Since the first screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Disney has become world-renowned for producing the best animated feature films. From the quality of animation to the consistently unforgettable voice acting, Disney movies are high-production spectacles brimming with iconic moments and characters. And while protagonists like Peter Pan and Belle will always be most fondly remembered, many of Disney’s best moments come not from its heroes but from its villains.
Best: Cruella De Vil
Showing and not telling is a fundamental art when it comes to storytelling. As a writer or filmmaker, you want to show characters behaving and acting in a manner that defines and illustrates them, rather than just explaining it to the audience via exposition. But in truth, telling can be okay, too, as long as it’s done in conjunction with showing.
In the case of 101 Dalmatians, Cruella De Vil’s character is expertly explained by way of Roger’s memorable and iconic Cruella De Vil song. This song sets the stage for the character, training the audience to appropriately fear and loathe her from the very start.
Of course, none of that would matter if Cruella herself wasn’t such a scene-chewing and menacing presence. Cruella’s spindly, spider-like body is contrasted by her massive fur coat, which gives her figure an apparent mass that suffocates the room.
She’s a larger than life villain—loud, crude, and thoroughly unpredictable. Her appearance is surpassed only by her ambition to skin 99 puppies in order to make a fur coat.
Other villains have sought more, but have any sought something so gut-wrenching and horrifying? Children—and even some adults—are particularly sensitive to the plight of animals. Hell, just imagine how much sadder the destruction of the Death Star would have been if Gran Moff Tarkin had a pet kitten.
Let it be known that Cruella is as horrible as 99 dead kittens on the Death Star.
The funny thing about Balthazar is that he’s almost a great villain. As the loyal butler of Madame Adelaide in the Aristocats film, Edgar’s villainy begins when he learns that Ms. Adelaide’s cats are set to inherit her entire fortune. Feeling shafted by the oversight, he concocts a plan to get rid of the cats and claim the inheritance.
First of all, that’s a great start! If I spent my life toiling and slaving away for a wealthy aristocrat and she left all her money to a bunch of cats, I’d be pissed off too! This relatability makes Edgar a sympathetic villain with clear motivation. Unfortunately, Edgar’s humble origins are never expanded upon, and what could be a fantastic character arc is instead squandered with one of Disney’s least remarkable and most milquetoast villains of all time.
Edgar is a thoroughly forgettable villain, and this is in part due to his plain and pudgy appearance. In a way, I like that Edgar is more of an everyman, but that works a lot better in modern art-house films. Disney films thrive on spectacle and exaggeration, which leaves no place for a toothless vanilla baddie like Edgar. He’s not even particularly evil, given that he’s simply content on sending the cats away so that they’ll leave him alone. He certainly doesn’t plan on pulling a Cruella and skinning them for a stole or really fluffy blanket.
Edgar is the “just some guy” of Disney villains, and that makes him about as notable as a hair on a barbershop floor.
Best: Honest John
Honest John is far from the most memorable villain in Disney’s massive historical library, and in fact, some may argue that he’s not even the biggest villain in Pinocchio. After all, Stromboli is more massive and menacing, while Monstro the whale swallowed Pinocchio and his father whole! But in the big scheme of things, Monstro, Stromboli, Pleasure Island, and every other obstacle faced by Pinocchio only came about because of the actions of Honest John.
Honest John was conceived during Disney’s earliest era when making a movie was painstaking, profound work; a time when every frame had meaning and every stroke of the pencil translates into an animation.
On one hand, Honest John was a simple crook, leading the gullible Pinocchio astray just to make a few dollars. For that alone, he’d be a unique contrast to the grandiose villains to follow, but Honest John was far more than that. John was the literal antithesis of Jiminy Cricket, right down to his comparable suit and top hat.
Though Pinocchio is portrayed as something of an innocent dupe, beneath the surface, Honest John is a representation of his darker, more animalistic thoughts. John is the devil to Jiminy’s angel; the id to Jiminy’s superego. He is a unique and effective villain because he is surprisingly multi-layered.
And hey, even if you refuse to buy any of that symbolic stuff, he’s still one of Disney’s coolest villains just for being a sharp and dapper looking fox with +5 charisma.
Worst: Shan Yu
Shan Yu is the result of needing a villain without having a great idea for one. Shan Yu is big and mean and scary looking, but as a character, he’s pitifully one-dimensional. This is especially damning when one considers the fact that some of Disney’s best and most iconic villains were created over the previous ten years. He fills out a checklist, but he’s never fleshed out as a character with human motivations.
To a large extent, Shan Yu suffers from a lack of screen time, and that’s not really his fault. Mulan is a fine movie that doesn’t necessarily need a prominent villain to carry it. But a lack of screen time can be compensated by fantastic writing, and more often than not, Shan Yu is simply carried by his menacing appearance. He conjures up xenophobic anxieties about the unknown and the ‘other’ because he is a different race and demographic from Mulan. He and his people are designed to look more menacing and monstrous. This is a narrative backtrack when you consider the anti-prejudice messages of Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In Shan Yu’s defense, he does get one bad ass moment, wherein he asks his archer, “How many men does it take to deliver a message?” Rather than spell out the whole scene, I suggest checking out the movie. It’s the man’s finest hour.
This is the guy that actually did it. And he’s not even a human!
There are a lot of evil villains with evil plans, and many of them get a taste of success before they’re inevitably overthrown. But Scar frikin’ did it.
The Lion King is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite Disney movie, and Scar’s character arc is the biggest reason why. He begins the story as a somewhat lowly prince, cast into a sympathetic situation whereby he can never ascend to the throne. His cruelty, charm, and charisma are established from his very first scene, as he toys with a doomed mouse. Here, we learn about his plight and his motivation. He’s depicted as physically weak compared to his older brother Mufasa, which when coupled with his low place on the totem pole, greatly humanize his character.
From the beginning, Scar attempts to trick Simba into wandering into the elephant graveyard to his death. This sets a nice foundation, because even though it’s threatening, it’s passively threatening. It sets an expectation that is greatly surpassed when Scar actually succeeds in killing Mufasa in a face-to-face murder scene. That moment, where he drops his brother into the stampede of wildebeest, stands high as his pinnacle of terror. It’s iconic, and it results in him becoming king of Pride Rock for years after he traumatizes Simba into exile.
There’s no villain that accomplished quite as much as Scar, and that’s why he’s one of the best.
Worst: Governor Ratcliffe
Villains are always going to be tricky when you’re dealing with historic subject matter. Like many characters from Pocahontas, Governor Ratcliffe was based upon a real man who was at one time the president of Jamestown. The film depicts him is a cruel, boorish, and greedy racist who instigates violence and mistrust against the Native American population.
This is a problem, because it casts racism as a simplistic problem that was propagated by the actions of a single man, who duped and manipulated the innocent colonists. Not only does it trivialize a major social issue that’s still prominent to this day, but it woefully misrepresents Governor Ratcliffe himself. History does not support his characterization in the film, as the real man willingly traded with Native Americans and left no record of having hostility against them.
But even if you dismiss historical inaccuracies, Ratcliffe is an underwhelming villain. He’s built as being an ignorant and incompetent representation of repression, so much so, that it’s hard to even think of him as a character. Rather, Ratcliffe is a political cartoon; the type of bad guy you’d see during an episode of Captain Planet, hardly a living person and more comparable to a sentient cloud of unpleasantness.
Best: Claude Frollo
Frollo is undoubtedly the most mature of Disney’s animated villains, having come from the “I can’t believe it’s Rated-G” The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Frollo is notable for being a God-fearing villain who experiences conflict both internal and external. His obsession with Esmeralda is particularly fascinating, because it deals with sexual lust, which is every bit as uncomfortable for Frollo himself as it is for the audience.
Frollo’s relationship with Quasimodo is also tremendously written because of how patient and calculated Frollo is about breaking Quasimodo down and about maintaining his control over the hunchback.
The scene where Quasimodo is being bullied and tormented by the townsfolk is particularly heart-wrenching, and Frollo’s place in that scene is crucial to building his character. He does not actively participate in the scene because he doesn’t have to. He simply allows the abuse to take place. On paper, it’s so much less than murder or kidnapping or any other of the villainous tropes that can be found among many other villains, but in writing and on screen, it is intensely powerful. It’s nuanced and brilliant, and most importantly, it’s evil.
Later scenes continue to show a cold and calculated man, whose evil reaches its apex as he attempts to burn Esmeralda at the stake for refusing to be his. Frollo’s actions are especially poignant because they are not only fiendish, but they mimic real events that happen around the world. That believability helps to make Frollo the scariest Disney villain of all time.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. Put away the pitch forks for just one eentsy teentsy second. Hades is a memorable villain, humorously voice-acted by James Woods. I don’t really like him, but he’s fine. Really, he’s fine! But that doesn’t excuse his gigantic fatal flaw. Look at the image below.
Do you remember this scene? In one of the film’s pivotal moments, Hades convinces Hercules to give up his super-strength for a 24 hour period.
So why doesn’t he just kill him right now?
Hercules is 100% defenseless, and he never bothered negotiating for his own safety. He is the ONLY threat to Hades’ ascension to the throne.
So why doesn’t Hades just kill him RIGHT NOW?
Seriously! Hercules is vulnerable and as weak as a flatworm on the hot pavement. Just murder him already!
Best: The Evil Queen (Snow White)
The Queen is perhaps the most important villain in Disney’s illustrious history. Prominent villains like Maleficent, The Wicked Step Mother, and Mother Gothel owe their characterization to the archetype established by the Queen in Disney’s very first animated feature film.
Of course, it must be said that The Queen’s motivations are rudimentary; despite her regal positioning, she is not heavily characterized as a ruler, tyrannical or otherwise. She is simply driven by a desire to be the fairest in the land. The Queen is a vain and spiteful woman, infuriated by the fact that Snow White is fairer than she is. Her obsession with physical beauty is juxtaposed her internal ugliness, which sets a basis for how she is presented.
When her other plans fail, the queen’s twisted motivations are made flesh as she becomes an old hag in order to trick Snow White. The Queen’s transformation serves as as a poignant metaphor for her inner decay, while also firmly establishing Snow White as an innocent, kindly character who easily looks past the hag’s external deformities. Most prominently, the hag presents a poisoned apple in order to kill Snow White. In the later years, the apple itself has become an iconic symbol. Again, it recalls the duality of outer beauty and inner ugliness, and in a more subtle way, it references the forbidden fruit from the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
The Queen is a very obvious sort of villain, and she’s a relic of the time period in which she was written. That being said, her place in history is undeniable, and there are aspects of her character that are just as poignant today as they were in 1937.
Who are your favorite Disney villains? Who are some of the worst? Let us know what you think in the comments!