When one thinks of villains in media, I genuinely believe that most people tend to consider Disney or Pixar villains before almost anyone else, especially if they are from my generation. The Disney Renaissance had a profound effect upon my childhood and it has often been said that some of the most interesting parts of those movies tended to be their villains; as strange as that might sound to the uninitiated. The exceptional quality of those villains made by eclectic personalities help to define a generation of filmgoers and it made almost too much sense to do a countdown list about the Disney/Pixar villains.
And yet, when I actually stood there and began to outline my rules and the prompts behind the list, I was struck by just how few Disney/Pixar films actually do have villains when you stop and actually analyze it. Most Disney films actually tend to be pretty light on villains or treat the environment itself as an antagonist. Though most of the films do end up with some kind of rival or antagonist, someone who opposes the hero, they aren't really villains (evil characters that do what they do for evil reasons rather than simply being a person in opposition of the protagonist).
With this in mind, my mind immediately turned towards figuring out a list of particularly noteworthy Disney/Pixar villains. My criteria for noteworthy being reasons that help the villain to stand-out from among its peers or which help to identify and characterize that villain in the larger cinematic zeitgeist of Disney/Pixar films. The villain doesn't need to come from a great movie, only be a particularly stand-out example of its kind.
With my thought-process in mind, let's get to it.
1. Judge Claude Frollo (Hunchback of Notre Dame)
|With any luck...burning in Hellfire|
Let's start this countdown off with what might very well be both my favorite and the best villain of the Disney Renaissance. From 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame
, we have the corrupt and morally self-righteous Judge Claude Frollo. This bastard is absolutely nasty, in that he performs all kinds of corruption and murder, even before the opening musical sequence is finished.
From that point on, he spends the rest of the goddamn movie actively seeking to commit genocide against the Romani population of Paris for no other reason than simple hatred and prejudice, he seeks to sexually assault and enslave Esmeralda, the deuteragonist, and he does all this while gaslighting an innocent young man who genuinely believes that Frollo has his best interests at heart.
I genuinely believe that even among the gods, all powerful witches, and a lineup of magical villains that makeup the Disney/Pixar rogue's galleries, Judge Frollo stands as the greatest and arguably most terrifying. And this reason can actually be best summed up by his humanity and general lack of actual powers. A good comparison in my mind might actually be to Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter franchise.
It was often said that Dolores Umbridge was the most hated villain in the Harry Potter franchise, despite her only being a power-hungry bureaucrat rather than the actual super-powered wizard Nazi that was Lord Voldemort. But it was ultimately because all of us have met an Umbridge in our lives. That kind of banal evil isn't suprising and is in fact frustratingly ordinary in the world. And it is in this same way that Judge Frollo shines.
His brand of evil is ordinary and common, born of prejudice and entitlement. His song "Hellfire" has become legendary on the internet for its dark themes and lyrics and the fact that it basically reveals that the entire plot of the film is being committed by what is basically a power-hungry incel. It is equal parts pathetic and terrifying that such a manipulative and unstable man can have so much power and be so entitled and self-righteous to believe that anything he does is moral and good simply because he is the one doing the action.
It's the kind of behavior that gets lists made about you, as this first place spot no doubt confirms.
2. Professor Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
|The World's Greatest Criminal Mind|
Though 1989's The Little Mermaid is widely considered the start of the Disney Renaissance, I would actually argue that much of the formula and animation stylings that became synonymous with the Renaissance actually got their start in 1986's The Great Mouse Detective. This film was a massive success at a time when Disney desperately needed a cinematic hit, and I personally think that a great deal of the success of this film is due in no small part to the strength of its villain, the world's greatest criminal mind: Professor Ratigan.
Voiced by the legendary Vincent Price, Ratigan was just an absolute joy
to watch and experience, literally introducing himself with a song and
dance routine about how evil and villainous he is and just how much he
enjoys doing all the evil things that he does, before promptly feeding
one of his drunken henchmen to his pet cat.
What follows from this glorious introduction is a thoroughly unstable megalomaniac that hides his insecurities and monstrous behind a thin veneer of superiority and absolute gentility. It is only when he is confronted with failure and defeat that his true nature is revealed towards the final point in the film in a stunningly beautiful action set piece inside Big Ben.
Absolutely part of the charm of this character is that Ratigan is just so much fun and so absolutely energetic; and so much of that comes from the performance by the late great Vincent Price . He just chews so much goddamn scenery and you can almost immediately tell that he is just having a blast in the role at every single point. He's hammy yet sophisticated, he's monstrous yet so funny, and it all comes through Price's absolutely perfect voice work.
In many ways, Ratigan helped to pave the way for the later villains of the Disney Renaissance as he became the first Disney/Pixar villain at least in my mind to actually leave a greater impression than the protagonist. What would become commonplace in the Renaissance began with the world's greatest criminal mind.
3. The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
|Damn Disney, you scary!|
If The Great Mouse Detective
was the film that saved Disney animation until the rise of the Renaissance, then 1985's The Black Cauldron
is the film that nearly killed it. Dark with awkward tonal shifts, weird comedic moments, a terrible comic relief character and an insufferable main character and romantic lead made this adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's famous fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain
perform so poorly that it lost out to The Care Bears Movie
on its opening weekend, after that film had already been out for several weeks.
And yet, for all that The Black Cauldronis known as the film that nearly killed Disney, there does exist one bright and shining part to the film and that is in its villain, The Horned King, voiced by John Hurt. The villain that almost got this film to receive a PG-13 rating.
As a massive fan of Dungeons & Dragons, I have to admit that The Horned King's design is absolutely stunning and awe-inspiring. If I ever get a chance to see Vecna adapted on the big screen (please Legend of Vox Machina don't disappoint me guys!) then I wouldn't be at all surprised if the design didn't draw some inspiration from The Horned King.
This villain is just oozing with pathos and his biggest problem really stems from the fact that he is the villain in the motherfucking Black Cauldron, which is just not a good movie. But whenever he is on screen, you are just held in dumbstruck awe at his presence. He says little but he doesn't need to. In a better film, I'd almost compare him to someone like Voldemort or Sauron, he has that level of quality to him. He just needed better opposition and to not go out like a bitch. Because he actually is the epitome of dark 1980s animation.
An amazing villain theme, great voice work by John Hurt, and a fantastic design that would pop out of a Gary Gygax Dungeon manual, The Horned King is a bright spot in a dark and gloomy piece of shit.
4. Syndrome (The Incredibles)
|The Fanboy turned Supervillain|
The only Pixar villain on the list, as I knew I needed one; Syndrome was the only real choice as he is the one villain on Pixar's list that actually has a pretty significant body-count. Syndrome is the villain from Pixar's 2004 film The Incredibles and actually represents a wonderful analysis on the nature of superhero fans and toxic fandom culture in many ways.
Syndrome was designed as an incredibly intelligent, if obsessive, fanboy that felt betrayed by his heroes and so endeavored to create a system whereby he could destroy the very foundation of what made people superheroes in the world of The Incredibles (powers). To go about this, Syndrome created a series of gadgets and devices which simulated the powers that he himself lacked and began to design the perfect battle robot to defeat any superhero, just so that he could stage himself defeating to become the greatest superhero of all time. To do this, Syndrome commits what is essentially a superhero genocide, killing dozens of heroes, praying on their frustrations with the Superhero Relocation Program.
Syndrome is an exceptionally dangerous villain, yet also maintains a general sense of dorkiness and silliness that is wonderfully balanced by Jason Lee's voice work. You really end up liking Syndrome and his over-the-top persona that he exudes, but beneath the surface lies a cold and calculating individual that is absolutely uncaring and unsympathetic. It's a balance that I find rather unique among superhero films and The Incredibles was very much ahead of its time in terms of superhero tropes and even then was challenging many of the standard tropes of the formula which has now become standard; and Syndrome went a long way towards that goal.
5. Demona (Gargoyles)
|The Genocidal Gargoyle|
I knew that I wanted to include at least one villain from a Disney television show. The only issue then became to choose which villain would be the best example of that category and I was instantly drawn to one of my favorite Disney TV shows of all time Gargoyles.
Gargoyles was a fantastic show that was intelligently written and voice-acted, with great subtlety and morally complex writing. Most of the antagonists in the show were usually quite understandable or even sympathetic in their goals and aims. I thought of putting David Xanatos on this list but I honestly don't see him as a villain of the series, rather just an adversary or antagonist. Xanatos is one of those characters who is so charming and likable that he doesn't even need to engage with the Manhattan Clan to actually keep an audiences attentions. You can easily see his plans going forward with his opponents not in the picture.
Demona on the other hand...
Demona is a character who possesses all the moral and thematic pathos as the rest of the villains and antagonists in this show, but her actions and goals are so frighteningly evil and cold-hearted that it actually is a little frightening. You see, Demona was actually the former mate of the main protagonist Goliath. When their clan was betrayed and the survivors placed in a 1000 year sleep, Demona was left alive and alone in the world. Using magic and her own revenge, Demona survived into the "modern" day having born witness to all the worst evils of humanity. In her isolation and anger, she became convinced of wiping all of humanity in order to ensure that gargoyles ruled the world.
To this end, her plots were always based in manipulation, subterfuge and betrayal. She is a tragic figure, but her unrepentant goals of genocide and the hurt she is willing to commit upon others is so hard to watch at times. This is of course matched by a great voice by Marina Sirtis (who play Troi on Star Trek
). She is equal parts seductive and treacherous, a quality which draws the audience in before she reveals just how monstrous she actually is underneath. And she remains one of the few villains by the end of the shows run to still be dedicated to their initial goal. She changes over the show, but her core villainy remains intact.
6. The Evil Queen (Snow White)
If we are making a list of noteworthy Disney/Pixar villains, I do think it is perfectly fair to end the list with the "one that started them all". From 1937, Snow White
is an extremely dated film by today's standard and, in many ways, feels more like an extended Merry Melodies
rather than a legitimate Disney film. As such, the film is rather light on character development from the titular princess and the subject of this entry, Queen Grimhilde, more commonly known as the Evil Queen.
I'm actually afraid to say that this entry likely won't have all that much going for it as the villainess isn't really all the extraordinary on her own merits but rather on what she represents within the larger Disney mythos. Snow White was Walt Disney's first foray into the world of full-length animation (being the first full-length animated feature film in history) and he chose this story and this villain to tell it. As such, Grimhilde represents the mold by which all future villains were cast or compared, and in this capacity she actually holds to many of the hallmarks of later Disney/Pixar villains.
It's just a shame that by being the mold by which all future villains were cast under, she is subject to most of the original growing pains which plague quite a lot of early Disney films, mostly that she is a secondary element for most of the movie which focuses far more on slapstick jokes with the dwarves than the story of Snow White and the Queen. It's a consequence of Disney still trying to perfect its formula, but I do think that it should automatically grant her a place on this list on the simple fact that the Evil Queen is quite literally the shadow all of the other villains live under.
I could've listed dozens of other noteworthy Disney/Pixar villains on this list, and I likely will in another later countdown as I can already think of maybe four other villains that deserve a mention. I chose these villains in particular because I felt like it was a good generalized and varied list of the best or most significant of Disney's rogue's gallery.
This list was never meant to be exhaustive and I will almost certainly be returning to this subject later as I actually love talking about villains with great enthusiasm.
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