Rewatching Tangled the other week, I was struck by the character of Mother Gothel in the film. She’s the villain, and by the end of the movie, she’s clearly the nasty character who, in days of old, we’d have been booing and hissing. But rather than being an overt force of evil in Tangled, she’s passive aggressive. There’s reason and control to her villainy, and that makes her a far more interesting antagonist in the modern movie world.
For me, though, this sea change in the world of Disney villains leads to the door of the one who remains my absolute favourite: Gaston. It helps that he appears in my favourite Disney movie, Beauty And The Beast, but then, he’s a crucial part of the mix.
The Disney animated movie made immediately prior to Beauty And The Beast was The Little Mermaid. I love The Little Mermaid, and I love the villain in it, Ursula. However, from the second you meet her, you know exactly where you stand. Just look at her: she has the look of someone you know is going to be trouble. In fact, track back through the Disney villains of old: Cruella de Vil, Scar, the evil stepmother, the witch in Snow White, even Professor Ratigan. They all have something in common: they instantly look like the villain. The visual clues are painted all over them.
Not so with Gaston, though. Gaston, unlike every Disney villain before him, is really quite handsome. And, in the early stages of the film, it’s not even overtly clear he’s the villain at all. The reason? Because, bluntly, he isn’t. It’s the events of the film, and his raging jealousy and insecurity, that transforms him into the story’s antagonist. But he, again contrasting with many Disney villains, doesn’t start out as a figure of evil.
“As a specimen yes, I’m intimidating”
If anything, it’s the circumstance of his life that’s made Gaston who he is, and it’s a pity that none of the generally not very good Beauty And The Beast spin-offs have properly focused on that.
Here’s a man, after all, who’s been able to get, as he tells us, pretty much anything he’s ever wanted in life. “She’s the one, the lucky girl I’m going to marry”, he says of Belle, in the marvellous song Gaston.
I’ve talked before about the genius of music team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman before, but you’ll have to forgive me, as I’m going to do it again. The song Gaston is a triumph of storytelling. It tells us everything we need of the character. It’s funny, yet makes it clear that Gaston is a man who believes his own hype, aided by his sycophantic sidekick, Le Fou. It also, crucially, cheers Gaston up, puts his mind in the necessary frame for the second act of the film.
Going back to the Gaston song, then, just look at how it’s structured. A lot of it is people singing to him, rather than him championing himself. He’s surrounded by a gaggle of people who believe him to be the best thing ever, and he’s happy to believe it. Even when his comical marriage proposal has been rejected.
That rejection gives Gaston something substantive to chew over, too. “No one says no to Gaston”, the film reminds us, and clearly, it’s not a sensation that the character is useful. As such, only when Belle rejects his advances do we begin to see the impact of all that self-belief. Because when someone punctures it, simply by saying no, the insecurities of Gaston bubble to the fore.
The Gaston song quickly papers over them, but it’s clear from that point we’re going to meet them again later on.
Who Is The Monster And Who Is The Man?
It’s an interesting dynamic. There’s usually a good versus evil theme that’s inherent in earlier Disney animated features, but it’s less clear-cut here. Because what’s Gaston’s drive? It’s not power – there’s no desire to rule the kingdom, or to conquer the world. He doesn’t want anyone’s voice, nor does he wish to rid the world of spotty dogs. He just wants to marry the girl of his dreams.
In many ways, that makes his character transformation much darker. He’s animated really carefully, as it would have been easy to slip, and allow us to see the less jovial, more sinister side of his character earlier. But there’s a real discipline here in holding Gaston back, to let the audience hook into him, before allowing his gradual slide. He goes from pin-up idol to snarling menace, but again, it takes time and a lot of work to get him there.
Still, as we head into the second half of the film, as he captures Maurice, his transformation to villain is all but done. Yet, this comes to a head, and is at its most sinister, not when he’s fighting lots of people. It’s when he’s leading people to track down the beast.
I don’t think there’s a Disney song that’s darker than the brilliant Hellfire, from The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, but Kill The Beast gives it a good go. The subtext to the song I’ve chatted about before here, but the crucial element to it is that it makes clear and understandable just what Gaston’s motivation is. Basically, he’s jealous. It doesn’t really matter to him that it’s a Beast that he’s going to do battle with at the end of his stampede. It could be anyone. It just happens that the person who’s punctured his self-centred view of the world, and himself, happens to be very big and covered in hair. That makes him a target, and he’s a target that Gaston, for believable reasons, is willing to aim at.
Only towards the end does Gaston tread towards the usual villain look and feel, but the fact that we’ve followed his progression to that point is important. His showdown with the Beast on the tower at the end is driven by the fact that they both love, in different ways, the same person. And as a consequence, it matters.
It also completes the about turn of the film, too. Earlier on, it’s the Beast who is positioned as antagonist (lest we forget, he has his own collection of comedy sidekicks, to match up to Le Fou).
In fact, more than that, the Beast does exactly the same nasty thing as Gaston: they not only have in common that they both long to be with Belle, they also both happened to have imprisoned her father, against his will.
I find it interesting that they have that same act in common, and yet the film goes on to shed very different lights on their actions – Belle can forgive why one of them did it, but not the other.
Both the Beast and Gaston are driven by insecurities that eventually manifest themselves in very different ways. By the end, they’ve firmly swapped places, and the film doesn’t cheat on the path to that happening at all.
Gaston’s eventual death is the one part that moves closest to the Disney template. Clearly, he’s not allowed to go in any way that’d be shocking, so we see him falling to his doom, as a result of his battle with the Beast. The Beast doesn’t kill him, he basically scuppers himself. The original planned ending went further: one plan was for Gaston to kill himself, once he realised that Belle could never be his. I suspect that got cut out really quite quickly though.
Still, had this not been a Disney film, perhaps that’s the one part that might have followed a slightly darker narrative path, but even then, it’s hard to grumble with what we get. The film’s ending is more about the eventual redemption of the Beast than the fall of Gaston.
Yet thanks to a mix of humour, believable character development, compelling motivation and the excellent voicing work of Richard White (proving you don’t need a big movie star on voice duties), he’s an utterly compelling antagonist, and an extremely interesting one. By combining humour, and a gradual turning to the dark side, the screenplay of Beauty And The Beast plays cleverly with expectations, gives him lots of great lines, and it gives some talented animators something to really get their teeth into. And they really do: the contrast between Gaston’s moods is exquisitely captured.
Since Gaston, Disney’s villain template as such has altered a lot. It’s no coincidence that the same team who made Beauty And The Beast also were beyond the stunning The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, too, as Judge Frollo, for me, remains the other Disney antagonist that’s fuelled by such boldness.
Gaston, though, might just top the lot. Not bad for the youngest Disney villain yet conceived…