Why I sympathize with Disney villains
It all started with a seemingly innocent trip to the cinema. I had dragged my boyfriend to see the anniversary showing of The Lion King because, shocking as it may seem, he had managed to get through 21 years of life without seeing it and I saw it as my duty to rectify this. Throughout, he proceeded to chide Mufasa and was very vocal in his support of his brother, Scar. Naturally I was confused and a little bit enraged. Surely my lovely boyfriend could see that Scar was an awful murderer who single handily organized a coup to overthrow his nephew’s rightful place on the throne and threw the whole of Pride Rock into disarray?
But, the more I thought about it, the more I slowly came to see where my boyfriend was coming from. Yes, although Scar’s methods were certainly questionable and his motives for taking the kingdom definitely weren’t pure, for a brief period it allowed an underclass (Hyenas) the opportunity to have more rights than they ever did under his brother. The only reason the hyenas deflected to Scar in the first place was because they were seemingly outcast and shunned by Mufasa. Scar merely provided them with the platform and the opportunity to act. And then I started thinking: What if Disney villains aren’t actually all that villainous? What if they’re just misunderstood?
For a better example, take Disney’s latest retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent. Within it, it attempts to give the other side of the original Disney classic from the villain’s perspective. Within the film, we find out that the reason Maleficent holds such a vendetta against the royal family is because King Stephen cut off Maleficent’s wings in order to win the crown. Far from being the evil dragon tyrant of the original, Maleficent watches over the baby Aurora and makes sure that she comes to no harm from the three incompetent fairy guardians entrusted to look after her.
Even looking back at one of my favorite Disney films, Hercules, you can kind of end up routing for the God of the Underworld, Hades. He is openly mocked by his brother Zeus and given the most repulsive of tasks which no other Gods wanted to do. He gets no thanks or praise and is refused permission to come live with all the other gods up on Mount Olympus. Yes, his actions were extreme (he did try and have a baby Hercules killed for goodness sake) but looking at it from a different perspective, Zeus wasn’t totally faultless character he is usually thought of from this film.
What I came away with (apart from that I read waaay too much into Disney films then necessary) is mixed. In Disney films, heroes and villains are pretty clearly indicated, mostly because, well, these are mostly made for kids. The gray areas of human character are harder to explain to the 6-10 year old set in 90 minutes. But you can see why, from a certain perspective, Scar is just this misunderstood character, not a force of total evil.
In some cases, I believe that we are now getting a more realistic approach to our Disney/Pixar heroines (think Brave and Frozen in particular, where there are characters that aren’t all good or bad) but I fear we are neglecting our villains. I’m not calling for an out and out sympathetic approach to a villain who is clearly a tyrant and a monster but an understanding that, in the same vein as Maleficent, we need to see the bigger picture. Life isn’t always as clearly black and white as it appears in fairytales. Sometimes the people you think are villains are actually pretty OK.
Yasmine Merriott is a rusty freelance writer with a soft spot for David Tennant. Anything to do with baking makes her happy and she can usually be found reading far too much into popular culture in front of her computer screen.
[image via Disney]