Disney is incredibly good at creating enchanting and memorable films, as much for their songs and settings as their plots. Yet what makes them such enduring favourites are the engaging personas who, through strong characterisation, make it possible to read the emotional and moral landscape of the film with ease. However, this ease rests on a very simple mechanism that I like to call The Disney Fallacy: good characters look good and evil characters look evil. Though rarely so clear-cut in real life, the idea that appearance can tell you something fundamental about an individual’s character is a potent one, and consequently can have an enduring impact on how we perceive and evaluate others.
So pervasive is this mechanism that it is actually possible to determine the villain of any given Disney film from character headshots alone, as their moral status is communicated through three main attributes: skin tone, eyebrows, and physique. Sallow through to greyish purple is the complexion of bad motives – on a spectrum ranging from Captain Hook to Hades – with such an unhealthy skin tone often complemented by equally sombre clothing. Indeed to list The Big Bad Wolf, Captain Hook, Cruella De vil, Claude Frollo, Dr. Facilier, Gantu, Hades, The Horned King, Jafar, Lady Tremaine, Madam Medusa, Maleficent, Mother Gothel, Peg Leg Pete, Professor Ratigan, Queen Grimhilde, Governor Ratcliffe, Scar, Shan Yu, Si and Am, Sykes, Ursula, and Yzma is to name but a few.
The physique of these characters are either sharp edged and skeletal (Yzma), or imposingly broad (Governor Ratcliffe) with women usually falling into the former and men the latter category. There are exceptions, for instance Ursula and Dr.Facilier, yet they still fill one of these two categories rather than possessing either the svelte or soft and plumptious (think the Sultan in Aladdin) figures of traditionally ‘good’ characters. The extremity of their bodies makes them sinister or imposingly monstrous, creating a physical reflection of their unnatural and unwholesome intentions. Notable omissions from this list bring us to the final defining feature: eyebrows. Except for Gantu, all the above named villains have strikingly sinister eyebrows; long, sharp, and almost invariably black, they add expressive power to lowering and glares. Even should a character be a reassuringly human colour, their eyebrows can be a suggestion of something darker in their nature. This is most notable in the case of Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston as, despite being of hearty appearance, his expression is almost invariably made aggressive through his arched and heavy brows. It is also worth noting here that in the scene where he is fighting with the Beast, and is therefore at his most antagonistic within the plot, his skin appears more ashen, making him a more complete image of Disney villainy.
Instead of wondering why, with all these red flags, other characters continue to trust such dubious figures it is worth looking at antagonists who possess none of these traits. I found only two instances of Disney villains who do not appear villainous: Prince Hans and Stinky Pete. In both cases, and arguably in that of Gaston also, the plot requires that the audience does not know them to be villainous until further in the story which not only exposes the link between appearance and our perception of moral character but also draws a distinction between the ‘just because’ evil of characters such as Claude Frollo and Cruella De Vil and the more motivated and invested characterisation of villains such as Prince Hans. It also works in reverse where characters, such as Stitch, who are initially presented as dangerous can fulfil visual expectations of ‘bad’ characters (dark purple with occasional spines) which are then softened and undermined though large eyes and a soft body.
That Disney is formulaic is saying nothing new and I am quite aware that you are unlikely to base your entire moral outlook on anthropomorphised lions; however, even as we are consciously aware that not all criminals look like Jafar, such expectations can have a residual impact on how we perceive people in later life. News stories of murderers finally caught, slavers discovered, abusers exposed, often dwell on how ‘normal’ the perpetrator(s) appeared; how they were always on time to work, talked with neighbours, paid their bills. What the Disney Fallacy reassures us of is that character is written on the outside and so we look to appearances when we should look deeper. No one thought them capable of what they were found to have done as there is still an expectation that evil in human form will always be sallow, snaggletoothed, and obvious. We are far more complex.