In the world of kid’s movies, there is no greater enemy than an authority figure. It makes sense: the genre celebrates the freedom and boundless imagination that exists in children, so anytime someone in a position of power comes in and tries to implement rules or structure, they are naturally viewed as an enemy. Parents. Teachers. Camp Counsellors. Nobody likes the fat cats at city hall, amiright? But there’s a big difference between a simple authority figure that’s disliked by kids simply because they wield authority and an all-out power-crazed figure who uses their position to intentionally make kids lives miserable. In fact, there are three essential qualities that transform a kid’s movie authority figure from harsh but fair to all-out terrifying.
Intention: Plenty of people in power accidentally make their subordinate’s lives miserable, but only a really twisted top dog goes out of their way to undermine the happiness of those around them.
Creativity: Even the worst of intentions are only useful if you know how to use them and that is why a key component of being a callously cruel king kahuna is not just torturing those below you but thinking outside the box in the ways you torture them. One can’t simply abuse their power, they need to abuse their power in innovative and groundbreaking ways.
Execution: This one is simple. If a big cheese is going to punch their ticket into the Sinister Cinematic Hall of Fame, they can’t just want to be a merciless piece of shit. They need to pull off their terrible plans and actively contribute to the unhappiness of others.
Using these criteria, here are the nine most terrifying authority figures in children’s movies.
King Triton from The Little Mermaid
King Triton may be the only person on this list who genuinely wants what’s best for the person he is disciplining. He seems to sincerely believe that he is protecting Ariel from the harm that may befall her if he leaves their Oceanic kingdom behind. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and King Triton’s attempt to convince his daughter to embrace life under the sea involves destroying all of her most cherished possessions. If Triton had taken the time to sit his daughter down and explain his concerns, perhaps she would have listened to his hard-earned wisdom instead of heading straight to Ursula and giving up her voice.
Tony Perkins from Heavyweights
Nobody can question whether or not Tony Perkins crossed the line when it came to trying to get the kids at Camp Hope to lose weight. During his regime, he institutes an extreme workout regiment that includes cutting out all contact with the outside world and making the kids go on a 20-mile hike. Perkins is certainly among the toughest disciplinarians on the list when it comes to cruelty and execution. But Perkins isn’t motivated by making the kids miserable. He wants to create a workout trend that will make him rich and famous, by any means necessary. Is Perkins a dick? Absolutely, but he’s more of a self-involved sociopath than flat-out psychopath.
Spiker and Sponge from James and the Giant Peach
Before James embarks on an adventure via the titular stone fruit, he’s forced to live with his vicious aunts who do everything in their power to make their kind-hearted nephew bend to their will. There, James is forced to do back-breaking work all day long. To keep James from ever even thinking of escaping his barbaric upbringing, Spiker and Sponge will remind him of his parents’ mysterious death in order to make him fear the outside world. When James finally reveals his guardians’ terrible treatment of him, they just straight up try to kill him. Sure, they lack some of the creativity of their fiendish counterparts, but their egregious abuse of power truly knows no bounds.
Miss Hannigan from Annie
When Annie and the other orphans complain about “the hard knock life”, they are mostly referring to the vicious antics of Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage. Hannigan is nothing more than a mean drunk who forces the children to perform manual labor and even orchestrates Annie’s kidnapping to try and make some money off Oliver Warbucks. In most contexts, this would elicit shock and horror. But Miss Hannigan lacks the creativity and ambition to be considered one of the most savage top bananas in cinema history.
The Elders from Happy Feet
Singing may be the primary mating ritual for the penguins of the Happy Feet universe but that absolutely does not justify the Elders’ excessive condemnation of Mumble throughout the movie. These harsh, authoritative birds have created a society where everyone must fall in line with their beliefs. The Elders are so blindly set in their ways that they treat Mumble like an outsider for his entire life simply because he prefers dancing to singing. Eventually, they even exile the young penguin from society for his tapping toes, which, in their society, is about a half step away from the death sentence. When it comes to hating dancing, Jon Lithgow has nothing on the Elders.
Lady Tremaine from Cinderella
The evil stepmother that started all evil stepmothers, Lady Tremaine doesn’t merely despise her stepdaughter, her greatest joy in life seems to be making Cinderella’s existence as miserable as possible. She forces the girl to spend her days doing chores and then forbids her from going to the Prince’s ball for sheer spite. In terms of intentions, nobody can hold a candle to Lady Tremaine. Some may question her execution but if it wasn’t for divine intervention, Cinderella would likely have never escaped her dismal life.
Gothel from Tangled
We’ve all had to suffer through bogus rules growing up but Gothel takes it to next level by not letting Rapunzel leave the isolated tower they call home for her entire childhood. Instead of exploring the world and getting to know people, Rapunzel is left alone to slowly lose her mind doing the same menial tasks over and over. Gothel needs Rapunzel to fear her authority in order to keep her cooped up, so she is quick to reprimand and berate her kidnapped daughter anytime she acts out of line. Gothel is completely motivated by her own selfish desires and uses fear tactics in order to gaslight Rapunzel into believing she is protecting her instead of enslaving her.
Principal Trunchbull from Matilda
Matilda’s parents are a-holes but they don’t really reprimand Matilda in any real way. Instead, they leave the disciplinary duties to Agatha Trunchbull, the sadistic, unhinged principal at Crunchem Hall. Trunchbull is not your standard jerk principal. She goes out of her way to belittle and humiliate the students at her school, even resorting to violence in order to assert her dominance. Her intentions are nothing but vindictive and she shows a real creative flair when it comes to making all of the students at her school as miserable as humanly possible. Even Matilda’s magical powers were barely a match for Trunchbull’s almost supernatural capacity to find pleasure in planning the pain of others.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Dolores Umbridge
The Dursley’s may have had a longer time making the boy who lived’s life a living hell but Professor Umbridge only needed one school year to break Harry in a way Vernon and Petunia could only dream. Through unnecessary rules and an insatiable desire for punishing students, Umbridge manages to rob Harry of the sense of belonging he always felt at Hogwarts. She is constantly using bureaucracy in masterful ways to gain more power, even replacing Dumbledore as Headmaster. Voldemort may be the noseless face of evil in the Wizarding World but every true Potterhead knows that not even the Dark Lord is more terrifying than Dolores Umbridge.