A veritable vacuum of variety in villains

Kevin Niederman


We need more adult themes in children's films.

Recently, I watched the Disney animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m glad I did.

As a child, I remember not enjoying the film. I have a weird complex when it comes to watching onscreen characters be humiliated, and certain scenes in the film were a bit much for me in that department. The villain, Judge Frollo, terrified me far more than any other Disney cookie-cutter bad guy. Watching it now, I can see why.

For the most part, Frollo follows a similar path other bad guys do in children’s films. He wears black, has a deep voice, lies, cheats and kills. He’s bad, and we’re made to understand that fairly quickly.

There comes a point, about halfway through the film, that we hear how Frollo thinks of himself. He believes himself to be righteous, pious, and holy, doing the Lord’s work by purging the world of sin. He then admits he is ridden with lustful thoughts towards the film’s heroine. He blames her for his feelings and seeks to either win her heart or kill her to rid himself of such impure thoughts.

This is what I love about this movie.

Morality in children’s films is very clear-cut. There’s the good guy and the bad guy. Everything is black and white. But as we all know, the world isn’t as such. People often do good things for the wrong reasons, or bad things for good reasons.

We all straddle a gray plane as we make our way through life.

As children, however, we are taught the exact opposite through the films we are shown and stories we are told. Bad guys are easy to spot and the right course of action is always clear to us.

Life isn’t as simple as that, and flooding kids’ minds with a by-the-numbers formulaic morality seems like a detriment to me.

Granted, morality in children’s films has been on a distinct path from black to gray for years now. Snow White’s villain is motivated purely by vanity, to kill the only other woman more beautiful than she, and many other villains of the past were driven by a single characteristic of sin.

Vanity is also the defining trait of Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast.” In “Pocahontas,” the purple suit-wearing governor concocts devious plans all in the name of greed, as does the red-headed woman from “The Rescuers,” who is willing to shoot a child for money. Cruella De’Ville from “101 Dalmatians” has the good fortune to be driven by both greed and vanity, hiring armed thugs to steal puppies from a friend she had in college, so she can kill them, skin them and make a coat. The logic in her evil is practically out the window.

There are few evidences more compelling than being found wearing your victim's skin.

Fast forward a bit, and the villain from “Big Hero Six” is driven by anger over the loss of a loved one. Its makes a more dimensional character, but the villain is still adhering to a single vice; in this case, anger. The bad guy in “Toy Story 3” is in the same boat. Once kind and gentle, he is now motivated by anger at a perceived betrayal and an assumption that said betrayal is an inevitable eventuality.

Disney seems to be slowly awakening to the relative flatness of its villains and is seeking to correct itself. New reimaginings of old films see their villains painted with the intent to imbue dimensions.

The recent release of “Maleficent” saw the classic villain reimagined from someone seeking revenge to someone seeking justice. Yet, the switch in motivation does little to round out a character. It simply shifts their flatness in a different direction.

Frollo is driven by what he believes to be right. He believes himself to be the hero of the film, stamping out crime and sin. He’s making a more virtuous Paris. He sees himself as a righteous man, which bears his fears and hatred when he begins to have unholy thoughts about a woman.

The victim-blaming and logic he toys with to pacify his guilt are uncanny. This fleshes him out into a believable, real-world villain.

There's always a dramatic jarring when something you've been shown to be real collides with actual reality. I could have avoided many tragic mistakes had I been taught that bad people are often the nicest to you, to a point.

Judgment is a valuable tool. If more children's films were written entirely in moral shades, if we taught kids not only that no one is perfect, but that no one is pure evil either, maybe they'd be better prepared to handle the world that we live in instead of dreaming about one we don't.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me what you think in the comments below, or at kevin.niederman@ucollege.edu

Kevin Niederman is a junior nursing major hailing from Santa Rosa CA, about an hour north of San Francisco. He enjoys cartoons, hats, and driving ridiculous distances for food that has the potential of being amazing.