Disney has come a long way since it began making feature films in 1937. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle bravely stands up to the terrifying Beast where Snow White ran in terror… of trees. Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Aurora dociley agrees to brush off the man she loves for the betrothed she’s never met while Aladdin’s Jasmine refuses to go the altar with someone her father has picked out. Pocahontas is pushing racial tolerance, Tarzan’s got some strange but positive family dynamics and Mulan’s all about the girl power.
Yes, Disney’s making huge strides in terms of political correctness… well, sort of.
I was 19 when Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame hit theatres. I was just out of high school, just into university, and at that stage in your life when you’re looking to understand your place in the world. It was an interesting time to take in Disney’s movie that is essentially about a man who is struggling with his disability.
Hunchback follows the story of Quasimodo, a young man of about twenty whose physical deformities–the hunchback, misshappen face and twisted leg–have convinced him that he will never be accepted by “normal” society. This belief and sense of self-loathing has been hammered into him by his foster father, Judge Frollo, whose warped sense of righteousness caused him to inadvertantly kill Quasimodo’s gypsy mother when he was a baby. He would have drowned the “monstrous” child if the Archdeacon of Notre Dame hadn’t convinced him such an act would condemn his soul to hell.
Thus Frollo becomes the reluctant and rather abusive foster father to Quasimodo–continually telling the young man he is ugly and no one will ever accept him. Quasimodo however has a naive but good-hearted spirit. Since he is not allowed to live Notre Dame’s belltower, he spends his time carving a wooden models of the buildings and the people that he can see far below. In “Out There”, he sings:
Out there among the millers and the weavers and their wives
Through the roofs and gables I can see them
Ev’ry day they shout and scold and go about their lives
Heedless of the gift it is to be them
If I was in their skin
I’d treasure ev’ry instant
And clearly, it is a gift to Quasimodo. The “beautiful” ablebodied people can move about in the world and he cannot because he is deformed and ugly. Eventually however, after 20 years of being trapped in the belltower, he covers himself in a cloak so he can witness the Feast of Fools first hand–at ground level.
There he meets the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda who at first believes his strange appearance is a costume since at the Feast of Fools the top prize is awarded to the ugliest as oppose to the most beautiful. She pushes him on stage and even after everyone realizes he’s not wearing a mask, he is awarded top prize–King of Fools and the Ugliest Face in Paris. Then the fickle crowd turns on Quasimodo, ties him down and throws food at him.
Still, Esmerelda accepts Quasimodo for who he is on the outside and forms a friendship with who he is on the inside. This causes Quasimodo, being a somewhat closeted lad, to immediately fall in love with her.
This is essentially where the two key plot points branch off into one branch that I consider to be a positive message and one that is a little too society-standard for my taste.
On the positive side, Quasimodo does eventually get the respect and acceptance he deserves. Nobody waves a magic wand over him and transforms him from a Beast into a handsome young man and there’s none of that other trite, over-sentimentality that usually involves the disabled person being “healed” at the end of the movie. Quasimodo is still just as ugly and just as disabled when the end credits roll, but the people of Paris love and accept him because of the brave man he is on the inside that allowed him to save the day. As the movie proclaims in its song, “The Bells of Notre Dame”:
So here is a riddle to guess if you can
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
What makes a monster and what makes a man?
Who is the real monster in this story? Frollo.
Who is the honourable man? Quasimodo.
On the other side of it, Quasimodo does not get the girl. Sorry folks, we ain’t that progressive yet. Disney does get points for building up Quasimodo’s love for Esmerelda and then showing him realistically having his heart stomped upon when she chooses the handsome, dashing (ablebodied) Phoebus as her love interest. If anything, the latter part of the movie is made more powerful since Quasimodo is able to overcome his hurt and rejection to save Esmerelda. It is this act of saving Esmerelda and defeating the evil Judge Frollo that gives Quasimodo the broader acceptance by the people of Paris that he longed for.
But let’s face it, as a disabled person, I still wanted Quasi to get the girl. I wanted that last barrier smashed. That last Hollywood stereotype–beautiful people choose beautiful people–shattered right there on the big screen. That is our fairy tale ending, after all.
Something for us to remember though is that it is a stereotype… it is a classic Disney cliche that is no more or less valid than Sleeping Beauty being led like a lamb to the altar and Snow White being the wimpiest heroine ever to grace the silver screen.
Although we like the validity and the pat on the back that a Hollywood ending for the disabled that something like Quasimodo winning Esmerelda’s hand would provide, real life isn’t a fairy tale–or a Disney movie for that matter. It’s harsh and joyous, difficult and wonderful.
Our world we make in our own image–thankfully, not Disney’s.
In addition to being an animation student and appreciator, Athena is also the webmaster of the animation resource site, Keyframe, where you can write your own review of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
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