Posted in Film

What qualities make a great Disney villain?


Throughout the Disney feature animation canon, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Moana, the characters who have stood out the most over the years have been the colorful villains. Intelligent, wicked, sometimes scary — the villains keep the stories fresh and alive and packed with drama. Although all the Disney villains are distinguishable, certain similarities between them begin to arise on close inspection. Despite being part of a different time period, location, and storyline, Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and Jafar from Aladdin have eerily similar traits.

Although Gaston is younger than Jafar in terms of physical appearance, both men are tall, darkly handsome, and imposing. Villains are typically of larger stature than the hero because they need to look threatening, and they need to look believable to an audience as one who can keep the protagonist from reaching his or her goal.

Gaston uses his physical prowess and dashing good looks to seduce women and to selfishly make himself known throughout the village. Jafar is very tall and robust and makes up for the physical strength he lacks through his intimidating clothing garments. Like Gaston, his face is chiseled and stretched from top to bottom more so than other characters, and he is dressed mostly in red, typically a color that signifies blood and danger.

Both of their stretched faces give them an unusual off-kilter look that makes the audience identify with the protagonists’ more soft facial features. Gaston and Jafar also often carry items that further signify their high statuses in society. Gaston is nearly always with his shotgun, used to killing animals all around the countryside, and Jafar always carries around a cobra-headed staff, which allows for magical powers to suit his needs.

While both Gaston and Jafar represent evil in their respective stories, each character comes with his own babbling, comical sidekick. A trend in Disney films is to give the villain a funny sidekick, more surely for the sake of the children in the audience. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened in 1937, kids were scared by the ultra-serious Evil Queen, and much has been over the decades to make the villain side of the story just a little more kid friendly.

In order to keep the integrity of the villain intact, the filmmakers add a sidekick into the mix, almost as if to distract from the purely evil intentions of the villain that could possibly turn parents or their children off. Gaston’s sidekick is a little overweight buffoon named LeFou, who constantly states the obvious and always finds himself being pummeled by Gaston. He represents the antithesis of Gaston’s evil ways — LeFou is a genuinely noble person who only wants Gaston to look at him as a friend and wants nothing bad to become of anyone, including Belle. Gaston uses LeFou as his own punch bag and clearly has no interest in him as a friend. He is merely just another body to worship the ground Gaston walks on.

Jafar’s sidekick is a parrot named Iago who rests on his shoulder at all times. Loud-mouthed and filled with murderous ideas, he is more twisted and devilish than LeFou, but remains comic relief because he is more relaxed and jubilant than Jafar. Like Gaston, Jafar uses his sidekick as a punching bag as well, never allowing for Iago to trample over his words or actions.

There seems to be a genuine friendship between Iago and Jafar, however, and this friendship calls for different endings to the storylines to the two films. At the end of Beauty and the Beast, Gaston dies alone, as the selfish tyrant who never allowed himself to have a friend. At the end of Aladdin, Jafar gets trapped in the lamp not by himself but with Iago, with the two locked up forever.

Even though Gaston and Jafar appear genial and charming on the surface, both have an unhealthy and ambitious quest for power, albeit on two different scales. All the Disney villains have a tragic flaw that bring upon their downfall. No Disney villain wants to be second best; they all want to climb higher than the protagonist and find rewards in being first on top. The theme works because good drama comes out of that irritable fascination with seeing the hero falter under the smarts and ambitions of the abhorrent villain.

Gaston does not want to be an all-powerful god of the universe, but he does want to be the most respected and well-loved man of the village, and the mere thought of not getting what he wants frustrates him. Since he believes he is the best of all the best, he is dumbfounded when Belle refuses to go out with him, and, even worse, marry him.

Jafar approaches power on a much grander scale. As a royal vizier, he is not given all the privileges of the elderly Sultan. Thus, he relies on his quest to attain the magic lamp, a small but life-altering object that could give Jafar everything he has ever dreamed of. Like Gaston, he hasn’t a soft spot for any other person; all he wants is to be above everyone else. Also, in similar ways to Gaston, his demise in the end is a result of his tragic flaw, his quest for power and the consequences that come from it.

Gaston and Jafar both have an interest in bringing a woman into their lives, not for reasons of love or companionship, but for reasons of selfishness and greed. It is often the trait of Disney villains to have the inability to feel love for another person, good or bad, with hate being at the core of each villain’s heart. Villains are typically aware of sexuality, however, and the ability to manipulate with members of the opposite sex for self gain.

Gaston and Jafar are no different. Gaston looks at Belle as an object he would like to add to his mantle. He can easily have any other woman in the countryside — the man is on the surface very handsome. Belle realizes, however, that inside, Gaston is a man of hate and menace. In fact, unlike the sweet and gentle Beast she falls in love with, Gaston is truly the Beast inside. He perishes in the end because he hasn’t the ability to reason through his actions, and he fails to understand the very nature of human free will. He understands that Belle is one of the more difficult ladies to latch onto, but he hasn’t the ability to realize she will never look at him in a romantic way as long as his selfishness never diminishes.

Jafar looks at Jasmine with even less romanticism, as he is merely interested in marrying Jasmine for the opportunity to become Sultan. Getting involved with her is just another stepping-stone in his search for supremacy. Like Gaston, he can’t even grasp the idea of love, and he wants to use women for his own selfish purposes. When he allows for Jasmine to become vulnerable in a deadly situation at the end, he feels no sympathy or worry for her; she is nothing more to him than a sewer rat. She can meet her demise like any other person he knows because other people are nothing but vermin to help him reach higher status.

While Gaston and Jafar are clearly both villains but seem mostly different on the surface, one can see through close inspection that many of these characters’ physical attributes, desires, and demises are very similar. Even though their looks are specific and their mannerisms slightly altered, Gaston and Jafar represent the ideals of the great Disney villains of the last century. Without them, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin would have little or no conflict, and thus, Gaston and Jafar are essential players in the giant world of classic Disney villains.

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