Thanks to a post on Tumblr the other day, I was inspired to re-visit what I had been led to believe was one of the least liked of Disney’s animated offerings: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The notes on that post and the comments on Facebook posts I subsequently made proved otherwise. This is what ultimately laid down the tracks for my train of thought.

What’s My Motivation?

As you have probably gathered by now, I’m a huge Disney fan. Out of the scores of animated films that they’ve theatrically released, Pixar included, there are only a handful that I haven’t yet seen. Of course, there are a great many that I haven’t watched in a few years. While I continue this series, feel free to comment to share with me some examples you think I may have missed. I’d love to continue this discussion.

This blog idea came about as I was on the dark and winding road to my friend’s apartment the other day. He had a free evening and asked me if I wanted to swing by and hang out. All he requested was sweet booze and Enchanted. Armed with a bottle of honey wine and my DVD, I zoomed down the highway to the score from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There’s just something about being alone in my car that tends to inspire me. I started thinking about how many Disney villains died, how many fell to their deaths, and how many were actually killed through the result of a direct action by the protagonist.

Interesting thing to ponder, right? Welcome to my brain! So, while you’re going through the various Disney films you’ve viewed in your mind, we’re going to start things off by exploring the different kinds of villains and what motivates them. For this piece, I’m going to be focusing primarily on the Disney movies that have concrete villains instead of more metaphorical and ephemeral sorts.

Disney villains are a diverse group of individuals. While they share the similar trait of generic “badness” by the standards of the day, it’s important to understand that they are driven by different desires. For some, like The Lion King‘s Scar (Jeremy Irons), Hercules‘ Hades (James Woods), and The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula (Pat Carroll), it’s a craving for power and righting past slights that push them forward. For others, like Tarzan‘s Clayton (Brian Blessed), The AristoCats‘ Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby), and Pocahontas‘ Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), it’s all about greed.

As an interesting side note, I found it fascinating that a number of the female villains over the years have often shared the following flaw: vanity. Not every female villain is vain, but the vast majority of them have that defining characteristic. Aside from being some flavor of evil, there isn’t that kind of shared flaw among the male villains outside of just being a jerk. Even then, it’s just a part of the whole bad guy experience. I could probably do a whole blog post exploring the gendered nature of villainy as shown in children’s media, but that’s not why I’m typing today.

At their core, Disney movies are morality tales. The same can be said of almost every form of entertainment aimed at children. The goal is to teach these little people right from wrong and the sorts of skills they’ll need as they grow up into adults. Pinocchio is a story about honesty and following the rules put forth by one’s parental units, Cinderella is about having faith in your dreams even when the world is shitting all over you, and I’m assuming you’re seeing where I’m going with this.

For these stories to work, the villains need to embody the antithesis of the lesson the tale is trying to teach. The villains have to be specifically geared toward the story that is being told for them to work. Sure, you could probably slip Hans (Santino Fontana) into Tangled, but he wouldn’t be nearly as effective a villain as he was in Frozen.

Bearing in mind a villain’s motivation is the key to seeing how beautifully and perfectly their tales end.

We’ll start going over all of that in Part 2.


Featured image by Matt Howorth.