By Chuck Barney
A trailer for "Maleficent" boldly declares Angelina Jolie's title character to be "Disney's greatest villain," but that's open to debate.
Oh sure, the so-called Mistress of Evil is a devilish diva, all powerful, dominant and dazzling. And the way she can morph into a humongous fire-breathing reptile makes for a pretty neat parlor trick.
But the "greatest"? We're not so sure. After all, there are numerous outlandishly nasty Disney baddies who can go toe-to-toe -- or horns-to-horns -- with her.
From dastardly kings and scheming queens, to blowhard bullies and wicked stepmothers, Disney's adversaries are some of the most mesmerizing and memorable characters in popular culture. They're scoundrels who will do anything -- lie, cheat, steal, kill -- to achieve their malicious ends, while keeping us entertained in the process. And let's admit it: They're often much more interesting than the heroes.
With that in mind, we've enlisted a few staff members to make a case for the Disney villains who have haunted their dreams over the years. What follows is a gallery of rogues we all love to hate (in alphabetical order):* Cruella de Vil, "101 Dalmatians"
OK, so that witch Maleficent has deadly designs on a rosy-cheeked baby -- that's bad.
But my queen of evil, the gaunt-faced, nicotine-addled Cruella de Vil of "101 Dalmatians" fame, is mean to puppies, fer pete's sake.
She sweeps into Roger and Anita's house, enveloped in that ubiquitous cloud of smoke, demanding that all of Pongo and Perdita's darling, dappled progeny be handed over to her forthwith, so she can skin them (probably alive!) and create a posh fur coat for herself. And when she doesn't get her way, she hires a pair of thugs to have them kidnapped and killed. She may be hellbent on draping herself in dazzling black and white, but that hag is black, black, black to her despicable core.
-- Sue Gilmore* The Evil Queen, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the most despicable of them all? Without question, it's Disney's original queen of mean.
In what has come to be known as the worst reverse makeover ever, this royal wretch transforms herself from a cold beauty to an ugly old crone with buggy eyes and truly hideous dental work. (Who knew that mummy dust packs so much cosmetic oomph?).
From there, she tracks down her prey, Snow White, through the forest and proceeds to prove that one bad apple can (nearly) spoil a poor innocent girl's romantic dreams. And all that vengeful menace for what? To lay claim to the title of "fairest in the land"? Even most pageant contestants aren't as psychotic and superficial as that.
-- Chuck Barney
* Gaston, "Beauty and the Beast"
Male chauvinist pig. Village hatemonger. What's not to despise? That the vain, testosterone-fueled Gaston is handsome -- if you like that bulging biceps, cleft chin sort of thing -- makes him all the worse. Sure, he's fun to watch, crashing around with muskets and beer steins as the girls swoon. In fact, the idea that he has a thing for Belle is even mildly redeeming. But when Belle smartly rejects him, we see he's not as dumb as he looks.
His macho vanity turns truly sinister when he devises a plan to blackmail her into marriage. And when it backfires, he's as sleazy as any modern-day politician or pundit as he plays on people's fears, provoking them to take up pitchforks and torches to attack something they don't understand. He may look like a beautiful man, but he's Disney's ugliest beast.
-- Lisa Wrenn
* Lady Tremaine, "Cinderella"
Lady Tremaine deserves the contempt of stepmothers everywhere for slapping us with the "wicked" label. How can the mother of two daughters not at least feel empathy for a young, motherless Cinderella? In Lady Tremaine's case, her nastiness seems to come easy as envy drives her to turn her beautiful stepdaughter into a downtrodden servant. She even makes psychological abuse look routine, maneuvering her daughters into tearing Cinderella's dress to shreds and then delivering a haughty "good night" before leaving for the ball.
She has a cruelty that runs deeper than the light gray streak in her hair. It's in the proud tilt of her chin, the sinister glare of her eyes and the sheer venom of her voice. Lady Tremaine may crave ascending into royal ranks, but her only crowning achievement is a place among Disney's most villainous.
-- Ann Tatko-Peterson
* Shere Khan, "The Jungle Book"
You know a character is a serious menace to the health and happiness of those he encounters when an extremely large bear, full-grown black panther and giant conniving python are all afraid of him. Then he shows up, happens to be a man-eating Bengal tiger ... and has wonderful manners and a proper British accent? Brrrr.
Like the Hannibal Lecter of the jungle, Shere Khan is at most his frightening when he's paying strict attention to civility and speaking with a soft smile on his face. And, like Lecter, he's a fascinating, magnetic, absolute sociopath who likes his victims to know exactly what's about to happen to them. Shere Khan is modeled after the man who voiced the character, George Sanders, a physically imposing, Academy Award-winning British actor who specialized in villains that utter clever and cutting one-liners. Mission accomplished.
-- Tony Hicks
"Maleficent," which opens wide Friday, is rated PG.