From the moment that the storybook opened in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we knew that Snow White’s stepmother, the Wicked Queen, would live up to her name.
That’s been the case with almost every film in the Walt Disney Animated Canon. Whether it was the handsome Gaston, the “scary beyond all reason” Yzma, or a collection of characters creating obstacles for the heroes in Pinocchio, we didn’t have to guess the identity of the villains. They were bad news from the get-go.
But that’s not the case anymore. For their past three animated features, Disney’s been giving us “the plot twist villain.”
It should go without saying that this will be a very spoiler-heavy post.
For those who care, I will mention details from the plots of the following movies: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 2 & 3, Up, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia. If you want to remain completely unspoiled for any one of these films, back out now.
What’s a plot twist villain? That’s what I’m calling the bad guys featured in the latest animated Disney movies. They act like friends, mentors, or even love interests to the protagonists throughout the film. Then, in the third act, the protagonists make a horrifying discovery: that friend, mentor, or love interest was the REAL bad guy all along! Also, there’s usually a character that serves as a red herring, acting like the typical Disney villain so that everybody will feel even more shocked when the twist happens.
However, it’s not so easy to fool your audience when you try to pull off this trick three times in a row. That’s how the stories unfolded in Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia. As much as I love these movies as a whole, I’m tired of seeing this trick.
Although I wonder, is that fair? We’ve had at least fifty films in the Disney Animated Canon where the villain was very obvious from the beginning. So shouldn’t Disney be allowed to make a series of films with plot twist villains for a while?
Maybe, but it’s different when we’re discussing a plot twist because plot twists are meant to be surprising. When we know to expect a plot twist villain, it takes some of that expected emotional response away. We automatically ask ourselves, “Okay, who’s the last person we’d expect to see as the villain who isn’t the Hero, Goofy Sidekick, or Love Interest?” Chances are, you’ll get it right on the first try. With obvious villains like Maleficent, it doesn’t matter if we get decades and decades of them because we were never meant to be surprised by them.
Then, once the initial shock’s over, what’s left to these plot twist characters?
Individually, I like their motivations and I think if you look at each of the three films on their own, with no additional context, they work very well. I like how Frozen actually demonstrates why marrying a man you’ve only just met would be a terrible idea instead of simply making fun of the concept like Enchanted did. I like how Professor Callaghan serves as a foil to Hiro in the ways they handled their grief and anger. I like how Bellwether starts off as another example of a member of the “prey” class who gets mistreated, and then the movie shows what that can do to a person.
Again, it’s when these movies get released one right after the other, using the exact same type of plot twist three times in a row, that the concept loses its emotional value.
Now, Prince Hans wasn’t necessarily the first “twist” villain in Disney history. Pixar started it with Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2, the forgotten, unpopular toy who comes across as a voice of reason when Woody’s trying to decide between going to a museum or going back to Andy. Towards the end of the movie, when Woody chose Andy, he showed his true colors by trying to force Woody to go to Japan instead.
Then, Pixar did it again in Monsters Inc. Randall’s the main villain throughout the film, but again, in the third act, the heroes learn that he’s been getting help from their boss, Mr. Waternoose. Previously, Mr. Waternoose acted like a father figure to Sulley.
But after that, they didn’t do it again until Up, with Charles Muntz, and Toy Story 3 with Lotso.
Also, unlike the Hans/Callaghan/Bellwether Trio, these Pixar examples weren’t always the main antagonists. Compare Big Hero 6, where Krei was an insensitive jerk at worst, to Monsters Inc., where Randall orchestrated the whole evil plan to steal Boo’s screams and convinced Mr. Waternoose to go along with it. In Up, there’s no real villain at all until Muntz shows up, if you don’t count his dogs.
Back in the land of Disney Feature Animation, they also technically have an example before Hans: Commander Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. He’s part of the crew helping Milo get to Atlantis, and by the third act, Milo learns that he’s a mercenary who wants to steal the Atlanteans’ crystal. But for some reason, I distinctly remember watching this movie as a kid and thinking, “Okay, that’s the bad guy,” long before his motive was revealed. I can’t remember if Disney promoted him as the bad guy or not. Does anybody else? In any case, he never shared a close relationship with Milo, real or pretend, so his betrayal didn’t hit hard in the way Hans’ betrayal did.
There’s also King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph. Still, the Disney writers executed the twist to King Candy differently than they did with the twists to the villains in Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia. With the exception of one very well done scene, King Candy never comes across as a good person. He encourages everyone to bully and ostracize Vanellope Von Schweetz. When he gives Ralph his sympathetic reason for doing so, it doesn’t take long for Ralph to realize that he’s lying. His motivation for attacking Vanellope and his real identity are the twists. In the other three films, the twist is simply that these seemingly friendly characters are the real bad guys. That’s pretty much it.
I’m really curious to know whether Disney’s next film, Moana, will have a plot twist villain or not. Based on the synopsis that Disney released, the story doesn’t look like one that would lend itself to a plot twist villain. It doesn’t even look like the kind of movie that would have a real villain. But then again, neither did Up, and Pixar still gave us Charles Muntz.
It’s not easy to write a story. I think most writers try to create scenes and characters that they believe will have the most emotional impact on audiences. So plot twists are particularly fun to write because it’s so satisfying to watch people’s shocked reactions. But I sincerely hope that Disney takes a step back and avoids more plot twist villains for now. When we come into the theater expecting the villain to be a “surprise,” it stops working as an effective plot twist.
I have faith that they’ll figure things out though. There are no storytellers quite like the Disney artists. They’ve made a name for themselves for a reason.
UNLESS…“Disney” isn’t even a real company anymore…and all those people claiming to be “Disney artists” are actually DREAMWORK EMPLOYEES IN DISGUISE!!! And they’re trying to monopolize the animation industry by pretending to be different companies! AHHHHHH, WHAT A SHOCKING TWIST! We’d better get the Queen of Arendelle, Big Hero 6, and the Zootopian police department on this case immediately.