Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) was one of those films that shaped my childhood. Because of certain themes, I consider Hunchback to be one of the darker Disney films of its era. While it is true that one could approach this film from many angles, ranging from its portrayals of good versus evil to its depiction of religion, I’d like to focus on the main character and hero of the film, Quasimodo.
The viewer learns in the very start of the film that Quasimodo was born “deformed,” and while his mother, a gypsy, seeks sanctuary in the church, she is killed by judge Frollo. Frollo is seen about to drop baby Quasimodo into a well, but a priest runs out to stop him on the steps of Notre Dame. Frollo is then left to care for Quasimodo and is his guardian. Quasimodo calls Frollo “master” and lives in the bell towers of Notre Dame. Frollo does not permit him to leave the cathedral, ever. Thus Quasi’s only friends are gargoyles of the cathedral that turn to stone when anyone else is around, arguably figments of Quasimodo’s imagination. Quasimodo is completely ostracized by society and labelled as an outcast, due totally to Frollo’s cruel nature and manipulation. He lets Quasimodo believe he is truly “ugly” because of his physical disfigurement.
The above clip from the film is indubitably one of the toughest scenes for me to watch, still to this day. In what should’ve been an exciting and thrilling time for Quasimodo as he finally got to experience society during a lively festival–and becomes enamored with the gypsy Esmeralda–he is instead quickly turned into the laughing stock of the whole crowd when they see his face. He is teased and tomatoes are thrown in his face, he is tied up with ropes, his clothes torn, and utterly demeaned. He desperately pleads to his “master” Frollo for help, but since Frollo is an evil character and enraged that Quasimodo disobeyed his orders, he does not stop the cruelty.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what this film and these characters have anything to do with this blog and living with cerebral palsy. I personally always related to Quasimodo when I was growing up. Even though Quasimodo doesn’t have CP, he did look different, and his gait was different because of his hunchback. When I walked with and without crutches, I looked different too. Folks stared at Quasimodo out on the street, and in real life stared at me, too. Quasidodo was mocked. I was too. Quasimodo felt like an outsider, and so did I. My heart went out to him, and I always rooted for him.
That being said, I’d now like to touch on a specific plot line of the film: the “love triangle” of sorts between Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Captain Phoebus. Quasimodo clearly loved Esmeralda, and yet, Quasimodo is ultimately rejected as Esmeralda’s love interest. Instead he was placed into the “good friend” role, stuck on the sidelines as Esmeralda and Phoebus end up together. While I vehemently applaud and champion Quasimodo as the film’s hero, in my opinion I don’t think it’s enough. I think Quasimodo as the hero should be a given. Why wasn’t he a viable love interest for the female lead? The film presents Quasimodo as a pariah because of his physical differences, and I think it’s clear that those differences prevent him from being seen as a romantic possibility for Esmeralda. I mean, sure, Phoebus is incredibly noble and has integrity, but so does Quasimodo…so why not him?
From the first couple minutes of the film, the viewer can see that Quasimodo is a sweet, gentle, and pure soul. He is special in many ways, one being that he has a tremendous amount of love to give. He deserves to be loved in return. Not just the love that comes from a friend, but romantic love from a significant other. The message that I get from the film is that Quasimodo will be the forever friend, not the boyfriend. In my opinion this message is fundamentally flawed. Those of us who may look a little different, walk differently, or perhaps talk differently, deserve to be loved, too. Those of us placed on the fringes of society because of our differences should be center stage in every aspect for a change.