When asking people what their favorite Disney movie is, there are a few movies that come up so frequently that they have reached the pantheon of “elite” – The Lion King (1994), Cinderella (1950), Toy Story (1995), and recently, Frozen (2013).
However, there is always the adventurous soul who is willing to suggest something not quite so obvious. Mulan (1998) or Peter Pan (1953), anyone?
I always wondered what it was about two of my favorite films, The Rescuers and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (see, the fact that your jaw is hanging open that these are someone's favorite Disney films proves exactly my point), that makes them an unpopular, or easily forgotten, choice amongst Disney lore for the category of “favorite film." I decided to look at patterns between those two films in order to provide a reason for why people never bring them up.
Disney’s The Rescuers (1977) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) are some of the darkest of the Walt Disney animation films because they are about an abusive relationship between orphans and their kidnappers. The villain is not the random dragon-witch who gets upset when she doesn't get invited to a party.
So what happens in these two movies that make them similar? Well, the two main characters, Penny and Quasimodo, are both orphans. Both of them are kidnapped by an adult (Penny is taken by a woman named Medusa and Minister of Justice Frollo takes Quasimodo). The kidnappers both label themselves a "parent" and then emotionally and physically abuse their "child". Ultimately, both kids escape from their kidnappers with the help of outsiders and everyone is happy! YAY!
Or are we? We just spent two hours watching a young girl and a physically impaired man get abused by adults? I guess I'm supposed to feel great about that?
Okay, okay. So maybe Medusa and Frollo are not technically Penny and Quasimodo's parents. But they act as guardians, and even go so far as to give themselves a title of mom or dad. And maybe Quasimodo is not technically a child. But he is so stunted emotionally and physically, that he comes across as child-like.
Because these guardian-child relationships fly so directly in the face of the loving, nurturing parental relationships that we tend to see across films, the shock in a broken pattern reinforces the tragedy of the on screen events to the audience. In making the victims innocent children who seem completely defenseless, Disney created villains so unbearably dark to the audience that the movies become lost to history.