s Recession. One can make the argument that the company suffered a loss of creative talent around this period. Thus, we can blame dot-com entrepreneurs and Osama bin Laden for the decline of the Disney Villain.