I cry at animated Disney movies. I have all my life. As a preschooler watching “Bambi,” I wept so hard that my parents had to carry me out of the theater. Even as an adult I tear up when I read the title. Over time, however, I have studied animation, and I should be inured to its emotional manipulation — never mind that Sunday I ripped through a pack of Kleenex watching Disney’s remake of “Pete’s Dragon.” I should be able to read Jen Darcy’s “Disney Villains ” — an authorized compendium of baddies from Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Animation Studios — with a cool, scholarly eye. I should be able to snicker at chain-smoking Dalmatian-killer Cruella de Vil. I shouldn’t need to fantasize about her gasping for breath, felled by chronic pulmonary disease, the comeuppance she deserves for those cigarettes alone.
But Disney villains were not written to inspire detachment. The studio’s animations — particularly during the mid-20th century — did not have gray areas. The heroes and heroines were unambiguously good, especially if they were lost or orphaned. Regardless of their species, they had wide eyes and open, childlike faces. In contrast, the villains were drawn to be hated: squinting, misshapen, with savage, menacing grins. They were “unforgettable,” Darcy writes, designed to “linger in your nightmares long after the film is over.”
“Disney Villains” is a pretext to revisit those movies and to learn backstage trivia about the actors and animators who made the scoundrels memorable. The book is worth studying for its artwork alone. It includes sketches and full-color renderings of characters in progress. I loved the study of Chick Hicks in “Cars.” It shows how animators can make a car look sinister simply by changing the tilt of its windshield.
Yet rewatching movies I thought I knew surprised me. Bad characters who once made me tremble — Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty,” for example — were not so one-note. The Disney team itself acknowledged this in 2014 with “Maleficent,” a live-action apologia for Sleeping Beauty’s tormentor. In this film, which starred Angelina Jolie, we learn that Maleficent had been viciously betrayed by a man she once loved. Sentencing the princess (a really annoying teenager) to a deep coma was her justifiable revenge.
In fact, from the 1990s onward, the Disney team began to defect from the idea of a Manichean universe. Some villains were portrayed as complex figures, not emblems of radical evil.
Reading this book, though, I was startled to realize that evildoers I had remembered as fun now seemed cringe-worthy. As an ardent cat person, I remember loving the Siamese felines who made life hell for the dogs in “Lady and the Tramp.” My elementary school classmates and I wore out their theme song, “We are Siamese if you please.” But the cats were not drawn innocently. With protruding teeth and absurdly tilted eyes, they looked like World War II anti-Japanese propaganda.
Appropriation of stories from non-American cultures has long been Disney’s stock in trade — and not to every critic’s liking. Darcy quotes Roy E. Disney calling Jafar in “Aladdin” “Mr. Evil himself,” but she fails to note that Jafar is also a broad caricature that reflects anti-Arab prejudice.
“The Lion King,” meanwhile, is an unabashed celebration of patriarchy. It suggests that the ecology of the savannah can be maintained only by an orderly succession of royal male lions. This stability is threatened by Scar, the king’s conniving brother, who conspires to murder the king and banish his heir. Scar is seductively oily, voiced by Jeremy Irons in the same sneering tone he used to portray homicidal socialite Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune.” Yet when Scar assassinates the father of the little dauphin, I didn’t immediately cry, as I had once cried for Bambi. The young lion had an obscene sense of entitlement. Briefly, Scar seemed to strike a blow against patriarchy, which, not surprisingly, eventually prevailed.
But Disney movies are not made with images alone. Music figures in them, too. “Disney Villains” celebrates the Oscar-winning Sherman brothers, who penned the unforgettable tunes in “The Jungle Book,” including that hypnotizing “Trust in Me” tune sung by Kaa, the deadly python. Some songs, however, should be forgotten. Take “It’s a Small World,” the malignant earworm that tortures visitors at Disney theme parks. The Shermans also created that, which in my view places them among the worst of the Disney evildoers.
By Jen Darcy
Disney Editions. 192 pp. $40