97 Votes in Poll
On the Writing of Villains-What Disney often misses, and what they can learn from the Tangled franchise
I've actually had this opinion piece on hand for a while now, and now that Tangled: The Series has come and gone, I decided it was a good time to actually post it, since a lot of it relates to my thoughts on the Tangled franchise. And no, there are no spoilers for the recent series finale here (though if you haven't watched the show's third season you'll get some spoilers.
Its no secret that Disney has it's critics as well as it's fans. And one of the (more spurious), criticisms of Disney films is the accusation of sameness. The idea that too many Disney movies follow the same formula and use the same kinds of characters. And mocking Disney based on this idea is not a new concept, as Shrek, other Dreamworks movies, the awful comic "Princeless", and even sometimes Disney themselves all do it. Personally, I think the criticism is really exaggerated and overblown, considering how different Zootopia is from, say, Frozen, and how different both movies are from something like Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Black Cauldron. I honestly do think that Disney is more willing to be flexible and try new things then they are often given credit for. That said, if there is one exception to this, one area where I do think Disney is a lot less willing to break from their standard formula, it's in how they do their villains. And that's what this opinion piece is about; Disney's preferred strategy for how they do their villains, and why I think that said strategy could afford to be adhered to a bit less rigidly.
Here's the thing: most Disney villains (at least mainstream Disney as opposed to Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars) tend to fit a similar personality and mold. Namely, they tend to be thoroughly narcissistic, over-the-top power-mongers who are completely bereft of any real sympathetic or redeeming qualities, and tend to not have understandable motives for doing what they do. The "I want to take over the kingdom/the world" motive in particular shows up constantly, and if it isn't that motive, it's either abject greed, completely motiveless cruelty, or both. Granted, the different Disney villains do have a lot of variety in appearances and powers. Hades for instance, is very different looking and has different powers from, say, Cruella DeVille. But the basic personality and goals of the villain aren't really allowed to change. It's kind of the Disney formula.
The inevitable response to what I've just said is "What do you expect? They're kid's movies!" To be blunt, I kind of hate this sort of response. I think it's a very lazy and thoughtless rebuttal that's also disingenuous for the following reason; movies like Beauty and the Beast and Lion King would never have gotten the level of acclaim and adoration that they enjoy if they were as mindless, toothless, or poorly written as, say, The Quest for Camelot. The best children's entertainment, Disney's included, is the best precisely because actual effort is put into the writing, and the writers do not take the easy way out of condescending to their audience or treating them like they can't appreciate nuance. Simply put, not all kid's movies are equal, and the fact that it is a kid's movie is no excuse to phone in the writing. And I believe that Disney does understand this, at least for the most part. But that is why I feel that they could (and should), be more willing to have nuanced and sympathetic villains, and trust that the audience will be smart enough to get it.
I would also like to take the time to stress that I am not against unsympathetic villains in Disney movies or anything else. I think for something like Hunchback or the Lion King, a pure evil monster works better for those particular narratives. And I love Scar, Hades, and Jafar as much as the next guy. But I don't think that every Disney movie's villain needs to be that way. A great example of this, indeed the best example that I can think of, would be Mother Gothel from Tangled. To me, Tangled is a very middle-of-the-road Disney film. It's beautifully animated for sure, and the voice acting is fine. But it's also a movie that feels determined to stick to the Disney formula pretty rigidly, and I feel that with Gothel in particular, that was a mistake. Because here's the thing; Gothel raised Rapunzel from infancy. She's been the only mother Rapunzel has ever known. And I feel that instead of being presented as a 100% awful narcissist who only cared about Rapunzel for her magic McGuffin hair, it would have been a lot more interesting if instead Gothel was allowed to be more complex. If she was allowed to be someone who, after being forced to be a mother for eighteen years, had come to develop some genuine feeling for this girl, and come to care about her as a mother would for a daughter, while also still wanting to use her magic hair for her own ends. And so she could be a more conflicted villain, torn between her selfish desire for eternal youth and her ever-growing maternal instincts for Rapunzel that make it increasingly hard to keep lying to and exploiting her. That approach (at least in my opinion), would have made Gothel go from yet another totally evil and selfish Disney villain, to a much more complicated and interesting character. And that in turn would have made the Tangled movie feel a bit less formulaic, and a bit more memorable.
All of the above brings me to the sequel cartoon. In my opinion, Tangled: The Series (AKA Rapunzel's Tangled Adventure) is much better than the movie that spawned it. Aside from the fact that the songs are even better, the voice acting is just as good, and the humor is mostly witty and sharp dialogue, I also think that the character work is really, really good. And I especially think that's true in respects to one of the show's main villains, Cassandra. Beginning as Rapunzel's bodyguard, friend, and kind of surrogate big sister before ultimately giving into her insecurities and turning on her, Cassandra is a great example of the kind of villain I want to see from Disney more often. Because though she has the malevolence and selfishness you'd expect from a Disney villain, she's actually allowed to be sympathetic and even tragic in a way that most Disney villains are not. Her reasons to hate and turn against Rapunzel, while petty, are also very human and believable, especially with the voice actress doing such a great job conveying the pain and resentment that Cassandra feels. This is also helped by songs like "Waiting in the Wings" and "Crossing the Line", which effectively capture all of Cassandra's feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and neglect. I think the writers sort of fumbled the character's arc towards the end, but even so, Cassandra was a much more interesting villain then her mother ever was, and I kind of wish that the show had taken the opportunity to also make Gothel more sympathetic in turn. But, one can't have it all. The writers were hellbent on portraying that character as a shallow narcissist, and I still think that was a bad idea.
So the Tangled franchise provides both an example of a villain who could and should have been more sympathetic, and one who is a step in the right direction. But there is another example from Disney's canon that can be invoked: Silver in Treasure Planet. As it's dismal box office performance and lukewarm-at-best reviews at the time made clear, Treasure Planet didn't blow most folks away. But I myself have always really liked it, and one thing in particular about it that I admire, is how it portrayed Silver. Rather than take the easy way out and make Silver a thoroughly evil individual motivated solely by greed, the movie actually allowed Silver to be more complex and even have some good advice to give despite being a villain. I love the irony of how our protagonist, who has always needed a father in his life after his actual one abandoned him as a child, finds precisely that in the movie's villain. And Silver in turn, comes to care about Jim in a way that I really wish Gothel had for Rapunzel in Tangled. Again, I just don't believe that every Disney villain needs to be portrayed the same way. And I think the question comes down to is this: is Disney willing to think outside the box here and make bolder decisions, or are they going to remain locked into the one way of doing things that they've always relied on? Again, I don't think something like Beauty and the Beast got to where it's at by condescending. And I really believe that most kids are smart enough to get that a character can be bad without being 100% pure evil. So with that in mind, I really do believe that Disney should be more willing to take a chance on sympathetic villains. I recognize that not every villain can be Magneto, Killmonger, or Darth Vader, (or Arthas Menethil for an example not owned by Disney), but that doesn't mean that none of them can be.
I just made a wiki last week ago. its about nexus crossovers based on Crossover Nexus.
It will have new characters and it will include disney characters like disney heroes and villans.
and also you can join my wiki any time you want and i also need help with my wiki too.
So... I wanna share this dream I had about Cassandra. It’s kinda weird, but hey. Aren’t all dreams?
So it starts with Cassandra wandering around the now black rock ridden Corona, trying to find ways to defeat Rapunzel and her crew. She stumbles into a room filled with potions and decides to check them out, figuring at least one of them will make her stronger. Zhan Tiri is just kinda following her and talking trash mostly about Eugene and Varian. Cassandra ignores all of this. She finally stumbles upon a potion that is said to have a “permanent effect”. But whatever, she says. Cassandra drinks it and she passes out.
Now Cassandra is dreaming herself as a little girl. She finds herself in a sorta modern setting (it’s hard to describe). She’s lost and confused, wanting to find her mother. She goes around and asks random people for help. The first person she asks is Prince Hans from Frozen, who just makes fun of her and tells her to get lost.
Cassandra wanders around a busy street with loads of stores and restaurants. She then goes into this random appliance store where the Greens from Big City Greens offer her to help buy supplies that could be used as a makeshift boat. You can find me in the distance, complaining about something not being in the store, but that’s not really important.
Cassandra wanders around some more until fireworks start booming up in the sky. Star Butterfly, Marco, Janna, and Tom are also here and Marco offers Cassandra a boost up. The little girl loves the sight of it all. Until she hears this song... That song sounds so familiar. Then it hits her. It was the same song Mother Gothel used to sing to her to make her shut up and go to sleep.
For some reason, Cassandra gets visions of Mother Gothel hating on her. Then she finally wakes up.
Cassandra accuses Zhan Tiri of lying to her and stabs Zhan Tiri with her black rocks. Then the potion takes effect and Cassandra turns into a more haggard version of Mother Gothel. Zhan Tiri comments how ugly she looks and then dies. Cassandra notices her new form and at first freaks out, but remembers to focus on defeating Rapunzel. She finds this random wand that looks like a wand a Butterfly queen would have and sets out to find Rapunzel.
Then I wake up. I also had a dream about Jesper from Netflix’s Klaus being in a cult, but you guys probably don’t care about that.
Thanks for listening and let us panic about how Tangled: The Series is ending in March 1st!
...is just how much it's characters resemble the ones from a certain movie trilogy and the comics that inspired them:
Rapunzel/Spider-Man: Main hero whose powers allow them to swing about and ensnare foes.
Eugene/Black Cat: The lovable rogue who turned over a new leaf largely out of their love for the hero. Sarcastic and cocky, but has a good heart deep down.
Queen Arianna/Aunt May: The kind-hearted, mother figure who gives the main hero good advice from time to time but also sometimes has her life put in danger.
Gothel/Green Goblin: The hero's arch-enemy who manipulates them, acts as a false parental figure to them, cruelly neglects their biological child, and even when dead cast a long shadow over the hero's life. Both are also narcissists who crave power.
Cassandra/Harry Osborn: The hero's best friend who eventually turns on them and becomes evil in large part out of resentment towards the hero for "stealing" their parent's love and attention, and even before going full-on evil were often envious of their friend. Both are also effectively successors to their parent as a villain.
Varian/Doctor Octopus: The goggles-wearing tech genius and scientist who started out as a nice but nerdy and insecure person who later went crazy and turned into a murderous villain who also endangers the life of the hero's mother figure. And just as Varian eventually redeems himself, so too does Doctor Octopus (at least in Spider-Man 2), eventually redeem himself.
Uncle Monty/J. Jonah Jameson: The old man who has an irrational dislike for the main hero and regularly criticizes/opposes them, but is principled outside of that.
The Stabbington Brothers/The Lobo Brothers: Villainous crook brother pairs.
OK, admittedly, that last one is reaching, but come on, the rest fit pretty well.
MOTHER GOTHEL IS CASSANDRA’S MUM!!! THE WHOLE INTERNET FLIPPING CALLED IT!!!
I would share how I’d feel about Mother Gothel, but I might not get content friendly. But can you blame me? She neglected her daughter (who is only a toddler mind you) and then left her behind in favor of being beautiful.
So why does Cassandra blame Rapunzel for this? Well, I believe it’s because she felt as if Mother Gothel replaced her for Rapunzel and she got tired of being second best.
Her actions are understandable. Not as much as Varian’s (at least she had the Captain of the Royal Guard to care for her), but I can feel her pain.
Speaking of Varian, he’s back to being the adorkable good guy we all know and love!
Also, he looks pretty hot with that goatee.
QUIRIN’S OUT THE AMBER AND HE AND VARIAN HUGGED AND THEN QUIRIN SAID HE WAS PROUD OF HIS SON AND I GOT A BIT TEARY EYED!!!
I can now live happily knowing that Varian is happy again.