Disney has created a diverse group of villains over the years, seen here, spanning from the mysterious and mystical evil of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent and Tamatoa, the blinged-out singing crab from Moana, to the much more commonplace criminality of Edgar Balthazar from The Aristocats and Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians.
When faced with such diversity, it begs the question: what exactly makes a villain? Is it appearance? Facial features? Tone of voice? Body type? Behavior? Color scheme? I believe that all serve equally important roles in the establishment of villainy, though not always through the same means.
First, let’s talk about Edgar Balthazar. Yes, the villain from The Aristocats, the 1970 Disney film no one remembers. Edgar is an incredibly disturbing yet often overlooked villain who diverges from the stereotypical Disney image of villain as a powerful, malevolent – often magic wielding – force (I’m looking at you Jafar. You too, Dr. Facillier).
With his pleasant smile, cartoonishly large nose and ears, balding hair, pert pot belly, and spindly legs, Edgar looks nothing like a villain. Rather, his overall appearance gives me more middle-aged man vibes than anything. Perhaps he's the friendly bachelor who lives next door and comes over every so often to smoke a pipe with your dad and return your mum's casserole dish. Either way, he couldn't possibly be a man who would first abduct then attempt to kill a family of cats, simply out of greed - no, Disney wouldn't do that. Precisely because of its banality, Edgar's villainy unsettles us. It forces us to reconsider facets of life we previously accepted without batting an eye. Our sense of safety becomes ambiguous as his very existence makes us doubt the character of our neighbors and peers.
Despite her savage looks, Cruella's evil does not unsettle as Edgar's does; rather, it entertains. Cruella is easily one of the most iconic of Disney villains. Not restricted to the bounds of the 1961 film, Cruella has since starred in two live-action films, the 1996 101 Dalmatians and the 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians. Her popularity with audiences is such that there are rumors of a third live action film, one detailing Cruella's origin story and starring Emma Stone as the titular heroine to be released in 2018.
Despite the differences in both appearance and reception of Edgar and Cruella, it's interesting to note that both are motivated by the same thing - and no, it's not some sort of virulent hatred for small furry critters that walk on four paws - rather: materialism. Initially, this may seem counter intuitive, especially considering the vast discrepancy in socioeconomic position between the two villains. Edgar, on one hand, is of lower socioeconomic class. He works as a servant, dwells in the aged and drab servants’ quarters of his Mistress’ mansion, and can’t even afford to buy himself new pair of shoes. On the other hand, Cruella is rolling in dough - or more literally, in her luxurious pink and red bed. She comes from wealth and lives extravagantly even without holding a job. How, then, can two villains who come from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum share the same motivation of materialism? Put simply, materialism is diverse. There is no hard and fast rule defining what exactly materialism is or how it must play in with someone’s life.
As seen in the following clip, money serves as the principle motivator for Edgar’s catnapping scheme, but the deeper reason behind this motivation is Edgar’s belief that possession of Madame’s fortune can increase his socioeconomic standing and, by extension, enhance his quality of life. With increased monetary holdings, Edgar would no longer face social exclusion or financial strife – money would make him a happy man.
For Cruella, who does not want for money, materialism takes the form of furs. She describes them as "[her] only true love," cooing, "I live for furs, I worship furs." Money takes a secondary position, becoming the enabler rather than the end goal of Cruella's materialistic desires.
When the puppies are born, Cruella is willing to pay any amount of money for them in her desperation to possess the furs she believes will finally bring her happiness.
Thus, through Edgar and Cruella, Disney establishes the idea that money and material possessions equal happiness. Granted (SPOILER ALERT) both villains ultimately fail in their endeavors, but the materialist message is nonetheless conveyed to young, impressionable audiences. This message is furthered by the almost identical ending of both films - long story short, the protagonists keep all the money and use it to build a safe place for themselves and their newfound companions to stay - in The Aristocats, it's the "Home for All the Alley Cats of Paris," and in 101 Dalmatians, it's the "Dalmatian Plantation" in the countryside of London. Essentially, the conclusions advocate for the necessity of wealth in eliciting happiness in villains and heroes alike. Such a message is enormously problematic, especially when considering the target audiences of Disney films, though even more seasoned viewers are affected by Disney's materialistic message as well.
However, the danger in the presence of such content in children's films is that while older viewers are more capable of realizing the injurious message being conveyed, young audiences are highly susceptible to influence, as described further in this article on the psychological effects of children's movies. Materialism and its attendant consumerism have been shown to have tremendous negative influence on modern-day children as detailed in this article as, quite frankly, consumer culture stops kids from just being kids.