Warning: This post contains spoilers for all of the films mentioned. They appear in chronological order, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled, don’t read that section!
Disney villains, like their princess counterparts, have evolved with society. From Snow White and her 1930s damsel in distress-ness that modern feminists abhor to Princesses Anna and Elsa, with their modern ideas against impromptu marriage, Disney’s princesses and their antagonists have changed to reflect what threatens society’s safety.
Snow White vs the Evil Queen:
Much like Snow White is the embodiment of the 1930s damsel in distress, the Evil Queen is the symbol for vanity, fear, and a dangerously changing world. When Snow first arrives at the dwarves’ cottage, they instinctively fear her. This is a transition from a Mayberry-esque world in which everyone was safe. World War I had rocked the boat, causing Americans to turn to fear more and more frequently. Yet Snow herself, the one person who has the most reason to fear, doesn’t fear the apple-bearing hag. She takes the apple, not thinking about the death sentence hanging over her.
Who’s the real villain? Fear. What beats fear? Love. Love heals Snow White, love leads the dwarves to chase down a giant, evil, powerful queen and win. FDR said the greatest thing we have to fear is fear itself, and this speaks loudly in Snow White.
Aurora vs Maleficent:
The 1950s is our next Disney decade. Maleficent is terrifying because, well, she turns into a dragon and sentences a baby to death because she wasn’t invited to a party. Umm, what? Since when does a party foul merit a death curse? We don’t really get to know Aurora very well, and neither do her parents. The fairies magically alter the curse to a sleeping spell, but then she has to live with them in the woods. Her parents are punished, the fairies have to give up magic for 18 years, and she lives a lie without even knowing it.
Who’s the real villain? The knowledge that you can be punished for someone else’s oversights or mistakes. The sins of the father fall to the son, and so forth. Aurora didn’t exclude the evil green fairy, yet it is she who is punished.
Ariel vs Ursula:
My husband despises this movie. He hates the message of rebelling against your family for someone you haven’t even spoken to. Once again a product of its time, the 1980s produced a princess that was strong willed to go after what she wanted– even if that something happened to be a someone. Ariel’s strength is great, though misdirected. Her willingness to give anything for her love gave our villain, Ursula, a clear shot.
Ursula, nursing the wound of ousted ruler, seizes the opportunity to hurt her enemy and his daugther simultaneously. What does Ursula represent? That tiny part of ourself that wants to hold on to past hurts. If Ursula had let go of her perceived injustices, we’d have an entirely different movie on our hands.
To a much lesser extent, Triton can also be a bit of a villain. Not in the up front way Ursula is, but in an over-protective way. He denies his daugther her love (human things), ultimately chasing her away. Instead of supervising and nurturing her interests, he shut them down. By doing so, he caused her to push him away. Had he not done so, she may have turned to him for help instead of evil.
Lesson to be learned: by forbidding something, you make it more desirable. Be careful how you handle other people’s hearts.
Belle vs Gaston:
Ah, Belle. Her love of books endeared her to me from the start. Her town couldn’t understand how a woman could be smart and beautiful, and only cared about her outer beauty. Her intelligence they found ‘odd’. She stood up to Gaston, not once but several times. Her strength came from her heart, not from her looks.
Who’s the real villain? Society, for giving Gaston power for being attractive and subsequently falling under his spell, believing his lies that the beast would do them harm (when, up to that point, Beast hadn’t hurt anyone but a fairy’s feelings).
Lesson to be learned: Be who you are. You’ll find where you belong. Don’t give someone power over you simply because they’re attractive.
Mulan vs society’s misconceived gender stereotypes
Mulan struggles to find balance between who society says she must be and who she feels she is. Her love for her family leads her to deny society’s gender stereotypes, but she still has to hide the ‘female’ part of her identity.
Of course, the advancing Hun army is the obvious villain. But Mulan uses gender stereotypes to her advantage to beat the Huns, win the heart of the man she saved, wins the respect of the Emperor, and finds out her father loves her for who she is, regardless of her gender.
90s Disney princesses were all about empowerment and standing up for yourself. Mulan is no different. The villain is soceity, for trying to pigeonhole someone based on their gender.
Rapunzel vs Mother Gothel
As time progressed, soceity became less villainized. Knowing who was trustworthy and who wasn’t became the new fear, and Tangled reflects that. What’s scarier than an entire soceity trying to hold you back? Someone stealing you as a baby, convicing you that they’re your parent, and making you fear the world for what it would do to you.
Whoa, Disney. Whoa. Mother Gothel is deeply, psychologically unsound. She may even be the scariest villain, as she psychologically brainwashes our protagonist into fearing everything. The abuse doesn’t stop there; she mentally abuses her throughout the film.
The real villain is Mother Gothel, and any other kidnappers. Flynn Rider, a perceived villain due to his theivery and bad habit for breaking and entering, ends up not being a bad guy. But seeing little three year old Rapunzel tell Mother Gothel she loves her? That’s the stuff of nightmares, folks.
Merida vs herself
In Pixar’s Brave, the villain can be difficult to identify. After all, Merida and her mother fight with each other, but neither of them is evil. They both want what they believe to be best for Merida, they just disagree about what that is.
In Merida’s case, her antagonist is…herself. She stands in her own way. She finds the witch, weasels her way into buying a spell, and intentionally changes her mother. Though the spell didn’t work as she intended, her desire was for her mother to change. Change into a bear? That was more than she bargained for. Finding a way to listen and express herself, as well as seeing the far-reaching consquences of her actions, are what saved the day. Both mother and daugther had to learn these things, but ultimately it is Merida who serves as the catalyst for all that happens. She is her own worst enemy.
Frozen has two villains, so to speak. A main villain and a minor villain. They work indepednently, and are discusses as such.
Anna vs Hans: I have to admit, I was surprised when it’s revealed Hans is the villain. Once I thought about it, I realized there are quite a few signs that point to it, but I didn’t notice them until hindsight was in my favor.
I was so happy to see Anna happy that when they’re singing their love song, “Love is an open door”, I didn’t question the unlikelihood that Hans was going to say ‘sandwiches’. I found it odd, but I was so thrilled Anna was happy that I didn’t give it a second thought.
Hans: We finish each other’s–
Hans: That’s what I was going to say!
Then, when Anna goes to find Elsa, Hans stays behind a little too willingly. He offers to go with her, but it seems like he knew she would turn him down.
Hans says and does all the right things– a little too right. The youngest of 13 boys, his motive is there from the beginning. Yet when he says Elsa is not to be hurt when they reach her ice castle, he ends up being the one that hurts her.
Yes, you read that right. I didn’t catch it until the 4th time I watched it. When the Duke of Weselton guard is about to shoot her with the crossbow, there’s one second when Hans sees the crossbow, sees the chandelier, and intentionally points the crossbow at it so that it will crash and knock out Elsa. After all, he needs her back in Arendelle to thaw winter. He doens’t yet know that she doesn’t know how. He needs her there, and he needs to look innocent. Check and check.
What makes Hans as a villain so terrifying is, much like Mother Gothel, he’s so manipulative. He convinces so many that he’s good, from Anna’s court to Anna herself, even Elsa eventually asks him to take care of her sister. That kind of psychological manipulation is terrifying to me. Kids who grow up with this movie will be harder to trick, and I’m certainly thankful for that.
Elsa vs Herself
Much like Merida, Elsa becomes a villain by turning into the monster some think her to be. Anna serves to remind us that Elsa is good, and those who fear her, like the Duke of Weselton, make her act out in fear. Much like a cornered animal, Elsa only attacks when she’s being attacked. She’s so afraid of hurting Anna, not only does she actually hurt her, but she creates a giant snow monster to keep Anna out of danger’s way. This monster only serves to reinforce the others’ perceived notion of Elsa herself as a monster.
Elsa fleeing only hurts the situation. Each time she runs away, the problem only gets worse. The storm outside intensifies as her internal storm does. Keeping her feelings bottled up for years only served to exacerbate the problem. Well played, Disney. Well played.
Disney’s villains and heroes are a reflection of what values society fears and values at any given time. Watching a Disney animated film is like stepping into a musical-with-a-great-storyline time capsule.