Friday, October 12, 2007

"Weenie Villains"

Will Finn made a comment about weenie villains that got me thinking about the interplay between Disney villains and the threat of death.

Except for Snow White, the early Disney features didn't have single villains. Pinocchio has Stromboli, Honest John, the Coachman and Monstro. Dumbo has the elephants, the circus patrons, the clowns and the ringmaster. Bambi has the hunters, their dogs, their fire, but also winter and male rivals. I think that this kind of villainy is in line with the complexity of the Depression. There was general frustration that there was nobody to blame or hold accountable for the economic collapse. It was a multifaceted problem, and so audiences of the time were able to deal with the idea that obstacles and threats come from many sources.

Once World War II arrived, you've got individuals who are singled out as the root causes of the problem: Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. In the post-war world, Stalin, Kruschev and Mao take their places. Once Disney got back to full length animated features with Cinderella, only three of the films through the retirement of the nine old men had multiple sources of conflict and not single villains.

Alice in Wonderland is more of a road movie than one where the Queen of Hearts is the source of conflict. Lady and the Tramp is very situational, with Lady having to deal with the repercussions of a new baby in the family. If there's a villain in the film, it's the rat, but the rat doesn't drive the film the way that Cinderella's stepmother or Captain Hook drive theirs. The other film that is somewhat situational is The Sword in the Stone, where the medieval society prevents Wart from realizing his potential and only a miracle can free him from serfdom. There is Madam Mim, but like the rat in Lady and the Tramp, she hardly motivates the majority of Wart's troubles.

Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers are all driven by villains. However, here is where the "weenie" part comes in. Prior to Peter Pan, no Disney villains in features had bumbling sidekicks. (Honest John has Gideon in Pinocchio, but Honest John himself is not the threat; it's where he takes Pinocchio that's the problem.) Comic sidekicks for villains are also present in Dalmatians, Robin Hood and The Rescuers. In some films, like Pan, Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers, the villains are treated comically themselves.

This is why death doesn't seem as threatening in the later Disney features. It may be present, but there's so much comedy surrounding the villains or the climaxes (Baloo is tossing off one-liners while Shere Khan is attacking), that the films are winking at the audience, reassuring them not to get too worried.

There is no winking in early Disney features. The conflicts and obstacles facing the characters are not funny, which is why the threat of death is taken seriously.


Pete Emslie said...

Admittedly, I like a lot of the Disney features that others tend to dismiss because I am not as concerned with how much or how little of a physical threat is presented to the hero/heroine. Yes, I can well appreciate those films where there is a threat of death that is presented in a serious manner, but I also enjoy the films with comic villains too, where, even though a threat of death may be present, the audience never feels that the hero is any real danger. Likewise, I also appreciate the films where death is not really an ever present threat, but where the hero instead has to overcome a series of lesser obstacles in order to accomplish his goal. After all, this latter scenario seems a lot closer to what most of us struggle with in our daily lives. Does a film's villain always have to present a mortal threat, or can he be something more mundane like a landlord threatening eviction or an officious administrator? These types of characters are more often the case in live-action films, so why not in animated features too?

It seems like one of the most critically reviled films in the Disney canon is "The Aristocats", a film which I admittedly have always rather enjoyed, though I certainly acknowledge its shortcomings. While there is the threat of death to Duchess and her kittens, the "villain", as it were, is a bungling butler whose actions seem mostly comic rather than truly threatening. Actually, despite the fact that most critics consider Edgar an ineffective villain, I applaud Disney for trying something a bit different with this fellow. Edgar is first introduced as a rather likeable and sympathetic character. After many years as a long-suffering, yet loyal servant, can we really blame Edgar for plotting to get rid of the cats so that they will not stand in his way to inherit a fortune worth millions? Wouldn't any of we viewers be tempted to do the same in such a situation?

I believe that Edgar is the same type of sympathetic villain as Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote. The coyote's motivation for persevering relentlessly in trying to kill the roadrunner is that he's hungry. Who can blame him for that? Again, I kind of appreciate Disney trying something different with the somewhat sympathetic character of Edgar. He seems more rooted in reality as the type of scoundrel we are more likely to encounter in our own lives - a once decent fellow now corrupted by greed. If that makes him a "Weenie Villain", so what? Why should every villain be expected to operate on the same grand scale? Isn't that what makes stories seem formulaic?

Mark Mayerson said...

Peter, I don't think that death has to be a threat in order to make a film effective and I have nothing against comic villains. However, I do think that there's a major shift in the Disney films before and after the war, and I think that the treatment of death and villains is a major reason for that.

Later Disney films can be very entertaining and I enjoy watching (some of) them. Ditto for films from other studios. However, there are not many animated films made by any studio in any time period that can be compared to the pre-war Disney features for emotional power. The director in me is constantly trying to figure out why this is the case and the viewer in me is hungry for similar emotional experiences.

Will Finn said...

maybe when Walt was younger he tended to be more serious. his younger years were marked by lots of adversity and threat, both financial personal and global. even a guy that optimistic would feel it.

by the late fifties with the success of middle age (and Disneyland) he lightened up a bit, which certainly does seem to be the case.

maybe also the popular and financial failure of the largely serious SLEEPING BEAUTY feature turned Walt away from heavier material, in animation anyway.

As for multiple villains: personally, i am not crazy about single villain stories, (although i have worked on many--don't get me started). i like stories that have multiple antagonists but where the ultimate villain is the main character's worst instincts and/or mistakes.
this is true for me in PINOCCHIO.
In PINOCCHIO he gets fooled once by Honest John and we can blame his own innocence. He gets a reprieve from Blue Fairy. Fooled again (Pleasure Island) and he is just being a fool. He pays a price: being turned into a bigger freak than he was before. Only his acts of bravery and self-sacrifice redeem him finally but ultimately he is stuggling with his own sense of right and wrong (and his own profound ignorance) throughout the movie.

In JUNGLE BOOK it's far lighter, but to me Mowgli is both protagonist and antagonist again. The tiger is just the "ticking clock". Mowgli is the one character obstructing the stated goal of the film and that rebellion feels true and is interesting to me. Mowgli learns a lot less than Pinoke and also he seems to accept where he really belongs more thru coincidence than anything else. Still, the whole movie always struck me as a metaphor for raising a kid thru the treacherous teen years, condensed into a few days of screentime. Baggy and Baloo (the yin/yang surrogate parents) do their best until Mowgli finally arrives at the threshold of maturity in the world he is meant for. Yes, it's prosaic, but if the kid manages to live thru those years, he eventually grows up.

Will Finn said...

ps. Mark
you and peter have both weighed in while i was writing and editing my long winded screed above.

i heartilly concur about the "emotional power" issue tho.
Very well stated.

Thad K said...

I don't know, the stepmother in Cinderella never struck me as a 'real' villain. She seems more like an eerie still-life (and boringly animated- which surprises me as I am a giant fan of Frank Thomas' work) than an actual character with emotion. I think better phrasing and expressions on the stepmother (and Cinderella and the prince too) may have helped me enjoy the movie more.

Pete Emslie said...

Actually, Thad, I consider the Stepmother a masterpiece of understated villainy. Though Cinderella is never under any threat of death, she faces a life condemned to misery and hardship as a slave in her own home, all due to the unrelenting, yet subtle cruelty of this woman who controls her fate. I think if the Stepmother had been more broadly played, it would have taken away from her effectiveness. Also, Eleanor Audley's masterfully understated vocal performance hits exactly the right note for this character, in my opinion.

Thad K said...

The stepmother certainly gives off an evil tone, so in that regard, she's effective. I don't think anyone has ever watched the movie without having the desire to use some choice words when she causes the slipper to shatter.

It's a really well-made film though, and even the animation I don't care for in it is at least artful, something I can't say for about 90% of animated features.

Jenny said...

Re: "Lady and the Tramp": you're right, the conflicts of the film are very situational, but I'd offer that the "villain" or bad guys aren't at all the rat, who is certainly presented as an evil thing(but to be fair, is really just being a non-anthropomorphized beast versus the very humanized dogs, beaver, and even cats. He looms over the baby's crib at the end but it's not really clear why or what purpose he'd have in attacking the baby--is he going to eat it?).

I'd say it's the Aunt who's the main bad guy--an obvious dog-hater who'd be thrilled to have Lady put out of the way, she does more damage than anything else in the story to Lady's life and ruins the happy situation that is arrived at at the end of the lullaby sequence (where after all Lady's uncertainty and angst we see Jim D. and his wife involve Lady with the new family circle, holding her over the crib).

Secondly we have the cats Si and Am, who are muted "villains" as they are so appealingly animated as well as being funny--but are still clearly bad guys who (unlike the more sentimental dogs, excluding Tramp) care nothing for the cute little human baby and take pleasure in abusing and seeing Lady punished.

Thad K said...

Oh and FYI, I absolutely hate "The Aristocats". In fact, it's essentially a feature extension of the Famous Studios cartoon "Kitty Cornered" - right down to having a similar plot and similar character designs! (I doubt the Disney guys had this morbidly hilarious short in mind, but the similarities are eerie.)

Stymphaian Bird said...

SCAR from THE LION KING its a case of sibling ravalry carried to the extreme he is jelous becuase his brother MUFASA rules pride rock Or in VALIANT theres VON TALON a vain and ambisious german falcon who dreams of fame and fortune and insteads gets himilated by a little pigeon and in the case of THE AROSTOCATS it is realy is the one in which THE BUTLER DID IT MAD MADAM MIM from SWORD IN THE STONE not realy melevalent just funny when she become a cat and chases wart who was changed into a bird when she grabs him he pecks her on the nose and when merlin become the virus and makes her sick she whines I HATE HORRIBLE WHOLESOME SUNSHINE and in SLEEPING BEUTY this is acuialy the only disney film in which the word HELL is used