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Let’s face it – the good guy wouldn’t be a good guy without a bad guy to battle. It’s the villain who sets the plot in motion; he’s not constrained by the laws of niceness the hero is obliged to obey.
In fact, the worse the villain the better the hero had better be at his job – he’s got more heavy lifting to attend to. Catching a bank robber is small change compared to defeating a guy who’s out to rule the world.
So, who’s the worst of the worst? Who can give the hero a serious run for his money, leave him teetering on the edge of defeat – and do it with class to spare?
Let’s list them in order of villainy, counting down to Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker-level badguy-ness. But before we begin, a few ground rules:
Bad guy rule number one: S/he has to be unforgettable, someone who pops into your head the moment you remember their movie, or even after you’ve forgotten the film’s name;
Bad guy rule number two: S/he has to be the film’s only villain; it’s hard to shine when you’re lost in the crowd. Sorry if that rules out a classic like Pinocchio, but how does one choose between the Coachman’s grinning evil, the shady fox and feline combo of Honest John and Gideon or even the monstrous Monstro the whale?
Bad guy rule number three: S/he has to be one of the film’s main characters. Supporting players like Sid in Toy Story just don’t cut it; which brings us to –
Bad guy rule number four: There has to be a bad guy. There are plenty of great movies where the hero’s challenge is to survive his predicament, not outwit a nonexistent evildoer. How to Train Your Dragon is a perfect example: In order to protect his scaly friend Toothless, young Hiccup must overcome his village’s hatred of all winged reptiles. (There is an evil alpha dragon who doesn’t appear until late in the film and has no personality to speak of.)
That said, there’s no shortage of candidates. (Or in private eye parlance, likely suspects.) However, on closer examination this rogues’ gallery quickly splits into two categories: the truly evil vs. the buffoons. While the line-up in either category is capable of visiting doom upon the hero, the delineation is simple: the truly evil have you holding your breath, while the buffoons (and their buffoonish minions) provide plenty of laughs in the course of their dirty deeds.
This bifurcation of bad guys obliges me to provide twin lists of villains: “the elegantly scary” and “funny but dangerous.” Counting down Letterman-style, let’s start with the ha-ha crowd:
10. A tie between Igor’s Dr. Schadenfreude (voiced by Eddie Izzard) and Andy Dick’s Bongo Bunny in Hoodwinked. I’ve paired these films up because they’re both favorites of mine, both low-budget sleepers deserving of more attention. The sarcastic European-accented Schadenfreude enjoys insulting his girlfriend Jaclyn (Jennifer Coolidge – “she may seem like a shallow, conniving wretch… that’s all I got, that pretty much sums it up”), who gives as good as she gets (“you’re one to talk, Dr. Schaden-fraud”) – which turns out to be their version of foreplay (“is daddy still mad at me?”); rather kinky, no?
Hoodwinked is the better known film of the two, an extremely funny (if horribly animated) take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. The adorable (or so he’d have you believe) Bongo’s gleeful, I Love Being a Villain song (“You won’t be disrespecting this bunny anymore, I’m gonna be top of the woods”) is a total showstopper. (And that’s a countdown for another day: “The Ten Best I-Love-Being-a-Villain Songs.”)
9. Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone. (Voiced by Martha Wentworth in 1963 – the ancient age of pre-celebrity voice work.) Mim’s no slouch either when it comes to singing her own praises, vocalizing while transmogrifying from one form to another, from curvaceous charmer to pig-faced monster. In fact, her wizard’s duel with Merlin – with both of them shape-shifting for all they’re worth – is the film’s highlight.
The victim of studio politics, the top-notch CDD didn’t deserve its quick slide into obscurity, taking a slew of first-rate Randy Newman songs with it. (If there was any justice in the world, “Tell Me Lies” would’ve been a 1997 Best Song Oscar nominee.)
7. Gru, Despicable Me, voiced by Steve Carrell. We’re stretching the rules here a bit; Gru is the film’s villain and hero all at once. His villainy is more on the order of mega-pranks and never seems to actually put anyone in physical danger. Gru’s rival, the nerdy Vector is the film’s villainous villain; he might have great taste in decorating (his headquarters looks like it was designed by Apple – a veritable iLair), but he just isn’t top ten material. (Speaking of which, sorry Megamind; in last year’s battle of similarly themed animated features, Gru won easily thanks to his latent cuddliness, not to mention his goofball horde of mini-minions.)
I had the pleasure of meeting Eartha in 2005, a few years before her passing. When I told her I loved her performance in the film she burst out laughing; I was the first person to ever compliment her on her animation work. I just wish I had added “or, to save on postage” had become a family catch phrase.
4. Rattigan, The Great Mouse Detective. Vincent Price did a fair amount of voice work, but his villainous rodent brings The Great Mouse Detective to life. (Save a dramatic battle within Big Ben’s clockworks, the movie’s animation is more Disney Afternoon than theatrical feature.) Oily, unctuous and totally in love with himself, Rattigan’s “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” is a serious candidate for the world’s greatest I Love Being a Villain song.
2. Captain Hook, Peter Pan. You can count on Hans Conried to add a theatrical flair to any performance. As the crocodile-pursued pirate, Conried chews the painted scenery as if he hadn’t eaten in a month. Hook is one of Disney’s best-animated villains; how could he not be, considering he was brought to life by two of the best animators ever to lift a pencil: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.
And our winner…
1. Cruella De Vil, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The stylish De Vil was so wicked (“if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”), someone else had to perform her villain song. (She doesn’t have much company in that regard; the only other character who comes to mind is the Grinch, immortalized in the immortal Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” in Chuck Jones’ animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)
Cruella’s death’s head face, her schizoid black and white head of hair and cheekbones that look like she’s holding a double-pointed arrow in her mouth are nothing compared to her satanic, go-for-broke obsession to own those spotted dogs. (Freeze frame her close-up at 75:31 into the DVD and you’ll see what I’m talking about.) Cruella was animated by Marc Davis, another of Disney’s “nine old men” and voiced by Betty Lou Gerson in a once in a lifetime vocal performance. (Betty’s final IMDB credit is as the voice of “Frances,” a grande dame fish in 1997’s Cats Don’t Dance.)
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Hmm, looks like Disney dominated the roll call, snapping the top six slots and seven out of the ten. Too Disney-centric a list? Perhaps, but I calls them like I sees them. If I left out your candidate, perhaps he or she made it onto the honorable mentions list; a handful worthy of consideration in alphabetical order:
Jafar, Aladdin… The Toad, Flushed Away… Alameda Slim, Home on the Range… Megamind, Megamind... Medusa, The Rescuers… Plankton, The SpongeBob SquarePants movie... Wile E. Coyote, any number of Road Runner shorts – wait a second, how did this guy get in here? This is supposed to be a list of animated feature films villains. Oh well, let’s give this king of the losers an honorary spot – he deserves some sort of award for sheer dedication. (Did he ever stop to think he could dine for life on one tenth the money he keeps wasting on defective Acme Inc. products?).
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.