Villains in animated films tend to have a bit of an edge in the whole Magnificent Bastards department. All the best villainous actors of stage and screen do a fair amount of scene chewing (I’m looking at you, Tim Curry), but animated villains can take things to a whole other level. Disney villains in particular have a way of worming their way into our hearts, thanks in no small part to campy theatrics, quippy dialog, and the occasional musical number. And they often have the sartorial chops to carry it off courtesy of some fantastic design work.
But in order to truly rise to the ranks of magnificent bastardry, a villain needs substance—some motivation or believable character flaw an audience can connect with. We don’t have to actively root for the bastards (though sometimes we do), but we do need to understand their point of view. I mean, we may love to hate Cruella de Vil, but it’s hard to actually sympathize with her end game of acquiring a puppy-coat. So which Disney villains make the grade?
Syndrome, aka Buddy Pine (The Incredibles)
Syndrome spends most of the movie cultivating a supervillain persona that’s equal parts Goldfinger (private island lair? Check.) and Silver Age comics (goofy costume and mechanical minions? Double check.), and his cocky swagger is entertaining as hell. But it turns out this sociopath has a rather sad origin story: as a kid, his favorite hero rejects him to his face, and the rest of the supers disappear from the world as a pretty direct result of his enthusiastic meddling. Sure, he was a total brat and SERIOUSLY overreacted to this childhood trauma, but I can understand a certain amount of Syndrome’s inner rage.
Scar (The Lion King)
Scar walks the fine line between gravitas and camp, and most of the credit has to go to Jeremy Irons’ superb sarcastic drawl. His main complaint is simply that life isn’t fair, and that his status as Mufasa’s younger brother makes him ineligible to rule over Pride Rock. Anyone with siblings, royal or not, can relate on some level. And although it’s honestly a little cringe-worthy to watch Scar mince his way through “Be Prepared,” he proves himself an adept orator, inspiring legions of goose-stepping hyenas to throw off the shackles of the oppressive lions. Of course, his manipulative and opportunistic nature is also his undoing; he’s a bit too quick to turn on the hyenas after the final battle, and they literally rip their former leader to shreds. Ouch.
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
It only stands to reason that the rodent version of Moriarty would be just as amazing as the original. He’s prone to speechifying and dramatic gestures, and it somehow makes perfect sense that he would make use of Rube Goldberg death machines and clockwork robots. He’s easily the most hyperbolic villain on this list, but he still has at least one relatable motivation: an intense inferiority complex. Ratigan hates being called a rat, and I mean HATES. In the books, Ratigan is in fact just a large mouse, but the animated version is clearly a rat trying to pass himself off as big boned. It’s a great touch to make the character more comedic, but also suggests all sorts of interesting things about the potential power dynamics within the mouse and rat society.
Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove)
It was a bit of a toss-up between Yzma and Jafar, since they are essentially the same type of villain—both are long-time court advisors who use magic to achieve a government coup. But where Jafar has apparently always been power hungry (and is perfectly happy to creep all over Jasmine on his way to the throne), Yzma only snaps when Kuzco unceremoniously fires her. Add that to the resentment she must feel for taking on the thankless job of raising Kuzco (not that she did a great job or anything), and it’s no wonder she wants to murder the jerk. Besides, while I personally find Jafar’s cackling evil side a bit grating, Yzma’s comic eccentricity (voiced perfectly by Eartha Kitt) hits all the right notes.
Shere Khan (The Jungle Book)
This one might fall a bit under the British accent syndrome, but it’s hard to deny the imperious magnetism of Shere Khan. He’s not even present for the first two-thirds of the movie, but he easy steals the show once he arrives: the introductory scene where Shere Khan casually threatens Kaa still gives me chills. He’s clearly rather vicious before he ever meets Mowgli, but his obsession with the man cub (and his fear of gunfire) reflect an understandable hatred of human hunters and the threat of encroachment. Honestly, I always feel a little badly for him when Mowgli ties the burning branch to his tail.
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Ursula simply oozes confidence and sets the bar for all the campy villains who followed in her wake. She sells every hip shake and innuendo and her face is, well, divine. She’s been kicked out of the palace, possibly for challenging Triton’s rule and almost certainly for her questionable use of dark magic. She’s since scraped by on her own by scamming merfolk of the poor and unfortunate variety (I guess Triton is too busy hosting self-aggrandizing concerts to notice the plight of his subjects...), so who can blame her for seizing the perfect opportunity for revenge? As a bit of an aside, Ursula has the best minions of the Disney villain set—Flotsam and Jetsom are actually competent (not to mention creepy), and the usual bumbling comedy is left to the heroine’s companions. It’s really too bad that Ursula accidentally zaps them.
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)
Maleficent is the one Disney villain I actively root for; Aurora and Philip are both pretty dull, and the three fairies’ petty bickering gets a bit tiresome. The self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil (how badass is that?) is a bit miffed that she wasn’t invited to Princess Aurora’s christening, but she handles it with a wonderfully passive-aggressive courtly grace. Okay, I don’t condone cursing babies, but it really was a bit of an oversight for the king and queen to just ignore the most powerful magical force in their little valley. And dang is she powerful. Ursula’s giant form is cool and all, but Maleficent goes straight for fire-breathing dragon. Like many tragic villains (and heroes) before her, Maleficent’s major flaw is pride. She thinks so highly of her own abilities that she employs utter morons as minions—they spend 16 years searching for a baby instead of a growing child and woman. And right when victory is in her grasp, she takes a nap and leaves the buffoons in charge of guarding Philip. Things, predictably, go awry.
Boba Fett (Star Wars franchise)
Anyone who’s able to best Han Solo has got to be one hell of a Magnificent Bastard. You should see the looks on your faces, but this is totally legit thanks to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm. Plus, everyone’s favorite intergalactic bounty hunter even has an animated past, appearing briefly in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special—and we can only hope that Disney will release a remastered version for all to enjoy. Okay, so the animated Fett doesn't live up to the Mandalorian’s full bastardy potential, but he still rescues Luke and the droids only to attempt to betray them to Vader. Fett blows his chance and jetpacks outta there, but don’t worry, he’ll show up and cause trouble again in the feature films.
Those are my picks, but I’m sure I missed a few worthy contenders. Let me know in the comments which animated villains (Disney or otherwise) should rank among these Magnificent Bastards!
Sarah Tolf is the production assistant for Tor.com. She had entirely too much fun contemplating this list, and burst into giggles when she remembered how ridiculous the Star Wars Holiday Special was. You can follow her on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing.