I think this list will vary wildly depending on when you were born and what Disney movies were most precious to you as a kid – the ones that get you in childhood are destined to hold the greatest impact. Also, though Disney now owns both Marvel and Star Wars, both of which are of course replete with the baddest of the baddies, I’m sticking to Disney-Pixar here for simplicity’s sake.
10. Man/The Hunter, Bambi. I still remember being flooded with shame when we find out that our friend’s greatest enemy is humans. Humans! I myself was a tiny human, quaking with guilt by association. He is faceless, unnamed, unknown, and yet his presence is vile and antagonistic, instilling liquid fear into all the beating hearts in the forest. Their panic was contagious and though we see only his shadow, the score identifies him quite clearly as predator. And as if killing Bambi’s mother wasn’t enough, he also sets fire to their home, forcing all the animals to flee. It’s an awful legacy to inherit as a child and clearly I’m still not over it.
9. Lady Tremaine, Cinderella. I think the scariest thing as a kid is learning that your parents could die, and Disney liked to press the orphan button more than most. With her mother already dead, Cinderella’s kind but useless father remarries a bitter woman rather than take on being a single dad. Lady Tremaine, the archetype for wicked stepmothers, is the worst kind of villain: the kind who lives right in your house! When Cinderella’s father also dies, there’s nothing left to stop her from treating Cinderella like the help. Worse than the help, really, because she isn’t even paid. She’s abused and neglected in her own home, threatened continuously with homelessness. Lady Tremaine goes out of her way to make sure Cinderella knows she isn’t loved or cared for, and her stepsisters only reinforce these points, both by comparison, and by their own poor behaviour. As children we have very acute sense of justice, particularly when it comes to siblings, and to see Cinderella treated like a second class citizen is unnerving. But to understand that your mom and your dad could die, leaving you with a hateful old woman? That doesn’t bear contemplation.
8. Governor Ratcliffe, Pocahontas. Ratcliffe is based on a real historical figure, but he’s also just colonialism personified. He’s greedy, manipulative, and power-hungry, but worst of all, he’s crippled by xenophobia. He’s not going to just take the Indians’ gold, he’s going to take their land and their lives as well. And he feels entitled! They’re not even people to him, they’re just obstacles to his success and he has no moral qualms whatsoever about mowing them down to get what he wants. Like Judge Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, what makes these men truly fightening is how much they believe themselves to be in the right. Their moral authority and superiority make them impossible to argue with, and their outlook allows them to reclassify people as sub-human when convenient, a truly terrifying concept, and not just for children.
7. Lotso, Toy Story 3. A big, pink, strawberry-scented teddy bear, Lots-o’-Huggin Bear is the surprising villain of Toy Story 3, running the Sunnyside Daycare like a prison – as one toy describes him to our pal Woody, “The guy may seem plush and huggable on the outside. But inside, he’s a monster.” There are two things that make Lotso a truly memorable villain as far as I’m concerned. First, that he starts off friendly and welcoming. A devil in disguise, he’s the most horrifying kind of bad guy, the kind on the news, the kind your mother warns you about, the ones you can’t spot with the naked eye. Most other Disney villains wear black and dark purple and blood red. They have sharp features and mean eyes and you know what’s what. So when his true self is revealed – a sadistic dictator fueled by rage – it’s a truly terrifying transformation. But what really sets him apart in my opinion is his back story. We know very little about the previous villains on this list – the dark spots in their hearts, their motivations, the root of their malevolence. But with Lotso, we know. We know he was once the beloved toy of a little girl named Daisy. And one day he was lost – through no fault or lack of affection on Daisy’s part, but Lotso took it hard. Still, devoted to his kid he somehow makes it back to her home where he finds that he’s been replaced by a brand new Lotso. Something inside of Lotso is broken in that moment, and his anger and bitterness breed evil. It’s brilliant story-telling, and you might even draw parallels with the new Joker movie, but at the end of the day, Lotso is a complex villain stuffed with nihilism.
6. Jafar, Aladdin. Jafar looks like a proper villain. He has a proper villain sidekick and proper villain goals and a delicious theatricality. He wants money and power. He’s willing to sacrifice a street urchin to get them. As the sultan’s “most loyal and trusted” vizier, his deviousness and duplicity are legendary. He too presents one face to the royal court while another is revealed in his underground lair. He’s manipulative, employing hypnotic powers to keep the sultan under his control. And while murder and greedily wanting world domination are of course very bad in and of themselves, I didn’t fully appreciate Jafar’s nefarious depths until I watched Aladdin as an adult and noticed the particularly troubling relationship with Jasmine. Who, let’s remember is a 15 year old girl. And whom he schemes to marry to gain status, and when that fails him, he literally has her in manacles, and treats her like a sex slave. It’s disturbing.
5. Captain Hook, Peter Pan. This is one case where the villain may outshine the hero in his own movie. Though a bloodthirsty pirate, Hook has abandoned the high seas to devote himself (and his ship) to being the scourge of Neverland and exacting revenge on Peter Pan. Peter may just be a boy, but he once cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to a crocodile. Fantastically, that crocodile haunts Hook, following him around with the awful threat of his tick-tock-tick-tock. I like to believe that the croc has simply got a taste for human flesh and wants more of where the hand came from. Sure he’s up for slaughtering children; he’ll even murder members of his own crew. But his temper leaves him vulnerable and his single-minded revenge is often his undoing. Plus that damn crocodile – that strange reptilian relationship alone is the source of almost comedic relief, a rarity for Disney’s villains. Thus, Hook is nearly a sympathetic figure, destined to be forever thwarted, forever chased by his own hand, haunted by the memory of his own amputation.
4. Cruella De Vil, 101 Dalmations. Cruella is an interesting villain because she doesn’t have any powers or magic lofty ambitions. She’s a spoiled heiress who simply insists on having everything she wants, even if it means stealing the last 15 puppies for a dalmatian coat she’s been dying to add to her already stuffed fur closet. She is reckless and impetuous and eventually driven into a mad, frothing fury due to her own relentless pursuit of said dogs. She’s an attention whore, rude to others, thoughtless when it comes to anyone else. She’s among the more stylish of the Disney villains, and considering we’ve got be-feathered Hook and heavily-accessorized Jafar on this list already, that’s saying something. She’s got signature half-black, half-white hair, green-coated eyelids, and red opera-length gloves. She’s almost always got a cigarette holder in one hand, leaving behind a trail of vile smoke. Her current coat (mink, I believe) is larger than life while her own frame is skeletal. She’s a lot of fun and became even more dynamic when played by Glenn Close in a live-action remake (and she will be again when Emma Stone reprises the role in a movie devoted to the villainess).
3. Gaston, Beauty and The Beast. Frankly, I’m surprised he’s not my #1. He’s boastful and vain – he’s the Kanye West of Disney villains. I admit this: I am a little bit (lotta bit) attracted to arrogance. The incel vibes are a total turn off though, and Gaston has that in spades. He’s an excellent gambler, an excellent shot, and roughly the size of a barge. So he’s baffled to be rejected for the first time in his life, by the town’s beauty, Belle. And once he’s set his sights on her, he can’t possibly settle for anyone whose affections are reciprocal. Now, when Gaston, who is already a huge jerk, finds out that the woman who spurned him is falling for a beast, that just blows his gasket and he is filled with a murderous rage, a rage so visceral he immediately forms a mob with actual pitchforks and storms a goddamned castle.
2. Scar, The Lion King. I’m not sure that Scar is my #2, but in a recent Twitter poll, he was almost universally voted #1. Markus volunteered “Scar is smart, conniving, and has an amazing voice. Gaston is just a douchey beefcake.” Wait – douchey beefcake – is THAT my type? Anyway, if you like Jafar’s penchant for theatrics, you’re gonna love Scar. Had he studied theatre and moved to NYC, his destiny would have been much different. But alas, he languished in the jungle with only hyenas for an audience, and they don’t applaud well on account of their paws. Scar is the Claudius to Mufasa’s King Hamlet, and if fratricide isn’t terrible enough for you, he pins it on an innocent little cub and then orders his murder too. And it’s not even like Scar was suffering – he had a cushy royal life. He could have been living it up like Prince Harry with all the perks and none of the responsibility. But no. Murder. BUT he does have a truly excellent musical number.
1. Ursula, The Little Mermaid. I have serious #UrsulaGoals. I want to be her when I grow up: commanding, stylish, large and in charge. Perhaps just a tad less soul-sucky. Ursula is actually based on a drag queen named Devine. Her shock of white hair, blood red lips, even a bold blue eye – this witch has been to Sephora and you know she’d kill it on Instagram if she could access it underwater. She’s conniving and manipulative, with a sadistic streak as thick as her lipgloss. Disney may not be ready to give us a thicc princess, but Ursula is unapologetically curvy, rocking a body-conscious, cleavage-baring, backless dress and vamping at every opportunity. I’m not an opportunistic cannibal (at least not yet), but otherwise, Ursula is pure inspiration from Disney’s dark side.