A trip on the Snow White ride, wondering why Disney can’t do villains any more

Somewhere in the 1990s, when Disney was enjoying a major renaissance, the Backstory arrived.

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At Disneyland Paris this month (which makes it sound like I go every month – I don’t) I watched a few children gather round a sponge-faced impersonator of Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre Dame and principal villain in Disney’s animated 1996 account of the celebrated hunchback. Frollo is a deeply religious man practising ethnic cleansing across a city he has staffed with a militia. He enjoys the sound of a good whipping, lusts after the gypsies he’s trying to eradicate, and believes himself to be pious: as such, he is one of the better modern Disney villains in an empire that seems to be increasingly afraid to create them.

The classic villains – all the ones who played against the princesses – looked evil, spoke evil, and best of all, had zero reasonable motivations for being evil. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) was by far the best, because look at her. She put a curse on a baby because she wasn’t invited to a party. But the villains have changed. Somewhere in the 1990s, when Disney was enjoying a major renaissance, the Backstory arrived! And that’s where the problems started.

At first, the Backstory added depth: the motivation was lust for power – as with Scar (The Lion King), Jafar (Aladdin) or Ursula (The Little Mermaid) – or bigotry, as in the case of Gaston (Beauty and the Beast) and the villains from Pocahontas. But then things got out of hand – and it really bothers the deputy director of global strategy at Amnesty International, with whom I queue for an hour on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

“The problem is that giving motivations and backstories to villains becomes a slippery slope,” he says, “because it starts to portray a much more nuanced picture of what evil is – look at the sheep in Zootopia. Or take Moana, where a volcano is the meanie.”

In Frozen, the highest-grossing animated Disney movie of all time, the whole concept of a snow queen – a chilling, inhuman presence in Hans Christian Anderson – is overhauled for the “super-relatable” Elsa, and a friend’s children visibly deflated with relief when the foul ice monster Marshmallow had a character conversion at the end of the film. If the people love the new baddies, though, what’s the problem?

“Well,” says the man from Amnesty, as our mine cart rolls past an animatronic rat, “one could say that Elsa is a more accurate representation of what evil is in real life, but fairy tales aren’t nuanced essays about morals – they have a crucial function in teaching children how to handle fear and darkness. These new villains aren’t teaching children how to be AFRAID. And they need to be!”

Disney needs to lean in to pure evil again. In 2018, when armies of darkness march across the face of the Earth, the company can’t seem to get its head around the notion of unadulterated badness – or thinks its audience can’t. Perhaps it is pitching movies to parents terrified about the world they have brought their kids into. A five-year-old I know had a meltdown the other day when a concept as unreconstructed as Captain Hook turned up on his laptop screen. Wreck It Ralph, which came out in 2012, was about a baddie who wasn’t really a baddie (sadly there is a sequel). In 2014, Disney made a live action Maleficent in which Angelina Jolie’s bad fairy turned out to be quite a nice person, really, saving Aurora. Lady Kaine, principal agitator in the 2017 TV sequel to Tangled (the Rapunzel film) is just a badass woman with a tattoo.

On the Snow White ride at Disneyland Paris (my only objection is that it buffets round the dioramas too fast) two-year-olds scream when the crone from the 1930s film spins round to greet them, but they’re clearly loving it. The 21st century villains reveal a culture that can’t face terror, when it punctuates our news more perniciously than it has done in half a century. A baddie found its way into the White House yet children are taught to ask whether baddies are ever really baddies at all.

Don’t take a poison apple from a stranger, the old movies told you. The new ones go: “Come on guys, let’s let evil in – maybe he’s got something to say!”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war