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The fantasy film genre, a creative space allowing audiences to escape to unbelievable worlds and stories, has always been praised for the terrifying and intimidating villains. A lot of the time, as the fantasy genre has forever been used as a form of escapism for many people, the villain can represent real-world darkness and negativity such as rage, jealousy, or the greed for power and authority. Fantasy villains can be used as a visual and metaphorical symbol for everything evil in the world.
However, as the fantasy genre has developed over time, the stereotypical characters, like the hero and the damsel, have grown to become more complex, detailed and layered, to fulfill the audience’s hunger for more immersive realistic, and relatable figures on the screen. Once viewed as exaggerated and unbelievable, fantasy films have progressed into developing some of the most intriguing characters in recent times, shown to possess both light and darkness inside of them. Characters no longer fit into a solid mold or archetype, and the story isn’t simply black and white. Fantasy protagonists written for film in the past couple of decades are now shown to have flaws, unattractive traits and are seen making mistakes, and the villains have been updated too. The creation of more in-depth, detailed, troubled antagonists shows the audience more diversity and intricacy, and it’s glaringly obvious when comparing some of these modern villains with those created in the last century.
1989’s The Little Mermaid, one of the most famous Disney animated movies, with a chilling, memorable villain, is a good example. Ursula, a half-woman, half-octopus, hybrid with sharp, smirking facial features, preys on mermaid princess, Ariel, and her vulnerable naivety. Ursula’s aim is simple, she wants to enslave Ariel and rule the sea. However, her backstory is non-existent and the reason for her lust for power is vague. The modern-day fantasy villain, on the other hand, is explored to the point of revealing their insecurities behind their desires. Newer films in this genre delve into the antagonist, their pre-story which led them to carry out their terrible acts, and just why their end goal is so important to them.
Davy Jones, from the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is shown to have a past heartbreak which allows for his violent and angry nature to feel more justified. Jafar in the new Aladdin live-action remake longs for recognition and glory after growing up as a street urchin, oppressed by those above him. Even arguably the biggest, darkest, more evil fantasy villain of all time, Voldermort, has a more extensive biography than some of the many protagonists in Harry Potter, his hatred stemming from his childhood abandonment. Fantasy films want the audience to feel their imagination running free, and feel safe to escape into another world, but showing characters like Voldermort as three-dimensional beings with childhoods, scars, trauma, and insecurities allows us to feel even more immersed, and even more connected to the story. Some films in recent years have taken this one step further, showing the villain in a completely new light. Disney’s 2014 Maleficent is a famous example.
Not only did Maleficent, a twisted reboot on the classic Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view, allow the audience an insight into Maleficent’s inner thoughts, it boldly made the legendary Disney villain the central focus, and ultimately the hero. Despite being switched to a protagonist for Maleficent, the dark fairy is still self-proclaimed and heavily advertised as the “mistress of evil”, which is also the title of her 2019 prequel. Notoriously, she is still associated with being a villain. Comparing this incarnation to the original Sleeping Beauty character, it’s very clear what message the filmmakers were trying to convey; there are two sides to every story, and even the villains have their own narrative.
This detailed character journey is not as evident in The Little Mermaid’s Ursula. From her very first scene in the film, she expresses hatred for King Triton and a longing, destructive desire to take his crown and rule over the sea, cursing and enslaving innocent creatures along the way. This is a simple context for a villain, and we are not given any insight into Ursula’s past or explanation for why she collects “poor unfortunate souls” in her garden. Ursula is described as a “sea witch”, who has powerful black magic, but her craving for power and glory, and her enjoyment of causing the suffering of others is unjustified, and can only be explained by assuming she has an innate psychotic, evil nature and holds no empathy. Her desire for power and her aspiration to rule over the ocean is superficially stereotypical of an antagonist.
For Maleficent, things are very different as the film fully fleshes out her character and story arc, with the audience learning a lot about her backstory. Maleficent explores parts of her childhood and her first romantic relationship which subsequently led to a heartbreaking betrayal. Stefan, Maleficent’s childhood friend who she falls in love with, broke their trusting relationship when he cuts off and steals her wings, a symbol of her power, magic, and individuality. Maleficent allows the audience to reimagine the famous villain, viewing her as her most vulnerable and insecure. Even when she turns darker in her story and curses Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora, she cannot bury her emotions and desire to combat her inevitable loneliness with friendship when she forms a familial bond with the princess. Her questionable, evil actions and decisions are explained and justified with the detailed backstory in the film, and her vengeful attitude feels justified following the attack from Stefan.
What makes the comparison between Ursula and Maleficent so interesting is that their outward appearance and physical structure have so many similarities. Both characters are presented as only partly-humanoid, with animalistic features. Ursula is half-human, half-octopus, and Maleficent appears to pass as a human, aside from her large horns and wings. With Ursula being a sea creature and Maleficent being a fairy, both Disney villains are of mythical origins. This technique is used time and time again within the fantasy genre to further remove the audience from the antagonists. Presenting the villain as alien-like, revolting, different, fantastical or a hybrid creature of some sort means it is harder for the audience to relate, feel sympathy for, or reason with the character. It’s also used as a successful visual signifier that this character is dark or evil, having almost repellant features or being associated with animals that are mischievous, cunning, or far removed from primates. Having multiple limbs like an octopus, or having wings like a bird, is intimidating to an audience because these physical features are unfamiliar to humankind or characters that we normally see on screen, and that is why Ursula and Maleficent are visually presented the way they are.
However, what makes Maleficent a 21st-century villain, who is more intricate and detailed, is that these features enhance her power and confidence, rather than her evil nature. Her sharp cheekbones and vibrant eyes are almost intriguing and beautiful, in comparison to Ursula’s giant mouth and wild hair, plastered with garish animated make-up, which feels intrusive and threatening. Maleficent’s large wings are not just used to intimidate but are a part of her character’s vulnerabilities and self-expression, which is not something associated with Ursula’s multiple tentacles.
Maybe one day Ursula will earn her own redemption film like Maleficent. Especially considering how dark anti-heroes and complex rebellious, three-dimensional, damaged characters have become so popular in the last decade, changing the format of fantasy films quite considerably.