The Bad Guys

As far back as our oldest surviving piece of literature, Beowulf, (written in Old English), the forces of good have been pitted against the forces of evil. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. After Beowulf slays him, Grendel’s Mother attacks the hall and is then also defeated. Without the existence of Grendel, and Grendel’s Mother (a Mother! Can you imagine! And I will be referring back to her later), how would we regard Beowulf? He’d be just another besotted Baltic thug in need of a bath and a night to sleep it off.

Literature, be it in poem, song or prose can’t survive without some level of “good guy/bad guy.” Without that blend we are deprived of what makes us human. We would lose a vibrant tension that feeds our emotional needs. It would be like throwing out all the colors in crayon box except tan.

From Beowulf, flash forward to the 20th century. This lesson was not lost on Walt Disney. In 1937 from a Grimm’s fairytale he created his first heroine. She had “Lips red as the rose. Hair black as ebony. Skin white as snow.” But a bad guy was needed. Without Queen Grimhilde, Snow White would merely be remembered as a 14-year-old Princess who sings songs to animals and hangs out with seven little men (which, I might add, has all the makings for an X-rated porn film). For the evil Queen, Disney envisioned her as a mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf. He wanted her to be beautiful, but (in his words) her “beauty is sinister, mature, plenty of curves — she becomes ugly and menacing when scheming.” No way around it, Grimhilde was scary. And for the narrative’s success, the innocence, kindness, and beauty Snow White needed Grimhilde’s evil as a counterpoint.

Disney knew that “bad” was essential in helping define the “good”. Lady Tremaine had to be there to make Cinderella’s life miserable. And Baloo the Bear’s raison d’être was to nurture and protect Mowgli from the vengeance seeking Shere Khan the Tiger. Simba in the “Lion King” needed to overcome the villainy of his Uncle Scar (he who was responsible for the death of Simba’s Father).

These bad guys fascinate me.

Before you think otherwise, I have not placed all my chips on “black” in roulette. I love the hero and the underdog just like you do! Further, there is something totally endearing in Disney heroes and heroines.  Well drawn, filled with charm. Then why this interest on Disney’s dark side? Let me assure you it’s completely accidental.

It began quite simply. One day I shared a conversation with Zachary about the acting talent Disney has recruited over the years to be the voices of characters in their animated films. By any standard this is an impressive list of women and men. We went thru the Disney canon (SPOILER ALERT: the Pixar films were off-limits). And it struck me, and I think Zack, too… that some of the best voice characterizations were villains. The bad guys. Sometimes, completely unsympathetic stinkers.

For my own purposes the next step was to define what made the Disney bad guy, bad… and in many cases scary bad. I see it as a mix, in some combination, of drawing, script (what they said, or what they did) and voice. Then having identified and defined the attributes of each villain… why not rank them?  {Be advised that I place a good deal of weight on voice, which I will get to anon.}

How would Disney mucky-mucks go about selecting the artist assigned to the job of drawing the bad guy. Is it based on his or her artistic skill? Maybe the artist just hates little kids? Or is a poor tipper? There has to be something there. The artist has to channel an inner meanness!  In the right hands the drawing of Ursula the Sea Witch should just naturally flow onto the page. Ursula is a brilliantly drawn bad guy, and is my vote for the direct link to Grendel’s Mother (you remember her! Wrecking the mead hall in Beowulf).

While a drawing can quickly identify a character’s perfidy (you don’t have to read the script or hear the voice to know that Jaffar in “Aladdin” is evil!), the words and deeds of a character will as a matter of course reinforce the nasty in the drawn character. For pure meanness of spirit, nothing can surpass Maleficent’s lines when she confronts the shackled Prince Philip in her dungeon. It is my favorite scene in the film. First you have her scary descent down the stone stairs in her castle. She enters the dungeon cell with her ever present raven, and then with Tchaikovsky’s score in the background (No. 9, Finale), she calmly paints a picture tinged with bone chilling irony: “Oh come now Prince Philip. Why so melancholy? A wondrous future lies before you — you, the destined hero of a charming fairy tale come true. [looking into the crystal at the head of her staff] Behold — King Stefan’s castle. And in yonder topmost tower, dreaming of her true love, the Princess Aurora. But see the gracious whim of fate — why, ’tis the self-same peasant maid, who won the heart of our noble prince but yesterday. She is indeed, most wondrous fair. Gold of sunshine in her hair, lips that shame the red red rose. In ageless sleep, she finds repose. The years roll by, but a hundred years to a steadfast heart, are but a day. And now, the gates of a dungeon part, and our prince is free to go his way. Off he rides, on his noble steed, a valiant figure, straight and tall! To wake his love, with love’s first kiss. And prove that “true love” conquers all!”  She “seals the deal” by laughing as she exits the dungeon. Maleficent is clearly a really bad guy!

But what happens when a character looks evil in the drawn image, does horrible things, and then sounds like a lout? Well, that’s a perfect storm isn’t it? But remember… this exercise began with the idea that some “A-List” talent provided the voices for these characters. And now turn to my rankings of Disney Villains, you will see that a menacing voice is my standard. I want to be able to close my eyes, hear a line delivered, and know that the character is the devil incarnate.

Shere Khan (The Jungle Book): George Sanders

Shere Khan

I am convinced that Rudyard Kipling came to Walt Disney in a dream and whispered in his ear, “Cast George Sanders as the Tiger, or don’t make the film.” My choice of Sanders as numero uno bad guys is largely sentimental. It is driven by my love for his performance in the film “All About Eve.” He played the arch cad Addison DeWitt, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting. DeWitt was elegantly attired, possessed splendid vocabulary… his lines were delivered with a soothing but sinister cynicism. His role as Shere Khan is a perfect extension of his performance as Addison DeWitt. There is an obvious degree of sophisticated nastiness in Shere Khan. He is at once a royal Bengal Tiger, clearly of high culture, yet ruthless in his quest to settle a score with humans.

Scar (The Lion King): Jeremy Irons


An argument could be made that Irons portrayal of Scar should take top prize. Scar had a much bigger part than Shere Khan. Scar is instantly unlikable. Killing his brother King Mustafa? Plotting to kill his nephew, the heir apparent? Siding with the hyenas against the pride? Scar is really, really bad! Positively medieval! And then there is Irons himself… he had the perfect resumé for playing Scar. He was Claus von Bülow in the 1990 film “Reversal of Fortune” — the New York socialite who murdered his wealthy wife and was acquitted on appeal! Plus, Irons has the voice! Similar to Sanders, a dignified continental tone that speaks of wealth and treachery.

Hades (Hercules): James Woods


I knew nothing of this film. I had absolutely no interest in seeing it on DVD or Netflix. It was Zachary who pointed me in the direction of the film because of James Woods portrayal of Hades. First, Hades is a terrific drawing… a flaming monster, colored in a blue hue that changes to a brilliant red when he blows his stack. And with a mouthful of pointy teeth. The guy is bad news. For the most part Woods keeps a modulated tone, and it’s his delivery of the lines that makes the performance memorable. His pace and timing can’t be surpassed… certainly as distinctive as, say Christopher Walken’s. Then, many of his lines are adlibbed. “My name is Hades, Lord of the Dead. Hi. How ya doin’?” wonderfully smart assed in the vein of Robin Williams’ Genie in “Aladdin”. The difference between to two characters? Genie is a lovable hero, and Hades is a sinister dude. And trust me, you don’t want to see him when he’s angry.

Ursula (The Little Mermaid): Pat Carroll


Ursula is the “perfect storm”. She has everything: drawing, dialogue (to which we can add a killer song) & voice. I can remember Pat Carroll in Danny Thomas’ “Make Room for Daddy” 50s sitcom. And nothing prepared me for her appearance as a larger than life octopus/sea witch. Booming voice, appropriate for her girth, and belting out a fabulous song… I admit that in the past I’ve been nasty/They weren’t kidding when they called me, well a witch/But you’ll find that now-a-days/I’ve mended all my ways, repented, seen the light and took a switch/true? Yes. And I fortunately know a little magic/It’s a talent that I always have possessed, but now dear lately, please don’t laugh/I use it on behalf, of the miserable, lonely and depressed! Poor, unfortunate souls! So sad, so true! This one longing to be thinner, that one wants to get the girl and do I help them? Yes, indeed! Now it’s happened once or twice/someone couldn’t pay the price/and I’m afraid I have to rake them across the coals! Rake them across the coals indeed! And at the end of the film she is transformed into a towering creature of the sea unchecked in her appetite for power and domination. Terrifying! (SPOILER ALERT: She loses).

Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty): Eleanor Audley


Take a look at old illustrations and woodcuts of Satan. Goat’s horns adorn the devil. And what do we see when Maleficent first appears. Her slender form cloaked in black, her head gear? Goat’s horns! Need we say more? Jiminy Crickets! This is not someone you take home to your Mother! And then in front of the gathered royalty and nobilty, there to honor the betrothal of the infant Princess, Maleficent bangs her staff on the stone floor, the sound echoes in the great hall, and she announces in carefully chosen words to the assembled “The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her. *But*… before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she shall prick her finger — on the spindle of a spinning wheel — and DIE!” Talk about a mood killer! Is this the time to bring up that at the end of the film she turns into a fire breathing dragon?

Grimhilde (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs): Lucille La Verne


For a first time effort in villainy Disney did a helluva job. Whether in regal appearance clothed in purple and black, or transformed into the hideous crone, hunched with hawked nose and wart, Grimhilde is both chilling and scary. Not only was she frightening in the film, the Evil Queen was so frightening in Disney World’s “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” that the attraction was closed down! Writer for the Tampa Bay Times, Sean Daly described the Queen in the ride, “Bulging eyes. Gnarled fingers. Smoker’s-cough cackle. She lurks in Snow White’s Scary Adventures, a herky-jerky kiddie ride that starts innocently — until your car crashes through a wall into the black-light darkness. Before your eyes can adjust, she makes her move. I was 5 when I first went face-to-face with that woman. I sobbed. And like millions of others, I’ve never forgotten her.” And what higher tribute for a “bad guy” could there be?  Scaring the snot out of children since 1937!!

Iago (Aladdin): Gilbert Gottfried


This maybe considered a controversial pick considering Iago was second banana to the film’s principle evil character: Jaffar (Jonathan Freeman). And Jaffar as scheming evil-doer stands with the best of them. Then why do I place Iago above Jaffar? Yes, the idea of a bad guy being a parrot is amusing. But the reason Iago made my Top Ten is because Gilbert Gottfried has a spectacularly irritating voice! It’s like Cyndi Lauper and Fran Dressler times ten. Gottfried’s voice is actually nausea inducing. Are you bothered by raw chalk scratching against the blackboard? Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can last thru Gottfried’s stand-up routine no matter how funny his jokes might be.  Unlike the other bad guys listed here, when I see Iago in the film I can actually see Gottfried’s squinting delivery of the lines!

Mother Gothel (Tangled): Donna Murphy

Mother Gothel

Some have noted that Mothel Gothel’s drawing bears a striking resemblance to Cher. I agree. And maybe that alone wins her a place on this list! We only get a very brief view of Gothel in her decrepit form. Other than that, essentially she is pretty hot looking for a bad guy. But there is an element to Gothel’s evil that we don’t see in other villains. She is at times self deprecating, at times patronizing, sarcastic and never far from displaying a self-serving charm... Rapunzel, please, stop with the mumbling. You know how I feel about the mumbling. Blah blah blah blah blah, it’s very annoying! I’m just teasing, you’re adorable. I love you so much, darling. The animation of that scene has to be one of Disney’s best. But behind the smiles and faux caring, there is no question about her meanness and selfishness. Enough with the lights, Rapunzel! YOU are not leaving this tower! EVER! [sits down dramatically] Great. Now I’M the bad guy! Gothel is bad in a very I-know-that-type-of-person way. And how scary is that!

Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland): Verna Felton

Queen of Hearts

I think the Queen of Hearts is more “incorrigible” than “evil”. Yes she shouts and scowls and looks damn angry most of the time. Not the stuff of pure villainy. I include her here because of her maltreatment of the King. Sorry, she is a text book bossy, pain in the ass wife. In short, the Queen of Hearts is the bane of existence for every decent, kind hearted  & weak-kneed man. The Queen is forever sending folks to the block for beheading, and the King has to sneak around to grant pardons! And sneak is the operative word here. Forget that she is twice the size of the King!   We may not fear the Queen of Hearts… but the King certainly does!

Captain Hook (Peter Pan): Hans Conried

Captain Hook

In my first draft of the Top Ten, Hook placed much higher. But truth be told, I find Hook loveable! And besides, he’s a snappy dresser! In fact, I thought about creating an entirely separate category: “Bad Guys, But Loveable.” Yes, the hook is a scary prop. Yes, he has a bad attitude. He even actively enlists Tinkerbell as a confederate against Peter Pan! By far his worst offense! But dastardly, blood-dripping-from-the-mouth villain? Really? He is a buffoon who stumbled into the bad guy part. But I have to include Hook on this list for one very important reason. Hans Conried is fantastic! He also voices Mr. Darling. And he hits all the right notes in both parts. Rolls his “R’s” splendidly, and I don’t think anyone could have expressed exasperation and frustration better than Conried! Yes, Hook is guilty of deceiving Tinkerbell! But look more closely, Hook was merely exploiting the seething jealousy that Tinkerbell had for Wendy! Hook addresses Tinkerbell, And that’s why I asked you over, me dear, to tell Peter I bear him no ill will. Oh, Pan has his faults, to be sure. Bringing that Wendy to the island, for instance. Dangerous business, that. Why, rumor has it that already she has come between you and Peter… Oh, Smee, the way of a man with a maid: taking the best years of her life and then casting her aside like an old glove! But we musn’t judge Peter too harshly, my dear. It’s that Wendy who’s to blame. Yes, even a lovable villain deserves a place on my list!!

Captain Hook throws shade on the author, to the amusement of Princess Summer.

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