If there is one thing Disney is really great at, it’s creating truly memorable characters. Whether they are princesses, heroes, adorable sidekicks, or characters offering big summer blowouts, nearly all of them are unforgettable. And if there is one group of characters that people seem to have at the top of their love list, it’s Disney villains. Sure, princesses are great, but what’s more fun than a great villain?
While villains are typically thought of as “the bad guy (or gal)”, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the villain has reasons for being the way that they are, and you can actually end up feeling kind of bad for them.
These are some of Disney’s most empathetic villains.
Abuela – Encanto
It’s really easy to dislike Abuela throughout most of Encanto (2021). She treats Mirabel incredibly poorly because she does not have any kind of magical ability, like the rest of the Madrigals. Abuela treats Mirabel as an outcast, who isn’t as good as her sisters and cousins.
On top of that, Abuela completely ignores the fact that she has a son, Bruno — heck, there’s even a song about how they don’t talk about him! She let Bruno leave and practically erased him from existence, all because his magical ability was misunderstood by the people in the village. Abuela let the people drive him out and apparently did nothing to stop them.
However, our feelings about Abuela change when we learn why she is the way she is. We learn that she watched as her husband was executed in front of her. Not only that, they had three infants that she was left to care for. Her husband sacrificed everything to protect her and the people who were forced to flee their homes.
Thankfully, Abuela can see how her actions have negatively affected her family, and how much pressure she has put on her children and grandchildren. She also admits that everything she did was to protect the people she loved, and to make sure that no one had to experience what she did.
In the end, we love Abuela, and we are glad that she saw the error of her ways.
Maleficent – Sleeping Beauty
Is it great to put a curse on an infant who has done nothing wrong? No, it’s not a good look. Is it great to hold a grudge for decades? Also, no. But that doesn’t mean that Maleficent is completely at fault for everything that happens.
Maleficent might be one of Disney’s most iconic villains of all time, first appearing in Disney’s 1959 film, Sleeping Beauty. She is known for her stylish horns, her pet raven, Diablo, and for putting a sleeping curse on Princess Aurora as an infant. But is she really all that bad?
Think about how you would feel if the entire kingdom was invited to a party, except you. First, you think, “Well, maybe he didn’t invite any fairies.” Then, you find out that he did indeed invite fairies, but only those he considered “good.” And to the King, “good” fairies are those who obey him, no questions asked. But, since you think that he should respect you the way he wants you to respect him, then you got left out.
Unlike Abuela, Maleficent didn’t turn “good” at the end. She kind of went in the opposite direction — turning into a dragon and trying to kill Prince Phillip as he attempted to rescue Princess Aurora.
But, when you get down to the root of it, the problems all began because everyone in the kingdom thought that it was okay to exclude her.
Scar – The Lion King
In 1994, Walt Disney Animation Studios released what would become one of its most popular and iconic animated films of all time — The Lion King. The film tells the story of Simba — a lion cub who flees his home after thinking that he killed his father. Of course, he did not kill him, but his evil uncle Scar planned the murder and then blamed the young lion. All because Scar wanted to be king and rule the Pride Lands.
There’s no way to come back from killing your brother because you want to be king, but Scar has some deep-rooted issues that drive him to that point.
Now, this is not addressed in the film, but in Scar’s backstory, we learn that his given name was Taka, which literally means “waste” in Swahili. He tells Mufasa that he was always treated as an inferior, and his birth name seems to indicate that. Even his own brother called him by a nickname that only serves as a reminder of the painful injury Scar received.
Scar is truly the villain of the movie, but he only got there because of decades of being treated like he was less-than. Plus, he gets extra points for having one of the greatest Disney villain songs ever.
Lotso – Toy Story
In 1995, Pixar Animation Studio and Disney changed the film industry with the release of Toy Story, the first film made completely by computer animation. Since then, Disney and Pixar have released four more uber-successful Toy Story movies and have a fifth in the works.
In the third film, which was released in 2010, the toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare, which is run by Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear, known as Lotso.
While Lotso seems nice at the start, Woody, Buzz, and the gang soon realize that he runs Sunnyside with an iron fist. But it’s hard to hate Lotso when you learn what happened to him.
Related: Toy Story’s Woody Gets a Hearing Aid
Lotso was gifted to a young girl named Daisy, and he loved her as much as she loved him. Unfortunately, Lotso accidentally got left behind when Daisy took him out to a park, along with two of her other toys. Lotso worked very hard to get back to Daisy and, when he finally did, he saw that Daisy had replaced him with another Lotso bear.
Lotso allowed his anger and hurt to consume him, but we can’t truly blame him. It must have been so hurtful to feel rejected like that.
Ursula – The Little Mermaid
Ariel is a 16-year-old mermaid who gets pretty much anything she wants. But when she falls in love with a human prince, her father freaks out and bans her from going to the surface. So, like any teenager, Ariel becomes more determined than ever to see Prince Eric again and ventures to the cave of the sea witch Ursula.
During The Little Mermaid, the audience learns that, at one time, Ursula actually lived in the palace. Yes, the same palace in which Ariel, her sisters, and her father currently reside. Which begs the question, what happened? Why was she banished from the kingdom?
While the animated film does not go into it, The Little Mermaid on Broadway created a story where King Triton and Ursula are actually brother and sister. They were set to rule the kingdom together, but Ursula tried to get more power and usurp power from Triton. Things came to a head between her and King Triton, and she ended up being banished.
While it seems that Ursula doesn’t have many redeeming qualities, maybe she’s just tired of being used. In her incredible song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, she makes it clear that people come to her when they need something. Her only real friends appear to be her eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. And she clearly cares about them and is devastated when they are blown to pieces.
Thanos – The Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers: Endgame
It’s no secret that some of the most popular movies out there are Marvel superhero movies. For more than 15 years, fans have been flocking to the theaters to see heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and the Incredible Hulk take down the bad guy. Even if they don’t get them the first time, they don’t give up until they win.
For the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the “big bad” villain was Thanos — a mutant superhuman. Thanos’ goal was to eliminate half of the population, which sounds really bad. Especially because he is willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, so he can make that happen. He is even willing to sacrifice his own daughter.
Like I said, Thanos sounds like a really bad guy, but when you think about the thoughts behind his actions, they make a lot of sense.
Thanos believes that there are too many humans on the planet, and they are killing all the available natural resources. People are homeless, going hungry, living in squalor. If he got rid of half of the people in existence — and he would do so indiscriminately, your money and power would not save you — then the people that were left would be able to live better lives.
When it comes to Thanos, it really is a question of “Do the ends justify the means?”
Cruella de Vil – Cruella
In Disney’s original animated film, 101 Dalmatians, Cruella de Vil was Anita’s terrible boss who wanted to kill a bunch of puppies so she could use their fur to make coats. Pretty black and white on the villain scale.
Then, in 2021, Disney released the live-action film, Cruella. And it really made fans realize that Cruella was not as bad as we may have thought.
In Cruella, we learn that Cruella was actually born Estella, and became an orphan at a young age when her mother was pushed off of a cliff by a pair of Dalmatians. Estella then works very hard to become a part of the fashion industry she loves so much. Sadly, she is taken advantage of by the Baroness, and vows revenge.
In the end, we learn that Cruella is actually the daughter of the Baroness, who never wanted her. Her mother was the Baroness’ maid, who was killed when the Baroness thought her secret would be revealed. Then, the Baroness tried to kill Estella. She was a terrible person, so it’s not surprising that Cruella has a lot of demons writhing around inside her.
Woody – Toy Story
I know what you’re thinking, “What are you talking about?! Woody is not a villain!” But hear me out.
Sure, Woody is one of the most beloved Pixar characters of all time. He is all over merchandise, has his own Lunchbox dining spot in Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort, and was played by the incomparable Tom Hanks. But let’s be honest, in the 1995 original film, Woody was not the nicest of toys.
Woody was perfectly happy when he was Andy’s favorite toy, and running things in Andy’s room when Andy was nowhere to be found. But once the young boy gets a brand-new toy — Buzz Lightyear — that he is in love with, Woody loses his mind. He can’t deal with the fact that he isn’t the most popular anymore, and will do whatever it takes to get rid of Buzz.
Woody hated Buzz more than he loved Andy, and almost cost Andy both toys. Thankfully, Woody learned that Andy still loved him, and that he and Buzz could actually be friends. They had to work together, but eventually, they made their way back to the boy who loved them more than anything.
It’s tough being so loved and then feeling tossed to the side. So, we understand why Woody got so upset when he felt like he was being replaced. That’s why we consider Woody a pseudo-villain that we can definitely empathize with.
And there you have it, there are some of Disney’s most empathetic villains. They prove that while some people are bad, and do bad things, there is most likely a reason that they are the way they are. Everyone has a backstory, and these villain backstories can help us understand them a little more.
What do you think? Do these Disney villains deserve any sympathy? Let us know in the comments!