“Whether we like them or not,” said Disney’s Director of Studio Publicity Tom Jones in a 1972 interview, “villains are a necessary evil.”
“For example, most of Walt Disney’s animated cartoons are morality plays — that is, good triumphs over evil. To draw a definite contrast between the two extremes, the hero/heroine is the epitome of all that is good and brave in comparison to the villain/villainess, who personifies all that is unscrupulous, dastardly, and evil. Before the fadeout, the villain gets his/her comeuppance while the hero emerges triumphant.”
In the 1956 “Disneyland” television episode “Our Unsung Villains,” the Slave in the Magic Mirror boasts, “Take away the villain and what have you got? Everybody’s happy. No problems. Nothing to worry about. All in all, a pretty dull story.”
From the earliest Mickey Mouse shorts, villains were as prominent as the sympathetic leading characters. Because of Walt’s deep roots as a storyteller, he understood the fundamental truth that great triumph can only result from great struggle — and great heroism from great menace.
In the Mickey Mouse shorts and Silly Symphonies, there were various broad menaces such as skeletons (“The Haunted House,” 1929), a nameless gorilla (“The Gorilla Mystery,” 1929), an unnamed spider (“The Spider and the Fly,” 1931), and a nonspecific woodland witch (“Babes in the Woods,” 1932). Nuanced and fleshed-out villains such as Pete (the burly cat who forever tormented Mickey and Minnie Mouse) and the pig-taunting Big Bad Wolf were far more threatening, although typically buffoonish and played for laughs.
It wasn’t until 1934, when development was underway for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” that Disney’s animation team turned their focus on characters without a whiff of laughter or the slightest hint of irony — serious cinematic villains with a threatening presence of true malice.
The film’s initial designs and story took time to evolve beyond the coy cuteness and comical simplicity common within the brief structure of an animated short. As the creative team began seeing the real potential of their animated feature, they realized that the longer format gave them time to unfold a story, pace situations and events, and increase the sophistication of the script and music. This, in turn, enhanced their efforts to animate lifelike humans, credible movement, and personality performance from their cast of characters.
The core of the story became a more balanced mix of story attitudes and timbre that brought out true “heart” rather than simple situations punctuated by visual and audio “gags.” Walt later recalled, “Without that heart, you see, I don’t think anything will laugh. In other words, with any laugh, there must be a tear somewhere. I believe in that. The thing with Chaplin is his pathos, you know? That’s it. That is humor, I think. I had it in ‘Snow White.’ I mean, you felt sorry for her. You felt sorry for the dwarfs when she died.”
In order to gain that “heart,” the little princess’ tormentor underwent a significant evolution. A heavy-set, daffy, oblivious, and egotistical comedy queen gave way to a cold and heartless, but elegant, stately, and beautiful monarch modeled after the ageless ice goddess (“She who must be obeyed”), from the 1935 film adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s tale “She.”
The result was a legendary screen villain — and one that still ranks high in the pantheon of cinematic evil. An urban legend (that may or may not be true) is that either the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles or New York City’s Radio City Music Hall had to replace all of their seat upholstery during their runs of “Snow White.” It seems that young children were so frightened by Snow White’s nightmarish chase through the forest and the transformation of the wicked Queen that a certain visceral reaction was commonplace.
“I showed ‘Snow White’ to my own two daughters when they were small,” Walt recalled. “And when they came to me later and said they wanted to play witch, I figured it was all right to let other kids see the film.” Walt’s daughter Diane confessed that she hid her face in her hands when the Queen’s scenes played out.
In following films, Walt’s villains were typically terrifying — the droll or antic villain was a rarity. In “Pinocchio,” the comic business of J. Worthington Foulfellow and Gideon the Cat barely offset the terror of Monstro the Whale, the shock of the sinister, leering Coachman, or the blazing temper of Stromboli.
The sheer, overwhelming, profane power of Chernabog in “Fantasia” remains an example of villainous excellence in design, staging, and movement. In “Bambi,” the constant and underlying threat of Man in the forest is a forceful, sinister presence.
Lady Tremaine’s quiet hostility and jealous antagonism in “Cinderella” was a masterpiece of ominous understatement, while the theatrical flair and phenomenal graphic design of Maleficent (in both human and dragon form) has made the “Sleeping Beauty” evil fairy a legendary scoundrel.
Walt was fearless about fear.
In their classic 1993 book “The Disney Villain,” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote, “Our own personal impressions of Walt are that his great ability to observe and his fantastic memory helped furnish a reservoir of ideas for his miraculous imagination. When we would see his face screwed up, eyes half closed, trying to figure out what villainous act would do the most harm, we felt he had experienced much of that from bullies in his own childhood. He certainly met much villainy throughout his life. The greater his success, the more conflict he encountered as others tried to take it away from him.”
There was a deep understanding of the dark side of life that Walt used to create heroes in his films.
Even in a film as seemingly benign as “Mary Poppins,” the villain was omnipresent, but not a person. Although Walt was never a fan of banks or bankers in general, the bank isn’t the villain in this story. It’s the absence of parents (the father in particular, due to Mr. Banks’s work at the bank), that creates an overarching threat to the stability of the Banks’ household — and to the security of the Banks children.
Walt’s friend and “Mary Poppins” star Dick Van Dyke recalled, “Walt once said, ‘What I understand about kids [that nobody else understands] is that they think it’s delicious to be frightened. Kids love to be scared. They love ghost stories.’ And he always put the witch or something in there, to give them that delicious goose bump. He knew.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”