There are no churches on Walt Disney’s Main Street, USA.
When Walt decided to recreate his vision of small town America for his theme parks, the one thing he left out – the one thing he didn’t want amid the restaurants and shops, Town Hall and the windows advertising dentists and doctors – was a church. That wasn’t an accident. Growing up under a strict fundamentalist father, Walt veered towards a kind of secular humanism. But more than that, he had the stroke of genius to understand that the religious future of America was ecumenical and interfaith. He didn’t want to ground his nostalgic look back at turn of the century America in things that he sensed would soon be out of style.
So it was with his films; Walt Disney’s fabled cartoons are not only non-political (in the specific meaning of the term, ie not engaging with then-current politics), they’re non-religious. Nobody prays, nobody talks about God. We see Gepetto on his knees, hands clasped before him… but he’s not praying, he’s wishing upon the Wishing Star. Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain segment, which has hellish imagery and a massive demon, was supposed to end in a church, with stained glass windows and Virgin Mary statues displayed, but Walt opted instead to bring the conclusion to nature. Priests and religious figures are rare, and it’s not until Walt is dead that they really start popping up, like Friar Tuck in Robin Hood.
Later, as the Disney Renaissance happened in the 80s and 90s, with Walt long gone, the animated films began bringing in more and more religious imagery and explicit religious talk. Allah gets a few namedrops in Aladdin. There’s a famously priapic priest in The Little Mermaid. Mulan has ancestor worship, Pocahontas has animism. But still, none of this is that explicit, and like in Hercules, which is obviously full of gods, the religion is presented as more akin to magic, which was always Walt’s go-to anyway.
Enter The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Already a strange novel for Disney to adapt, the story is unavoidably tied to religion – the name of a cathedral is in the title! – and the animation studio, fresh off a string of world-changing successes, didn’t hesitate to tackle it head on. In doing so the filmmakers made the most singular and unique Disney film since Fantasia, and pushed boundaries that have not been explored since.
In 2014 Kristen Anderson-Lopez, half of the Oscar-winning songwriting team from Frozen, said in an interview that Disney bans the use of the word “God.” That’s a big change from 1996, as Hunchback has God not only mentioned in one of its central songs, it’s a song sung to God and His name is in the title. God Help the Outcasts, an intercessory prayer by the gypsy Esemeralda on the behalf of her people, is one of the most beautiful numbers in the movie, and it’s plainly and nakedly religious.
Not only is it religious, it’s super Christian. Talking about God is one thing – everybody has their own personal image of God, and it’s possible to discuss God without getting denominational about it – but in God Help the Outcasts, Esmeralda is singing not only to the Christian God but specifically to Jesus. Now, that’s sort of obvious because she’s doing it in a cathedral, but this lyric makes it very very clear:
Yes, I know I’m just an outcast
I shouldn’t speak to You
Still I see Your face and wonder
Were You once an outcast too?
The number is interesting, and possibly angering to the kinds of hardcore Christians who were boycotting Disney in the 90s due to the studio’s positive attitude towards same sex marriage, because it presents non-Christian Esmeralda as a better Christian than all the Christians in Notre Dame. As we hear her prayer, which is for others, for the downtrodden, for the weakest and the poor, we also hear the prayers of the other congregants.
I ask for wealth, I ask for fame
I ask for glory to shine on my name
I ask for love I can possess
I ask for God and His angels to bless me
To which Esmeralda responds
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
She understands the purpose of prayer, and she knows that asking for herself is wrong. She is there to plead the case of others, acting selflessly at all times in the film. The song operates as a way of letting us know exactly what kind of person Esmeralda is (although, to be honest, I think her actions at the Feast of Fools already tells us), and letting us know that she is purer of heart than most of the holier-than-thou types in the movie.
The holiest of those is Frollo, the villain. In Victor Hugo’s novel Frollo is an archdeacon, changed in the film to a judge (one of many, many changes made to Hugo’s novel. Disney’s Hunchback is less an adaptation of the book and more an adaptation of the plot synopsis on the back of the book), but no less possessed of a religious mania. He’s a unique Disney villain, and for my money the most despicable of the colorful lot. Sure, other villains commit worse crimes, other villains have bigger and more dangerous agendas, but Frollo is twisted in a way no other Disney villain is. What’s more, he’s the least fun – yeah, Maleficent is evil, but her aesthetic rules, and yeah, Scar is a real sonuvabitch, but he’s delightfully Shakespearian. Frollo is cruel and mean, without panache or a softening coedic sidekick like Iago. More than that, he’s an oppressor – in a movie that, at times, feels like a Democratic Socialist recruitment video, Frollo represents The System that keeps people down and enjoys doing it.
He’s also the mirror image of Esmeralda. While Quasimodo is the lead, and while Phoebus is the romantic lead, the real dance is between Frollo and Esmeralda. They are opposites, and each represents a vision of the world for Quasimodo. Where Esmeralda is light, free, fun, sensual and loving, Frollo is dark, repressed, cruel, puritanical, and most of all he sees the world through a vicious and judgmental lens. When he teaches Quasimodo the alphabet each letter stands for something religiously unpleasant: A is for Abomination, D is for Damnation, E is for Eternal Damnation.
But where we really see the difference, as in any good musical, is in the songs. Where Esmeralda’s God Help the Outcasts has the gypsy reaching out to Christ to intervene in the suffering of others, Frollo’s Hellfire is a prayer to Mother Mary to give him what he wants – the sweet, supple bod of Esmeralda. It’s interesting that he’s not singing to God; you could find some Protestant disapproval here, a dislike of the Catholic vision of saints and Mary as intercessors. Catholicism is the Christian sect most paganistic, owing to its origins as a Jewish sect taking root in pagan Rome. You know Frollo is the bad guy because he’s not praying to Christ.
Honestly, though, you know Frollo’s the bad guy right from the opening of the movie when he runs Quasimodo’s mom to death and considers tossing the baby in a well. What Hellfire does is show us the psychology behind all of that; where Esmeralda is humble and grateful for what she has (“I ask for nothing, I can get by/But I know so many less lucky than I”), Frollo is full of himself, singing
You know I am a righteous man
Of my virtue I am justly proud
You know I’m so much purer than
The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd
He then goes on to sing what is not only the darkest, most disturbing Disney song – with visuals to match – but also possibly the horniest. Frollo is ablaze with lust, and the lyrics don’t play it coy.
This fire in my skin
Desire Is turning me to sin
Esmeralda is all selflessness, Frollo is all self. He is self-oriented, consumed by his desires which he despises. While the priests in the background sing “Mea maxima culpa” (“My greatest fault”) Frollo is throwing blame at Esmeralda, accusing her of bewitching him with smoldering eyes and raven hair.
As he sings to the fire a form of Esmeralda dances within, and it’s sexy. Esmeralda is maybe the sexiest of the Disney princesses (is she technically a princess? She could be Roma royalty), and the casting of Demi Moore, the hyper-sexual alpha female at the front of 90s pop culture, who had just appeared in the movie Striptease the same year Hunchback was released (surely it’s no accident that Esmeralda does a pole dance at the Feast of Fools!), only codes her as even sexier. Moore’s casting was very purposeful – directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise wanted a huskier voice for the gypsy, a striking contrast to the usual Disney princess sound.
These two characters are the heart of Hunchback. Phoebus – looking like the first draft of Frozen’s Kristoff, which I think is all wrong for Kevin Kline’s voice – is decoration and plot mover. Quasimodo is the titular lead, but really the movie is about these two forces acting on him. Is he a thrall to the cruel mercies of Frollo or will he find sanctuary in Esmeralda’s love for life and people? It’s not really much of a battle – from his first song, Out There, which evolves from a duet with Frollo, we know that Quasimodo is pure and wants to be a part of the world. In the song Frollo reinforces that the world is ugly and mean, and that the people in it will hate Quasimodo for his deformities; he indoctrinates the boy into believing he is a monster. But through it all Quasimodo sings of his desire to be out there, to have a day in the sun, to break free from the restrictive towers of Notre Dame. We’re never questioning which version of Christianity Quasimodo will embrace – the Christianity of love or the Christanity of hate (the American people, on the other hand, seem increasingly aligned with Frollo).
The softening of Hugo’s novel was inevitable – in the novel Frollo kills Esmeralda, Quasimodo kills Frollo and then the hunchback goes to the charnel grounds, hugs Esmeralda’s corpse and lays there with it until he starves to death – but it’s in the character of Quasimodo that it’s most damaging. Tom Hulce has such a sweet voice, has so much of the lilting quality of Mozart, that it’s hard to imagine Quasimodo being actually torn between these two. Of course he’s all about Esmeralda. That conflict becomes meaningless, and it renders Quasimodo largely unchanging. By killing Frollo via accident (or is it? Does Notre Dame itself kill Frollo?) the movie also removes any final decisive action for him.
In the novel Quasimodo is deaf, and his words are impenetrable – not a great quality for a musical (although I wonder if a 2020 version of this would have Quasimodo deaf and doing his numbers in sign language, a progressive milestone that would get a lot of positive attention). It’s another layer of distance between the deformed bellringer and the world, and in the novel his connection to Esmeralda gets materialized in the form of a dog whistle he gives her – it blows at a high enough frequency that he can hear it. She, alone, can reach him. That sound cuts through the deafening effect of the bells, the ways that strict Christianity have wounded him.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the strangest Disney animated movie – it’s the darkest and most adult, it’s the only one to foreground religion and be explicit about it, it’s the horniest one by far – but I feel like the strange position in which Quasimodo exists is what really makes it unique. This isn’t a story about the Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s a story that the Hunchback wanders through. Frollo and Esmeralda and Phoebus are having a story, and Quasimodo dips in and out of it. He’s an inciting incident, he’s a deus ex machina, but he’s not moving the story.
Rather, the animated movie gives all the hero stuff to Phoebus – who is a bad guy in the novel! In the novel, Phoebus is a womanizing asshole, who takes Esmeralda away from Quasimodo. She loves him, but Phoebus just wants to fuck, even though he’s engaged. When he’s about to finally get down with her, Frollo busts in and stabs him in the back; wounded, Phoebus takes off and is assumed dead. Frollo frames Esmeralda for the crime and has her executed. In the novel Phoebus watches as she is hung and has no emotional response, and goes off to marry his cousin!
A far cry from the hero at the heart of this movie. Phoebus is the most traditional Disney element in the whole film, and he stands out like a sore thumb. He’s so heroic, in fact – he leads a revolution of the downtrodden at the end, all but shouting ‘Not me, us!’ – that he skews the whole movie. Where everything else in the film is defiantly unique and strange, Phoebus’ blonde heroism is disappointingly standard. Early versions of the movie had Quasimodo and Phoebus doing a Cyrano thing, and honestly that might have worked better.
The problem with Phoebus is that he distracts from the duality of Esmeralda and Frollo by, like Quasimodo, choosing a side fairly early. Even though he’s the captain of the guard serving under Frollo, there’s never a question – from his very first scene – where his emotional loyalties lay. Phoebus doesn’t have a Come to Jesus moment (and if ever there were a Disney film to have one, this is it), and so the competing characters feel uneven. The character deck is stacked in Esmeralda’s favor.
The one thing that Phoebus does bring to the movie, which is otherwise wrestling with faith and morality through the lens of faith, is being a character of no fixed religious values. He understands Notre Dame not as a sacred space but as a loophole he can exploit. Later, he works to free the gypsies and lead an uprising not in the name of Christ, born and died poor and outcast, but in the name of secular concepts of liberty and equality, two of France’s biggest values. He doesn’t need God to do right. If he had been more fleshed out in this way – if he had, for instance, been more explicitly atheistic or agnostic, Phoebus could have served a better role as a third pole of morality around with the film could swing, a pole that says you don’t need God at all to do the right thing. As it is he does fulfill this function, but almost subtextually.
Still, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most shocking Disney films, a movie they could only have made at the twilight of the Renaissance. It was the success of films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast that emboldened these filmmakers to push the boundaries; Disney Animation Studios had stepped out of the shadows of ‘kiddie films’ the moment Beauty and the Beast’s workprint got a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an attempt to do something boundary-bursting and adult.
It worked well enough – the movie was not a failure. But it wasn’t the hit that the last few had been, and something else was going on. Toy Story had come out the year before, ushering a new era of CGI animation. Hunchback contained CGI – very primitive in the case of crowd scenes, more beautiful when it came to the cathedral – but it was traditional hand drawn, increasingly a relic of the past.
Maybe there was something else happening with Toy Story. As Disney Animation Studios flexed its muscles and tried to make increasingly emotionally complicated, classically dramatic, darkly adult films, Pixar waltzed in with a slightly corny, feel good movie that managed to be an all-ages hit without the dark edges or sexuality that pulses at the heart of Hunchback. The landscape was about to change, as everybody went to chase the shiny new ball and Pixar would perfect a middle-of-the-road approach that appealed to children and their parents – an approach much closer to what Walt had been doing back in the early days.
Even Walt made Fantasia, though. The urge to break through to the next level of what is possible and what is appropriate and what is family friendly is baked into the DNA of Disney Animation Studios. Walt, for all his capitalist impulses and ruthless understanding of the consumer, always elevated the artist, and always respected visions. In many ways Hunchback, which is so unlike any other Disney film, honors Walt’s legacy in ways that more traditional Disney films never could – copying Walt is the least Walt-like thing you can do.
Today Disney Animation Studios is back on top, with Pixar kind of the younger sibling. It is, as they say in The Lion King, the Circle of Life (an Eastern religious concept that is de-religified for the cartoon). But it’s not really a circle, it’s kind of a bumpy oval, and each time around the bumps get bigger. Hunchback was a big bump, but looking ahead to the slates of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios it seems like that bump might be repeating. The next Pixar film, after the disappointing Toy Story 4, is Soul, a movie that is about the afterlife. It’ll likely not be religious, but since it’s a movie about souls being created, sent to Earth and what happens to them after they leave their mortal bodies, there will be unavoidable religious and spiritual aspects to it. It’ll be interesting to see if Pixar has the guts to go as far down the path as the makers of Hunchback did.
Even in 2020 The Hunchback of Notre Dame is shocking; I watched it for the first time this week with a deep curiosity for how they fit this story into a Disney mold, and the answer is that they frankly didn’t. Unique, troubling, vibrantly sensual and full of a moral questioning that exceeds what even most ‘grown up’ movies are capable of pursuing, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is perhaps the most unsung film in the Disney canon, a movie that dares to explore the limits of what one of these movies can be, what they can talk about and what the Disney name can really encompass.
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