This is something I’ve asked in every single Disney themed diversity workshop I’ve facilitated. What separates a villain like the Joker or Voldemort from a Disney villain like Captain Hook, Ursula, or Mother Gothel? This usually stumps people but slowly answers and ideas start to pop up around the room.
“They wear lots of black”
“They have the motivation and determination to make someone miserable (or get revenge)”
“They’re entertaining to watch and never do as much harm as a villain” (in regards to killing, torturing, etc.)
But these are things you could say about other villains who are not Disney villains like Magneto from the X Men series or Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series (minus the wear lots of black part). So what really separates a villain from a Disney villain?
When we think of Disney, in comparison to any other movie or story, it’s pretty clear most people may jump straight to Disney princesses. Disney princesses or princes overcoming a great evil to live happily ever after. The great, and often magical, evil being a Disney villain. In my Disney themed diversity workshops, I often chime in with my opinions on the difference between the Disney villain and non-Disney villain: Disney villains sing, they’re expressive and theatrical, their vocabulary is a bit restrictive on insulting and/or derogatory words to use (because the target audience tends to be children), and they never have their side of the story told (rather the story that led to their villainy). I always think of Disney villains as the perfect musical theater actor (especially if we look at the amazing voice actors who portray Disney villains like the Broadway actor Jonathan Freeman who voiced Jafar in Aladdin and is currently playing Jafar on Broadway). I know there are other non Disney villains who also fit into these categories, like the last season of the TV show The Flash when Darren Criss guest starred as a singing villain who trapped the Flash and Supergirl in a musical number (I included the song below because I love the Flash and Darren Criss and my fan girl self can never get over the collab). Musical theater actors can sing, dance, perform and express various emotions, they can have vibrant and extravagant costumes, and can portray anyone they deem fit just like a Disney villain (or the Joker, let’s be real).
How Others Define Disney Villains
The Disney Villain Deathmatch podcast, a podcast that pits Disney villains against each other to find out who the best Disney villain is, says there are six categories to determine who the best Disney villain is: the villain’s purpose, motivation, lair, minions, what the villains were willing to do to accomplish their goals, and the villain’s death scene (Pezant and Stevens). A Disney villain with their own song is an added bonus (Pezant and Stevens).
The TV show Once Upon a Time, a TV show about Disney and fairytale characters living in a small town in Maine, often reiterates “villains don’t get happy endings” (“The Heart of the Truest Believer” 04:26-05:10). In the parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” opening number the citizens of the Magic Kingdom list the many ways Disney villains have faced their end and try to predict which ending Ja’far (the main character) will face. They tell each other “he could be skewered by a sailing ship or hanged in tangled jungle vines! Or eaten by hyenas! Or he’ll plummet to his death, from a castle! A clock! Or a cliff!” (Team Starkid 06:15 – 06:31). All are different endings for different Disney villains and not very happy ones at that, just like Once Upon a Time said.
According to Mark Helmsing Disney villains are scene stealers because “their bodies take up the full display of the shot and the colors and lighting change drastically to highlight their disruptive arrival in the film” (64). The impact of Disney villains as showstoppers and scene stealers is evident in the large fan base on social media platforms such as YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram. Disney villains have a “surprisingly high number of viral videos on YouTube that remix and re-imagine the diva villain in contemporary tropes — from Todrick Hall’s (2014) ‘Spell Block Tango’ to Oh My Disney’s (2014), ‘Counting Scars,’ their villainous version of One Republic’s ‘Counting Stars’” (Helmsing 59-60). The parody musical “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier” mentioned earlier is a Wicked musical inspired parody making fun of Disney stereotypes and stories through the villain Jafar’s perspective.
It’s pretty evident that Disney animated films are one sided stories. Helmsing states that while Disney villains live “within the White patriarchal world of Disney” their “vainglorious quests for beauty and power are no different from the conforming public desires in the dominant culture” (63). There’s nothing wrong in wanting to be successful, happy, and be able to express one’s own opinion but there is wrong in accomplishing such desires at the expense of others (as Disney villains often attempt to do). The interesting part is that while Disney’s intent is not for us to cheer for Disney villains some, I would even argue more than some, of us still do (Helmsing 60). Personally I think a major difference between most villains and Disney villains is that audiences love and cheer for the Disney villain but love to hate all the other villains.
Think this was interesting? Check out my thesis paper on Disney villains on my portfolio site here.
Helmsing, Mark. “‘This is No Ordinary Apple’: Learning to Fail Spectacularly from the Queer Pedagogy of Disney’s Diva Villains”. Disney, Culture and Curriculum, edited by Jennifer Sandlin and Julie Garlen. Routledge, 2016, pp. 59-72.
Pezant, Sarah Cade, and Elizabeth Stevens, hosts. Disney Villain Deathmatch, Common Room Radio, http://www.commonroomradio.com/podcasts/disney-villain-deathmatch/.
Team Starkid. (2013) “Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier (Whole Show)”. YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-77cUxba-aA.
“The Heart of the Truest Believer.” Once Upon a Time, season 3, episode 1, ABC, 29 Sept. 2013, Netflix, http://www.netflix.com/watch/70296907?trackId=200257859.