This time last year, I wrote a piece on the appeal of the Disney villains. In it, I wrote about the cottage industry that has sprung up within Disney’s vast merchandising empire surrounding villains like Ursula, Maleficent, and Cruella de Vil. The villains of Disney’s great animated films hold a certain fascination for fans, and in my post I discussed why.
…to many Disney fans, the villains are just…well…cooler.
The villains put on the best show — and they make the fantasy world go round. Without great villains, Cinderella would have never tried on the glass slipper, Wendy and her brothers would never have learned heroism in Neverland, and Giselle would have never made it to New York City to meet her true love, Robert. Without the bad guys we don’t realize who the good guys really are and how we can aspire to be one ourselves.
This year I toyed with the idea of making a list of the baddest Disney villains (notice I didn’t say “worst” — there is a distinction), but after perusing Google, I realized there’s already a glut of villain rankings. From professional writers and listmakers to everyday bloggers, plenty of others before me have attempted to make a list of the baddest of the bad. Mine would have simply become just another list.
And I learned that the most evil villains depended on your criteria. For instance, Maleficent might win based on magical powers, while Jafar may take the cake for creepy charm. Scar or Ursula may top a list based on sheer cruelty, while Lady Tremaine could grab the title of the ultimate mean girl. Buzzfeed listed Cruella de Vil near the top because:
She wants to wear the skin of puppies.
Let me repeat that: SHE WANTS TO WEAR THE SKIN OF PUPPIES.
So, who really are the most evil Disney villains? I chose to write about the two worst based on my own criteria. These two stand head and shoulders above their counterparts — and not for the reasons you’d think. One villain goes back to the earliest of the Disney classics, while the other comes from the modern era. Regardless of powers, methods, or circumstances, these two villains reach their own level of evil because of what they represent.
Way back in 1937, Disney set the tone for animated villainy with the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney wanted to emphasize the Queen’s treachery, and when he was unhappy with Lucille La Verne’s voice performance, she hammed it up and took out her teeth to play the Evil Queen as an old hag. Basically the Evil Queen’s villainy boils down to vanity, but her weapon of choice represents a whole different sort of evil.
As we know, the Evil Queen, in disguise as an old hag, offers Snow White an apple — and not just any apple, but a “magical wishing apple.” In The Gospel in Disney, Philip Longfellow Anderson explains the lure of the magic apple:
“It’s a magic wishing apple,” she promises. “One bite and all your dreams come true.”
That’s a temptation Snow White has difficulty ignoring. After all, earlier in the story Snow White had met a handsome Prince. She dreams of him carrying her off to his castle, and living happily ever after. If the bite of an apple can give her this godlike power – if it can make her this omnipotent – why not consume it? So she yields to the temptation of the Queen’s false promise. She tastes the apple and becomes the victim of the poison’s curse. She drops to the floor in a death-like coma.
Beyond the obvious temptation-of-Eve comparisons we can make, the Queen’s magic apple represents a quick fix sort of evil — the fairy-tale version of a get-rich-quick scheme. Like a lotto jackpot or a universal health care bill, the apple promises to make all Snow White’s dreams come true — yet in the end, the promises are empty and the poison brings harm and ruin. How many people could turn down the promise of the magic apple? How many people would fall — literally — for the poison inside? That’s what makes the Evil Queen’s particular brand of villainy so treacherous.
Snow White falls for the old hag’s promise, and she pays the ultimate price for a shortcut to the life of her dreams. Luckily for her, she gets a second chance when the Prince comes along with the kiss of true love and literally sweeps her off her feet.
More recently, in 2010’s Tangled, Disney created another vanity-obsessed villain with her own spin on getting her way. Mother Gothel kidnaps an infant princess, locking her in a tower and saddling her with the name Rapunzel. Mother Gothel takes advantage of Rapunzel’s magical hair as her own fountain of youth and immortality, all the while keeping her prized secret hidden from the rest of the kingdom. Every year, the king and queen commemorate their daughter’s birthday with the release of floating lanterns in her honor — and in the hopes that someday she will come home.
Gothel is the only mother Rapunzel has known, and so she trusts her mother completely. However, Rapunzel grows curious about the world around her and the event she sees on her birthday every year in the distance through the tower window. On her 18th birthday, Rapunzel tells her mother that she wants to leave the tower to see the floating lanterns, much to the old woman’s horror. Mother Gothel uses every trick in the maternal handbook, including guilt trips, overt affection, bargaining, and — when necessary — force, to keep Rapunzel from wanting to leave the tower.
Award-winning stage veteran Donna Murphy voices Mother Gothel with a certain creepy appeal, and she has created an enduring character. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Mother Gothel explains to Rapunzel that she simply cannot leave the tower because “Mother Knows Best.”
Mother Gothel represents a most insidious kind of evil in that she controls Rapunzel by taking care of her every need. She tries to keep Rapunzel from thinking for herself and making her own decisions, and she manipulates her charge any time she makes any move that could lead toward living her own life. As such, Mother Gothel becomes much more of a dictator than a mother to Rapunzel.
Mother Gothel’s brand of evil — forcing dependence on Rapunzel to try to keep her in line and unwilling to experience freedom — is far more dangerous than a spell or curse. Fortunately, Rapunzel (with the help of Flynn Rider) escapes the tower and learns what freedom is really about.
As you can see from the examples of the Evil Queen and Mother Gothel, the worst kinds of villainy have little to do with powers or spells or even an evil laugh. The most harmful evil traits among the Disney villains match up well with the evils of the real world — tyranny, false hope, dependence — and only the good forces of love and freedom can overcome them. In our very real world, I continue to be hopeful and prayerful that we will see heroes like Flynn Rider and Snow White’s prince who will fight for freedom and good and against these evils. After all, don’t we all want a happy ending?