Disney’s most troubling animated film to date (spoiler notice)
I paid The Hunchback of Notre Dame little heed when it came out in 1996. At the time I was getting a little too old for Disney sing-alongs, or rather I was reaching that childish period, C.S. Lewis so nicely put, where you’re concerned with things being childish. Eventually, you grow out of that and you’re free to enjoy everything.
But with Hunchback, there was an additional reason for skipping it. I had been raised with Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) as the peaks of the Disney musical tradition. Hunchback seemed an afterthought, the last puffs of a train running out of steam. Looking at it now, one discovers the reverse. Aladdin is a trifle, whereas Hunchback is wrought with complex themes.
It is frankly impressive to see how murky the abyss is in this seemingly whimsical morality play. The story is a known factor: in the bell tower of the Notre Dame in Paris hides a deformed freak who yearns to go out into the daylight. In Disney’s version he is a kind, boyish person held back by the sanctimonious judge Claude Frollo (voiced by the inimitable, late Tony Jay). Frollo is the force that makes this musical shine. Where Disney villains usually range from silly (Hades, Cruella de Vil) to sinister (Jafar, Ursula), Frollo far exceeds their stereotypes.
He is a complicated creature, steered by guilt, extreme piety and religious fervor. When he meets the seductive gypsy Esmeralda, the type he has vowed to stamp out of existence in genocidal anger, he falls in love with her. This sets a powder keg ablaze. His token villain’s song, ‘Hellfire’, ignites with suppressed sexual desire. He prays to the virgin Mary for spiritual aid, but concludes by swearing he’ll burn down Paris to find her, and that she’ll be his or end up on the pyre. Heavy stuff for an animated musical!
The film’s finale displays a dubious morality. Disney animations often end with the hero gaining self-respect and winning the prince or princess. Those are rituals that pronounce them as adults, as full human beings. Quasimodo is forced to enjoy these pleasures vicariously however, because instead of him, it is the handsome captain Phoebus who is coupled to Esmeralda. It seems that not even Disney could find the positive force to push the ugly hunchback onto her. He is thereby relegated to the role of side-figure, bereft of the opportunity to engage in the ritual. Quasimodo is overjoyed that he can give his blessings to the beautiful couple. Instead of self-respect, he finally learns the lesson Frollo taught him: Once a monster, always a monster. It’s an unsatisfying ending that perhaps shows the story – as seen through a Disney prism – unraveling at the seams, incapable of supporting such happy tidings.
One last thought. After seeing Hunchback, I had expected the Notre Dame to be the colossal monument depicted in the film. It turned out to be surprisingly compact and modest in real life. I wonder how many similarly disillusioned visitors Disney has wrought through their majestic illustrations.