The spooky season is upon us (though for some of us it lasts all year), and it’s time to immerse ourselves in all things creepy and macabre. Luckily, Disney abounds with haunting melodies and spine-tingling jingles from the silver screen to the Magic Kingdom.
To kick off our exploration of the October Country, we’re taking a look at some of the best Disney villain songs. As with any list of this nature, the selections are a bit arbitrary (in that it ultimately comes down to my own personal taste), but I’ve tried to use at least some logical criteria. In my selections, I chose songs performed by the villain, rather than those about a villain (such as the songs Cruella de Vil, and Gaston). I’ve also tried to choose songs that have shown enduring popularity and longevity, meaning that somewhat more obscure songs like We Won’t Be Happy ‘Til We Get It from Babes in Toyland or Mad Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone didn’t quite make the cut (though Mim’s inclusion in this year’s Oogie Boogie Bash at Disneyland California Adventure may make me rethink this stance).
So, without further ado…let’s dive into the best Disney villain songs of all time.
Friends on the Other Side – The Princess and the Frog
We start things off in the Crescent City and the song Friends on the Other Side from The Princess and the Frog. The song is sung by Dr. Facilier and voiced by the inimitable Keith David.
Written by Randy Newman, one film critic described the number as, “a playfully sinister chorus, funeral brass and stop-and-start melodies that play the character like some twisted version of “Sportin’ Life” in Porgy and Bess.” It’s a fun comparison, and curious listeners should compare it to the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, written by George Gershwin and inspired by performers like Cab Calloway.
Listening to the song feels a bit like exploring a dark, New Orleans alley (which I mean in the best way possible). The authentic feel of the Big Easy owes much to the years that composer Randy Newman spent in the city, which he came to love dearly. As he explained to NPR, “I was born in Los Angeles, but I went to New Orleans when I was, like, a week old. My mother is from there, her family is still there. I lived with her a few years when I was a baby, and I’d go back in the summers.”
The number has drawn some comparisons to The Little Mermaid’s showstopper Poor Unfortunate Souls, and the similarities are likely not coincidental as both films were directed by the team of John Musker and Ron Clements.
Hellfire – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
In the long history of Disney villains, there is perhaps none so viscerally frightening as Judge Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is, perhaps, because he is one of Disney’s most distinctly believable and human villains. While most are cartoonish or creatures from outlandish fantasy, Frollo feels all too real.
The character is a tribute to Victor Hugo’s particular genius. He had a knack for creating villains convinced of their own righteousness, as evidenced not just by Frollo, but by Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.
Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (who is best known for work on Broadway hits like Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked), and brought to life by Tony Jay, the song Hellfire is shocking by Disney standards. It deals with subjects like lust, longing, and guilt, coupled with the fear of damnation.
Adding to the ambiance, the number begins with a chorus of voices singing the Confiteor, a Catholic penitential prayer described as, “a general confession of sins; it is used in the Roman Rite at the beginning of Mass and on various other occasions as a preparation for the reception of some grace.”
Oogie Boogie’s Song – The Nightmare Before Christmas
In Friends on the Other Side, we made brief mention of the legendary singer and band leader Cab Calloway, best known for songs like Minnie the Moocher and Saint James Infirmary. In the 1930s, Calloway appeared in three Betty Boop cartoons (Minnie-the-Moocher, Snow-White, and The Old Man of the Mountain). The films, like many Max Fleischer cartoons, have a surreal, Heironymous Bosch quality to them, enhanced by Calloway’s musical performance.
Tim Burton, the author of The Nightmare Before Christmas, states that the character of Oogie Boogie was inspired by Calloway’s Betty Boop performances. The influence is most obvious in composer and lyricist Danny Elfman’s Oogie Boogie’s Song, which is performed by Broadway legend Ken Page (who originated the role of Ken in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Old Deuteronomy in Cats). In fact, when Santa Claus asks Oogie, “What are you going to do?” and he responds, “I’m gonna do the best I can,” the character is borrowing a direct quote from the cartoon short The Old Man of the Mountain.
Be Prepared – The Lion King
If one song could challenge Hellfire for the most sinister Disney song of all time, it would have to be Be Prepared from The Lion King. After all, the visuals accompanying it were literally inspired by the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. As noted in Entertainment Weekly, the song, “grew out of one sketch by story staffer Jorgen Klubien that pictured Scar as Hitler. The directors ran with the concept and worked up a ‘Triumph of the Will’-style mock-Nuremberg rally.” Even the lighting in the scene was inspired by Nazis, made to resemble the “Cathedral of Light” used at their rallies. Add this to the fact that the song is Scar plotting the assassination of his brother, in a plot inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and you have a truly bone-chilling number.
The music and lyrics were penned by the team of Elton John and Tim Rice and primarily performed by Jeremy Irons (who also provided a past narration for Spaceship Earth). However, voice actor Jim Cummings also provided some of the vocals on the track. It seems he was asked to step in and sing the last verse of the song after Irons developed voice problems.
Shiny – Moana
Alas, David Bowie was never a Disney villain. Nor did he appear in any Disney films (at least not directly…he performed in a Miramax film while it was still a Disney subsidiary and a Touchstone Pictures film). This is an immeasurable loss to all of us who adored his performance as The Goblin King in Jim Henson’s masterpiece Labyrinth, and who would have loved to see what he could do for the House of Mouse.
We can take some small comfort in the fact that his spirit is infused in one Disney villain. The creators of Moana have made no secret of the fact that the one and only Ziggy Stardust inspired the character of Tamatoa. Or maybe it was the Thin White Duke. Or Aladdin Sane. Or one of the other myriad characters David Bowie brought to the stage.
And in the absence of David Bowie, it only makes sense that actor and musician Jemaine Clement was asked to step in and perform Tamatoa’s song Shiny. Why? Well, as Clement’s old comedy folk music duo (and HBO sitcom) taught us, he does one heck of a Bowie impression.
Add in the spectacular genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics and you have a recipe for a truly unforgettable song, which is as mesmerizing as it is menacing.
Join us next week as we dive into five more classic Disney villain songs!