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How Pixar Solved the Villain Problem

For many franchises, coming up with compelling foes has long been a torturous task. But ever since ‘Toy Story,’ Pixar has created antagonists who deftly reflect their movies’ main characters and even make a case for themselves.

Pixar/Ringer illustration

Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!

When Toy Story arrived in theaters in the fall of 1995, it was warmly embraced by critics and moviegoers who fell for its groundbreaking computer animation, endearing characters, and sweet, whimsical story of friendship and what toys get up to when kids aren’t around. But there were a few dissenting voices. “The movie bored some 3-year-olds who left early,” the Los Angeles Times’ Lynn Smith wrote in Kids on Film, a recurring column assessing younger viewers’ reactions to film. That’s to be expected with 3-year-olds, of course. Perhaps less expected, at least to audiences who’d never seen a Pixar film before, was the reaction of some slightly older kids to a sort of bad guy they’d never seen before. “Some 5-year-olds,” the column continues, “were frightened by scenes of dismembered toys rearranged by Andy’s neighbor Sid—a sadistic boy with a reputation for torturing toys.”

The 5-year-olds weren’t alone. In the Wisconsin State-Journal, columnist Tom Alesia expressed admiration for the film but noted that “Sid tortures you in a manner that’s grooming Toy Story’s audience for the day when they’ll rent movies like Seven,” calling him “more in line with Hannibal Lecter than Cruella de Vil.”

Alesia wasn’t wrong. Sid (voiced by Erik von Detten) did not fit the expected model for an animated villain, one established by decades of sneering baddies out for power and control and fated for unhappy endings. Disney films are filled with memorable villains but, at the time of Toy Story’s release, most didn’t veer that far away from Disney’s first archfoe, the Evil Queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Disney renaissance of the late-’80s and ’90s kept to this model. Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, and Scar are all colorful, larger-than-life antagonists, but they’re not particularly complex and they’re certainly not budding sadists hiding in plain sight in a picturesque modern suburb.

Pixar’s innovations extend to its approach to villains, who by turns have been twisted, tragic, conflicted, and almost sympathetic. The studio has specialized in stories of heroes’ journeys, which have often been deepened and made more meaningful by the extremely personal challenges presented by foes who are more than mere foils. But any grand unified theory of Pixar villainy risks falling apart because so little seems to connect, say, Up’s Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an explorer who’s descended into violent madness, and Toy Story 3’s embittered Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), the terror of Sunnyside Daycare. What’s more, Pixar started developing a habit of sidelining villains as far back as Finding Nemo, whose vicious sharks are more forces of nature than bad guys with grudges and schemes. A variety of obstacles stand in the way of Marlin rescuing his son, his own fear chief among them.

Josh Spiegel, a freelance film critic specializing in animation whose work can often be found at SlashFilm, sees this as Pixar ultimately being more interested in a hero’s flaws than a villain’s threats, a pattern he traces all the way back to Pixar’s first feature. “Toy Story begins the trend of the real bad guy being the hero in some ways,” Spiegel says. “Woody is selfish. He is vain. He is temporarily kind of evil when he tries to get Buzz out of the way. Sid is the clear threat to their existence, but the film is as much about how Woody is his own worst enemy.” Yet even if Pixar is most interested in using villains to reflect its hero’s shortcomings, it’s still created some pretty memorable mirrors. This didn’t have to be the case. 1998’s A Bug’s Life, the immediate follow-up to Toy Story, works quite well and features the most traditional villain in the Pixar filmography in the form of Hopper (Kevin Spacey), a grasshopper gang leader whose demands kick the film’s Seven Samurai–inspired plot into gear. But 24 years and many films later, Hopper looks like an outlier.

With Toy Story 2, Pixar kicked off a long line of villains that come dangerously close to not sounding like villains at all. Stinky Pete the prospector (Kelsey Grammer) might ultimately be revealed as ruthless and selfish, but it’s not like he doesn’t have a point. Kids do grow up and tastes do change. One day it’s all about cowboys. Spacemen are all the rage the next. Woody’s fate if he stays with Andy does seem likely to end unhappily, while the toy museum in Tokyo offers a shot at something like immortality. Pete’s persuasive enough to enlist the good-hearted Jessie (Joan Cusack) into his cause (at least for a while), in part by playing off her trauma at having previously been abandoned. He’s manipulative, sure, but it’s hard to say he’s wrong.

With just a little less virtue and backbone, most of Pixar’s heroes could end up on the wrong side of their films’ moral dilemmas. Carl (Ed Asner), the hero of Up, undoubtedly sees a bit of himself in Muntz. Take away the trained dogs and violent tendencies and they’re both men stuck in the past. In Cars’ early scenes, little beyond racetrack ethics separate the arrogant Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) from his chief rival, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). In Coco, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) and Héctor (Gael García Bernal) see their own love of music take a destructive form via Ernesto’s (Benjamin Bratt) demand for attention and adulation both before and after death.

None of these characters are nice, but their needs and shortcomings are recognizably human, even if the characters themselves sometimes aren’t. The Incredibles’ Syndrome (Jason Lee) is an arms-dealing homicidal maniac willing to kill in order to make the world think he’s a hero, sure. But Brad Bird’s film also depicts the would-be sidekick’s stinging rejection by Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) with such intensity that the character’s yearslong descent into darkness makes some sense. Syndrome hurts because he was hurt. It’s maybe no surprise that the character has inspired sympathetic defenses and fan theories over the years.

From creating villains that echo the film’s heroes so directly, it’s really not that big a step to pushing baddies all the way to the side or removing them entirely. Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo provides the first example of this, but it’s hardly the last. Stanton’s WALL-E also lacks a villain in the traditional sense, unless humanity’s shortsightedness counts. (True, there’s AUTO, the destructive artificial intelligence device, but this seems more like a symptom of that negligence.) Stanton’s Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory is similarly filled with much in the way of obstacles but little in the way of bad guys, and in Pete Docter’s Inside Out and Soul, the struggle is even more internal, literally so. “In Inside Out,” Spiegel says, “Joy is the only one who isn’t really listening. She’s thinking about herself, her specific emotional self, and only when she appreciates that other emotions like Sadness have something to offer does she help create positive change for Riley.”

Still, there’s something to be said for a flesh and blood baddie, and Pixar doesn’t seem interested in abandoning those entirely. Luca featured an arrogant bully in the form of Ercole Visconti (Saverio Raimondo). And while this year’s delightful Turning Red stays closer to the Inside Out and Soul model by avoiding any recognizable villain, the new Lightyear goes almost all the way back to the beginning of Pixar history in more ways than one. Introduced as the 1995 film that inspired the Buzz Lightyear line of toys (and inspired Andy to want a Buzz Lightyear of his own), it brings in the hulking Emperor Zurg and his army of robots to do battle with Buzz and his friends. For a while, it looks like Pixar has gone the space opera route, using Zurg as the embodiment of mindless malevolence. And then, in ways that would be unfair to spoil, Zurg’s motivations and origin are revealed to be much more complicated than they appear.

But with Pixar, villainy is always more complicated than it first appears—even with the very-messed-up Sid, who could be seen as a misunderstood artist whose mashed-together Frankenstein’s monster–like creations require considerable creativity and dark wit. He might appear to be headed down a dark path, but perhaps not. Speaking to the New Yorker in 2011, Stanton, who cowrote Toy Story, shed some light on Sid’s origins. “The happiest moments of my childhood were when my toys broke, because then I could destroy them with impunity,” he said. “I was Sid.”

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.