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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Nostalgia Critic Vs. Lindsay Ellis: Duelling Editorials on the Decline of the Disney Villain

(Note: This article contains spoilers for Moana. It also discusses plot twists from some recent Disney films. It can be assumed that anyone who reads this has seen the likes of Frozen and Zootropolis, and knows what happens, but if you don’t, tread carefully…)

The rise of the internet has led to the emergence of a number of intelligent and insightful online film critics. One of the most prominent is Doug Walker, better known as The Nostalgia Critic. Last week, he published a video called “What Happened to Great Disney Villains?” on the online reviewing website Channel Awesome. The video features him explaining why he thinks that the Disney villains of today are not up to the standard of the scene-stealing baddies which they provided in the past. By sheer coincidence, Lindsay Ellis, a former reviewer on Channel Awesome (Where she was known as The Nostalgia Chick) simultaneously released an editorial on the same subject, called “Are Disney Villains Going Extinct?” Both videos are can be viewed below:

 


 

Both The Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis are passionate Disney fans. Since 2011, The Nostalgia Critic has provided an annual event called ‘Disneycember’, where he spends the whole of December reviewing Disney films. Meanwhile, Elis has discussed a number of Disney-related subjects, ranging from their direct-to-video sequels to their duels with rival animation studio Dreamworks. The two videos are interesting and insightful, but how do they convey their arguments and which of them is better?

What Makes a Great Disney Villain?



Both The Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis argue that the older Disney villains are superior to the ones they have provided in recent years, with The Nostalgia Critic claiming that Disney has not had a true “scene stealer” of a villain since Hades from Hercules, which was released almost 20 years ago. The Nostalgia Critic believes that the Disney villains of the past were iconic due to their strong and distinctive personalities. He notes that a colourful baddie provides a truly formidable obstacle for our heroes, and when their plans get thwarted, it makes the ending all the happier.  However, he believes that Modern Disney villains are merely “serviceable”. They advance the story and provide good messages (for example, in Frozen, Hans’ scheming nature highlights the fact that not all Princes are as perfect as they seem), but they are not “deliciously despicable” enough to stand alongside the likes of Ursula and Maleficent. Overall, The Nostalgia Critic believes that Disney’s best villains are able to fire up our emotions in a way which modern ones cannot.

Meanwhile, Lindsay Ellis highlights how the best Disney villains can be both evil and enjoyable at the same time. This is especially apparent in a comedic section where she tries to downplay and justify the vile deeds of several Disney Renaissance villains. However, she places particular focus on the way in which the Disney villains have become a brand of their own, taking centre stage in films like Maleficent, the TV movie Descendants and the Disneyland attraction Club Villain. The Disney villains also appear in a lot of merchandise, and Ellis shows a collection of novelty pins themed around villains such as Hades and Professor Ratigan. However, she believes that it not easy to make recent Disney villains as iconic, claiming that pins of Mother Gothel are not as popular as pins showing older villains. Ellis acknowledges that Tamatoa, the flamboyant giant crab from Moana, is the nearest Disney have got to the classic villain template since 2010, but his role in the film is too small for him to have enough impact. Both videos have different, but interesting ways of explaining why Disney villains are so popular. Whilst The Nostalgia Critic focuses on the emotional appeal of the characters, Lindsay Ellis looks at their status as a brand. However, the early Disney villains would not have become so iconic if they weren’t so memorable, and both The Nostalgia Critic and Ellis agree that the newest additions to Disney’s rogues gallery do not stand out enough to attain the same status.

Identity Crisis



Both Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis acknowledge that more recent Disney films have focused primarily on protagonists struggling to find their own identity. The villains they face need to reflect this in some way, making them harder to write. In addition, as princesses and even princes became more developed, with interesting and distinctive leads such as Ariel, Anna, Aladdin and Flynn Rider taking centre stage, the screen-time for the villain steadily declined.

Though The Nostalgia Critic discusses this, it is a central point in Lindsay Ellis’ video. She notes that after The Little Mermaid, the search for identity became a consistent feature of Disney’s films. This meant that the internal struggles of characters like Ariel, Belle and Simba were as important as external conflicts. Some Disney Renaissance villains, such as Scar and Frollo, had a significant effect on the protagonist’s internal struggles, by exploiting and exacerbating their insecurities. However, many recent villains, such as Hades, Ratcliffe and Dr. Facilier, primarily provided external conflict, and lacked any deeper connection to the struggles of heroes like Hercules and Tiana. This meant that, whilst they were usually very fun to watch, they did not have the power over the protagonist they needed to feel like a true threat. Ellis believes many Disney Renaissance villains existed just so Disney could have an antagonist who could sell merchandise. Overall, one of the best aspects of Ellis’ video is her discussion of the manner in which the growing focus on big issues and internal conflict has made it harder to incorporate an old-fashioned villain into a Disney film in a satisfying way.

Changing Tastes




The Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis are both aware that traditional good vs. evil storylines have fallen out of fashion in recent years. The Nostalgia Critic notes that animated films are no longer a novelty, so they are now judged on the quality of the characters rather than the beauty of the animation.  This has forced Disney to develop their leads a bit more, and they have been forced to alter their villains in order to emphasise the fact that the most interesting antagonists are not born, but made. In fact, some Disney movies (such as Pixar films Inside Out and Finding Dory) have featured no villains whatsoever. The Nostalgia Critic believes that the demand for more complex characters has led to the decline of conventional villains like Maleficent who simply represent a “grand evil”. He links Disney’s current trend for “unknown villains” to the demand for more realistic enemies, although he notes that Wreck-it-Ralph and Frozen were not the first Disney films to use that trope (The Nostalgia Critic claims that Disney have used “unknown villains” in films such as Tarzan and Treasure Planet, in addition to many Pixar films). However, The Nostalgia Critic believes the people behind Disney films have primarily focused on making the heroes and heroines more appealing and relatable, leaving less for the villains to do.

Lindsay Ellis also looks at the audience demand for more developed protagonists. She also acknowledges that whilst early Disney films such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty had very passive female leads with few goals, more recent female protagonists have been strong, independent and not tied down to a love interest. Male leads have become more interesting as well, and recent Disney films, such as Zootropolis and Moana, have primarily focused on the interactions between two protagonists. Audiences seek new and unique takes on familiar characters and stories, hence Disney’s frequent use of “meta” comedy in recent movies, as they poke fun at Disney clich├ęs on several occasions. This subversive approach has also fuelled the handling of villains, as Disney try to play around with the moral certainties traditionally associated with them. One example of this comes in Moana, where the seemingly evil lava monster Te Ka turns out to actually be a benevolent goddess affected by a curse.

Ellis also notes that the demand for more complex villains has affected existing Disney villains as well as new ones. Disney’s live-action remakes have tried to make the classic villains more developed, with the 2014 film Maleficent (a film which The Nostalgia Critic strongly dislikes) depicting a character who was the “mistress of all evil” in the original film as a tragic figure. Other live-action remakes, such as Cinderella and The Jungle Book, have given their villains a bit of backstory to show that they are motivated by more than simple malice. Sometimes, a conventionally evil villain can undermine a film, a problem which Ellis invokes when she discusses Pocahontas, claiming that the film’s use of a single villain meant that it sanitised the intolerance and violence depicted in it by primarily linking it to a single person. Both videos get across the fact that Disney’s success has been based on their ability at responding to audiences who demand more sophisticated entertainment and stronger protagonists. This is great, but has the side effect of causing the uninhibited evil of classic Disney villains to become less relevant and fall out of fashion.

Gaston Vs. Hans




Central to both videos is the perception that Disney have relied too much on “unknown villains” in recent years, with films like Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootropolis containing seemingly friendly characters who turn out to be evil. The Nostalgia Critic believes that one of the major problems with “unknown villains” is that the fact that viewers have to be “re-introduced” to them when their villainy is revealed. In order to highlight this, he compares the most notable “unknown villain”, Hans, with another scheming suitor from the Disney Animated Canon, Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. The Nostalgia Critic argues that Gaston is a better villain because he has the same egotistical and colourful personality throughout the film, and his goal of gaining Belle for himself remains constant throughout, even as he resorts to attempting blackmail and murder in order to attain it. This fixed characterisation is highlighted by the voice acting, as Gaston always sounds like the same character, even when his behaviour becomes more extreme. Meanwhile, the giddy energy which Hans displays in “Love is an Open Door”, his romantic duet with Anna early in the film, is contrasted with the coolly villainous tone he uses when revealing his true colours to her. This shows that the dissonance between his initial personality and his behaviour in the climax is too great for him to feel like a properly developed villain.

Lindsay Ellis also compares Hans to Gaston in order to show why Gaston is a stronger villain. She notes that Gaston’s villainy is made clear from the start, as he is introduced hunting animals with his face in shadow. Meanwhile, Hans shows few conspicuous signs of villainy until he tells Anna “If only there was someone out there who loved you”. In contrast to The Nostalgia Critic, Ellis does not elaborate on this point, but judging by her cynical and sarcastic delivery when discussing Hans, she’s not a fan of the twist. She adds that Elsa was supposed to be the villain at first, but was changed into a heroic character in order to appeal to female audiences. Based on this it’s clear that Ellis believes that Hans turned out to be evil for shock value. The director of Frozen, Jennifer Lee, has confirmed that Hans’ personality shifts were deliberate (Frozen is based on The Snow Queen, where an evil mirror plays a key role in the story so, in a subtle reference to this, Hans was designed to change his personality to mirror others), but they still validate the argument made in both videos that he’s a plot device lacking in depth. Both videos use the comparison between Hans and Gaston to highlight the problem with “unknown villains”, as the decision to use their true nature as a plot twist means that we can’t enjoy their villainy properly, and they are reduced to being mere “nuisances”.

Other Differences


Although both videos have the same subject and tackle the same themes, there are a number of differences between them. For example, whilst Lindsay Ellis looks solely at Disney animated movies, The Nostalgia Critic also examines Pixar movies such as Monsters Inc., Up and the Toy Story sequels, due to their use of “unknown villains”. However, he doesn’t mention the fact that John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar, also became the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006, and doesn’t link Lasseter’s love of the “unknown villain” trope with its recent overuse in Disney films. This ensures that he does not provide any insights into the similarities and differences between the approaches of Disney and Pixar. The Nostalgia Critic's most detailed examination of Pixar villains is when he compares Sid from Toy Story and Stinky Pete the Prospector from Toy Story 2 in the exact same way he compares Gaston and Hans. This is interesting, but a little superfluous, and it’s disappointing that The Nostalgia Critic did not take full advantage of the wider range of films he is talking about.

However, the primary difference between the videos provided by The Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis is their reviewing style. The Nostalgia Critic has the more eloquent and serious approach, talking directly to the camera whilst relevant clips and images are shown. Done badly, this style can be pretty boring, but The Nostalgia Critic is an excellent speaker with plenty of great insights, so he is able to pull it off.

In contrast, Lindsay Ellis has a more relaxed and comedic style, as she shows off her Disney merchandise and makes several jokes about the Disney films she discusses. Particularly amusing is her dig at the portrayal of Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. When she complains about the way in which defeating him seems to bring peace between the settlers and natives, a title card flashes with the message “colonialism solved”, highlighting her point. However, there are times when the humour is a distraction, as a number of interesting observations are left underdeveloped in order for Ellis to talk about Disney villain pins.

Conclusion

Overall, both videos are worth watching, as The Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis are very engaging and intelligent commentators with appealing review styles, and provide plenty of interesting observations on how Disney’s portrayal of villains has changed over time. Ultimately, the one from The Nostalgia Critic is probably better, as it’s made in a more professional manner, and provides a greater number of insights into why the older Disney villains are so iconic.

However, regardless of which video you like best, both The Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis highlight the fact that, as excellent as the Disney Revival movies are, they have yet to produce a villain who will be a true icon like Cruella De Vil, Ursula and Jafar. Whilst recent baddies such as Mother Gothel and Hans have plenty of fans who admire their more realistic characterisation and the subtle little details used to highlight their cold-hearted nature, there will always be a place in our hearts for the wonderfully uninhibited and colourful (yet still scary) villains which Disney used to provide, who, in the words of The Nostalgia Critic, “did their best to give us their worst”. Although it’s easy to understand why Disney have stopped using traditional villains, we hope that they will eventually provide the great villain which Disney fans have been waiting for without losing sight of the strong messages, interesting storylines and relatable protagonists which have fuelled their recent run of form.

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