When Disney Went Too Dark A look at two "Forgotten" Disney Films

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?

"Excuse you?"

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.

Let's look at The Rescuers and Medusa first

What kind of pattern does Disney set for us regarding mothers? Well, in most Disney films the mother is missing. Generally she is killed off, or she is absent from the beginning.

However, even though they are rare, occasionally Disney will present us with a present mother figure. What kind of examples has Disney laid out for them?

Tiana and Eudora
Duchess and Children
Simba and Sarabi

All of these are kind, compassionate women whose lives revolves around their children.

Medusa calls herself Penny's "Auntie," so the viewer expects her to act like these other Disney women. Instead, Medusa physically and emotionally abuses Penny. She forces Penny to work for her (unlike other “true” mothers from movies that would break their back serving their child’s every whim) and calls her ugly in the process.

Now let's look at The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frollo

Frollo is potentially one of the cruelest villains in all of Disney. Even though eventually Frollo falls into the fiery pit of Hell (yay light-hearted Disney!), there are too many prior scenes of his excessive violence for this to feel like vindication for all his attrocities.

The very first scene that the audience witnesses in fact is him killing a young mom and attempting to murder her baby because the baby is ugly. Eventually he adopts the child, names him Quasimodo, and raises him as his own. Because he claims to be Quasi's father, the audience expects Frollo to follow the pattern of most Disney fathers.

Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan
Marlon and Nemo
Mufasa and Simba

Instead of acting like these fathers, Frollo emotionally and physically abuses Quasimodo. He sings to him about worthless and deformed he is. He locks him up in a tower and refuses to let him have any social interaction. He sends an army after Quasimodo when he tries to escape that tower. Finally, he refuses to help Quasi and instead urges a Parisian mob to continue attacking him.

As humans, we find meaning behind patterns. When the emotional and physical abuse is much greater than the, "No Dad, I'm giving up on your dream" line, audiences can't reconcile broken tropes and the unexpected actions on screen. Frollo's actions fly too heavily in the face of the father pattern that Disney themselves follows strictly. As a result, audiences cannot stomach the evil on screen.

(jump to 2:07 in A Cinderella Story for that oh-so-inconic line)

The violent relationship in The Rescuers and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is far too extreme for the audience to feel comfortable viewing it as entertainment. It is not a relationship between two individuals who could, in some scenarios, be seen as evenly matched. So next time you give your, "The Lion King" answer when asked your favorite Disney movie, be rest assured. You might be basic, but you are likely too discomforted by abuse. Ultimately, I'd say your priorities are in check.

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