"Hellfire" and Brimstone: The Hunchback of Notre Dame Saw Disney Take on Religion 25 Years Ago

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"Hellfire" and Brimstone: <i>The Hunchback of Notre Dame</i> Saw Disney Take on Religion 25 Years Ago

Two and a half decades before Pixar literalized a Soul, The Hunchback of Notre Dame saw Disney take on religion. While the ultra-dark 1996 film initially seems like a bit of a revision to the complexly anti-clerical Victor Hugo’s novel, it ends up having more in common with Ken Russell’s The Devils than Hercules’ Grecian musical fun. Lust, accusations of witchcraft and a hypocritical church more interested in power and politicking than caring for those that need it most dominate Disney’s most ideologically ambitious project of its Renaissance. Usually there’s no message greater in these movies than that Disney magic—or its corporate subsidiary, True Love—is the highest power in the land. But Hunchback knows God, knows Heaven, knows the Devil. It faces religion as squarely as the company has ever done and, despite its surface appearances, adapts a scathingly faithful look at faith.

But Disney did do some to mitigate any immediate offense. Claude Frollo, one of Disney’s most evil villains, has been vaguely rewritten from Hugo’s archdeacon to the anachronistic Minister of Justice. But it’s in name only—he’s fanatically devout, filled with angry-horny self-loathing, and powerful enough to actually put the warped faith on display throughout the film into action. “We did everything visually to indicate that he was supposed to be a priest,” said head of story Will Finn. Two years earlier, The Lion King’s Scar pulled off a memorable, intimate murder like Claudius before him; Frollo literally kicks things off with a killing and goes from there. No talking animals here, just a hate crime on the steps of a cathedral.

Frollo’s is a religious doctrine that is inherently racist, one that considers Romani “heathens” as nothing but termites gnawing away at the moral fiber of the community. Frollo describes their sanctuary, the Court of Miracles, as a “nest” and a chuckling Tony Jay takes an evil little pleasure in his ironic delivery of “miracles.” Frollo’s hate has pushed this district beyond the Parisian slums and into the catacombs—the entrance to which, in a graveyard, shows more crosses on screen than any other point of the film. These poor and weak are far holier in the film’s eye than the fire-and-brimstone Frollo with his massive gumball-jeweled rings. His sort of scared-straight zealotry is even mocked in Quasimodo’s alphabet training gag: Abomination, Blasphemy, Contrition, Damnation, Eternal Damnation.

The villain is far more representative of the film’s corrupt church—populated by selfish parishioners that pray for “wealth,” “fame,” “for glory to shine on my name” and “love I can possess” in the eavesdropping “God Help the Outcasts” song—than the film’s pandering creation of an effectively useless archdeacon. This facile figurehead (a representative of passive, buck-passing faith) gets shoved around by Frollo and is immediately outshone by protagonists like soldier-turned-hero Phoebus, whose morality results in actions (giving charity, saving peasants from Frollo’s arson) rather than empty platitudes. While there is the barest of sanctuary given by the archdeacon’s side of organized religion, it is almost entirely impotent in the face of its worst abusers.

This angle of Hunchback continues a larger anti-authoritarian bent that’s always helped animated fare make fools out of guards, cops, sheriffs and political leaders. Even if Disney kept things from being too overt (“We were on thin ice with a lot of the religious overtones,” said actor Jason Alexander. “Most of our nun and priest jokes are not in.”), the failings of organized religion were this film’s big target. Abuse of power is often the root sin being mocked and outmaneuvered by animation’s tricksters, but hypocrisy amplifies it in Hunchback. Not only is Frollo sadistic (overseeing torture, attempting murder) and ambitious (“Even this foul creature may / Yet prove one day to be / Of use to me,” he sings of Quasimodo), but a representative of religious malfeasance.

It’s hard to watch/listen to “Hellfire” and not understand it as utterly damning of the pick-and-choose piety permeating organized religion:

It’s ballsy, scary and upfront about lust, hate and sin. Frollo is at his most Amon Göth (a noted influence on the character) as his hypocrisy is so clearly caught between two women: The Virgin Mary and Esmerelda. Latin verses draw from Mass confessions while Frollo is surrounded by faceless phantom monks pointing out his contradictions. “You know I am a righteous man / Of my virtue I am justly proud,” he sings. “You know I’m so much purer than / The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.” And the filmmakers (like co-director Gary Trousdale) stood up for the song’s textual relationship to religion:

The [MPAA] said, “When Frollo says ‘This burning desire is turning me to sin,’ we don’t like the word ‘sin.’” We can’t change the lyrics now. It’s all recorded. Kinda tough. “What if we just dip the volume of the word ‘sin’ and increase the sound effects?” They said, “Good.”

We’re left with a song where smoky ghosts and fiery apparitions lay bare a would-be holy man’s faulty hate—that a sexy woman must be doing some sort of evil witchery pops up a lot when looking at the self-righteously religious—and he’s damned for his failure to understand his weakness. As Frollo collapses forward in an inverted cross after imploring his guard to burn Paris to the ground, it’s clear that evil has won out…but that the only Devil bringing Hell to Earth might be men drunk on dogma. “It’s one of the most admirable things I have ever seen Disney Animation do,” said lyricist Stephen Schwartz. “It was very supportive and adventurous, which is a spirit that…let’s just say, I don’t think [the company would] make this movie today.”

But that’s not to say that Hunchback is against all things Christian. Some key values are still on display. “God Help the Outcasts” sees Esmerelda as ideally selfless, favored by candlelight and a heavenly beam through Notre Dame’s stained glass. Quasimodo’s desire for her (far more chaste than that horndog Frollo’s) is captured in “Heaven’s Light,” the song right before “Hellfire.” But there’s still an isolation and loneliness to this version of faith that comes across in the film’s most prominent setting: Notre Dame itself.

There is an empty majesty in Hunchback’s depiction of the cathedral, as its engraved stonework and decorated columns compose a gilded prison that the film observes with sweeping sadness. It is an impressive creation that’s tarnished extravagance provides no solace for the suffering poor, and holds no satisfaction for the interred Quasimodo. He navigates its gaudy Gothic spires and buttresses with a Tarzan-like utilitarianism. Parkour might not be the direct opposite of reverence, but it’s close. The animation of Hugo’s sweeping allegory—the cathedral’s disrepair as the deteriorated state of religion—is just as moving as Notre Dame’s status as a stoic observer that needs people to fulfill any greater meaning.

As Frollo prepares to burn Esmeralda at the stake, the sequence begins with Notre Dame’s peak towering helplessly over the proceedings. The cathedral resists assault by Frollo’s troops, but only because Quasimodo and his gargoyle friends take action. It’s there—up in the tower, among the rafters where Quasimodo has constructed a model town and townspeople, decorating it with broken stained glass—we find the true sanctuary. This isn’t the church’s purpose, but a reclamation of it. If stiff doctrine is the film’s enemy, it’s here we find flexibility and evolution—the recycling of massive stained glass illustrations of Biblical stories into a simple piece of home décor; the imaginative transformation of gargoyles into friends; the naming and personification of the bells. Quasimodo’s predicament still shows us the potential of its place, but on a far more human level than everything going on downstairs. And even here, there’s a bit of prominent paganism taken straight from Hugo’s book, as Quasimodo finds comfort in the gamboling grotesques.

In fact, you can read the film’s terrifying climax as the triumph of nondenominational, even pagan morality over the trappings, corruptions and doctrines of the Christian church. Quasimodo grabs Frollo to keep him from plummeting to his death after a rooftop swordfight, only for Frollo to take the dive into a burning death of his own creation after the protruding gargoyle he’s climbed atop collapses. One interpretation is that God finally wakes up and humbles this fool (especially as pre-plunge Frollo declares “And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit,” because there’s nothing our heavenly father loves more than irony), or that Frollo’s psychological turmoil leads him to non-mystical madness. But the reading with the most visual evidence is that this is the gargoyle doing its originally intended job. It’s keeping out evil; a pagan, apotropaic magic (far more Disney’s speed than Christianity) shows its face with the carving’s transformation into a moving, demonic figure. What’s effectively Gaston’s hubris-laden death all over again is mixed with a cartoony comeuppance saturated with complicated meaning.

An ultimate return to a fable-like morality, unrestrained by religion, seems natural when considering Disney’s on-screen ideology before and after Hunchback. The film’s aggressive criticism of power and hypocrisy wasn’t new to Disney and it certainly wasn’t new to animation, but the filmmakers’ decisions to keep many of Hugo’s original themes in the movie despite the demands from executives and the film’s G rating is an admirable gesture towards adaptive fidelity and an unexpected move from a company known for relatively conservative family-friendly productions. Despite a carefully secularized villain, its barely subtextual criticism still helps The Hunchback of Notre Dame stand out as a unique film in the Disney canon that chooses its source over its audience.


Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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