As a junior in the middle of my spring semester, I’ve had to start thinking about my life after college recently. My career path. And, as a junior in my spring semester, at Johns Hopkins, I am very overworked and desperate to avoid anything actually resembling adulthood. So my thoughts have been turning, inevitably, to one ideal career: Disney Villain.
But how? How to set myself up as the perfect Villain(ess)? Well, I am a junior at Johns Hopkins University, and a humanities major to boot, so in order to answer that question, I set out on a research quest. Mostly through video clips of signature villain songs, because those are the best part of being a specifically Disney villain.*
My exhaustive research has led be to two basic conclusions: the strength and impressiveness of a true Villain, and their song, is based on power and social deviancy.
Also, darkness. All the best Villains have dark clothing and dim lighting. But that’s such basic analysis that I feel it almost goes without saying. Lower chords in the music also help, and minor keys.
In support of my claim, I shall compare two famous musical scenes: “Bibbidi-Bobbiti-Boo” from Cinderella (1950), and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid (1989). It’s an interesting comparison because they actually have a number of key points in common, including some notable Villainous qualities. In each, an older woman uses magic to manipulate the environment and transform a young woman—so, in fact, she can go meet and marry a prince.
The use or even just implication of supernatural forces is a hallmark of Villainy, falling under the category of social deviancy—this is the supernatural. It’s abnormal, and thus dangerous. In Little Mermaid, magic is actually a more neutral thing, used also—indeed, first!—by King Triton, an antagonist but not a villain. (Though he does use it for the purpose of destruction, of the human objects that approximately represent Ariel’s hopes, ambitions, and individuality.) Ultimately, however, he uses the same magic to give her the life she dreams of, on land with the humans. It’s much more common for Villains to either introduce or even be the only ones to call on the supernatural. Dr. Facilier, the villainous witch doctor, is the first to use magic in The Princess and the Frog (2009), explicitly evoked in his song “Friends on the Other Side.” In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), a movie otherwise completely without magic or occult effects—save the living gargoyles who provide comic relief, and whom I for one have never thought fit tonally with the rest of the film—Bishop Frollo’s “Hellfire” is full of supernatural effects. Red hooded figures appear from nowhere to chorus and shame him, and his imagination summons a dancing image of the gypsy Esmeralda in the fireplace. The sound effects suggest that his hand motions are manipulating the flames.
As suggested, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother actually follows the “only one affiliated with the supernatural” trope more than Ursula does. She not only uses magic, but she specifically affects the protagonist with it, spelling Cinderella into a dress and her mouse friends into horses and a footman. Such an overt exhibition of power and domination is reminiscent of when Ursula not only turns Ariel human but first gives the show of her abilities with the simulacrum: “This one longing to be thinner, that one wants to get the girl / and do I help them? Yes indeed.” Or when Scar (The Lion King, 1994) kicks the hyenas around in “Be Prepared”, or Dr. Facilier concludes his song by literally turning Prince Naveen into a frog. The power expressed in physically manipulating the environment and, better, the protagonist, is another key habit of true Villainy.
The Fairy Godmother, however, is not a Villain, or even an antagonist. Why? And not just as demonstrated in her motives, to help rather than hinder or entrap. How does the film, in animation and effects, express those motives?
For one thing, though they similarly use magic, the Gofmother conforms to society’s expectations in a way that Ursula does not. The Fairy Godmother resembles nothing so much as a kindly grandmother, while Ursula, though white-haired, acts the part of a sensual temptress. Her bright lipstick and eye-shadow pop out of her face, her tentacles are shaped like a low-bodiced, jet black evening gown—with attention drawn to the chest by a dangling gold locket—and she’s…on the plump side, debatably “fat” by model-standards of beauty, particularly relative to Ariel’s lithesome sixteen-year-old self. But she’s also curvaceous, and her body language—and that make-up—positively screams confidence and “look at me!” Remember the exaggerated undulation on, “And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!” Whereas the fairy godmother is covered head to toe in loose robes of pale blue and pink, including a hood and a large pink bow at her neck. She’s gently unfashionable, non-sexual, and the colors suggest calm and comfort. She’s even shorter than Cinderella: totally non-threatening. Ursula’s aggressive sexuality is startling to the point of scariness, particularly in an older woman who insists she’s being grandmotherly, helping “poor, unfortunate souls.” It’s arguably the “otherness” of it that makes her scary rather than the actual sexuality—she also has bruise-purple skin where all other mermaids are fairly pale, or at least human-colored, and octopus tentacles instead of a fish tale. It’s similar to how Scar is the only dark-furred lion (was Walt Disney racist? Well, probably) or Governor Radcliffe in Pocahontas is taller, broader, and more richly clothed than all the other settlers in Pocahontas (1995). Villains are those who don’t fit in.
Despite this deviancy—or perhaps because of it, and which of those options is scarier?—Ursula obviously has power. Supernatural power, and power expressed in blocking, and even in the tempo of the song. It’s fast. It’s aggressive. It actually picks up speed as the song goes on, and Ariel’s choice becomes more immediate. “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” has not only a slower tempo, but also significantly less range in its notes and energy in its delivery. Ursula belts notes low and high—though generally lower, menacingly. She moves around, often to literally above Ariel’s head—a simple indication of power by blocking. She draws the focus of the scene and demonstrates her sheer drive. A true Villainess isn’t afraid to commit real effort to her world domination plans. The Fairy Godmother stays on Cinderella’s ground level throughout her song, moving little more than to broadly wave her wand.
So what have I learned, if I want to pursue a career of Disney-style Villainy? Here are the big takeaways:
- Dark clothing
- Own my sexuality, particularly if I’m not expected to. Be unexpected, and confident in it!
- Move around. Speak loudly. Don’t necessarily pay attention to others’ implicit pleas for personal space.
- Try to acquire a unique talent.
- Above all, stand out and carpe diem!
…Or I could continue spending Friday and Saturday nights alone in my well-lit bedroom, wearing pajamas and watching Disney clips on YouTube. Yeah. I might do that. At least I have cool socks.
* For reasons of copyright law, I can share neither screencaps nor links to where one might watch such clips. But I’ll admit that I, acting as a private citizen unaffiliated with JHU, have found several on the web. If you’re interested.