clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Where have all the Disney villains gone?

The live-action Little Mermaid is a reminder of what movies like Encanto and Frozen II don’t have: a bad guy.

Ursula in “The Little Mermaid”: A sea witch, aka a woman with an octopus body and human head with a short spiky haircut.
The original 1989 Ursula (voiced by Pat Carroll) in all her glory.
© 1989 Walt Disney Studios. All rights reserved.

When Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid is released on May 26, audiences will finally get to see Melissa McCarthy’s take on one of the most iconic villains of all time: Ursula. The sea-witch octopus, originally voiced by Pat Carroll and modeled after drag queen Divine, is the epitome of a classic Disney baddie: unabashedly evil and self-serving, with a campy anthem to boot. But with a new version of this character back on our screens, you might realize that it’s been quite some time since Disney has produced an antagonist as brazenly wicked as Ursula. That kind of unbridled villainy has become a relic of sorts in the animation studio’s latest original storytelling, which might have you wondering: Where are all the bad guys?

Once a staple of Disney’s animated features, particularly musicals, villains have slowly been phased out in favor of stories like Frozen II or Encanto that focus more on our hero’s inner conflict with themselves. Rather than face off against an evil archetype working toward their downfall, our current generation of heroes are fighting their own demons, acting as their own foils, and having to overcome their own mistakes.

The change marks one of the starkest shifts in the history of Disney fairytales, perhaps second only to the switch from 2D animation to CGI. For over half a century, the villain had loomed large in these stories, beginning with the Evil Queen in the first-ever animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Cinderella’s Stepmother, Captain Hook, and Maleficent soon followed during the Golden Age, and eventually, when the “Disney Renaissance” began in 1989, villains like Ursula, Jafar, and Scar continued the tradition.

It’s classic storytelling, with each playing a key role in driving the plot and furthering the character development of our hero. Whether it be locking them away in a tower, stealing their voice, or trying to kill them in a power grab, these characters set the ball in motion and serve as a tangible figure to defeat.

But as of late, those archetypes have gradually faded away. While The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Tangled (2010) gave us Dr. Facilier and Mother Gothel respectively, we haven’t seen a traditional villain since 2013. Even in that case — Hans from Frozen — the villain pales in comparison to the conflict that Elsa has with her own powers. That theme continued in the film’s sequel, where Elsa struggled to find where she and those powers belonged. Similarly, in 2016’s Moana, the title character sets out on an adventurous ocean quest of self-discovery. And most recently, in 2021’s Encanto, Mirabel’s main conflict is her desire for approval and purpose within her magical family as she fights to restore their fading powers.

In Encanto, Mirabel doesn’t have a traditional foe, just her own longing for approval.

But why exactly did this change come about? Disney’s storytelling patterns have always evolved over time, but typically that evolution has been guided by (and can be traced back to) previous successes and failures.

For example, when The Little Mermaid revitalized the studio’s flailing animation department in 1989, the company doubled down on fairytales and the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken — resulting in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It also began the still-active trope of an “I Want” song, in which the main character sings about their desires early in the film, with “Part of Your World.”

More recently, when disappointing box office numbers for The Princess and the Frog were blamed on the title deterring boys, Rapunzel’s title was changed to the more gender-neutral Tangled, and the successful adjective trend of course continued with Frozen.

So what was it that could have inspired this move away from the traditional hero vs. villain format?

If there’s anything in the world of animation that could have spurred such a seismic shift, it’s Pixar. From its origins producing the first ever CGI animated feature with 1995’s Toy Story, the studio (now a subsidiary of Disney) completely reimagined the genre — both in terms of its animation style, and the kinds of stories they were telling. Pixar’s themes, premises, and characters broke convention time after time, and the studio even veered into Disney’s lane by trying its hand at a princess movie with Brave.

The success of Pixar’s films likely gave filmmakers permission to draw outside the lines, and reimagine what a Disney animated feature could be. This new, broader path, which led Disney to acclaimed films like Moana and Encanto, proved commercially and critically successful, and resulted in groundbreaking new stories told in exciting new ways. And at times, that meant no villains.

But Frozen II, which had a more mixed reception in 2019, demonstrates some of the pitfalls that can come along with this new approach. In the film, Elsa is led by a mysterious voice on a journey of self-discovery to protect her kingdom from a curse. If it sounds a bit abstract, that’s because it is. The docuseries Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II follows the last year of the film’s production, and the challenges that the creative team faced in crafting a clear narrative. With only months to go until the film’s release date, they were still unsure of who the voice was that was calling Elsa, and feedback from repeated test screenings highlighted the story’s lack of clarity. In this case, fighting the abstract concept of “the elements” paired with the internal journey of finding one’s place proved very difficult to clearly depict on screen. It’s in an instance like this, where the story becomes muddled, that the value of having a villain is really seen.

While a traditional good guy vs. bad guy dynamic might seem simpler and less nuanced than complicated heroes facing complex internal battles, oftentimes both approaches are doing the same thing. A villain is at their best when their presence is facilitating our hero’s inner journey and eventual growth — and doing so in an active, cinematic way.

Take The Little Mermaid for example. Much like Moana or Frozen, that movie is about a character grappling with balancing their love of family with their desire to leave them behind for something more. The difference is the inclusion of Ursula, who facilitates that journey and thus helps depict it in a very linear and active way. With Ursula there to push Ariel in a certain direction, her grappling becomes a dialogue instead of a monologue. “Life’s full of tough choices, innit?” Ursula famously says, before kicking off the film’s plot by forcing Ariel to make that tough choice.

The role villains like Ursula play is invaluable, whether it be as surrogates for our hero’s own inner demons, foils to their big plans, or fun, campy fools that we love to see defeated. Not to mention that villains come with great accessories: a showstopper like “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” poisoned produce, or a comedic sidekick like Iago — all of which are more entertaining than a vague, mysterious curse.

For now, we can look to the slew of live-action remakes to remind us what we’re missing. Those films, along with the success of retellings like Cruella and Maleficent, should also garner hope that the studio hasn’t lost sight of the value villains can hold.

But until these live-action attempts inspire a return to form on the animation front, those classic villains continue to be missing in action. To borrow a phrase: “You’ll find that nowadays / I’ve mended all my ways / repented, seen the light, and made the switch.” But will that switch stick? When The Little Mermaid ushered in the return of fairy tales for the first time since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, it proved that a return to form is always possible for the House of Mouse. And soon enough, an iconic animated villain might come our way again. Who knows? Maybe someone at Disney is sketching a pair of sinister, villainous eyebrows as we speak.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.