Disney has been on a bit of a trend regarding its movie villains. You could call this trend the “twist trend” because of the fact that the vast majority of Disney films for the last decade or so have featured big surprises or twists that changed the narrative in some significant way. I’m, of course, referring to “twist villains” and the idea of subverting expectations.
For quite some time now, assuming you don’t Pixar or the live-action remakes, there has not been a single Disney film that could be considered to have a “traditional” Disney villain as the main antagonist. The term traditional is used a bit specifically here, as the particular kind of villain being referred to is one that’s very easy to distinguish with an example.
Take Scar from the original The Lion King (or the remake, it doesn’t matter) and put him against Hans from Frozen. These characters have a lot in common, as they could be considered the villain of their respective films. However, their narrative purpose and execution are the glaring difference between them.
Scar is very obviously the main villain of The Lion King. Everything from his appearance to his voice to his overall demeanor tells the audience that “This guy is the bad guy.” For Hans, however, this is not clear. Nothing about his appearance, behavior, or anything of the sort tells you he’s the villain up until the point that the story reveals it to you. This is what is meant when referring to Scar as a “traditional” Disney villain and Hans as an example of an “untraditional” one.
In short, Disney has focused more on creating more elaborate or not-as “in-your-face” movie villains recently, and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, something is a bit lost in this approach. On the one hand, it’s easy to say that a twist villain is inherently more interesting than a straightforward, bad guy villain, especially considering what you can do to justify the character’s betrayal or goals better. Most of the time, a twist villain has a reason they’re doing what they’re doing, the evidence of which can be seen throughout the story. So when they’re revealed as the villain, it comes as both a genuine surprise as well as something that the audience can look back on and go, “Ooooh, I remember that! That’s clever!” That’s the idea anyway.
Take Turbo from Wreck-It Ralph, who’s a perhaps perfect example of how this can approach can work. We’re first introduced to Turbo as King Candy, a character that was already a bit of a villain because he, along with other residents of Sugar Rush, was working directly against Vanellope to prevent her from participating in the race.
However, about halfway through the movie, we are first introduced to the character “Turbo” (who was teased at the beginning of the film with the term “going Turbo”) and the hint that it was King Candy was subtle, but definitely there. On top of other things like King Candy’s ability to change the programming of the game and the actual motivation of Turbo made the reveal work flawlessly. It was shocking because the connection between Turbo and King Candy was never explicitly stated, but it was implied enough for the reveal to be stunning and make sense in the narrative, which is why it worked so well.
The issue with modern Disney movies is that their attempts to replicate this kind of brilliant twist don’t feel nearly as fleshed out or satisfying, in my opinion. Hans was used simply as an example, and anyone is free to interpret the quality of his reveal however they want to, but looking at it deeper makes it clear that there was little actually there to make his plan or his status as the villain make sense. It was never implied that he was the villain till the last possible second, and this is a pattern that many modern Disney movies (namely Zootopia, Big Hero 6) tried to mimic to little success.
Few movies have tried to do something more interesting with their villains, making them more like antagonist forces than actual bad guys. The prominent examples that come to mind are Frozen II, Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Raya and the Last Dragon, all of which don’t really have “villains” at all.
One can appreciate Disney attempting to make its antagonists more interesting than just making them evil for no real reason, but this represents a storytelling practice that has become more mainstream in the modern-day that is often flaunted as the “better” way to tell a story: subversion. The idea is that a movie or story needs to subvert the viewer’s expectations; otherwise, it’s not good or is simply bad writing. If a character or villain doesn’t have an interesting, more profound reason for why they’re doing something, or the story doesn’t do anything to surprise or shock the audience; it’s simply a lousy story.
This mindset has only become more and more common in mainstream media. While it’s not bad for a story to try and do something different outside of the straightforward “good vs. evil” format, it’s about time the idea that such a format is “bad writing” ought to be dropped. It’d be hard to make the case that such movies as The Lion King or Hercules or Tangled or Beauty and the Beast are “bad” movies simply because of a clear bad guy and a clear good guy.
Part of the charm that comes from Disney movies pre-2010 (which was about the last time we had a straightforward bad guy villain in the form of Mother Gothel from Tangled) was the dynamic that existed between the good guys and the bad guys. Many Disney movies back then were creative adaptations of existing fairy tales, which had a villain and hero. That was what Disney movies were, and now the company has seemed to move on from its creative roots in favor of simply being different, often with a range of successes and failures.
We do not need to complete ditch telling subversive stories, as villains are my favorite part of any story because they often move the story forward, add to its themes, and contrast with the heroes. But this kind of storytelling should be lost entirely, and Disney should at least look into bringing back a villain that’s clearly a villain and works against the heroes if only to return to its roots. Pixar already does this a lot and even has examples of twists that feel just as well-executed as Turbo (like in Coco), and several Disney cartoon series like DuckTales, Amphibia, The Owl House, etc. have very apparent villains in them while still managing to tell creative, thematically rich stories.
In short, the disappearance of the typical “Disney villain,” in my eyes, represents an attempt by the company to be “more creative” with how it tells its stories. But this “creativity” should not be used as an excuse to completely abandon the tropes that made Disney so prominent in the first place, and that they can still tell creative, inspiring, and entertaining stories even if the villain is dark, grey, and menacing.
Oh, and we also need another villain song. Please. It’s almost 12 years since we’ve had one of those (not counting Tamatoa).