First Theatrical Release: June 21, 1996
First Home Viewing Release: March 4, 1997
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My Big Box o’ Disney Love
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Esmeralda and Quasimodo’s mother. They do not talk to each other.
Similarly to Aladdin, Hunchback was the right movie at the right time for me. If when I viewed Aladdin I was ready to start thinking about romantic relationships seriously for the first time, by the time Hunchback premiered, I was ready to start exploring the darker side of sexual attraction.
But wait: if Disney’s movies seemed to be right on-target developmentally for an adolescent girl growing up in the 90s, were they still suitable for kids?
That is the big question surrounding The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which, in my opinion is a brilliant movie that mostly misses its audience because of this conundrum. The storyline and themes are decidedly adult — much of it would go over young children’s heads or bore them — and yet it doesn’t get the respect it deserves because too many adults write it off as “kids’ stuff.”
And then there are the adults who feel ambivalent about it for this very reason — not able to appreciate it in its own right because they are too uncomfortable wondering what their children are absorbing from it.
This was a sticking point between my childhood best friend and I, and one of the early signals of the unraveling of our friendship. We’d had a tradition of seeing Disney films in the theater together since Oliver & Company, and we went to Hunchback together on opening night. Before the movie began, I expressed my excitement, to which she responded, “I don’t really like Disney anymore.”
She had been immersing herself more and more in her conservative church community in the wake of her parents’ divorce, and she had gotten wind of the anti-Disney hysteria perpetrated by certain Christian groups alleging that the films were secretly filling children’s heads with naughty messages (hmm, do you think I turned out to be bisexual because of all those Disney films?).
Needless to say, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not the best film to show someone who is convinced Disney is out to corrupt children. A judge murders a woman on the steps of a church in the opening scenes, then attempts to drop a deformed baby into a well. The buxom female lead performs a pole dance. The villain gets a dark musical number in which he broods over his lust for a gypsy girl. And throughout it all, God is name-dropped and implicated in various ways.
But The Hunchback of Notre Dame is far more than the sum of its parts; and even though I think the MPAA was asleep on the job and should have given parents a heads-up by rating the movie PG, I do not think the movie sets out to (or would achieve) the corruption of children. Instead, through gorgeous animation and what I believe is the best music ever written for a Disney film, Disney took the necessary risks to best tell the story it needed to tell. While scenes taken alone may be shocking, as a whole the movie imparts messages that are worth taking in no matter what your age.
God Is Back in Town
When I started this project, I was surprised by how often God snuck into the early movies. Having a character pray seemed to be Disney’s shorthand for showing that s/he was a good/pure-hearted person. Snow White prays for the Seven Dwarfs. Gepetto prays for Pinocchio. And Penny from The Rescuers also says her prayers while she’s in the orphanage. (I seem to remember praying in Peter Pan, too, but I couldn’t find confirmation of this.)
Then, we had a long string of talking animal movies that dodged the religion issue, and when human stories re-emerged in the Renaissance years, they were decidedly secular.
Until The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising for a movie that mostly takes place in a church, but Disney’s take on religion in this film is much more sophisticated than it was in the old days. Whereas prayer used to be shorthand for “good guy,” the character in Hunchback who mentions God and scripture most often is Frollo — the villain. (In the movie he is a judge, but in Victor Hugo’s novel he is a priest. This Catholic girl recognizes a supercilious priest when she sees one, though, and Frollo is a priest no matter what Disney wants to call him.) He even has an entire song devoted to his prayer to the Virgin Mary about his struggles with lust for Esmeralda.
Religion emerges in several varieties in Hunchback. Frollo wields his religion like a weapon, using it primarily to beat others down. He’s self-righteous and hypocritical, but something that is so appealing about Frollo is that I think he is one of the only villains in Disney’s canon who honestly believes, in some part of himself, that what he is doing is moral. Back when I wrote about The Rescuers Down Under, I commented about how McLeach represented Disney’s first introduction of a “real-world” villain — a poacher. Hunchback takes that a step further — we have all met sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, judgmental, Bible-thumping pricks like Frollo. I was raised Catholic, so I had met at least half a dozen Frollos by the time I saw this film at age 15.
This might be problematic if Frollo were the only representation of religion in the film. But his foil is the archdeacon, a gentle soul who vehemently protects the sanctity of the Cathedral by forbidding Esmeralda’s arrest while she is within it, who tenderly holds the body of a dead gypsy in his arms at the beginning of the film, who forbids Frollo from killing Quasimodo as a baby and counsels Esmeralda when the injustices of the world have riled her up. He is the only character visibly identified with Christianity by the cross he wears.
And then we have Esmeralda, who offers a heartfelt prayer in her song, “God help the outcasts,” but also admits her doubt in God’s existence (“I don’t know if you can hear me/or if you’re even there.”) She is the only character to reference Jesus (“Still I see your face and wonder, were you once an outcast, too?”) And despite Frollo’s assertion that the gypsies “enflame people’s lower instincts,” Esmeralda’s prayer is more selfless than the regular church-goers, who ask for wealth, fame, glory, love, and blessings. Ultimately, it’s Esmeralda’s spirituality that sums up the movie’s theme of acceptance of all people: “I thought we all were children of God.”
I read a few reviews by Christians before writing this post; they ranged from reactions much like my friend’s (Disney is corrupting children!) to people who praised its “positive” portrayal of Christianity, to my personal favorite, a blogger who complained that the movie sent “mixed messages” about religion.
Welcome to the world! It’s a complicated place.
A few months after my best friend and I had “agreed to disagree” on this movie, she was asked to play piano to accompany a choir performance of “God Help the Outcasts.” Backstage, as she held the sheet music in her hand, she said to me, “I just wish the whole movie would have been like this part.”
I could hear the sadness in her voice and wondered whether her discomfort with Hunchback was really about its refusal to offer up easy answers at a time when she felt she desperately needed them. The kind-hearted protagonist doesn’t get the girl in the end. The supposed defender of justice is the most corrupt character in the movie. The “heathen” gypsy offers the film’s most heartfelt prayer.
As someone who has always been drawn to religion more for the questions than the answers, this layered complication is what I love about Hunchback. If you’re worried about what all this is teaching kids, consider this:
What it is really teaching them is that people are not always what they appear to be. In the character of Frollo, Disney is not painting religious people as bad — it’s saying that people who are dicks about religion and use it to further their own selfish agendas are bad. And the people who are most bothered by these messages just might be the ones for whom Frollo hits a little too close to home — those who are all-too-quick to judge, whether it be a Disney movie or your friend having premarital sex. Which reminds me …
Yes, This Time it Really Is About Sex
It was almost as if Disney took all that flack in the 90s about its sexual subliminal messages and said, “Okay, you want sex? We’ll give you sex!”
There is nothing “subliminal” about the sexual themes in Hunchback. Although one could argue that Disney princesses have been sexualized since the beginning of time (their default setting for interacting with men seems to be “flirt”), the women of the Renaissance Years are especially prone to slipped-in sexy moments. Jasmine sprawls on the floor in a red harem outfit, trying to cover herself with a flimsy purple veil; Nala has her “come-hither” look; Pocahontas has her heaving bosom.
But in Hunchback, Disney finally calls a spade a spade. Esmeralda is unabashedly sexual, with her sultry voice, suggestive shadows, clinging red dress, and sexy pole dance. And in case you were wondering if you’re just being a perv for thinking this all seems pretty risqué, her dance number is followed in short order by Frollo twisting her arm behind her neck and inhaling the scent of her hair. When she asks what he is doing, he says he is imagining “a rope around that pretty neck of yours,” to which Esmeralda replies, “I know what you were imagining.”
Frollo confirms her (and our) suspicions soon after, when he breaks into “Hellfire,” his tortured prayer of guilt-drenched lust.
We’ve seen lots of Disney villains motivated by a lust for power or riches. But Frollo is our first villain motivated by plain, old-fashioned lust.
So, what is all of this teaching kids?
Well, for starters, Disney has established a tradition of revealing a male villain’s character by the way he treats women. Gaston carelessly props his muddy feet upon Belle’s open book. Jafar puts Jasmine in chains and moves to strike her before he is distracted by his desire to make another wish. Scar does strike Sarabi. Frollo never raises his hand against Esmeralda, but what he does is the worst of them all: he reduces her humanity to her sexuality.
The movie does not send the message that sexuality is bad. Phoebus is also titillated by Esmeralda’s dancing, but he sees her as a human being beyond that. Indeed, it’s his ability to see her humanity, and by extension, her people’s humanity, that ultimately drives him to defy Frollo and refuse to continue persecuting the gypsies and those who are sympathetic to them.
For Phoebus, Esmeralda’s main draw seems to be her fierce nature and her independence (“What a woman!”); Quasimodo is drawn to her kindness. Frollo’s lust gives him tunnel vision that keeps him from seeing anything beyond her sex appeal, which is why he feels no guilt about killing her if she does not agree to satisfy his, erm, urges. He is not killing a human being — he is killing a temptation, an inner demon. He is projecting on to her the worst parts of himself, and blaming her for them.
What all of this sexual turmoil and Frollo’s character teaches kids is this: no matter how a woman dresses, dances, or looks, the only people who use that as an excuse to reduce her to a sex object are … the bad guys.
Call Me Maybe
So, even though I think Hunchback should have received a PG rating, I don’t think it’s bad for kids. I think a lot of it would go over kids’ heads, and what doesn’t provides the opportunity for parents or other adults to have some much-needed conversation about the complicated subjects of love, sex, God, and diversity. For all the parents out there whose reaction to the movie was something along the lines of, “It was a good movie, but I just don’t know how to explain it to my kids!”, give me a call. I’ll help you out.