Disney movies catch a lot of flack for giving girls the wrong ideas about love, independence, and the knight in shining armor. If the princesses aren’t falling into the arms of the first prince to ride up and plant one on ’em in their sleep (Snowy, Narcolepsy, I’m looking at you ladies) then they’re fiercely independent to the point of bratty (Ariel, Merida, you’re overdoing the fiery redhead stereotype gals) or aloof and unavailable (Tiana, you’re a workaholic chic). Personally I give Belle a pass, motherless book lover, eccentric father, moody beast for a love interest; the girl hits too close to home not to love her. The movies that don’t feature a busty royal lead normally have much more well rounded, believable and relatable characters. Buzz, Woody, Jessie, Mike, Sully, Wall-E- apparently to be capable of deeper human emotion a character must be not human and a Pixar creation.
While their leading ladies may lack depth and their relationships with family and romantic interests aren’t exactly exemplary models for impressionable minds there is one thing Disney nails: the Villains. A villain doesn’t need a ton of dimension, they serve the plot line while only seeking some self serving goal. Disney manages to portray some of the most believable, ruthless and chilling villains because they are so true to life and they do impart lessons their princess adversaries don’t. The burglar who breaks into the castle to steal, the beast who gobbles up children, the ugly step sisters who destroy a dress; they’re easy. They do obvious harm so that even a child can look at the character and say “That’s mean! There’s the bad guy!” The evil queen, the wicked step mother, Gaston and Jafar were plotters and schemers but more obvious bad guys. It didn’t take them long to go from subtle tactics to out and out locking people up, inciting a mob, criminal type behavior. The really good villains (an acceptable oxymoron) are the ones that are doing harm and manipulating people but you still kinda like them and feel a little guilty about it. In Hercules , Hades used poor Meg to destroy the hero and was bent on domination but darn it he was funny. Even though he was evil you couldn’t help but find comic relief in him also. Ursula is a serial manipulator who claims “on the whole I’ve been a saint” she manipulated Ariel into a gig she surely couldn’t win and when it looked like she just might Ursula used her feminine wiles to play dirty. But her bosom shaking charisma still endear you to that character despite all evidence she’s a sea witch. Toy Story 3’s Lotso bear oozed southern charm and gentility all plush and smelling of sweet strawberries. Turns out he was a tyrant who used people to do his dirty work and convinced innocent toys they were unloved. He was harsh, but you still want to cuddle him.
The jewel in the crown of Disney Villians has to be Rapunzel’s Mother Gothel. She’s beautiful, charming, funny and has taken care of Rapunzel since her infancy. She seems caring and overprotective and poor bumbling Rapunzel is made to feel she should be grateful for all her kindness. All the while she’s stolen this child and everything she does for her is to serve her own vanity. To literally suck the goodness out of her. She presents herself as a martyr, gives back handed compliments, creates feelings of guilt and shame and undermines Rapunzel’s confidence. She’s an animated malignant narcissist but her one liners and smooth as butter singing voice make you almost want to overlook it. She’s almost too complex a villain for the under 10 crowd to fathom.
Though the groundwork for healthy self image and stable relationships cannot be built for a child with Disney films they sure get a taste of the evils people are capable of and the many shapes it takes. There is more good in the world than bad but follow your intuition. Listen to that itchy brain-rock in my tummy-can’t put a word to it feeling even if the voice you hear sings like an angel or the hug smells like strawberries. Sure, you could get legs out of the deal but it’s much easier to call out for help with your voice than it is to run for your life.