Elemental Surprise

I want this to be an alchemical post about the discovery of a new element. I consulted my main alchemist character about it, and he replied with raised eyebrows, and then a good laugh.

I suppose that writing is a sort of alchemy, though, and surprise is definitely one of its foundational elements.

Recently, I re-watched Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).  As a kid, I didn’t like it, but someone was talking about its music and so I decided to give it another try.

I was very surprised.

It would be easy to say that I didn’t understand it as a kid. That is certainly true, but I was 14 when it first came out. I was well-aware of the interplay of sex, violence, bigotry, and abuse (it is one of Disney’s darker animated films). I disliked the film because I thought it was trite and self-contradictory.

Now, I can see why 14-year-old Jubilare thought so, but I also think she simply missed the point. Getting back to surprise, there are a few ways this element manifests… perhaps it has a solid, liquid, and gaseous form? There are jump-scream surprises, surprising twists in plot and character, and then there are the surprises that come from delving into the layers of a work. I’m interested, here, in the last of these.

This film is thickly layered, with complex themes and little bonuses (like the Latin and Greek embedded in the soundtrack). Now, I rather like a lot of Disney’s animated canon, but the themes are generally straight forward. Perhaps that is why I originally misunderstood this film. I took it at face-value.

One thing that originally annoyed me with tHoND was the seemingly broken-Aesop (or family-unfriendly Aesop) of Quasimodo. The main point of the film seems to be that beauty and ugliness come from within, with Quasimodo and Frollo acting as foils (Frollo isn’t nice on the outside, either, probably because pretty villains gain sympathy points no matter how horrible they are within). My teenage self felt that this message was undermined when Quasimodo failed to get the girl.

It wasn’t that I wanted Esmeralda to end up with Quasimodo, or anyone. It was that the message seemed to be “no matter how nice you are on the inside, what is outside matters, too” which is sadly true, but also contrary to the apparent point of the film: “Who is the monster, and who is the man?” The answer seems to be that Frollo is a monster, but Quasimodo still looks like one, and he will suffer the consequences.

14-me did not think Disney would make a film that brutally honest. I thought, instead, that they decided the general public wouldn’t accept a non-handsome “prince” and so they added the sub-plot romance, and then glossed over the pain this causes Quasimodo by making him miraculously “ok” with it at the end.

Seeing it as an adult, I realize that there is a lot more going on. Frollo and Quasimodo are, once again, foils, but they are both foils for Phoebus.

At one extreme we have Frollo, who is filled with lust and hates/blames the object of his desire (yeah, dark). He sees her as an object of temptation and a source of evil. At the other end of the spectrum, Quasimodo calls her an outright angel. She is, perhaps, the first person, and definitely the first woman, to be kind to him. But the problem is that she is on a pedestal, and his love for her is worship.

Then there is Phoebus, who sits in the middle. He engages her as a person (even though he starts out as a terrible flirt). Given this dynamic, the romantic element made a lot more sense to me this time around. Though it is still possible to see the Aesop as broken, it is, perhaps, only tinted with more depth and reality than I had seen before. Quasimodo and Esmeralda would not work, not because of his physical appearance, but because of their personalities and because of how they view each other. The writers were dealing with a more complex theme, and different moral/life questions than 14-me thought.

I give the team who worked on this film high marks for this. Relationships that make sense haven’t always been a Disney strength.

Another depth that surprised me (and the only other one I will deal with, for now) was the villain. Disney cartoon villains, though I love ’em, are not a complicated lot. Frollo, however, stands apart. His “hidden depths” are quite nasty, and I do mean nasty. This is not going to be an “oh, poor villain with a freudian excuse!” rant, but rather an awed “holy cranberry catfish, look at the abyssal depths they carved into when they created this guy.”

In a cursory look around the internets I see that, of the Seven Deadly Sins, Frollo is most closely associated with lust. Not surprising, considering that his Villain Song mostly deals with his desire for (and hatred of) Esmeralda. Also, the surprise (ha!) and shock of seeing a Disney film for kids deal with the issue so directly makes it stand out.

But hang on a minute. As some others have pointed out, it should be clear from the very beginning that Frollo is a nasty piece of work. Watch the opening scene:

I don’t see any lust at work there, just bigotry and pride. Ah. There it is.

Now, listen to the first few lines in his villain song (and also notice that, again, Quasimodo and he are foils, Quasi’s humility and, sadly, self-loathing, manifest in worship of Esmeralda as an “angel” and Frollo’s pride manifests in blaming her for casting a spell over him. For, otherwise, how could such a “righteous” and “pure” man be so consumed with lust? *facepalm*):

“Beata Maria, you know I am a righteous man. Of my virtue I am justly proud. Beata Maria, you know I’m so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.”

This guy’s problems may end in uncontrolled lust and wrath, but they begin in what is, perhaps, the deadliest of sins: Pride.

Self-righteousness, self-satisfaction, judgement of others, and pride in himself are his chief sins. They set him up for everything that comes after. A more humble man might have truly felt guilty at the end of the opening sequence, might have been softened by Quasimodo, might have questioned his own actions, and might even have dealt with his lust in a sane way. It would, at least, have been possible. But no.

Frollo only shows self-doubt, I think, twice in the film. Once, briefly, when the Archdeacon calls him out for murdering a woman and trying to murder her baby, on the steps of the cathedral where she was trying to gain sanctuary (daaaaark), and once during his aforementioned villain-song. The latter is one of the reasons “Hellfire” is now high among my favorite Disney songs.

Most of the delightfully dark canon of villainy that Disney has produced sing cheerful songs about their villainous plans. Frollo, instead, is going through a spiritual battle that is anything but fun. He’s very mistaken about the nature of that battle. He thinks he is a righteous man being tempted by a foul, lustful witch. From the outside we can see that he is already well into the Enemy camp. He is just facing a new kind of sin, one that he still recognizes as sinful.

In other words, he is trying to resist the devil with the help of the devil. His mouth says “Maria,” and his heart seems to recognize his guilt despite his words: “It’s not my fault! Mea culpa! I’m not to blame! Mea Culpa!,”  but unless he recognizes the underlying state of his soul and repents, he is fighting a battle he cannot win.

The last lines are tortured: “God have mercy on her. God have mercy on me. But she will be mine or she will burn!”

The funny thing is, for me, that I usually pity the tortured ones, even if they are despicable. It is hard to pity Frollo. He is so utterly self-satisfied, such a vicious Knight Templar, so abusive, manipulative, and so corrupt in his obsession with Esme, that his death is a release. The only glimmer of pity I have is during his song, when the “God have mercy” lines come off as the dying breath of anything human in him. I can’t think of another Disney villain that is quite this complex and terrifyingly believable, while still existing in the best tradition of over-the-top villainy. Muahahaha.

For what it’s worth, his villain song also sets up what is, to me, one of the funniest lines in the film, just to make sure we don’t get overly serious.

“I had a little trouble with the fireplace.”


If it were not for the horrible effects, one would have to laugh. Frollo’s self-importance and self-righteousness are so ludicrous that they would be hilarious if not for the effect they have on his own soul, and the lives of everyone around him.

If you haven’t seen this film, or haven’t seen it in a while, it’s worth a watch. With the exception of one irritating song, the soundtrack is delightful, rife with beautiful high-church choral themes, at least some of which are actual Latin prayers, bells (of course) and wonderful orchestration. And the story ain’t half-bad either. There are more interesting twists and turns than I’ve dealt with, here.

Fair warning for any who might actually expect (out of inexperience perhaps?) Disney to follow canon – This film has very little to do with the novel by Victor Hugo.  I’m curious to know what other people have gotten from this film, or if they disagree with me. Also, I’m always open to discussions on other films, Disney or otherwise.

I have a lot to think about in terms of narrative, relationship dynamics, and villainous roads to pyromaniacal insanity.

Wow. This is a super-long post, for me. Sorry, guys! If you happened to make it this far, I hope you did so because it was interesting!


About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

7 responses to “Elemental Surprise

  • Colleen

    Want to watch it again with me?

  • Mary

    I feel like that religious darkness could be why this movie isn’t as popular when it comes to Disney movies. Disney can be pretty dark (see almost every parent or villain death) but religion is something they tend to avoid. And there really aren’t any traditional light-hearted elements here either. Where we normally see that in Disney- the sidekicks- we instead have…gargoyles. And a goat. I didn’t particularly like this movie either, but it has been years since I saw it so maybe I should try it again. Although I will say, I watched this once after reading the book and was just horrified at how different it was- even when keeping in mind how Disney, well, Disney-fys things.

    • jubilare

      They took big chances in dealing with religious themes. They pretty much guaranteed that they would offend people and cause misunderstandings. I, personally, think they handled it remarkably well, and I’m rather glad they dared as their other options were to not tell the story at all, or to water it down/simplify it into something unwatchable. There are few films that I can think of, actually, that handle legalism and self-righteousness without condemning religion, and that a Disney animated film did so is rather shocking.

      Disney, despite being mocked for “disneyfication” is often quite dark, when examined. They tend to downplay the more adult aspects of their stories, thus the reputation I suppose, but they certainly don’t eliminate them. I just re-watched Beauty and the Beast. Rapey Gaston, possessively abusive (at first) Beast, a town that shoves a panicked old man out into the snow… yeah.

      The main difference I saw in tHoND is that the themes were both unusual in nature (as you point out, Disney usually stays well away from that dangerous territory) and more deeply layered than I am used to seeing in animated films. They were also not downplayed as much as usual.

      You know, apparently there are fan-editions that go so far as to remove the gargoyles? Or so I understand, I haven’t watched them. In other words, there are people who consider that the film is better without even that much comic relief. I disagree, but that’s just me. I will say, though, that I hate the gargoyle’s song. In an otherwise excellent soundtrack, it’s pretty painful.

      Mm… I don’t know that I can agree with that. Disney takes original stories more as suggestions than anything. I suppose one could argue that they usually rip off of fairy-tales, and that fairy-tales are more flexible in this way than one of the great novels of Western Lit, but the differences between the established forms and what Disney comes up with are almost always extreme. I mean… little mermaid? Aladdin? And then you have the Lion King as an adaptation of Hamlet and… yeah.

      THoND was, at least, based on earlier film adaptations that made some of the same changes to the book in order to avoid the central tragedy. The reason for splitting the original Claude Frollo into a good Archdeacon and an evil Judge was probably to simultaneously provide a clear line between good and bad (standard for a Disney film) and to avoid representing the Clergy as the bad guys, thus avoiding all kinds of unfortunate implications. I’m glad that they made Esmeralda into an action-girl, and as for the other characters and the plot-arch, it’s all pretty standard disnification. One really has to either take these “adaptations” on their own merits, or reject them entirely. If the latter, then there really isn’t a reason to watch any Disney film unless it is a completely original script.

  • Rob

    To be honest, I was somewhat shocked that Disney would even attempt this. I mean, Victor Hugo wasn’t especially known as a children’s writer, was he? Or did I miss something?

    Today’s Disney is far less adventurous and far more secular.

    • jubilare

      Well, by today’s standards, the Brothers Grimm isn’t really for kids, either. Nor Hamlet (which was, apparently, the inspiration for the Lion King). I think it likely that they started off by watching some of the film adaptations of Hugo’s novel before deciding that it had potential for an animated film geared for children. Still, you’re right. It is rather shocking that they attempted it, or that they were allowed to create what they did. It was nearly given a PG rating.

      Less adventurous, perhaps, but Disney has been secular for a long time. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the only one, that I can think of, that deals directly with religion.

      • Rob

        You’re right about the secular thing, although Disney’s Johnny Appleseed cartoon was unabashedly religious. “The Lord’s Been Good To Me,” was the name of one tune, I believe. Let’s say that they weren’t as averse to religious themes as they seem to be today. As usual, thanks for making me think. Getting harder at my age!

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