Villains are vile, ruthless, merciless, and bloodthirsty; any pretension of civility is just a smokescreen to hide a really twisted Big Bad. Not exactly kid-friendly, is it? So what are kids shows and movies supposed to do, if the original source's baddy eats babies? Why, make them a Harmless Villain, of course!
Their goals can be as grandiose as any other villain's, but the way they go about their plans makes one wonder what they'd do if they ever win. Instead of putting the heroes through a Death Course, it'll merely be an obstacle course strewn with riddles. Rather than threatening to use Anthrax in the heart of London, they'll use sleeping gas to get away with a heist. If they capture the hero, expect only the most benign of Death Traps (usually with a tub of Mr. Pibb instead of a Shark Pool); and instead of outright torture, they'll use feathers to tickle the hero into submission. Or, they may say they're trying to do something truly evil, but they will fail, every time. And if that level of detail is too demanding for your kid detective story? Just make them smugglers. Smuggling what? Nobody knows. It's never specified. But smuggling is bad, that's why they're the villains and that's all you need to know.
Specific evil plots will usually include amazing MacGuffin devices that mildly inconvenience people and get the hero involved; often, these plots are of such a scale and intricacy that if someone Cut Lex Luthor a Check, they'd be so rich, they wouldn't need that giant Gold-only Orbital Magnet to steal the world's supply of gold.
The only people "seriously endangered" by them are the Innocent Bystanders and Damsel in Distress that they occasionally capture, and they end up no worse for wear than if they'd spent the afternoon in a Time Share seminar, which is usually far less entertaining at that, and the villain will probably even provide far better snacks, along with room and board!
The Harmless Villain might possess an impressive array of powers, but they'll end up using it with all the effectiveness of Misapplied Phlebotinum, or have glaring and easily exploited weaknesses that bring them to their knees just in the nick of time.
Basically, they aren't saddled with a bag of Villain Balls so much as they're expert jugglers, using them to entertain rather than as signs of stupidity (it is a kid's show, after all). Its more or less as if they are enforcing on themselves the Designated Villain role. A few of them are even aware of this, and are pretty easy-going about it. These amiable villains will more often than not show that Even Evil Has Standards when that Very Special Episode rolls around. Out of all the villains, they're the likeliest to enjoy a good time with Villains Out Shopping, or even be Friendly Enemies with the hero!
Their minions are as often as not Faceless Goons and comically good Mauve Shirts, both of which tend to do kooky and funny things when their boss isn't looking. These supposed villains often have a degree of Karmic Protection because of the small scale of their "evil", especially when there are more serious villains around.
- Big Bad Wannabe: A villain tries to be dangerous and may be to an extent, but the more harmful villains quickly snuff them and make them know their place.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: When a villain has genuinely malicious intentions but never manages to do anything nasty because of their incompetence or because the hero is so overwhelmingly superior to them. A good example of the differences between a Harmless and an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain is this: An Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain will plan and try to shoot you but accidentally leave their weapon at home. A Harmless Villain will plan and try to shoot you... with a water pistol. And gloat about it.
- Peek-a-Bogeyman: A villain or monster whose sole intention is to briefly scare people instead of harming them.
- Poke the Poodle: A villain does lame and ridiculous things trying to be evil.
- Team Rocket Wins: When a normally ineffectual villain achieves a temporary victory.
- Troll: When the most insulting thing the character does is annoy people until they become angry.
- Affably Evil: The villain is a threat, but they just happen to be a really nice person.
- Big Bad: A villain who is the biggest threat.
- Complete Monster: Instead of being a total goofball, the villain commits terrible acts that leaves everyone shocked and appalled.
- Invincible Villain: The polar opposite of this trope in terms of threat level. While a Harmless Villain would simply throw a rock at you, an Invincible Villain would annihilate you without even lifting a finger.
- Knight of Cerebus: The introduction of a genuinely dangerous villain to a show marks a general Tone Shift in a more serious direction.
- Moral Event Horizon: The villain does the worst things imaginable.
- Not-So-Harmless Villain: When a villain who was previously Harmless or Infecuatually Sympathetic levels up or morally decays and becomes geniunely dangerous; or when the villain was never actually harmless to begin with but the audience was misled about them.
- Vile Villain, Saccharine Show: A genuinely nasty and dangerous villain appears in a work whose tone would lead you to expect this trope.
- Anime and Manga
- Comic Books
- Live-Action Films
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Web Comics
- Web Original
- Western Animation
- Evil Belle features Sweetie Bell trying to become a dreaded villain-for some reason-, only to end up being this trope.
- Meet the Robinsons has Bowler Hat Guy, who isn't capable of actually committing much harm. The robotic bowler hat, Doris, is manipulating him for her own Evil Plan. And it turns out that he has a Freudian Excuse for his hatred of Lewis, the protagonist—he was Lewis' roommate back at the orphanage, and once lost a baseball game which was very important to him because Lewis' invention building kept him up all night.
- Toy Story 2 has greedy toy collector Al McWhiggen who actually poses no real threat to the toys (especially Woody, whose care is in his best interest, if just for the money he would nab by selling him).
- Both Gru and Vector in Despicable Me don't really do anything overly dastardly, at least in the animated film's universe (in Real Life, the consequences of stealing the Moon would be much more horriffic). Yes, Gru freezes a few people, but the freezing is implied to be harmless. And Vector is content with stealing monuments and just sitting back playing Wii. In fact, had Vector not stolen the Pyramid at the beginning, that boy would have died.
- The title character in Megamind appears to be this. Despite having 87 life sentences, it is implied that he never really causes physical harm to anyone, seeing as he chooses unoccupied areas for his base of operations (such as an abandoned observatory) and repeatedly abducts reporter Roxanne Ritchi but leaves her unharmed. Even after he 'wins' and takes over the city, he merely causes property damage. He even tells the citizens to proceed as usual.
- In the Discworld novel The Last Hero, Evil Harry Dread has such a strong sense of professional ethics that he always chooses his guards for stupidity and designs his dungeons for easy escape. Of course, following the same professional ethics, he betrays Cohen and the Silver Horde at the first opportunity, but they're not too fussed about it. It's just what he does.
- In The Dresden Files short story Day Off, Harry is confronted by "Darth Wannabee" and his gang of amateur dark wizards. He's angry because Harry removed a curse he'd laid on a woman who'd annoyed him. Normally, this would be black magic, an incredibly serious matter and something the White Council punishes with death; their treatment of warlocks is one of the things Harry agrees with the council on, even if he thinks that they are doing ridiculously little to stop people from becoming them. But the "curse" was so weak Harry thought it had been a result of bad feng shui. They run away after, on telling Harry to defend himself, he pulls out his gun. Later, they chucked a smoke bomb through his window, which at least shows they had the sense not to confront him again.
- The Rainbow Magic series has the goblins, who are clumsy, dumb, and very easily tricked. Jack Frost himself also qualifies most of the time.
- The "Weird Al" Yankovic song Young, Dumb and Ugly is about a group of low-end delinquents boasting about their trivial acts of hooliganism (Not returning shopping carts, not returning library books on time, toilet papering someone's lawn, etc).
- The devil in Sataan: Die Serie. He tries to start the apocalypse, but the humans just won't let him.
- Count Jim Moriarty of The Goon Show is a subversion. He gradually devolved into a more and more pathetic villain, but what kept him from becoming a harmless one was a) that he was usually partnered with the slightly more competent Hercules Grytpype-Thynne and, most importantly b) he acted as antagonist to the likes of Ned Seagoon, Eccles and Bluebottle.
- Scion has a nonhumorous example in Ouranos, one of the avatars of the Titan of Wind. As described in Greek myth, he was castrated by his son Cronos... and in the process lost absolutely all of his ambition and passion. These days he sits around in his palace of clouds, drinking and sleeping, because he just doesn't care. This makes him a perfect hostage for determined Scions, because he won't even lift a finger in his own defense - if you can get past the guards the other avatars have put around him, he won't stop you from carrying him away.
- Golden Age Champions (the 4th edition version) had The Doberman, a goofy dog-themed villain. He was originally an incompetent tomb robber, trapped in an Egyptian tomb, who just happened to fire off a prayer to Anubis before suffocating. Anubis decided to set him up as one of these to give heroes someone to practice their skills on. (Don't feel too sorry for The Doberman, though — he gets to live forever thanks to Anubis sending him back every time one of his plans ends in No One Could Survive That!.)
- Gilbert and Sullivan enjoyed this:
- The The Pirates of Penzance won't attack forces weaker than they are, and make a point of never harming orphans.
- Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, has never killed anyone, although he's thinking of starting on small animals soon in order to acclimate himself to the unpleasant nature of his duties.
- When the Ruddigore protagonist is suddenly hit with a curse obliging him to commit one serious crime every day or die in agony, the best he can do in the first week is to shoot a fox. When he is tasked to commit the genuinely evil act of carrying off a maiden, the aging maiden fends him off with little trouble.
- Burnt Face Man series has got Taps Man, who erodes metal over a period of time, Have A Nice Day Man, who wishes everyone a great day, and Detergent Man, who washes clothes deliberately on the wrong settings. There are many others.
- Bruce (the Thumper) from Pimp Lando is mostly this, though he does become legitimately threatening at the end of the sixth episode, "Pimp 2K."
- Victor Vivisector from CollegeHumor's "Furry Force" videos. He's a near-demonic looking supervillain with a skull-like face, laser guns, and an army of robots equipped with chainsaws. What is his evil, diabolical plan? To cut down all of America's national forests and replace them with parking lots. He's foiled twice by a bunch of kids from the Furry Force, and is so grossed out that he gives up the first time◊, and bashes himself to death the second.
- Come the third episode, he creates the counterparts to the Furry Force, The Scaly Squad. Problem is, the squad also grossed him out, hoping the two would mutually destroy each other. One visit from the Terminator-esque future version of Leo later (complete with seeing his future), he burns down his lair, with himself inside. His final words? "I welcome death."
- DSBT InsaniT: The only thing Boo can do is turn people invisible. As Dave points out, that is hardly a threat.