[19 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As long as there have been animated films, there have been heroes (and heroines) and villains. It’s the basis for the artform. Usually built on the backs of fairytales, themselves harbingers of the whole good vs. evil ideal, cartoons can often make human version of their good guys and bad guys look tame by comparison.
Nowhere is this more true than in the cannon of those famed managers of intense marketing, The Walt Disney Company. From the moment it set the standard for feature length pen and ink epics, it offered up both the sublime (Snow White) and the sinister (the Wicked Queen). Throughout their history, they have continued to use said formula, sometimes switching up the standards so that both men and women wear equally nice/naughty regalia. As a matter of fact, some of our most famous film faces come from these movies, be they memorable (Monstro the Whale, Ursula the Sea Witch) or minor (Governor Ratcliffe, Prince John).
Now, with the company releasing a quintet of titles on Blu-ray (Tarzan, Hercules, The Three Musketeers, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks), we thought we’d go over the entirety of the House of Mouse catalog and pick out our five favorite friends and foes. Granted, considering the size of the inventory being discussed, we could create a top 50. The World that Walt created is just so gosh-darn good at such narrative dynamics. As a matter of fact, there was a time not so long ago when, in the spirit of James Bond, critics would compliment and/or condemn a Disney film based solely on the quality of the villain. While such standards have since been reconsidered and rejected, it’s still a safe bet that any studio classic is considered such because of a great hero or a boisterous baddie, or both.
The Top 5 Heroes / Heroines
Yes, he’s an old school Greek god, but as offered up by Walt’s workers, Hercules is also a bit of a buffoon. He can handle the physical demands of his newfound status quite well, but requires training if he going to be anything other than a schlub. Thanks to some interference from Mt. Olympus itself, Herc is given a chance to prove his hero’s mantle and with the help of winged horse Pegasus and Phil the Satyr, he manages to thwart the Titan-raising plans of the maniac at number five on our Villains list, all the while retaining his goofy, proto-frat boy finesse.
She’s a glitch, an oddity in the otherwise digital order of her video game world. But she also bears a secret, a stature that surely would resonate if only she could remember what it is. So it’s up to fellow arcade icon Wreck-It Ralph to make he dreams of being a racing queen come true, all while attempting to better his own internal game standing. A true role model for anyone who ever felt outside the norm (and called out for same), Vanellope’s can-do spirit and her growing sense of self become the fuel for another daring rescue and a defiantly Disney happy ending.
All she wants is a chance to see what life is like, “up there.” In that regard, her reference is a shipwreck filled with Earthly items, trinkets now trapped “under the sea.” Still, Ariel is a princess and a stubborn one, at that. Thinking she can better the Sea Witch Ursula, she makes a deal to trade her mermaid fin for legs, and it’s all downhill from there. Without a voice, she has to convince her dashing landlubber prince to fall in love, less he not kiss her and Ursula win the day. That she triumphs says as much about her spirit as her unrelenting desire to succeed.
Belle has a bit of a problem. After running away from the goofy gad Gaston, she discovers that her father in missing in the woods where the infamous Beast dwells. Bravely, she sets out to free her dad, eventually making a deal to trade places with him in the monster’s lair. From there, it’s a battle of wits as each combatant tries to win over the other. Without true love, the Beast - who was formerly an arrogant prince - will remain that way forever. Without an understanding of her captor’s motives, Belle may stay imprisoned indefinitely. The journey, and her defense of him, sparks a sensational and sentimental finale.
For a while, he was the champion his fair city needed. Then came the lawsuits, and the bad publicity. Soon, the government was giving in, making superheroes and their antics off limits. This lead to our hero helming a witness protection like dead end life as an insurance agent. Then, opportunity knocks in the form of someone called Syndrome, who is out to challenge the former do-gooders with his arsenal of high tech devices. In order to save himself, and most importantly, his family and friends, Mr. Incredible steps up and defies the powers that be to, once again, fight for truth, justice, and the old fashioned superhuman way.
In Disney’s version of the Greek myth, Hades is Hercules’ Uncle. Angry over how he is treated by his brother Zeus, the baddies decides to release the gigantic titans trapped beneath the ocean floor, thereby destroying everyone and everything on Earth in their humungous path. Naturally, it’s up to our hero to help, but he’s too busy being trained for her conqueror position. In the meantime, Hades puts on his fire haired thinking cap and tries time and time again to undermine his brother’s offspring. Voiced by James Woods, he becomes one of the most comical and craven villains in the House of Mouse universe.
There is no scarier entity in any Disney film that the ghoul envisioned by Washington Irving in his popular publication The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Even Tim Burton’s live action reimagining, featuring Christopher Walken as our nogginless demon can’t compare (and let’s not touch the current crop of characters claiming geek attention on the TV end over at Fox). Thanks to a combination of excellent filmmaking, brilliant character design, and a decidedly horrific flaming pumpkin, the bane of Ichabod Crane’s existence is an indelible icon to literary evil. While his appearances may be brief, they are surely memorable.
“Off with her HEAD!” Few film characters can turn such a simple line into a terrifying battle cry, but this rogue royal is all about decapitation. She’s practically daffy with her desire to crush craniums and remove skulls from necks. Of course, after a while, her constantly calls for such guillotine-inspired retribution grow a bit stale, but when you see her face, plumped full of rage and red as a beet, her “OWHHs” instantly return to something even more sinister. While she really should be viewed as a nutjob, that nasty streak in this particular Queen argues for a considerable lack of mercy come begging time.
It’s all in the plan for this Disney diva. All she wants in this world is a bit more fashion sense, and she intends to get some via the use of a family’s overly large litter of Dalmatian puppies. Yes indeed, their spots skins will make a very nice and couture coat indeed. It’s also all about the obsession with Cruella. She is determined, to her psychological detriment, to get those dogs no matter the cost. She literally grows insane over such a nonsensical need, and it’s that heady level of crazy that requires her placement so high upon the list.
She’s the evil witch queen so bad they had to make a movie about her, twice. Yes, while Angelina Jolie is all false cheekbones and overly plump red lips, the real pen and ink Maleficent was making wee ones wet the bed long before her live action doppelganger was even born. With her aloof attitude and menacing magic skills, she’s capable of quite a lot of damage. She also loves undermining the good and the virtuous, and he shape-shifting skills are nothing to sneeze at…unless you feel the need to balk at such sinister, fire-breathing beasts. Of all the Disney bad-asses, she’s the best.