An examination of Judge Claude Frollo, the villain of Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

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The following is my entry in “The Great Villain Blogathon,” being held Apr. 13-17 by the blogs SpeakeasyShadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read blog entries about some of the most captivating villains in movie history!

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Let me begin by saying that I think The Disney Studios’ The Hunchback of Notre Dame is criminally underrated. It came out on the heels of The Lion King and Pocahontas which, as noteworthy as they were, were quite content with leavening their stories with a comic-relief duo and (in Pocahontas) a villain that seemed more misguided than really foul. 

Unless my memory is fuzzy, Hunchback is the only Disney cartoon that introduces its major villain in the movie’s first scene — with an opening song. (I remember seeing the movie upon first release with my then-3-year-old daughter and thinking, “They’re really not screwing around his time.”)

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That villain is Judge Claude Frollo (memorably and chillingly voiced by Tony Jay), Paris’ minister of justice in 1482. Let’s make a short list of his frolics, shall we?

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  • Frollo ambushes a group of gypsies who try to illegally sneak into Paris. When a female gypsy escapes with a mysterious-looking satchel, Frollo chases her down on horseback and kills her, only to find that the satchel contains her deformed baby. Frollo holds the satchel over an open well and vows to send the baby “back to Hell, where it belongs.”

The baby is saved at the last minute by a voice of conscience, the cathedral’s archdeacon, who guilt-trips Frollo into raising the baby as his own child. Frollo cruelly names the baby “Quasimodo” (meaning “half-formed”) and shutters him in Notre Dame’s bell tower. (Again, this is all in the opening number. We haven’t even gotten to the main story yet.)

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  • Twenty years later, we see grown Quasimodo (Timothy Hulce), longing to join the annual Festival of Fools that the gypsies hold in the town square. But Frollo discourages Quasimodo, telling him outright that he is “deformed” and “ugly” and that Quasimodo should be “grateful” that it is Frollo alone who can accept Quasimodo’s deformity. No Father’s Day card for this guy!

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  • Quasimodo lets his curiosity gets the better of him, exits the bell tower for the first time in his life, and joins the Festival. At first, he is celebrated as the “King of Fools,” but then some bullies throw vegetables at Quasimodo, shred his clothes, and tie him up in front of the crowd. Frollo, who has witnessed the whole spectacle, ignores Quasimodo’s pleas for help, preferring to see Quasimodo humiliated for disobeying him. Quasimodo is released by Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a beautiful gypsy, who both exasperates and excites Frollo before she makes a crafty exit.

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  • There follows perhaps the most eye-popping song ever to appear in a Disney movie, as Frollo admits his lust for Esmeralda but blames said lust on the woman herself and her magical ways. At one point, Frollo looks at the raging fire in his room’s fireplace and imagines seeing Esmeralda, teasing him with an erotic dance. (I’ve always said that if this movie is G-rated, it’s a pretty hard G.)

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  • Frollo goes on a citywide search for Esmeralda, aided by his right-hand man, Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline). When Frollo orders Phoebus to burn down an innocent gypsy’s home, and Phoebus refuses, Frollo knocks him to the ground and nearly murders him. He is saved by Esmeralda, who takes wounded Phoebus to the bell tower and asks Quasimodo to look after Phoebus until he recovers.

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  • Later, Quasimodo and a recovered Phoebus search the city for Esmeralda, eventually uncovering the gypsies’ hide-out, to which they have unknowingly led Judge Frollo. Frollo captures all of the gypsies, chains up Quasimodo in the bell tower, and orders Esmeralda burned at the stake in public (but not before offering her a final chance at freedom by, er, dousing Frollo’s lust, to which offer she spits in Frollo’s face).

Having already offered too many “spoilers” about the movie, I draw the line at disclosing the movie’s ending so that I can leave you with something fresh when you watch it. Suffice to say, the story doesn’t end prettily for someone.

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My point is that, IMHO, Judge Claude Frollo is the most purely, unmitigatingly evil of all Disney villains. Prior to Frollo, there have been nasties in Disney movies, to be sure, but each still had some tiny redeeming feature, or a reason behind their actions. (Even The Lion King’s Scar had a small rationale for his evil deeds. Who isn’t jealous of one’s sibling at some point?) Frollo is given no such reason for his villainy, other than that he has unchecked power in Paris and only wants more of it.

There’s a reason that — other than the light-comic-relief gargoyles who are initially Quasimodo’s only friends — this movie doesn’t take a “We’re only kidding” approach that most other Disney movies offer. And that reason can be found in the movie’s credits.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was directed by Gary Wise and Kirk Trousdale, whose previous Disney outing was 1991’s Beauty and the Beast — the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. That Oscar nom pretty much gave Wise and Trousdale carte blanche to do whatever they wanted for their next movie — despite the fact that Victor Hugo purists (not to mention Hugo’s own descendants) went apoplectic at the thought of a literary classic being homogenized by the company that gave us Mickey Mouse.

For my money, Wise and Trousdale provided a worthy and outstanding adaptation. And the proof is in a Disney villain in which one can find no redeeming feature whatsoever. Hunchback’s original release was accompanied by the inevitable merchandising onslaught, with play figures and games based on the movie. Funny, though — I don’t recall ever seeing a Judge Frollo doll on any shelves at The Disney Store at that time.

Of course, I COULD be wrong...

Of course, I COULD be wrong…

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The Popeye/Beatles Connection

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Forgive me if this seems as though I’m reaching a bit. But two of my favorites in cinema animation are the Popeye cartoons and the Beatles-inspired feature film, Yellow Submarine (1968). With all of the grief that King Features Syndicate — the publishing company created by William Randolph Hearst, and owner of the print rights to Popeye — has gotten over the years, we should at least be grateful for these two landmarks in which KFS had at least a small hand.

The less-than-six-degrees of separation between Popeye and The Beatles can be traced to Al Brodax, who was the head of KFS’ motion picture and TV development division in the 1960’s. Among Brodax’s first accomplishments at KFS was the production of 220 Popeye shorts for television. When Beatlemania hit America in 1964, Brodax got the rights to do a Beatles cartoon series for the ABC Television Network, which ran the show from Sept. 25, 1965 to Sept. 7, 1969.

Although the Beatles were in no way involved in the creation of the show (other than the use of their music), and though John Lennon later complained that the cartoon series made his group look like “the bloody Flintstones,” it was a huge hit in its first season and went on to capture the attention and admiration of baby-boomers who still recall it fondly. (The rights to the cartoon were quietly bought by Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company, in the 1990’s, and the cartoon has been little seen since then.)

It was Brodax who initially came up with the idea of producing an animated feature based on Beatles songs, suggesting to Beatles manager Brian Epstein that this could satisfy The Beatles’ agreement with United Artists to do a third film (after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!).

(This would not be The Beatles’ first brush with feature-film animation. Disney Studio animator Floyd Norman has written that “We’re Your Friends,” sung by a quartet of vultures in The Jungle Book [1967], was originally styled as a Beatles-type number owing to their then-current popularity. But Disney wanted to stick with a more timeless style of music and felt that The Beatles would be “forgotten in a few years.” For their part, The Beatles weren’t thrilled about the idea, either; a different source quotes John Lennon as having said, “There is no way The Beatles are writing music for Mickey f****n’ Mouse!”)

With the rights to do the film secured, Brodax then hired TVC — London’s Television Cartoons studio, which had directed the TV series — to produce the feature itself. Indeed, TVC’s Jack Stokes and George Dunning served as, respectively, the movie’s animation director and overall director. (Stokes had also designed the titles for The Beatles’ infamous TV-movie, Magical Mystery Tour.)

Unlike on the TV series, where Brodax did not want the Beatles’ cartoon voices to resemble the real ones, on Yellow Submarine, the actors mimicked The Beatles’ voices so successfully that to this day, many viewers do not realize that The Beatles did not provide their voices for the film. In fact — other than a legendary 3 a.m. phone call to Brodax in which Lennon suggested the plot of the film — the actual Beatles’ involvement was minimal, with them providing only four new songs (regarding by many listeners as throwaways) for the film. They might not have even appeared in the short sequence at film’s end, had they not seen a rough cut of the film and were pleased that it was of far better quality than the TV series.

Ever since its initial release in 1968, Yellow Submarine has been regarded as a landmark in animation, with its bright, splashy colors, pop-art references, and visual and verbal puns. The soundtrack of some of rock music’s most famous and memorable songs – many taken from The Beatles’ equally landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released just a year before the movie — didn’t hurt its appeal either.

The connection between the one-eyed sailor and The Fab Four might be a bit tenuous, but I’m willing to give King Features Syndicate at least a smidgen of credit for helping to bring both parties to wonderfully animated life.

(Sources: The Creators of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine: Where Are They Now?, by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D., Animation World Magazine, July 1998; A Shroud of Thoughts (blog), Dec. 9. 2006; and Toon Tuesday, by Floyd Norman, Sept. 26, 2006.)