Burning Desire

And then, of course, there is the way that Claude Frollo desires Esmeralda. As represented in the dark song “Hellfire”, Frollo sees only two paths: one in which the gypsy woman belongs to him, and one in which she burns…literally. Leaving aside the song for a second — we’ll get back to it, don’t worry — Frollo is represented as the height, or depth, of cruelty from the prologue. Once the proper film begins, roughly 20 years after the events of “The Bells of Notre Dame”, Frollo has become less cartoonishly vicious to Quasimodo and more in line as a passive-aggressive surrogate parent. 

The ways in which Frollo guilts Quasimodo about his desire to explore the world outside the cathedral, and how Quasi initially submits to being locked up in a high place, is a good reminder that the tortured mother-daughter relationship in Disney’s Tangled wasn’t the first to mine this uncomfortable back-and-forth. Frollo’s nastiness is heightened, perhaps, because of Quasi’s physical appearance, but the younger character struggles for a while to break out of his master’s control. For inspiration on the villain, Disney’s animators were as bold as they were in the final treatment, thinking of villainous types from the Confederacy and World War II. In the latter case, they were inspired specifically by the Nazi character in Schindler’s List played by Ralph Fiennes, lusting after his Jewish maid even as he slaughters Jews in the Holocaust. (As mentioned at the top: this movie is not fucking around.) 

When Frollo first encounters Esmeralda, it’s when she briefly dances at the Festival of Fools in a moment animated in such a way as to skirt the G rating. (Genuinely, the fact that this movie was rated G, in spite of literally opening with cold-blooded murder, is shocking.) Just as in the book, Frollo is set off with lust for this gypsy, and — as much as possible in a Disney movie — Esmeralda’s physical beauty is never diminished. Her dance seems to arouse just about every man in the film, whether it’s dealt with in sly one-liners, like Phoebus saying to no one in particular, “What a woman!”, or in Frollo’s tortured mix of excitement and fury. 

Frollo’s attraction isn’t spoken of with words, but the visuals do enough of the heavy lifting. After the festival, Esmeralda winds up in Notre Dame Cathedral, with the gallant Phoebus lying to Frollo that she asked for sanctuary. Frollo, thwarted for the moment, stands directly behind the gypsy, sniffing her hair. When she asks what he’s doing, he says, “I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck.” Her reply is enough, without saying what’s actually going on: “I know what you were imagining.” 

On a subtextual level, this is all fascinating to consider. It’s not the first time that a Disney animated film featured as a lead a conventionally beautiful caricature of a young woman. (It’s frankly easier to count which Disney animated films don’t have a conventionally beautiful woman as a lead.) Nor is Hunchback the first time the question of romantic pairing was directly interrogated — Trousdale and Wise’s last feature, Beauty and the Beast, does that with the love triangle between Belle, the Beast, and Gaston. But the 1996 picture is the first to directly present the issue of sexual attraction in such blunt terms. 

The “Hellfire” sequence, which is arguably one of the best scenes in the entire Disney Renaissance, presents the internal battle within Frollo as one of high drama. Menken and Schwartz did not shy from the task of treating this character with adult gloves, with lyrics like “This burning desire/is turning me to sin”. Children in the audience may not fully grasp what’s going on, but anyone over the age of, say, 10 or 11 would have a pretty good idea of the thoughts running through Frollo’s mind. The animation, music, and Tony Jay’s richly complex vocal performance make for a scene that pushed the boundaries of Disney animation. For a few brief moments, at least, the Disney Renaissance felt like it was moving forward instead of being stuck in stasis.

The Very Eyes of Notre Dame

Only parts of Disney’s Hunchback have that freeing, powerful feeling. Among the characters, there are four who don’t quite fit with the uncompromising vision of what The Hunchback of Notre Dame is trying to be, and one of them is Esmeralda herself. The way that the three men in the film perceive her is fascinating, even as Esmeralda herself seems like a slightly feistier take on Belle or Jasmine or Pocahontas. (This, too, applies to the animation. The character’s supervising animator was, unsurprisingly, a man.) As voiced by Demi Moore, Esmeralda’s raspy voice may add to her allure, but Moore’s more modern-sounding voice is at odds with the character she’s portraying, especially since she feels more like a caricature of both feminine beauty and progressivism.

It also doesn’t help matters that, when Esmeralda shifts into singing her one song in the film, the soppy ballad “God Help the Outcasts”, her singing voice (provided by Heidi Mollenhauer) sounds absolutely nothing like her speaking voice. There’s a disconnect between the visual and the aural in every way with the character. As important as it is for us to grasp why the men in the film lust after Esmeralda, it should be equally crucial for us to know her. Where Beauty and the Beast, for example, gave equal focus to both halves of its story, this one is more male-driven, to its detriment.

And the possible love triangle between her, Phoebus, and Quasimodo feels awfully limp in part because each third of the triangle is at odds with the other two. It’s never entirely clear how aware Esmeralda is, for example, that Quasimodo has a crush on her. That crush is, itself, snuffed out very quickly — the other miss of a song, “A Guy Like You” is performed by three characters who are trying to boost Quasi’s spirits by implying that his unique physical presence is exactly why Esmeralda will fall for him, not run from him. That song is immediately followed by a scene where Quasi sees Esmeralda consoling and kissing Phoebus. It’s the equivalent of watching Ralph Wiggum get his heart broken by Lisa Simpson in an old episode of The Simpsons. You can just about pause the moment where Quasi’s hopes are destroyed.

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