While I can understand why these ten individuals may not work well in their own movie, I feel like they need to get some love. For every amazing, iconic Disney villain (Ursula, Jafar, Scar, etc.) there are the ones who just never made it too far beyond their own movie, either because they were TOO terrifying (as a few of these are) or because they just didn’t gain a huge fan base.
The best villains are ones you kinda like even though you know they’re evil. Many of these are quite irredeemable, which makes them great villains, but not villains people especially liked. And so, here is a tribute to those ten characters, in no particular order.
The early years of Disney involved some pretty dark and creepy stuff. The evil coachman from Pinocchio is no exception. He asks “Honest John” to round up little boys for him to take to Pleasure Island (this is a kids movie, folks) so that they can run wild and make jackasses of themselves (literally) to be sold elsewhere. Pinocchio escapes with just a pair of ears and a tail, but the rest of the boys are horrifically transformed and are never seen again.
2. Madame Medusa from The Rescuers
The 1970’s were also pretty gloomy for Disney. The Rescuers is one of the few movies on earth where the sequel is better than the original, but the original has some great moments: a kidnapped orphan girl, a giant diamond, alligators, the Louisiana bayou, and Evinrude the dragonfly who is completely adorable. Madame Medusa is sleazy, physically awkward, and is personally responsible for my deep-seated fear of pawn shops. One scene in particular involves her trying to talk Penny, the girl, into helping her whilst pulling off her fake eyelashes (complete with hideously stretched eyelids) and wiping off her thick makeup. It’s a delightful scene.
3. Madame Mim from The Sword in the Stone
Another madame, but this time, she’s from the 60’s, which is one of the high points of Disney’s career. It was the last decade where he was personally responsible before his death and so the movies made around this time had a greater sense of optimism (Think The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins). Mim shows up as Merlin’s rival, a hag who lives in the woods, cheats at solitaire, and revels in the suffering of others (all with a bright smile on her face). The high point of the movie involves a huge wizards duel between Mim and Merlin in which they change themselves into various animals and attempt to, in Archimedes’ words, “destroy one another.” She’s more of a side character and isn’t present for the whole movie, but she’s fun nonetheless.
4. Chernabog from Fantasia
Another entry from Disney’s dark and atmospheric early years. This dark Slavic god was appropriated by the Disney animators to become a devil-like character who summons ghosts and demons in a sequence set to Mussorgsky’s incredible “Night on Bald Mountain.” The sequence involves skeletons, harpies, and quite a bit more graphic nudity than one would expect to see in a children’s movie (in two occasions, bare breasts complete with nipples literally fill the whole screen). But the animation of Chernabog himself is still impressive by today’s standards and, apart from the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence, is probably one of the most famous and recognizable sequences from the original Fantasia.
5. The Firebird from Fantasia 2000
I completely adore the Firebird sequence and subject my students to it every semester. It’s beautifully done and runs a huge gamut of emotions. The Firebird character is the embodiment of destruction and chaos, sort of a metaphorical portrait of a volcanic explosion. It’s all stone and lava and fire and, while it’s completely horrible how it almost destroys the vibrant green sprite who is bringing the forest to life, you’ve got to admit that the Firebird himself is pretty incredible. Plus, it’s set to Stravinsky’s music, and you can’t get much cooler than that.
6. Stromboli from Pinocchio
Because Pinocchio wasn’t terrifying enough with just one awful villain, there’s another. Stromboli is the one who forces Pinocchio to dance and perform for him in puppet shows alongside creepy puppet can-can dancers. Obsessed with money to the exclusion of all else, Stromboli locks Pinocchio in a small birdcage when he’s not using him to make more money. He’s loud and frequently veers wildly from gentle to explosive. Negative cultural stereotypes aside, Stromboli is pretty terrifying on his own.
7. Sykes from Oliver and Company
Adapted from the Dickens classic, Oliver Twist, Sykes is a fairly two-dimensional villain, but I think that serves to make him that much more terrifying. He’s a loan shark who has the kind, but dumb Fagin in his thrall and, in the course of the film, realizes that Fagin can be the path to kidnapping a young girl to hold her for ransom. He is guarded by two Rottweilers who do most of the actual violence, leaving Sykes to lurk in the shadows. In fact, very rarely is his whole face shown clearly. I think what makes him such a great villain is what isn’t said. He drives a nice car, but works out of an abandoned factory office. What else does he do aside from kidnap children and force homeless men to steal for him?
8. Commander Rourke from Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Voiced by the incredible (and late) James Garner, Rourke is wonderful because, for the first half of the movie, you really like him. He’s sort of the tough guy military type who’s only interested in blowing things up and joking with those who work for him. He’s the leader of the expedition to Atlantis and seems to be a cool guy…until he reveals his true colors. And, if it weren’t for one slip up, he very well might have gotten away with things.
9. McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under
I love McLeach, and it’s kind of sad he’s evil because he’s awesome (and drives the coolest “truck” ever). Plus he’s voiced by the incredible George C. Scott. He manages to be genuinely scary and also very funny. He’s awful in that he’s a poacher who kidnaps children and kills endangered animals, but in any other context he would be a delightful, razor-witted fellow. He has quite a few good one-liners throughout the movie. In fact, I would like to say that the movie itself is awesome. It has a fantastic script, great acting, and a great score. It’s one of the few Disney sequels that outshone the original in every way.
10. The Horned King from The Black Cauldron
This guy is completely terrifying. Plus he’s voiced by John Hurt, which makes him even scarier. Like Chernabog, he’s sort of the devil incarnate. His goal is to raise a zombie army that will destroy everything. Like Maleficent, he lives in a ruined castle, but his clothing is not nearly as sleek and awesome as hers. Originally, this movie was much more gruesome and involved reanimated corpses hacking their enemies apart, but the head of the Disney Corporation at the time forced some heavy cuts. But even still, this has some pretty scary sequences. It was rated PG for a reason. But the Horned King is always veiled in shadow and rarely is seen in full, making him not only scary but unsettling. He rarely speaks, but when he does, John Hurt pours all of his inherent creepiness into that voice. Scary. And awesome.
See you next week!