So I watched the Disney Tarzan a while ago. It has, and I don’t think I’m in a minority on this opinion, one of the single most shocking deaths in Disney history. Certainly the most shocking death I think I’ve ever seen in a G-rated movie. A character is actually hanged on screen. Think about that. I’m glad my kid wasn’t paying attention.
If you ask most people, they’d probably tell you that Disney villains fall to their death. Certainly I’m never surprised when it happens, and it is the most common cause of death. But I was actually discussing this with Graham last week, and we agreed that there’s more weight behind the idea than the films merit, because it isn’t really all that common. So we agreed that it might be interesting to sit down and run the numbers.
For the record, this is limited to theatrical feature releases from the Walt Disney Animation Studio. Not Pixar. Not Disney MovieToons. Not Walt Disney Television Animation. I am going to count Dinosaur released by Secret Lab, because it’s listed in the celebration of fifty animated releases that came on the disc of Tangled, meaning the studio counts it as a Disney release. (Look, Tangled and Tarzan are really close in the alphabet, okay?) But the only films I am counting that did not appear in that are Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6—because they came out after Tangled.
The first thing to notice is that a handful of Disney films don’t actually have villains. Okay, so that includes obvious items like The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but really, is there a villain in Fantasia? There’s a demon, but Cernobog doesn’t do anything other than delight in the antics of witches and ghosts and things. Disney has, over the years, made seven movies that are musical anthologies; of those, I’d say three films, and a total of five segments, even have a villain. (The Wolf of “Peter and the Wolf” and Tetti-Tatti of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met” from Make Mine Music; Lumpjaw from “Bongo” and Willie the Giant from “Mickey and the Beanstalk” in Fun and Fancy Free; and the destructive spirit from “Firebird Suite” in Fantasia 2000.) There are a few other arguable cases, but that’s it. In all, seven movies inarguably do not have villains.
From there, we look at the arguable cases. Zeus in Fantasia. Villain or jerk? Ditto a lot of the cast in “The Martins and the Coys” from Make Mine Music, the majority of the elephants in Dumbo, and Widowmaker, Pecos Bill’s horse in Melody Time. And while the hunters of Bambi are villains, I would argue more that they’re sort of closer to forces of nature, or I guess the opposite of that given that it’s nature that we’re watching. Nothing with a personality, anyway. In both Lady and the Tramp and The Sword in the Stone, the ones who make things worst for the main character are really trying to do their best, and the ones who catch the audience’s attention (the Siamese cats and Madame Mim, respectively) are relatively minor despite the fact that they could, yes, and in the cats’ case did, make things very difficult for the main character. Amos Slade and Chief of The Fox and the Hound are hunters, and they’re doing what they think is right as well. The Carnotaurus in Dinosaur is in the “force of nature” category. Captain Ganut of Lilo & Stitch is literally just doing his job. The aliens in Chicken Little are trying to get a missing child back.
Brother Bear is an interesting case; the hero and the villain are basically the same person. Technically, we could make this an eighth movie with no villain, but Our Hero does kill a mother at the beginning of the story, after all. You could also argue that Pinocchio has many little villains but basically everything that goes wrong is because Pinocchio is, as Gepetto calls him, a little wooden-head.
So where are we? Thirty-four movies, having eliminated twenty, inarguably have villains. But we’ll say thirty-six, since we’re looking at multiple sections of a few of those. And here’s the interesting thing—in twenty-one of those, the villain doesn’t die. This ranges from “goes to jail” to “is driven off but survives” to “is a god,” but heck, Tetti-Tatti doesn’t even suffer punishment beyond the sorrowful fact of not understanding what he did. And we are explicitly expected to feel sorry for him! Oh, one or two of those villains, we can assume that things won’t end happily for them, but there’s no body, anyway.
What’s the breakdown on the rest of them? Let’s look.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: falls off cliff and is crushed by rock
Fun and Fancy Free: falls into river and is swept away
Sleeping Beauty: Sword of Truth flew swift and sure
The Black Cauldron: per Wikipedia, consumed “in a tunnel of fire and blood ”
The Great Mouse Detective: falls into mechanism of the clock tower at Westminster
Oliver & Company: drives into path of train and falls into the Hudson River
The Little Mermaid: stabbed by wreck risen from the depths of the sea
The Rescuers Down Under: swept over waterfall
Beauty and the Beast: falls off castle
The Lion King: eaten by hyenas
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: falls off Notre Dame
Mulan: blown up with fireworks
Tarzan: hanged in vines
Atlantis: The Lost Empire: turned to crystal and shattered in propeller blade (also pretty horrific)
Meet the Robinsons: warped out of existence (may not count)
The Princess and the Frog: meets his friends on the Other Side
Tangled: see also Walter Donovan in Last Crusade
Wreck-It Ralph: eaten by Cy-Bug
So okay, if you’re a Disney villain, you still might want to stay away from heights. But all things considered, you’d also be well served to be careful how you treat your subordinates.