Let me begin by saying that I think The Disney Studios’ The Hunchback of Notre Dame is criminally underrated. It came out on the heels of The Lion King and Pocahontas which, as noteworthy as they were, were quite content with leavening their stories with a comic-relief duo and (in Pocahontas) a villain that seemed more misguided than really foul.
Unless my memory is fuzzy, Hunchback is the only Disney cartoon that introduces its major villain in the movie’s first scene — with an opening song. (I remember seeing the movie upon first release thinking, “They’re really not screwing around this time.”)
That villain is Judge Claude Frollo (memorably and chillingly voiced by Tony Jay), Paris’ minister of justice in 1482. Let’s make a short list of his frolics, shall we?
- Frollo ambushes a group of gypsies who try to illegally sneak into Paris. When a female gypsy escapes with a mysterious-looking satchel, Frollo chases her down on horseback and kills her, only to find that the satchel contains her deformed baby. Frollo holds the satchel over an open well and vows to send the baby “back to Hell, where it belongs.”
The baby is saved at the last minute by a voice of conscience, the cathedral’s archdeacon, who guilt-trips Frollo into raising the baby as his own child. Frollo cruelly names the baby “Quasimodo” (meaning “half-formed”) and shutters him in Notre Dame’s bell tower. (Again, this is all in the opening number. We haven’t even gotten to the main story yet.)
- Twenty years later, we see grown Quasimodo (Timothy Hulce), longing to join the annual Festival of Fools that the gypsies hold in the town square. But Frollo discourages Quasimodo, telling him outright that he is “deformed” and “ugly” and that Quasimodo should be “grateful” that it is Frollo alone who can accept Quasimodo’s deformity. No Father’s Day card for this guy!
- Quasimodo lets his curiosity gets the better of him, exits the bell tower for the first time in his life, and joins the Festival. At first, he is celebrated as the “King of Fools,” but then some bullies throw vegetables at Quasimodo, shred his clothes, and tie him up in front of the crowd. Frollo, who has witnessed the whole spectacle, ignores Quasimodo’s pleas for help, preferring to see Quasimodo humiliated for disobeying him. Quasimodo is released by Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a beautiful gypsy, who both exasperates and excites Frollo before she makes a crafty exit.
- There follows perhaps the most eye-popping song ever to appear in a Disney movie, as Frollo admits his lust for Esmeralda but blames said lust on the woman herself and her magical ways. At one point, Frollo looks at the raging fire in his room’s fireplace and imagines seeing Esmeralda, teasing him with an erotic dance. (I’ve always said that if this movie is G-rated, it’s a pretty hard G.)
- Frollo goes on a citywide search for Esmeralda, aided by his right-hand man, Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline). When Frollo orders Phoebus to burn down an innocent gypsy’s home, and Phoebus refuses, Frollo knocks him to the ground and nearly murders him. He is saved by Esmeralda, who takes wounded Phoebus to the bell tower and asks Quasimodo to look after Phoebus until he recovers.
- Later, Quasimodo and a recovered Phoebus search the city for Esmeralda, eventually uncovering the gypsies’ hide-out, to which they have unknowingly led Judge Frollo. Frollo captures all of the gypsies, chains up Quasimodo in the bell tower, and orders Esmeralda burned at the stake in public (but not before offering her a final chance at freedom by, er, dousing Frollo’s lust, to which offer she spits in Frollo’s face).
Having already offered too many “spoilers” about the movie, I draw the line at disclosing the movie’s ending so that I can leave you with something fresh when you watch it. Suffice to say, the story doesn’t end prettily for someone.
My point is that, IMHO, Judge Claude Frollo is the most purely, unmitigatingly evil of all Disney villains. Prior to Frollo, there have been nasties in Disney movies, to be sure, but each still had some tiny redeeming feature, or a reason behind their actions. (Even The Lion King’s Scar had a small rationale for his evil deeds. Who isn’t jealous of one’s sibling at some point?) Frollo is given no such reason for his villainy, other than that he has unchecked power in Paris and only wants more of it.
There’s a reason that — other than the light-comic-relief gargoyles who are initially Quasimodo’s only friends — this movie doesn’t take a “We’re only kidding” approach that most other Disney movies offer. And that reason can be found in the movie’s credits.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was directed by Gary Wise and Kirk Trousdale, whose previous Disney outing was 1991’s Beauty and the Beast — the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. That Oscar nom pretty much gave Wise and Trousdale carte blanche to do whatever they wanted for their next movie — despite the fact that Victor Hugo purists (not to mention Hugo’s own descendants) went apoplectic at the thought of a literary classic being homogenized by the company that gave us Mickey Mouse.
For my money, Wise and Trousdale provided a worthy and outstanding adaptation. And the proof is in a Disney villain in which one can find no redeeming feature whatsoever. Hunchback’s original release was accompanied by the inevitable merchandising onslaught, with play figures and games based on the movie. Funny, though — I don’t recall ever seeing a Judge Frollo doll on any shelves at The Disney Store at that time.