It’s almost time for Halloween, and if your family is anything like mine, it’s at least equal to Christmas in importance and excitement. In our house, we have The 31 Days of Halloween. We watch a horror movie or a movie with a great villain, listen to soundtracks like Psycho, Halloween, and, of course, songs from Disney’s The Headless Horseman. This seems like a perfect time to consider a few of Disney’s villains. Villains have played an important part in my love of animation and appreciation for Disney films, and I’m sure some of you can say the same!
I remember back some years ago, before the folks at Disney figured out there were lots of villains fans like me. I would comb the stores all over the parks looking for merchandise featuring Chernabog (not a morning demon), The Evil Queen (a misunderstood crone), Cruella De Vil (I’ve got nothing. She’s bad. She wanted to make a coat out of puppies..) and Shere Khan (voiced by George Sanders, so of course I love him. Don’t be mad at him just because he’s a hungry tiger.) It was extremely rare for me to find anything. Then Nightmare Before Christmas became retroactively popular, and Disney figured out there are scores of fans who loved all the (supposedly) bad guys and gals.
Ever since I started selling animation in 1988, I’ve had loyal fans of villains. Some of them aimed to collect cels or drawings of every single one of them. Others had very specific favorites, and only collected them. Over the years, I’ve sold hundreds of cels and art of Disney villains. It became my specialty. Over the years, they’ve become highly prized, (as I expected), and finding good art in great original condition has become very challenging. Of course, I still try!
What makes the Disney villains such a big deal? For one thing, they are always the character that gets the most story told in the least amount of time. These characters aren’t in a lot of scenes, but the ones featuring them are always some of the movie’s most important moments. In both storytelling and visual quality, they are always the most memorable.
In Snow White, the scene when the Queen turns into the hag is a stunning piece of animation.
The hag isn’t in Snow White for very long, but she’s a gorgeous example of character animation.
The witch, or the Queen as an old hag, was designed by Joe Grant.
The witch was chiefly animated by Norm Ferguson, who was a supervising animator on the film. She was voiced by stage and screen actress Lucille La Verne, who also voiced the Wicked Queen. As someone who had been performing since 1876, performing Juliet and Lady Macbeth back to back at 14, it was her final film performance.
Chernabog steals the whole movie in his sequence Night on Bald Mountain in Fantasia.
Chernabog is perfect for Halloween, because he is based on a Slavic god who rises from the top of Bald Mountain on Walpurgis Night (The Witches’ Sabbath) which might be on April 30th in Europe and Scandinavia, but the holiday mimics Halloween in the US. It is celebrated by dressing in costumes and conducting rituals to keep evil spirits at bay. In Finland there is much drinking, especially of sparkling wine, and the towns have a carnival-like atmosphere.
In Night on Bald Mountain, clearly there isn’t enough going on to ward off evil, since Chernabog calls forth his minions from the fiery pits of hell. He is definitely Disney’s most purely evil villain. The Night on Bald Mountain sequence was animated by Vladimir ‘Bill’ Tytla, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and my favorite Disney animator. Conceptualized by a mixture of talented artists including Heinrich Kley, Albert Hurter, and Kay Nielsen, who created the model sheet for Tytla’s animation. The animator was Ukranian, and well aware of the character’s mythology. He was once seen working on the animation in total darkness other than the fluorescent light of his drawing table. Bill Tytla, by all accounts, was an intense, serious man, and captured great emotions in his characters, which also included Yensid, Stromboli, and Dumbo. His last work was directing the animation on The Incredible Mr. Limpet.
Just watch a video of his work, and you’ll understand why he’s a fan favorite:
Cruella is one of Disney’s ‘funny’ villains, but she’s still terrifying, not least because she thinks nothing of killing over a hundred dogs to make a coat. She is immediately unforgettable when makes her first entrance in the film, barging into Roger and Anita’s house.
Cruella originates from the 1956 children’s novel by Dodie Smith, which was originally serialized in Women’s Day as The Great Dog Robbery, with Perdita being called Missis. The animation of Cruella for the original animated feature was done by Marc Davis, from designs by Davis, Ken Anderson, and Bill Peet. Cruella’s half black and half white hair, black dress, and oversized mink coat are all from Smith’s novel. Her skeletal shape and a chain smoking were added by the Disney artists building her look. Her cigarette holder was modeled after the one Marc Davis himself used. The bright red of her coat was an Allusion to her demonic nature. Her character was inspired by actresses Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis from All About Eve, and Rosalind Russell from Auntie Mame.
Here is a great little video profile on Marc Davis.
She was voiced by the gorgeous Belly Lou Gerson, known for her voice work in the 40s and 50s, including on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, and Lux Radio Theater. She was in the 1958 horror classic The Fly and guest starred in The Twilight Zone. Fans of the under appreciated animated feature Cats Don’t Dance will love knowing she provided the voice of Frances for the film.
These characters resonate with us for a reason. They represent archetypes known all over the world, many of which were examined and studied by psychologists and philosophers throughout history. Carl Jung is most famous for exploring and explaining archetypes, which allow us all to understand life through symbolism (and put people in neat little categories which can be damaging, especially to women.) He believed the path of life makes more sense and can be walked with more understanding and finesse if we know these timeless, recognizable categories in which the human psyche is driven to place everyone they encounter in their daily lives. Knowing what they are allows us all to play with them, lean into them, or mix and match them, should we so choose. They include The Innocent, The Everyman, The Hero, The Rebel, The Explorer, The Creator, The Ruler, The Magician, The Lover, The Caregiver, The Jester, and The Sage. These archetypes can even be leveraged or manipulated in branding and marketing, as explained HERE.
Joseph Campbell talks about the eight types of characters in the hero’s journey in The Hero of a Thousand Faces. They include the hero, mentor, ally, herald, trickster, shapeshifter, guardian, and shadow. You can read more about there HERE. I’m sure you already know Star Wars was cribbed almost entirely from The Hero’s Journey, which you can see HERE. Most of the Disney villains represent the shadow, but might also have a second archetype, as the hag, who is both shadow and shapeshifter, does.
One of Disney’s first focuses on the villains as a team was in 1981, for a special in The Wonderful World of Disney, which included the Evil Queen’s mirror, Captain Hook, Edgar from The Aristocats, Wille the Giant from Mickey and the Beanstalk, Kaa from Shere Khan, The Evil Queen, Cruella, Madam Medusa, and Maleficent. Disney has created more than 127 villains in films, sequels, tv, video games, books, and theme parks. The more recent villains franchise is a collection with villains that have primary members, which includes the Evil Queen, Chernabog, Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, Maleficent, Cruella, Ursula, Jafar, Scar, Hades, and Dr. Facilier.
We have this piece, which was the basis of an early incarnation of the villains ‘team’, before Dr. Facilier (Disney’s first Black villain) had been introduced. It’s the color model for the Disney sericel, “Dungeon of Doom”.
Of course there’s a sub-franchise called Disney’s Divas of Darkness, (folks in the know call it DDD for short). That includes Evil Queen, Lady Tremaine, Queen of Hearts, Maleficent, Cruella, Madam Mim, Madame Medusa, Ursula, Ysma, and Mother Gothel (who was inspired by Cher!). Now THAT sounds like a garden party I’d love to attend.
In my research for this blog, I found there is also a sub-franchise called Disney’s Sinister Cats. It includes bad kitties Lucifer, the Cheshire Cat, Si and Am, Shere Khan, Felicia (from The Great Mouse Detective) and Scar. Who knew? Now I need to find some merchandise from this.
Of course there is a lot of of art created by Disney fine artists celebrating villains. You can find our collection of villains, from Disney and elsewhere, HERE.