Disney animated movies have given us some of cinema’s best love-to-hate-them villains, from Snow White's Evil Queen to The Lion King's Scar and The Little Mermaid's Ursula the Sea Witch. This is partly because Disney movies have long been -- and still are -- rooted in fairy stories and folklore tales that deal in moral absolutes. These villains are painted in the broadest theatrical strokes. One minute they're belting out a riotous show tune and the next they're giving kids nightmares with a pointed glare or a cackling laugh.
We love Disney villains, and Disney knows we love Disney villains. That's why the studio built an entire franchise around their villains' kids, The Descendants, and why Disney has made some of its biggest villains the star of their own solo movies like Maleficent and Cruella De Vil.
However, while these live-action offshoots are finding success with the company's back catalogue of "legacy" characters, the current renaissance era of Disney animated movies have paradoxically found success by doing the exact opposite. Instead of relying on a traditional, good versus evil binary, the studio has been plundering the grey areas, at the cost of, for better or worse, creating new, memorable villains.
The Hans twist in the first Frozen movie is a prime example: The power-hungry prince that broke Anna's heart was little more than a plot device. The same can be said for Moana's angry goddess, Te Kā. The film simply took the Hans device and inverted it, arguably to much greater effect, some would argue.
This isn’t entirely Disney’s fault. It’s representative of a gradual change in the larger cultural attitude towards fictional villainy, which has evolved beyond favoring cartoonish stereotypes to wanting to see empathetic, misguided outsiders. Thanos can wipe out half of all life everywhere and inspire real-world sympathizers. Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the Babadook are shipped as lovers. The Joker is a kooky heartthrob. Venom was 2018's best romantic-comedy. Do we like villains or do we like like villains? It's both! And both are perfectly fine.
In step with this, Disney shifted away from its original plan to retell a faithful version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, instead reorienting Queen Elsa to be the misunderstood antihero of 2013's Frozen rather than a child-nabbing frost hag.
In another era, Elsa could have been this generation's Maleficent, but it's no longer fashionable to equate magic with unlikable, evil witches and old crones. Plus, Angelina Jolie is currently this generation's Maleficent. Things we don’t understand are things we're now taught to embrace, which is practically spelled out by Disney when Elsa is told to "travel into the unknown" in the first full trailer for Frozen 2.
There could well be some kind of physical adversary waiting for Elsa in the "unknown," but does Elsa really need one? For that matter, does any new Disney leading lady? The point we're at not only tracks with our modern love affair with baddies and antiheroes, but it also tracks with the natural trajectory of Disney heroines.
Snow White sang for her "prince to come" in 1937 and Sleeping Beauty snoozed her way through the final battle with Maleficent in 1959.
In Disney's '90s Golden Era, and Princesses Jasmine and Ariel emancipated themselves to pursue men of their choosing. While Mulan trashed gender norms with a haircut and an arsenal of fireworks, Meg told Hercules that not every "damsel in distress" needs the hand of chivalry extended their way. Belle was kind of patronizing and fell prey to Stockholm Syndrome, so let's just chalk her up to a bump in the road.
In recent years, we've gotten a new generation of Disney heroes with Merida, Moana and Elsa, heroines with much internal agency of their own that have little time or need for either love interests or proper villains. Instead, they go on quests of valor and soul-searching that lead them to pursue the kinds of fantastic adventures that only male characters traditionally get to have.
Between journeying into a mystical, dangerous land and continuing to reconcile with her strange and powerful abilities, it seems like Elsa already has enough drama on her plate to deal with. If it's a choice between another forgettable Hans or some more abstract, thematic barrier to Elsa achieving her goals, we'll take the latter.
Arriving Nov. 22, Disney's Frozen 2 reunites directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and producer Peter Del Vecho with voice actors Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad. Returning musical talents include Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.