Spoilers ahead for “Moana,” “Sing,” “Zootopia,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Frozen,” although I assume everyone has seen “Frozen” by now.
“Moana,” the latest animated Disney film, has many of the conventions of beloved Disney movies. It features a princess, toe-tappingly good songs, a comedic sidekick and a weird animal. What “Moana” misses is a villain, although there is an argument to be made that Te Ka, a lava demon, is the villain of the film.
“Moana,” unlike many other post-“Tangled” Disney films, manages to work without the presence of a villain. With nearly every other Disney film struggles with lacking villains or red herrings, “Moana” manages to succeed because it’s structured as an adventure film, with some buddy-comedy aspects.
The disappearance of villains in animated films seems to be a bit of a new trend, one that doesn’t always seem to work. This seems to have been something stolen from Pixar since a lot of animation studios seem intent on stealing from what is arguably the most acclaimed animation studio out there. What seems to be the most beloved Pixar films–“Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” “Wall-E,” “Brave,” “Inside Out,” “Ratatouille”–tend to have no villain. Granted, plenty of other great Pixar movies, ones that I personally prefer, have villains in them, notably “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Up.” (For the record, “Ratatouille” is my favorite Pixar film, but Skinner is more of an antagonist and Anton Ego is Addison DeWitt-lite.)
Pixar, however, tends to make movies children and adults can enjoy, ones that even seem to be a little more cerebral. Most children’s entertainment seems to try to pander to kids and dumb things down for them, ignoring how children sometimes have a heightened sense of the world for how it is. Pixar’s approach to movies is similar to Laika, who has produced “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” While Laika films don’t have villains in the traditional sense of classic Disney films, the films produced by that studio tend to delve into truly dark territory beyond the picture’s aesthetic.
Even several Dreamworks films feature villains, especially when we consider the “Shrek” films are essentially just parodies of films from Disney’s “renaissance” period. When Dreamworks, the biggest purveyor of the unnecessary animated dance party to close out a movie, still has villains in its movies the question arises as to what happened to villains.
In the Disney films myself and many others grew up with, there is the immediate introduction of a villain, usually noted by their dark clothing. (Think about it: Cruella De Vil, Gaston, and Captain Hook are really the only Disney villains who wear clothing where the dominant color isn’t black or purple.) Disney villains are often distinguished by their desire to stop at nothing to get what they want, be it King Triton’s trident, gold in Virginia, or Esmerelda and state-sponsored discrimination against a specific race of people.
What’s more striking is the motivation of those characters for committing often heinous acts is usually made very clear from the beginning. In the instance of Professor Rattigan in “The Great Mouse Detective,” he is motivated to kidnap Flaversham and his daughter because he knows both of those pieces can help him with his plan to overthrow Mouse Britania. His end game is to rule all of “mousedom” and outsmart Basil, which fuels everything he does in the movie.
This isn’t really the case with a lot of modern Disney movies. In “Frozen,” we are initially shown the Duke of Weselton, who has a strong desire to capture the mysteriously cut-off kingdom’s trade resources. Based on everything that goes on in the film, right down to him calling Elsa a monster when her powers are revealed, you would assume he’s the villain.
This is one of modern Disney’s favorite strategies in story telling: the red hering. The villain of Frozen ends up being Prince Hans, Anna’s love interest. While I am all in favor of twists in storytelling, the reveal of Prince Hans being the villain just doesn’t work. He has very little motivation for what he does in the movie other than what is revealed in the film’s third act. Furthermore, his reasons for courting Anna for marriage make no sense. If he just wanted to get close to her and gain her respect, it’s safe to assume he could have just tried to befriend her. It’s well-established in the film everyone in the surrounding kingdoms knows about how reclusive Anna and Elsa have been since their parents’ death, so it’s safe to assume if Hans wanted to just befriend her, she probably would have given him her unyielding loyalty.
A similar thing happens in the plot of “Big Hero 6,” although in that film the issue is more so that the presumed villain was framed by the actual antagonist, which is much more forgivable.
The other common failure of storytelling in modern Disney films is when the villain is a mystery. Generally, as seen in “Zootopia” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” something is wrong with the universe of the film and there is an antagonist who is causing the problem, which the protagonist has to solve. (Arguably, this is also what happens in “Moana.”) In “Wreck-It Ralph,” there are glitches in the games, which seemed to have been caused by Ralph jumping from game-to-game. As it turns out, these were actually caused by the actual antagonist of the film, who also sabotaged the game, resulting in the glitches seen in Vanellope. This one works because in the plot of the film the end results all make sense.
This works less well in “Zootopia,” a film everyone enjoyed more than me. In the world of the film, predators and prey live in harmony, but this is threatened when some prey go feral. After an initial false ending and increased prejudice in Zootopia, it is later revealed the timid sheep who works as the assistant mayor is behind the prey going feral. This ends up feeling very rushed and coming out of left-field for the same reasons why the Hans reveal doesn’t really work in “Frozen.” The motivations feel very haphazard, as if someone realized the final version of script was due to Disney and they didn’t have a villain. While the overall ending of “Zootopia” works, the reveal of the antagonist feels like such a twist, it catches one by surprise for all the wrong reasons.
But having an animated film with no villain can work. Studio Ghibli has made many films with no villains and they continue to endure, never ceasing to be a delight on every viewing. Illumination’s “Sing” is another film that, while not high art, manages to be a fun, light-hearted movie without a villain, although I would like to think capitalism is the villain in “Sing.” The movie is ultimately about a bunch of animals in a singing competition and it fulfills its mission. It’s fun and the plot actually makes sense, even if it seems largely like an excuse to have a bunch of stars singing popular songs from the past forty years.
While an animated film can succeed without a villain, the tendency to not have a villain as seen in classic Disney films can result in films not working because of poor scriptwriting. There is no reason why films should try to avoid a menacing villain as children can handle characters who behave in an almost unbelievable way. After all, we have enough people in the government and other positions of power whose behavior isn’t too far removed from the villains we saw in cartoons as children. Shouldn’t art imitate life, even if it’s to provide an escape?