A dirty little secret in Disney movies is that while they have created many great heroes, both male and female, for kids to look up to and emulate it is almost always the villains who are the most interesting characters in whatever movie they end up in. Villains are the characters animators dream about getting because they are frequently the ones who give the animators the chance to go wild. They are often the most expressive characters in the movie, giving the movie most of its offbeat colour and energy. In short, Disney villains are just a lot of fun. Time to honour the best of them:
10. Chernabog from FANTASIA (1940)
By the time Fantasia rolls about to The Night on Bald Mountain sequence at the very end of the movie even the most ardent of classical music and/or Disney lover would be on their very last vestiges of patience, wanting the movie to be over. It is a good thing then that this last sequence is so breathtakingly amazing. It features some of the most terrifying imagery Disney has ever put onscreen as a sleepy village is tormented by evil spirits descending from the mountain that overlooks it. And at the centre of it all is nothing short of the Devil, revelling in the glorious and seemingly unstoppable carnage. That his reign is stopped not with force but with the dulcet tones of Ave Maria simply adds to this villain’s iconic presence.
9. Jafar from ALADDIN (1992)
Here’s the problem with Jafar: At first glance he should be higher on this list. He is a manipulative genius with his eyes firmly on the throne in Agrabah and practically is the true power of the kingdom behind the bumbling figurehead Sultan. He is vain which keeps him in line with the best Disney villains, but not so vain as to cloud his judgment for the most part. His irascible sidekick Iago is his perfect foil, making every one of their interactions entertaining and keeping them in line with the great Disney tradition of Disney villains. And he is clearly the smartest guy in the room. Jafar is more than capable of taking over the throne on his own volition, and yet manages to bungle it by hiring a street-rat to find a genie who he doesn’t really need and this turns out to be his downfall. It is a failure of epic proportions – and entirely his own fault. So this position seems about right for him.
8. Man from BAMBI (1942)
It is testament to the great terrifying power of the villain in Bambi that he remains unseen throughout. But his effects are definitely noticeable and devastatingly so. His most famous action is of course the traumatic death of Bambi’s mother – the introduction to many a child on the concept of mortality. He is also responsible for the enormous fire that threatens to destroy most of the forest and countless animals that call it home. But the true power of this unseen man really is made apparent in an earlier scene when a serene and playful meadow is instantly transformed into a place of fear and terror by the mere hint of his presence nearby – the literal definition of a boogeyman.
7. The Evil Queen from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (1937)
As the first villain in the Disney canon the Evil Queen has had plenty of opportunities to be usurped as a great villain. It is a testament to how great she is that this has only happened a few times in the eighty years or so Disney Animation has been in business. Her imposing presence and petty motives prove to be the perfect building block for many a Disney villain to come, but it is her terrifying murderousness that has truly kept her relevant over all these years. Her motives for killing Snow White are incredibly petty (jealousy over her beauty, one of the world’s oldest sins) but they ring true because of her firm conviction in making sure the task is ultimately carried out, even to the point of transforming herself into a hideous witch and forfeiting her own claim to beauty – a true testament to her absolutely ruthless commitment to evil.
6. Captain Hook from PETER PAN (1953)
Captain Hook is the first of a proud tradition of Disney villain whose ambition far outweighs his actual ability. The joy of Hook is in seeing his best laid plans thwarted time and time again not only by Hook’s rival Peter Pan who mocks him at every turn, or that infernal crocodile who gleefully stalks, or by the ineptitude of his crew (led by a very affable Smee), but by his own vanity and delusions of grandeur. Although Peter Pan is obviously the hero of this story, it is Hook and his bumbling crew of pirates who truly steal the show.
5. Frollo from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)
What makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame such an underrated gem of a movie is that it refuses to paint a black-and-white morality tale, and is instead infused with moral complexity. What makes Frollo terrifying as a villain is that he carries out his mission with the clear-cut moral certitude that he stands on the side of angels and yet to anyone on the outside looking in, his righteousness looks like rank hypocrisy. While there may be more evil villains on this list, it is clear that Frollo is easily the most vile.
4. Ursula from THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
The very best Disney villains steal the picture away from the more angelic characters and this is certainly the case with Ursula, who outshines Ariel and outmaneuvers her father in her ambitious plan to take over the throne. But as with all great Disney villains, Ursula isn’t great because of her plans but because she is a deliciously entertaining personality. Modelled after the iconic drag-queen Divine, she devours the scenery in every scene she appears in, bringing a much needed edge and sass to what would otherwise be an extremely genteel picture. In other words, when we write about the near-miraculous turnaround of the Disney company’s fortunes in the 1990s, we have to recognize that Ursula plays more than a significant part of that.
3. Cruella De Vil from 101 DALMATIANS (1961)
Most of the other villains on this list have ambitions befitting their status as villains – they want to attain power, dethrone rulers, and sit on thrones of their own. Cruella’s ambitions are much more petty however because all she wants in the world is merely to get her hands on a dalmatian puppy-skin fur coat no matter the cost. While this renders her ambitions very small, it arguably also makes her the most nefarious villain on this list. She is also the most fun villain on her list as every scene she appears in is a whirlwind of forceful personality, weaponized dialogue, and flamboyance at its most campily entertaining. She is the id come to life, and she will burrow her way into your subconscious in the same way that infernal earworm of a song named after her does.
2. Scar from THE LION KING (1994)
Scar is easily the most ruthless villain on this list. It takes a very cold and calculating creature to murder his brother Mufasa at the first opportunity he gets and then to lay the heavy burden of psychological guilt of that death upon his young and impressionable nephew Simba before ordering his execution. And unlike most of the other villains in Disney’s canon, he is actually successful in his scheme as he takes over a previously idyllic kingdom and carves it into his own twisted image, making it all the sweeter when he is ultimately taken down.
1. Maleficent from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
Sitting at the perch of the best Disney villains is someone more than comfortable taking charge. The success of Sleeping Beauty as one of the greatest Disney animated films begins and ends with Maleficent, the evil fairy who terrorizes a kingdom for sixteen years after she curses the Princess Aurora at her birth. Despite the best efforts of the kingdom to destroy every spinning wheel and of the good fairies to keep Aurora hidden from Maleficent, her plan ultimately succeeds in what has to be the scariest scene Disney has ever made (I am still a little bit terrified of spinning wheels). Maleficent is the icy cool heart of this dark fairy tale, deliberate and menacing with every move she makes and each word she utters spews forth like a lethal weapon. Her mere presence evokes terror, while her final transformation is stunning in its horror. In other words, she is clearly the best villain Disney has ever produced.
Hades from Hercules
Gaston from Beauty and the Beast
Prince John from Robin Hood
Shere Khan from The Jungle Book
Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove