Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Disney Renaissance Revived

So last night, as I tried to study for a midterm, I got distracted and went on Youtube and somehow ended up watching scenes from old Disney movies. I really don't know how it happened, but I'm glad it did because it made me start to think...

Have you ever noticed that Disney movies are much more vapid nowadays? The movies, in addition to the shows on the Disney Channel, lack substance and imagination. Sure Up was pretty awesome but I'm going to take Pixar out of the picture for a bit. To be honest, I really miss the old animated movies. You know, the ones we grew up with (sorry if you thought by old I meant Snow White). This drove me to go online and I found out that the Disney movies I watched as a child were all part of a period called the Disney Renaissance. This felt so appropriate to me as I really thought that all of those movies needed to be grouped together in some form; to me they were the Golden Age of Disney but since that was taken the Renaissance period of Disney is perfect. It really was an effort to go back to the essentials that earned Disney so much acclaim in the beginning. Although they were aimed at children (children who are now adults...sigh), the movies contain thematic elements best understood by adults, and it is my hope that by highlighting these you will go back and enjoy the movies more than you did way back when.

So, I obviously have not watched all of them since last night but I decided to start some more regular posts on this topic. I'll do my best, but since finals are coming up I can promise probably no more than once a week. Sorry, but I would really like to not fail my first year at college ;) That said, here is the first film in the series of my analysis of the animated movies of the Disney Renaissance period.

1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

So, I was four when this first came out and I can't say to much about my feelings regarding this movie as I probably didn't have many. It was scary to be sure and I thought it was a good story but my favorite part was undeniably Esmeralda. I thought she was one of the prettiest characters so far and I really wanted to be her. So I had my fifth birthday themed around this movie and I wore the red outfit from the Festival of Fools scene. I know, you wish you could have been invited. Yet, it probably wasn't until yesterday that I realized how good this movie actually is. So good that I hesitate to even call it a children's movie since I feel that always downplays the importance of certain films.

Why I love it:

Firstly, the plot is great. Now that may be because it is based on Victor Hugo's Notre Dame du Paris, but in actuality the film borrowed little from the novel. There are several deviations from the novel which is to be expected (the story wasn't too kid friendly) but the basic structure is the same. The plot is centered around Esmeralda, a gypsy girl, and her friendship with the misshapen Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame. Both have their own dark backgrounds stories as Esmeralda is one of the gypsies the French are seeking to eradicate from the city and Quasimodo grew up an orphan after his gypsy mother was killed being chased by Frollo (a fact he does not know). Frollo is the corrupt and lustful minister and head of the Guard of which ex-military man Phoebus is the captain. I won't go too deeply into the plot as I am sure you all know it, but suffice to say that Esmeralda and Phoebus come together at the end despite Esmeralda's prejudice towards Phoebus' background and Quasimodo is accepted into society while Frollo is accepted.....into hell.

Secondly, one of my now-favorite aspects of this movie is that it is not afraid to touch upon the issues of lust, corruption, infanticide, racism, religious hypocrisy and social injustice without worrying about being PC or offending anyone which I honestly doubt Disney will ever do again. I hate how they now try to depict the world as idyllic when in reality, it never will be. I honestly did not notice any of these when I first saw it so I doubt it will hurt anyone if they reintroduce them.

Anyways, one of the main motifs that underlies the whole plot is Frollo's lust for Esmeralda. Now, despite his many negative qualities I find Frollo to be a very interesting character. He is the archetype of hypocrisy and corruption. Not only does he try to kill Quasimodo as a baby by dumping him in a well (as I am sure was not uncommon for other misshapen children of the period) but he lies to him about his family as well. Additionally he tries to eradicate all the corruption in Paris by any method despite the fact that he is its source. So why do I find him interesting? In one word, delusion. After so many years in this service, he truly believes that God sent him to purify Paris and extinguish every form of sin in the city. He holds on to this belief so firmly that he is willing to kill anyone to achieve it. His religious fervor is so strong and frightening that it overpowers any opposition laid before him. This self-delusion is what I find incredibly interesting. I've always wondered: how does a person get to the point where he or she is so deluded that they can convince themselves of anything? What does it take to toss morality and inhibition aside in favor of self gratification? Frollo is a perfect case. He believes so much in what he does that he does not question his virtue and acts impulsively to further his beliefs. Yet, there is one point which draws hesitation: the dramatic inner struggle between what he believes God is asking him to do and what his body wants to do. This struggle climaxes in what I believe to be one of the greatest moments in Disney movie history, "hellfire."

I'll give you a second to watch so you know what I am talking about:

Wasn't that fantastic? I honestly think that it alone deserves an Oscar. the song and its interpretation is bewitching and the struggle is palpable in Frollo's voice. This intense desire fuels his desperate search for her and masks the evilness of his reckless burning of Paris. But alas, he realizes his search is futile and the thought drives him to murder. Such intense emotion is obviously too much for a 4 year old to understand and so I am glad that I went back and saw this again because it is really something. Especially when you consider the amount of people in the world who can delude themselves into thinking that what they are doing is justified.

This brings me to another aspect of the movie that I finally realized and that is the representation of the church as both sanctuary and capable of damnation. I honestly doubt that Disney would make a movie now that would highlight the corruption of the church so I'm going to pick this apart a bit. There are both good and bad representations of the church in the movie. For example, the archdeacon is a very fair man, but he can do nothing before the power of the crazed Frollo. Also at one point Esmeralda goes in to plea for the outcasts, a reminder that the church has always been the sanctuary of the downtrodden...and yet the minister of the church is on a killing rampage throughout the city. These contrasts are really good portrayals of the actual relationship people had with the church then and now. People have always been wary of authority, but deep down inside it is difficult for them to separate themselves entirely from spirituality. This type of paradox makes this movie so much more interesting than only portraying the black or white as Disney is wont to do.

The film is also a little pessimistic in a way as the lives of the peasants and gypsies is really very pathetic and there seems to be no hope for them on this earth. The class tensions are further visible through Frollo who is able to do with the peasants what he wills. The peasants, however, are better of than the gypsies towards whom there is much racism. Even Quasimodo feeds into the stereotypes.

Yet, because this is a Disney movie, none of this matters in the end as class tensions are overcome, lust and delusion are defeated and good triumphs over evil. Sure, the ending can be guessed at. But isn't the path there so much more interesting than the straight and narrow plots of today? This film is an excellent example of quality entertainment that accurately portrays reality (albeit for the happy ending) and for that it will be remembered as a great film.

So, after my lengthly homily (which I am sure you read in its entirety) I want to know your opinion. Did you like this movie when you were younger? Have you watched it since then and realized it was much deeper than you thought? Do you think I am totally high and all of my observations are bullshit? Well, I guess I'll end it there. Depending on the success of this article I will decide to continue my series with Pocahontas, but if this is too boring for you guys then the buck will stop here...although I really hope it doesn't since I totally loved doing this!

Go out and watch the movie! Let me know what you think!

As always, yours truly,



  1. I know what you're talking about that era of disney movies were epic. And now when I watch them they have so much hidden meaning. Like in Scar's be prepared song from the Lion King. Nazi hyenas and at the end Scar is in front of a red moon representing communism.

  2. Watching this last night really gave me chills. I wish Disney would be willing to step outside of "political correctness" and take some risks. If they did, perhaps they could usher in the Disney Enlightenment. ;)

  3. hahaha I loved that you re-watched Disney movies because I do too! hahah all the analysis is refreshing because it's something I do too, and I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one! Not to sound totally nerdy and socially inept or anything. :]

  4. def impressed with the analysis you did...when i procrastinate, i'm never this productive lol. i did in fact enjoy this movie when i was younger but was obviously not aware of really anything that you mentioned until now of course. frollo's song is now way more intense lol

  5. I'm very impressed with your take on the movie. I for one, was not allowed to watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and now I know why. My parents both work within the church, haha the irony.