For many viewers, Disney’s villains are the best characters of them all. It’s no wonder why Cruella and Maleficent got their own movies — they often outshined the heroes and became the real star of their respective shows. But why? Why are Disney villains so damn likable? Is it their awesome outfits? Their fantastically shady lines? Or their engrossing character?
Let’s face it, the villains normally have more personality than the heroes and provide so much more to the story, whether it’s humor, sly wit, and in some cases, genuine terror. Disney wouldn’t be Disney without compelling villains, and it’s time to give them the love they deserve.
Those horns! That cape! Her proper, poised demeanor that masked her evil prowess. Maleficent, the villain in Sleeping Beauty, is an absolute monster. And yet, she’s so captivating. With every step, she exudes grace and power, which she uses for her nefarious doings. This is, after all, the woman who put a spell on baby princess Aurora, condemning her to death when she turns 16.
But in addition to all that elegance and confidence, Maleficent’s so likable because she knew she was so powerful. In 1959, when Sleeping Beauty premiered, powerful female characters weren’t really a thing yet in cinema. Maleficent was, though heinous, a total badass and a strong female character, making her an absolute trailblazer.
The Princess and the Frog is set in New Orleans and its surrounding swamplands and gave birth to one of Disney’s scariest villains of all time — Dr. Facilier. Known as the Shadow Man through much of the film, Facilier is a voodoo witch doctor who uses his magic for self gain.
His big musical number in the film is Friends on the Other Side, where he convinces a new arrival to the city, Prince Naveen, to take part in a voodoo ritual. Tarot cards, voodoo dolls, giant wooden masks, and glowing face paint all turn the scene into an enthralling spectacle you can’t turn away from. It’s also genuinely horrifying and surprisingly disturbing for a kid’s movie. Add to that his army of shadowy demons that rise up from the underworld and you have one of Disney’s scariest villains ever.
He’s an adult’s villain running amok in a children’s film. You almost can’t believe Disney had the nerve to make an antagonist that scary in a kid’s movie. But that terror also makes him undeniably cool and likable, especially for grown-up viewers.
Loosely based on Hamlet, The Lion King became one of Disney’s most successful films ever. One of the biggest reasons for its success was its cunning villain, Scar. Voiced by Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons, Scar is a power-hungry tyrant. On top of being inspired by Hamlet‘s King Claudius, Scar was also modeled after Hitler, giving the character a horrific realism. So why is he one of Disney’s most iconic and popular villains?
Because his character is crafted so well. To be likable, you don’t always need to be liked. Scar wasn’t just conniving, he was also convincing. Without him, The Lion King just wouldn’t be the same. He drove the story, he made everything happen. Perhaps unintentionally, Disney made Scar the real main character. He’s the one who sets everything into motion, so it’s natural for viewers to be drawn to him.
While technically the sidekick, Aladdin‘s Iago outshined Jafar in virtually every single scene. Voiced by the hilarious Gilbert Godfried, Iago was Jafar’s loudmouthed parrot, and without him, Jafar’s character would have been almost unbearably boring. Jafar was stiff, rigid, and generically evil, giving viewers little reason to be entertained when he was on the screen. It was Iago who actually brought the scenes to life, with Jafar playing straight man to Iago’s bonkers personality.
In fact, Iago was easily the funniest character in the entire movie aside from Robin Williams’ Genie. From the scene where he poses as a flamingo to when he force-feeds crackers to the sultan, Iago brought massive laughs to Aladdin, and it’s impossible not to like him for that.
The Evil Queen was the OG of Disney’s villains and laid the groundwork for all who came after her. Released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Disney’s first feature-length film, and the Evil Queen helped turn the movie into a phenomenon. Addicted to vanity and obsessed with being “the fairest in the land,” the Evil Queen’s jealousy of Snow White ends up destroying her.
But her journey into madness is oh-so satisfying. Not only does she become obsessed with killing Snow White, but she becomes so dead set on doing it that she even turns herself into a hideous old hag, just to deceive Snow White and deliver a poison apple. Her villainy is absolutely iconic. There’s no better way to describe the Evil Queen, which is likely why she’s so likable.
To this day, 85 years after the release of Snow White, the Evil Queen remains a fan-favorite and is still included in many of the live shows in Disney parks.
The Jungle Book is loaded with massive animals, many of which are apex predators – bears, panthers, and pythons, just to name a few – so when you can be the apex among all apexes, you’re truly a force to be reckoned with. That’s why Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger, is many viewers’ favorite character from The Jungle Book. (Baloo who?)
Cunning, intelligent, and even a bit debonair, Shere Khan knows the jungle is his and he’s not afraid to make that known. At one moment, he’s a well-spoken gentleman, and the next, he’s a predator on the loose. That dichotomy makes Shere Khan the peculiar villain that draws you in and makes you think. You want to like him, but you also want to fear him. He’s a beguiling character that can’t easily be placed in a category, and that mystery is what makes him such a compelling and likable antagonist.
He’s in-your-face, full of one-liners, and one of the most charismatic Disney villains of all time. Hades from Hercules was funnier and more interesting than anyone else in the entire film, including Hercules himself. With lines like, “Name’s Hades, Lord of the dead. Hi, how ya doin’?” his boisterous personality remains the most memorable feature of the whole movie.
In recent years, he’s also become a very controversial character. Many claim the Hades character relied on Jewish stereotypes, including speaking in Yiddish numerous times throughout the film.
With stunning fashion, wild hair, and an absolutely vile personality, Cruella de Vil is the gaudy and evil fashionista from 101 Dalmations who wants to kidnap puppies and use their fur to make coats (the reason, she claims, is that puppy fur is just sooo much softer). And while we should want to hate her, there’s just something you can’t help but love.
She’s so tacky and vain, opulent yet soulless, and downright flashy that it becomes kitschy and gauche. It’s like she was pulled straight from an episode of Real Housewives. She’s such a spectacle that you can’t stop yourself from smiling at the very sight of her. In 2021, Disney even gave Cruella her own spinoff movie starring Emma Stone, continuing de Vil’s legacy as one of the most iconic villains in Disney history.
“I’ll turn him into a flea, a harmless, little flea, and then I’ll put that flea in a box, and then I’ll put that box inside of another box, and then I’ll mail that box to myself, and when it arrives (maniacal laughter), I’ll smash it with a hammer!” Yzma is hands down the funniest Disney villain in the company’s storied history. The old, emaciated advisor to Emperor Kuzco wants nothing more than to overthrow him and take the throne for herself.
Voiced by the legendary Eartha Kitt, Yzma wasn’t just able to deliver funny lines, she was able to deliver them with perfect tone and timing, turning The Emperor’s New Groove into a laugh-out-loud comedy. Yzma was so hilarious and captivating that she effortlessly outshined the film’s lead, Emperor Kuzco. It’s no wonder Disney brought Kitt back to reprise the role in both the sequel, Kronk’s New Groove, and the spinoff TV show, The Emperor’s New School.
Is there a more iconic Disney villain than Ursula from The Little Mermaid? She’s a wicked sea witch who steals Ariel’s voice, but she’s also sassy and brilliant. It’s impossible not to love her. She’s just so captivating. Her physical demeanor makes her look strong and domineering. Add to that her cleverness and deceptive charm, and you have a true villain.
Ursula was actually inspired by the drag queen Divine, and on top of possessing many of Divine’s physical features, she also embodies the drag persona as well – she’s flamboyantly vain, she knows how to throw shade, and she has an impenetrable confidence that she uses to get her way.
Iconic, fabulous, and gloriously cruel, Ursula is a fantastic and captivating villain that viewers can’t get enough of. Throughout the years, the role has been played by Hollywood greats like Whoopi Goldberg and Queen Latifah, and the 2023 remake will see Melissa McCarthy portray the part.
All of these classic Disney films can be streamed on Disney+.