Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.
I don't entirely know how Disney managed to make 1994's The Hunchback of Notre Dame a G-rated movie. Following off of The Lion King's Hamlet themes, this film took on Victor Hugo's quite serious novel. It shows Frollo creeping after Esmeralda, Frollo almost drowning a baby, Frollo setting a house on fire with a whole family inside, the crowd tying up Quasimodo at the Festival of Fools, etc. I don't say this as a criticism; in fact, I admire the fact that Disney managed to make a G movie while still including all of this (and people say that Disney doesn't show the dark side of life). That was quite a feat--and when I watch this movie, I start to wonder why I don't usually think to add it to my top Disney films.
But we're supposed to be focused on just one character here, right? And therein probably lies the reason why, despite being such a good film, there isn't much Hunchback merchandise available at the Disney Store. The protagonist is Quasimodo, the "half-formed," the "monster," the one so "hideous" that the world can't accept him. While the Disney princesses are all supposed to be beautiful and even the Disney boys, if their physical looks are mentioned, are generally understood to be good-looking, as well. So the fact that Quasimodo is intentionally "not easy on the eyes" is different and great--even if it means that we really are materialistic because nobody buys Quasimodo merch.
The film sets up deep themes beautifully, right from the start. Clopin sings about the riddle of "who is the monster and who is the man." Though Quasimodo has the rough exterior that Frollo says no one will accept (and in most cases, he's kind of right) and Frollo is the one "accepted" by society because he's a public official, Quasimodo is the one with a good exterior and Frollo is not. If you didn't get the theme in Beauty and the Beast about physical appearances not mattering, you get it now.
The first time we see Quasimodo's face is when he is reaching out into the light and speaking gently to the baby bird, helping him to fly. So even though we've been warned that his face won't look "normal," we see that he is a kind person.
He's also obedient. He trusts Frollo to a certain degree and he tries to listen and obey (he's afraid to defy him by going to the Festival) because he wants to be content in his lot and repay Frollo for rescuing him. Their relationship isn't entirely unlike Rapunzel and Mother Gothal. Gothal similarly tells Rapunzel that she wouldn't be able to survive in the world outside; both figures are just using their charges while keeping them in line with threats disguised as love and care.
The interesting thing about Quasimodo's desire to leave his tower is that it isn't self-centered. When he looks down at the city, he notices every person in it. He notices enough details about them to carve them all, recognizably, out of wood. He doesn't want to go out there to see what he can be; he wants to go out there to meet all of them and be with all of them. Think about it. Even in his tower, he does his best to interact with the statues and the birds and the bells, to give them names and identities and to look after their needs. This is why, when he gets pulled into the plight of the gypsies, he chooses to help them.
I'll take a moment here to point out that, while his face may not be what the world looks for, Quasimodo is as fit as any other Disney gent, right up there with Tarzan and Wreck-It Ralph (maybe Hercules has them all beat since he's, you know, a god). So used to swinging around taking care of the bells, he can leap from rooftops, too, even while carrying Esmeralda and her goat. And he so easily bests Phoebus, lifting him up off the ground without even realizing it. While we may not have control over what our faces look like (well, assuming plastic surgery doesn't exist), we do have control over the fitness of our bodies (well, assuming no conditions or illnesses that would prevent this--and I admit there are quite a few).
Quasimodo finally realizes that Frollo really has been lying to him when he sees the shadow of the knife on the wall. And it is so easy for him to get the better of Frollo, this man who has held him down for twenty years. All he had to do was say no, you have no power over me and I won't let you get away with this any longer. And he doesn't go at Frollo with revenge exactly, either: it is Frollo who, in saying his line about expunging the wicked, sentences himself to the justice of his death.
And what Quasimodo comes out of this whole experience with is more kindness and graciousness. Even though he liked Esmeralda, he sees that she likes Phoebus and not him and that Phoebus likes her; so Quasimodo puts their hands together, telling them that it's okay, he's happy to see that his two new friends are happy together. He's just glad to have made friends outside of the tower for once; he knows that there are more important things than "getting the girl." (And if you watch the sequel, which isn't half-bad for a sequel, he does get the girl, though of course it isn't Esmeralda.)
When the city cheers for Quasimodo and what he has done to help the people, their cheers show that looks no longer matter. They don't see his face anymore; they see his face, that is the face of the person who has done good for them. The inside works its way out--and that is what you wear on your face, whether you are considered "beautiful" or not. Especially with our current society love of considering ourselves beautiful (I get that you shouldn't believe that you're ugly and that you should have a positive self-esteem, but there is too much obsession with physical appearance and self-love), I greatly admire this theme of placing the emphasis back on the actions. So even if Quasimodo would probably never win as the favorite Disney character (would anyone name his as their favorite?), he might actually be the best one, in the sense of the whole role model thing that we're looking at in these two series of posts.
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