Hello, everyone! Yesterday, while aimlessly searching for a movie to watch on Netflix, my friend and I came upon Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She was astonished that I had never seen more than fifteen minutes of the movie, so with trepidation (on my part), we sat down to watch this “children’s” classic. I thought that Zooptopia was the first example of Disney’s attempts to catch up to Pixar’s usage of complex morality, but little did I realize that Disney outdid Pixar back in 1996. And after watching Hunchback, I can see why they were hesitant to try again.
Before yesterday, I had never watched the full Hunchback movie because I was scared of it. Yes, a person who can watch hundreds of horror movies without batting an eye was scared of a Disney movie. But as soon as the movie started playing and I heard the ominous opening music, I was instilled with a vague feeling of terror. I don’t even remember watching this movie as a child, but I still have that feeling.
The first scene is awful. I know that many people cite the death of Mufasa as one of the most traumatizing moments in a Disney movie, but literally in the first three minutes of Hunchback, Frollo murders a gypsy woman and almost drowns her child in a well. WTF Disney? No wonder I was terrified as a child! There’s no respite from there. Once we’re introduced to the protagonist Quasimodo, we see him belittled, insulted, and physically assaulted. “Out There” is such an upsetting song. A gorgeous song with beautiful lyrics, but still wickedly upsetting. The gargoyles provide some comic relief, as do Esmeralda’s tricks, but there’s still a heavy atmosphere of darkness that cloaks the whole movie. One scene, in which the gargoyles sing a comedic song in the vein of Aladdin’s “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” is so jarring that I had to wonder if the Disney execs forced it in to provide some lightness between Frollo’s obsessive “Hellfire” and “Paris Burning.”
Speaking of “Hellfire,” how did that song get past the bigwigs? I know that children supposedly have no understanding of complex themes, but that song is pretty explicit. Frollo wants to have sex with Esmeralda so much that he’d rather burn her on the stake than let her live in freedom. Also, he detests her because she’s a dirty gypsy and he is repulsed by his own sexual desire. I think most kids over the age of seven could understand that, and even if they don’t understand the sexual aspect, since the scene shows Esmeralda burning in the fire, they’ll comprehend that Frollo wishes to kill her. I don’t think that there’s a song in the Disney canon comparable to “Hellfire.” Other Disney villain songs preach general evil, but “Hellfire” is explicitly about obsession, sex, and murder. Nowadays, that song alone would probably earn the movie a PG rating.
Just the fact that they adapted Hugo’s novel into a children’s movie is mind boggling. First, Frollo is a villain heavy-weight. With Scar and Ursula and Gaston, they may terrorize, but their actual violence level is pretty low. Frollo is not only a murderer (of many), but he’s a racist and a sexual predator. Not to mention, he keeps his ward Quasimodo imprisoned in a tower. Second, much of the plot revolves around Frollo trying to capture Esmeralda so that he can burn her at the stake, or as it’s implied, rape her and then kill her. And even if you factor in the Quasimodo’s subplot, the majority of the film is driven by Frollo’s search for Esmeralda. So, in simplest terms, Hunchback is a movie about a sexual predator burning down Paris to capture a gypsy so that he can rape her and kill her. Third, Quasimodo is such an unorthodox “hero.” He’s an ugly, unloved outcast with low self-esteem and abandonment issues. And he’s brainwashed into serving the villain. Simba, Ariel, and Belle were all “outcasts” of sorts, but they were also beautiful, with loving parents, self-confidence, and motivation. Can you imagine if Belle had to be a slave to Gaston, or Simba to Scar? It was a gutsy move for Disney to base their whole movie around a character like Quasimodo, and to ground their plot in lust and violence.
All of these aspects have me convinced that if Disney tried to release Hunchback nowadays, there would be outrage and condemnation. I mean, look at the outrage around Zootopia for mentioning racism, or worse…for showing nude animals! Zootopia has a PG rating for showing nude animals, but Hunchback has a G rating for portraying murder, intended sexual violence, pole dancing, burning at the stake, etc?! How is this possible? I’m not a prude by any means, but I’m amazed at how much leeway implied violence and innuendo got in the 90s as opposed to now. And I’m surprised that in an era where billboards will be torn down for showing fictional superhero violence towards women, parents are okay with their children watching a movie whose entire premise is based on violence towards women.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a revolutionary Disney movie. It treated complex, mature themes such a lust, violence, and racism, that haven’t been equaled since. But I’m sure that with the culture of outrage that pervades our modern society, Hunchback would be hard-pressed to make it past the MPAA without a PG rating, and who knows if it would even make it into theaters? It’s interesting to watch this movie twenty years later as an adult and see how much our culture has changed. In 2016, Zootopia is considered controversial. Thank god for 1996.