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Finding Light in the Darkness

Who’s your favorite Disney animated villain? Do you like villains who like to be bad like Hades or Scar? Or are you partial to villains like Stromboli, who’s just trying to entertain his audience, or Cruella, whose only crime is a strong fashion sense, or Jafar who has a career path he’s following and is very goal focused. You know, the ones who seem to have badness thrust upon them and are only bad because of a character flaw. Hard to pick, I’n it?

Disney animated villains are some of the slimiest, conniving, two-faced, nasty and unrepentant characters ever to be brought to life.  Then why is it that the villain scenes are often so much fun to watch. With all the good and wonderful things that Walt, and those who have followed, have put into Disney movies, they have never shied away from showing the dark side of life and people (real or imagined). I think part of that comes from not underestimating your audience. Although many of Walt’s stories were told through animation, he didn’t tell them just for kids.

Right out of the gate, Walt’s Wicked Queen/Old Hag in Snow White goes to great lengths to carry out her plan to kill Snow. Like her real life, wealthy, positioned, counterparts, for her first attempt, she gets someone else to do the dirty work for her. When that fails, she is absolutely giddy with joy to try it herself. The scene in the laboratory when the Queen turns into the Old Hag (animated by the team of  Art Babbit and Norman Ferguson) is still wonderfully frightening after more than 80 years. Pay particular attention to the slow reveal of the queen’s new, old face, which we don’t see until the very end of the transformation sequence. You can almost imagine Walt really enjoying himself and encouraging his animators to really go for it. I’d stack that scene up with any of the greatest scary, transformation scenes Hollywood has produced (Another example is American Werewolf in London).

What followed during Walt’s lifetime was a host of equally, wonderfully bad villains including, Stromboli, Lady Tremaine, Captain Hook, Maleficent, Cruella deVille, Madame Mim, and Kaa & King Louis. All of them have a signature scene or moment in their films that, not only, helps define the character in the sharpest terms, but whose behaviors or motivations are so far removed from the light, that the goodness or hero qualities of the main character becomes even sharper and more pleasing to us. Think of Lady Tremain’s eyes as she realizes that its Cinderella the prince is looking for. Or Captain Hook’s musical glee as he charms Tinkerbell into jealously so she will aide him in his plot to kill Peter Pan. Even Man, in Bambi, who we never see during the course of the film, stops our hearts for a second as we hear the shot

Many people view the films in the period after Walt’s passing, as somewhat less than successful. With the possible exception, in my opinion, of The Great Mouse Detective and the Rescuers, I would agree. It’s interesting that they are only films of the period with a villain who can match the sustained evilness of a character like Cruella. And, perhaps, that’s what’s missing. The Disney people were so focused on continuing to produce the kind of “family” entertainment they thought Walt was doing, that they lost sight of a significant piece of what had made Walt’s films so satisfying — The contrast between good and evil, the light against darkness. It’s possible, that to feel fulfilled, we need the two extremes in our lives. Those writers and directors who missed that misunderstood that Walt saw family entertainment as an experience the whole family could enjoy it together. He was also a firm believer that you shouldn’t talk down to your audience. The world is filled with good and bad so be honest and show it that way. Walt famously talked about adults as if they were just big kids anyway.

More modern Disney directors, in the period many call the Renaissance of Disney animated films (from The Little Mermaid, 1989 to Tarzan 1999), came back to the villain with a vengeance. In these movies, the most memorable scenes in the films are often the villain songs. There’s a rule of thumb in theatrical musicals. A character will break out in to song when words alone are not sufficient to express his/her/their feelings and emotions. In The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahantas, the villain’s song either sets the stage for what will ultimately force the hero to make an important decision, or set the wheels in motion for what will be the defining confrontation between good and evil. Ursula’s enticing offer to Ariel in “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”, Scar convincing the Hyena’s to join him in a palace coup and murder in “Be Prepared” are the turning points in these great films. And songs like “Gaston” and Frollo’s opening to “Out There” continue Walt’s tradition of strongly defining the villain’s character and motivations, just as much as the hero/heroine.

In the end, we all root for the hero or the heroine to prevail. But their eventual triumph is that much sweeter because they have someone like Jafar who is equally as evil as Aladdin is virtuous to overcome. Disney good guys in film are not always the most fun. Their journey takes them from good to better. But, villains, they take us on a one way trip to the bottom with some of the most memorable and fun to watch scenes in the history of the movies.Villains, take a bow!

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