The portrayal of villains has grown more sophisticated in the last generation. One we were satisfied with heavies who existed only to create problems for the hero. But now we want to know where the heavies are coming from.
It might have started with John Gardner’s novella Grendel (1971), which retold the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view. This got to be a standard device. It went to Broadway with Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz, and then Disney tried it with the Snow White story and made Maleficent.
But Maleficent is by no means the first Disney film with a well-motivated villain. A couple of weeks ago CJ and I watched Tangled, which is Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story. A lot of Tangled is about Rapunzel, but the arc of Mother Gothel, who kidnaps the infant Rapunzel and imprisons her in the tower, is at least as compelling.
Traditionally, Mother Gothel is portrayed a witch, but in Disney’s version she has no magic of her own. The only magic in Tangled is the magic of Rapunzel’s long blond hair—magic that used to belong to Mother Gothel, magic that Mother Gothel needs to stay young, beautiful—and alive.
Mother Gothel first tries to recover the magic by breaking into the newborn Rapunzel’s nursery and cutting a lock of her hair. But that fails. The hair loses its magic as soon as it is cut. So Mother Gothel snatches Rapunzel from her crib and retreats to her tower.
I thought Disney’s writers did a great job of showing Mother Gothel’s need. She was going to die without Rapunzel’s hair. She tried to get it in a harmless way, and when that failed she got desperate.
CJ wasn’t satisfied. “Daddy,” she asked when I put her to bed, “why did Mother Gothel steal Rapunzel?”
“She had to,” I said. “She needed to be with Rapunzel to stay alive.”
“But did she have to steal her?” CJ insisted. “Couldn’t she just have been, like, her nanny?”
Of course. Mother Gothel could have charmed Rapunzel’s parents and lived with them until Rapunzel was grown. It would have worked out so much better for everyone
215 reviews on RottenTomatoes, and not one of them noticed CJ’s plot hole.