This article was written by Rebekah Brannan as part of the Breening Thursdays series.
For my next Breening Thursday article, I, Rebekah Brannan, had planned to write about the final Disney Renaissance Princess film, 1998’s Mulan. However, I have instead chosen to breen the 1996 non-princess Disney cartoon The Hunchback of Notre Dame in honor of the famous church which was ravaged by fire this Monday. This film, like Pocahontas, was largely criticized by parents for handling too mature a topic for children. While I think it is good for children to see films with deeper plots, like Pocahontas, which I found to be an overall charming and deep film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was shockingly dark and contained a large amount of what is now known as “adult content.” So far, Aladdin holds the record as the Renaissance film with the most objectionable elements. However, although this film has three less “points,” this is the worst Renaissance film I’ve seen, since there were multiple problems with the film’s basic plot. Although this movie features what I consider some of Alan Menken’s finest music, and Quasimodo is a deep and endearing character, there are so many objections that I didn’t even find the film overall enjoyable to watch. Since this picture needs some major reconstruction, I will begin with a few paragraphs fixing the plot problems and then have my usual numbered list for surface objections. Now, the theater hushes, the lights dim, and the screen comes alive. Get ready for a journey of breening Out There, because here comes The Hunchback of Notre Dame!
The primary problem with this film is the villain, Judge Claude Frollo. Although the character was slightly improved from the character in the original novel, who was a sinful, hypocritical priest, he is still a “Christian” who looks and behaves like a clergyman. Judge Frollo claims to be a devout Catholic, and he constantly speaks about God and quotes from the Bible. He preaches against the gypsies, who he thinks pollute the city with their heathen ways. Characters like this are very dangerous, as my sister, Tiffany, stated when breening Rasputin and the Empress and American Gothic, since they give a black eye to Christianity in general. Frollo was also the only prominent Christian character in the film, promoting an insulting generalization about the harshness of fifteenth-century Catholics. As our first step toward repairing this film, the character of Claude Frollo must be completely overhauled. To start, he should not wear a robe, since this makes him look too much like a clergyman. His outfit should be more tight-fitting and judge-like, similar to the one worn by Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the 1939 live-action version of this story. Also, he must not speak about God or quote from Scripture at all. Although it goes without saying that just about everyone at least claimed to be a Christian at this time in European history, he must not profess Christianity or speak about God. He should be portrayed as an extremely humanistic man who doesn’t really worship anyone but himself. His hatred for the gypsies should stem from racism, not Christianity or moral values, thus making him a Hitler-like character. Instead of professing against the gypsies’ heathenry and sinfulness, he should make degrading remarks about their inferiority to the French race. Therefore, it goes without saying that all lines in which he speaks about God or quotes Scripture must be eliminated. Finally, he must not show any kind of attraction to Esmeralda. Instead of merely seeking her out, he should be attempting to find the gypsies’ headquarters, the Court of Miracles. However, he may be particularly fixated on finding her, since she defied him and spoke against him at the Festival of Fools before escaping his guards with her magic tricks and skills of trickery. Aside from being entirely unacceptable, especially in a film supposedly geared toward children, his lust for Esmeralda is extremely ridiculous and unbelievable, since any physical attraction toward her would most likely be overpowered by his hatred and disgust for her race. Although such an attraction is possible, his racial hatred would make it impossible for the attraction to be anything but the basest kind, thus making it entirely unacceptable. Also, the villain’s song, “Hellfire,” must be eliminated. Aside from being unduly pointed, this song discusses nothing but religion and his lust for Esmeralda, two elements which have been decidedly eliminated from the character. The melody may remain as a song for the villain, but it should merely be about his plot to catch the gypsies. It must not discuss hell at all, since this word should not be bandied about too much on the screen. With these changes, Frollo will merely be a humanistic, racist bigot who will do anything necessary to get his own way and rid France of the gypsies.
The second core problem is the characterization of another main player in the story, Esmeralda. Esmeralda is apparently a sympathetic character, since, although she isn’t part of the Disney Princess franchise, she is the heroine of the story. However, she is very rough, crude, unladylike, and loose. Aside from the fact that her unfavorable traits make her a very bad role model for young girls, they also defeat the entire purpose of the film, since they seem to prove exactly what Frollo thinks about the gypsies. Although Frollo’s character is no longer giving a black eye to Christians, it’s still important to have good Christian characters in the story. Gypsies are not necessarily heathens, and since they are the true protagonists of the film, they should not be characterized as such. Esmeralda should be characterized as a good Christian, thus adding to her reason for accepting Quasimodo. She knows that we are all the same in God’s eyes, and it’s what we are inside that matters. Esmeralda wears one costume for most of the film, and it is off the shoulders and rather low, revealing too much of her. The blouse should be on the shoulders and not show her chest at all. The red dress she wears at the Festival of Fools is also shockingly low and form-fitting. It must be looser, have a higher neckline, also be on the shoulders, and overall not look so cheap. The dance she performs in this dress is extremely suggestive and alluring as well and must be changed. It should be less tantalizing and more along the lines of Maureen O’Hara’s dance in the aforementioned 1939 film. During this dance, she moves alluringly around Frollo, wraps her scarf around the neck, and gives him a small peck. This is entirely unacceptable and must be removed, as well. Her third outfit is a white, Joan-of-Arc-style white dress, which she wears during the film’s final scenes. The neckline of this dress is also too low. The neckline must be brought up so that she is not exposed at all. Overall, Esmeralda’s entire character and manner must be made more delicate, feminine, and civilized.
To bring compensating moral values to the story and give Quasimodo a better source for Christianity than Frollo, the character of the Archdeacon should be made larger and more important. Although the Archdeacon prevents Frollo from drowning Quasimodo as a baby and tells him to raise him himself, he is not shown to have any interaction with the Hunchback during his time in the cathedral. Since he is in the cathedral as well and seems to care about Quasimodo, he should be shown interacting with him. A scene should be added in which the Archdeacon speaks to Quasimodo about God’s love and tells him that he is just as good as anyone else in God’s eyes, since he has a good soul. Quasimodo believes in God and His love but finds it hard to believe that God loves him, since Frollo has convinced him that he’s a monster who will not be accepted by anyone. Later, Esmeralda can repeat this message to him, and he can tell her that the Archdeacon told him the same thing, but he’s not sure if he can believe it. However, through Esmeralda’s kindness and his realization of Frollo’s true cruel nature, he will eventually realize that he is the same as anyone else in God’s eyes. This will make the ending, in which he is finally accepted by the people of the city, even more poignant and touching.
The final important plot problem in this film is the character Clopin, leader of the gypsies. There is a slight pansy flavor to this character, which comes across quite plainly in his tone, his mannerisms, and his overall manner. A pansy flavor of any kind, no matter how subtle, is expressly forbidden under the Code. Clopin may be jovial and have a high voice, but he must not come across as effeminate in the slightest. His manner must be thoroughly masculine throughout the course of the film.
Now that I have addressed the core problems of the plot, I will move on to my usual numbered list of surface objections.
- The first objection occurs during the opening song, “The Bells of Notre Dame.” Just as Frollo is about to drop the baby Quasimodo into a well, the Archdeacon stops him. Frollo says, “This is an unholy demon. I’m sending it back to hell, where it belongs.” This line is unduly pointed and should be changed to something like, “This is a misshapen freak. I’m ridding the world of it.”
- Shortly after this, when Frollo claims his innocence in accidentally killing Quasimodo’s mother, the Archdeacon sings, “You never can run from, nor hide what you’ve done from the eyes – the very eyes of Notre Dame!” As he sings this he points to the statues all around the building, which are all looking right at Frollo. This gives the impression that the Archdeacon thinks the statues themselves are watching over the city. This is insulting to Catholics, since it is far too mystic for true Christianity. The lyric should be changed to something like, “You never can run from, nor hide what you’ve done from our Lord – Who dwells in Notre Dame!”
- In a later scene, Quasimodo is seen with his three gargoyle friends, Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Although they don’t have legs and appear to be half animal, their bodies are too anatomically correct, particularly Laverne’s. Their faces already look rather like animal faces, so their torsos should merely be straight with no definition.
- During this same scene, Quasimodo and the gargoyles are watching the Festival of Fools being set up in the streets below. Hugo sees a mime and makes a disgusting sound as though he’s about to spit down on him. Before he can, Victor puts his hand over his mouth to stop him. This is very vulgar and must be eliminated.
- Later during this scene, when the gargoyles tell Quasimodo he should go to the Festival of Fools, he says, “Me?” Hugo replies, “No, the Pope,” and sticks a small wooden statuette of the Pope in Quasimodo’s mouth. Victor then pulls it out and tosses it away as he says his line. This is disrespectful toward Catholics, and sticking it in his mouth is a bit vulgar; it must be removed. Perhaps Hugo could say instead, “No, the pigeons,” and point to one of the birds that are always fluttering around Laverne.
- During this same conversation, when Hugo and Victor are describing everything that can be done at the Festival of Fools, Hugo mentions playing “Dunk the Monk” and puts a bucket full of water over Victor’s head. Although this is the name of a real game, it sounds slightly sacrilegious. He should instead call the game one of its other names, “Soak a Bloke.”
- Later in the scene, Hugo says that they don’t mind just watching the festival since they’re only part of the architecture, but Quasimodo is human, “With the flesh and the hair and the navel lint.” The italicized words are extremely vulgar and must be removed. Instead, Hugo could simply say, “You’re human. You’re flesh and blood.”
- Later, when Frollo comes in to have lunch with Quasimodo, he goes over his alphabet with him, naming letters and having his pupil name harsh Biblical words which start with them. Aside from the fact that some of the words used, such as damnation, are unduly pointed, all connections between Frollo and religion have been eliminated. This pertains to the plot, since Quasimodo accidentally says festival instead of forgiveness, making Frollo realize he is planning to go to the Festival of Fools. However, the screenplay writers will have to think of some other way for Frollo to discover Quasimodo’s plan.
- In a later scene, Frollo is seen in the Palace of Justice. At the beginning of the scene, the sound of furious whipping can be heard. Frollo calls out to a man carrying a whip, “Ease up. Wait between lashes. Otherwise the old sting will dull him to the new.” A bit later, another whipping sound is heard, followed by a yell of pain. It is later learned through Frollo’s dialogue that the man being punished is his last captain of the guard. Although he is sending a warning message to his new captain, Phoebus, with his subtle remarks about the whipping, this is unduly violent and should be removed.
- Later in the scene, Frollo voices his concerns about the gypsies’ “heathen ways” to Captain Phoebus. Needless to say, this dialogue must be changed to racist remarks about the low race contaminating the pure French people. Frollo tells Phoebus that for the last twenty years he has been “taking care of the gypsies, one by one.” As he says the last three words, he smashes three small black bugs with his fingers. He then says that, in spite of this, they have continued to thrive. To illustrate this point, he pulls a stone off the railing to reveal hundreds more of these bugs. Then, when Captain Phoebus asks him what they are going to do about this, Frollo smashes the stone down very hard on the nest of bugs, illustrating his point once again. This entire sequence is entirely unacceptable and must be eliminated. Frollo must restrict the expression of his point to words, not graphic symbolism.
- Later, during the song “Topsy Turvy” at the Festival of Fools, a procession of men who look rather like monks are walking along in the center of the square. Clopin, who is the Master of Ceremonies at the festival and the lead singer in this song, slides out from between the legs of one of the men as they unfurl colorful banners. This seems rather disrespectful to the clergy. The men should be wearing colorful outfits like Clopin’s, not religious garments, and Clopin should merely appear from behind the lead man, not slide between his legs.
- Later in the song, a rather plump woman wearing a dress with a very low neckline is seen dancing around while holding her skirt high above her knees so that her legs are almost entirely revealed. She must not be holding her skirt so high, and her neckline must be higher.
- In this same song, Clopin sings the lyric, “It’s the day the devil in us gets released. It’s the day we mock the prig and shock the priest.” These lyrics are unacceptable and must be changed. Perhaps he could say, “It’s the day the mischief in us gets released. It’s the day when fun means most and work means least.”
- Later during the song, a group of women do a can-can-like dance from one tent to another. Clopin is seen on the end of the line, wearing a skirt and doing the dance with them. This adds to the slight pansy flavor which the character has and must be eliminated. The women also should not lift their skirts so high.
- Later in this scene, Quasimodo accidentally stumbles into a tent. He attempts to keep it from falling by grabbing a curtain, but he accidentally tears it down and reveals Esmeralda. She appears to have been dressing, since she pulls her robe around her as the curtain falls down and ties the sash. This is suggestive and must be changed. Esmeralda should either be in her robe or her costume when he pulls down the curtain, not somewhere in between.
- Later during the song, Clopin sings the lyric, “Beat the drums and blow the trumpets! Join the bums and thieves and strumpets!” The italicized word is unacceptable, since any mention of the oldest profession is strictly forbidden under the Code. Instead, he could sing, “Beat the drums and blow the trumpets! Drink the wine and eat the crumpets!” The corresponding images of bums, thieves, and a rather disreputable-looking woman should be changed to a shot of people drinking and eating. However, they must eat and drink refinedly, not stuff their faces like barbarians.
- When they prepare to crown the King of Fools, the previous year’s king, a fat, drunken man who looks rather like a pig, burps loudly. This is very vulgar and must be removed. His top is also too small, so that his rather large stomach is exposed. This is unacceptable as well; he must be fully covered.
- Later during the song, a man in polka-dot shorts is shown diving off a diving board into a tub of beer. This is vulgar and should be removed.
- Later, when Esmeralda defies Frollo and frees Quasimodo from the ropes which have been thrown around him, she lifts her skirt to pull a knife out of her garter. This is unacceptable and must be changed. She should pull the knife from a sheath on her belt.
- Later, during Esmeralda’s speech against Frollo, her pet goat, Djali, does a raspberry at Frollo. This is unacceptable and must be removed.
- After this, when Frollo’s guards approach Esmeralda to capture her, she pretends to start crying and pulls a handkerchief out of her top. This is unacceptable and must be changed. She should pull the handkerchief out of her belt, her sleeve, a pocket in her dress, or some other suitable place.
- As Frollo’s guards chase Esmeralda, she accidentally frees an old prisoner from a cage. He exclaims that he’s free but trips and gets locked into the stockade, after which he says a mild expletive. This entire sequence is foolish and unnecessary, and the character should just be removed altogether. Although Esmeralda did use his “cage” to roll away from the guards, she must find some other mode of transportation.
- Later, when Esmeralda is fighting Phoebus in Notre Dame, since she thinks he wants to arrest her, she exclaims, “Why, you sneaky son-of-a…” Phoebus cuts her off, saying, “Ah, ah, ah. Watch it. You’re in a church.” This is completely unacceptable and must be eliminated. If it’s absolutely necessary, she may call him a sneak, but his line must be removed.
- Later, Esmeralda is fighting him with one of the tall candelabras. When he says she fights almost as well as a man, she replies that she was going to say the same thing about him. He says, “That’s hitting a little below the belt, don’t you think?” She replies, “No, this is,” and tries to literally hit him below the belt, but he blocks her with his sword. This exchange is unacceptable and must be removed.
- Later in the scene, when Esmeralda claims sanctuary in the church, Frollo begins to leave but then hides. When the others have left, he grabs Esmeralda and behaves very lustfully toward her. Then, when she says she knows what he’s thinking, he says that it’s typical of her kind to twist the truth to “cloud the mind with unholy thoughts.” This entire exchange is unacceptable, since it revolves entirely around two eliminated elements, Frollo’s religion and lust for Esmeralda. The entire scenario must be removed. Frollo’s exit dialogue, in which he tells Esmeralda that the church is nothing more than a prison, may remain. However, Frollo’s final line, “Step one foot outside it, and you’re mine,” should be changed. Instead he should say, “Step one foot outside it, and you’re as good as dead.”
- Later in the scene, Esmeralda sings the song “God Help the Outcasts.” The overall message of the song is fine, but the intro implies that this is the first time she’s ever prayed. Since she has been changed to a good Christian character, the intro must be changed. Here are the new lyrics I have written for it: “You’re the only one who’ll hear me,/the only one who’ll care./You’re the only one who’ll listen/to a gypsy’s prayer./Yes, although I’m just an outcast,/I still can speak to you./I look to you and remember/you were once an outcast, too.”
- Later in the song, the other people in the church are heard praying for wealth, fame, and glory. This shows Esmeralda is much more unselfish than anyone else, since she asks for nothing, but only prays for those who are “less lucky” than she is. Although this is a good quality to give to this character, it makes all the other church-goers seem selfish and superficial. The message that they ask for things but she doesn’t may remain, but the other church-goers shouldn’t ask for such materialistic things. Here are my revised lyrics: “I ask for health./I ask for aid./I ask for safety in Thy loving shade.” The last two lines about love and blessings may remain.
- When Quasimodo and Esmeralda meet again in the church, Hugo develops a crush on Esmeralda’s pet goat, Djali. Although Hugo does seem to be part animal, he is half-human and is personified, while Djali is entirely animal and does not speak. However, the largest problem with this “romance” is that both of the characters are plainly identified as male. This makes even the slightest suggestion of an attraction between them completely unacceptable. All suggestion of this attraction must be eliminated entirely.
- When Quasimodo shows Esmeralda all the bells, Djali burps loudly as he looks into one of the huge bells, causing the vulgar sound to reverberate, making it even worse. This is entirely unacceptable and must be removed.
- Later, when Frollo is searching Paris to find the escaped Esmeralda, Phoebus disobeys his orders but manages to escape. As he is being pursued by Frollo’s soldiers, they shower him with arrows, and one of them is seen hitting him in the shoulder. This is overly violent and should be toned down. There should not be so many arrows flying at him, and the actual impact should not be shown so plainly. A faraway shot may show a few arrows flying at Phoebus, and it can be implied that one of them hit him, but it must not be so plainly and graphically shown.
- In a later scene, as the gargoyles and Quasimodo talk again, Hugo begins eating some bread and cheese. When he says his lines, he spews bread and cheese crumbs with every word. This is vulgar and should be eliminated. If he must eat in this scene, he should do it refinedly and not speak with his mouth full.
- The gargoyles try to convince Quasimodo that Esmeralda likes him by singing the song “A Guy Like You.” At the beginning, when Hugo sings that a girl doesn’t meet a guy like Quasimodo every day, he picks some curly objects off the table, puts them on his head, and bats his eyelashes at the Hunchback. This is questionable and should be eliminated.
- Later in the song, as Hugo sings, “Those other guys that she could dangle/all look the same from every boring point of view,” he illustrates his point with a miniature gallows with three identical figurines hanging from it. This is unacceptable and must be eliminated.
- Later during the song, the gargoyles sing, “Mon Dieu above,/she’s gotta love a guy like you.” This lyric is sacrilegious and must be changed. Perhaps they could instead sing, “Push comes to shove,/she’s gotta love a guy like you.”
- Later in the song, they sing, “We all have gaped at some Adonis,” while Hugo poses above a headless statue and Victor holds a card with a picture of a fig-leaf in front of the statue, covering his eyes. This is vulgar and should be changed. The statue must be wearing at least a covering loin-cloth.
- As the gargoyles near the ending of the jazzy song, they begin snapping along with the music. A line of saint statues are also shown snapping. This is sacrilegious and ridiculous and must be eliminated.
- Later, Esmeralda brings Phoebus to the bell tower to hide him from Frollo. After cleaning his wound, she is seen taking stitches in something near his wound as she talks to him. Although the needle is not shown actually going into his skin, we get the idea that she is not stitching his shirt. This is unduly violent and must be eliminated. She should just clean the wound and put a bandage on it.
- Later in this scene, Esmeralda and Phoebus kiss as Quasimodo watches, heartbroken. Although they are not actually shown kissing for a long time, we see that they are still kissing after Quasimodo is shown reacting to the realization that Esmeralda does not love him. The kiss must be made shorter and less passionate.
- Later, when Quasimodo has to hide Phoebus’s unconscious body because Frollo is coming, one of the gargoyles says, “Quick, we’ve gotta stash the stiff!” This is rather vulgar as well as ridiculous, since Phoebus is not dead. The gargoyle should merely say, “Quick, we have to hide him!”
- Later, as Frollo tells Quasimodo he will save him from Esmeralda’s “evil spell,” he stabs the little statuette Quasimodo made of her and burns it with flame from a candle on the table. This is violent and should be removed.
- Later, when Phoebus and Quasimodo enter the gypsies’ hideout, The Court of Miracles, there are hundreds of skeletons lying around, some of which are actually gypsies wearing tight-fitting black garments with skeletons drawn on them. This masquerade is alright, but there should not be so many real skeletons. A few skeletons are alright, but they must not be so numerous.
- As Clopin prepares to hang Phoebus and Quasimodo as spies, he suddenly pops up wearing an executioner’s outfit which does not include a shirt. Although men may sometimes be shown without shirts under the Code, it seems indecent in this case. He must be wearing a shirt.
- As Clopin pretends to be Frollo passing judgment on the two spies, his puppet, which he uses to do ventriloquy, begins objecting. When he puts his hat over it to quiet it, it says the same mild expletive that was previously used by the old prisoner. This is unacceptable and either should be eliminated or softened to darn.
- In this same scene, several gypsy women are shown wearing very low-cut and tight-fitting dresses. All the women must be wearing decently loose-fitting and high-necked dresses.
- At the end, after Quasimodo has saved Esmeralda from being executed, the townspeople and gypsies begin fighting furiously with Frollo’s soldiers. This entire fight scene is too violent and too long. It must be shorter and not show so much violence, like the fight scenes in the perfect Code film New Moon.
- During this same fight scene, a couple of soldiers are seen falling into the sewer. This is rather vulgar and should be eliminated.
- Later in the fight scene, Captain Phoebus gives his horse the command to sit when it is standing right in front of one of the soldiers. The horse’s rear end is shown coming toward the camera as it obeys Phoebus’s command. This is rather vulgar and should be changed. This joke was used in an earlier scene without being vulgar, so it may remain as long as the horse’s posterior is not shown so clearly.
- At the end of Frollo’s final battle with Quasimodo and Esmeralda, he ends up clinging to one of the cathedral’s many water-spouts, several of which are spouting lava at the moment. The water-spout begins to crack under Frollo’s weight. Just as it is about to fall, the face comes to life and glows red, as though Frollo is face-to-face with the devil himself. This is very mystical and anti-Christian and could be insulting to Christians. It should be eliminated.
This completes my breening of Disney’s 1996 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This film could have been a good moral tale for young people in the 1990s, so many of whom desperately needed Christianity in their lives. However, due to the lack of self-regulation and the rating system’s negligence in giving it a G-rating, it instead was a bad influence for children. I must once again repeat that I do not wish to ruin anyone’s childhood memories of these Disney classics which I have been breening, but I think it is important to expose the dangerous problems in these supposed “children’s films.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the least popular Renaissance films, both in its day and now. This shows that, although people were quite ignorant of the danger of all Disney Renaissance films, when filmmakers go too far, even the naive public will eventually get fed up. I hope you’ve enjoyed this breening journey through Notre Dame. Although what was lost in the recent fire can never really be recreated, this great structure will forever be a religious symbol which lingers in people’s memories and hearts. Thank you for reading. I’ll see you on my next breening adventure!
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