Tangled – Disney’s 50th animated feature, and the film that kick-started the studio’s ‘Revival’ period – turns 10 years old this month. In the decade since its release the studio has gone from strength to strength, so it’s easy to forget just how big a breath of fresh air it was.

It’s easily one of Disney’s best-looking movies; using 3D technology to create a painterly art style that feels as elastic as the studio’s early cartoons. It’s got not one, but two adorable animal sidekicks. It’s got a soundtrack stuffed with brilliant songs courtesy of the legendary Alan Menken. It’s got probably the hottest Disney prince of all time (sorry, Eric). Most importantly of all, it’s got a truly great villain: the scheming, sarcastic, and sinister Mother Gothel. 

Mother Gothel With Tiara

Courtesy of: Disney

“So what?” you may ask. “Disney movies have always had great villains.” And you’re right, of course – that tradition goes as far back as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Lucille La Verne’s terrifying performance as the Evil Queen. In fact, the House of Mouse has a rich history of female antagonists, from the stern coldness of Eleanor Audley (who played both Maleficent and Cinderella’s wicked stepmother) to the red-hot sass of Ursula and Yzma. But while Mother Gothel can be as arch or as extra as anyone who came before her, the humanity of her actions elevates her into something far more terrifying.

Recent Disney movies have taken on a more meta-textual tone, making comments about the studio’s own legacy as well as telling stories. The protagonists have become more complex, but the antagonists have also felt less important to the story – when they appear at all. Generally, they fall into two categories. Some serve as dark reflections of the protagonist. Think of Turbo in Wreck-It-Ralph, who abandons his game as Ralph wants to and becomes an insane tyrant; or Zootopia’s Assistant Mayor Bellwether, a meek animal – like Judy Hopps – trying to stand out in a world of predators.  Then there are characters like Te Kā, the volcanic demon in Moana, or the elemental spirits Elsa has to conquer in Frozen II: forces of nature to be overcome rather than villains to be foiled.

Mother Gothel

Courtesy of: Disney

By contrast, Mother Gothel dominates the story of Tangled from the beginning. In fact, she’s the very first character we see on screen. It helps that Donna Murphy’s vocal performance is superb – sweetness and light one moment, dripping with sarcasm the next: 

Rapunzel: How did you find me?

Gothel: Oh it was easy, really. I just listened for the sound of complete and utter betrayal and followed that.

Despite having nothing in the way of magical powers or evil henchmen, she’s capable of feeling truly menacing, and she knows how to belt out a tune when she needs to (more on that later). But she also feels like a three-dimensional character in her own right; something that not even the classic Renaissance bad guys could claim. Characters like Scar, Jafar or Gaston usually had pretty simple goals: becoming the king of the Pride Lands, ruling Agrabah, getting that girl Belle to finally notice them. Gothel’s goal is equally straightforward – she wants to keep hold of Rapunzel’s magic in order to stay young – but it’s the way that she keeps her ‘daughter’ prisoner that makes her truly diabolical.

Mother Gothel Rapidly Aging

Courtesy of: Disney

It’s not enough that Gothel holds Rapunzel hostage for nearly 18 years and tricks her into believing Gothel is her mother; she spends that entire time subjecting Rapunzel to abuse that’s designed to subtly wear her down and keep her confined to her tower. Though she claims to be acting out of love, her intentions are always clear; her words of love and motherly kisses are always aimed at Rapunzel’s hair, never the girl herself. Even her pet name for Rapunzel – “my flower” – speaks to the fact that she sees her surrogate daughter as little more than a fountain of youth. 

Three-dimensional characterisation is all well and good, but a great Disney villain also needs a great song – and ooh boy, Mother Gothel’s is a doozy. ‘Mother Knows Best’ perfectly encapsulates her character; a two-and-a-half-minute onslaught of negging, gaslighting and guilt-tripping. She warns Rapunzel of all the made-up dangers of the outside world, lists Rapunzel’s faults in excruciating detail (“gullible, naive, positively grubby…”) and passively-aggressively insults her weight (“plus I believe, gettin’ kinda chubby”) while positioning herself as the one person who can keep Rapunzel safe. It’s a textbook abusive relationship, and it makes the inevitable moment that Rapunzel finally stands up to Gothel in the movie’s climax all the more satisfying to watch.

Disney movies seem to be moving away from the villains of old, and they’re all the more interesting for it. But as much as we hate to admit it, we all love a bad guy – and Tangled stands as proof that the studio is still capable of creating brilliant baddies for the modern era.