I recently rewatched Disney’s brilliant and vastly underrated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and realised how greatly developed and intriguing Frollo is as a Disney villain. Compared to more recent Disney antagonists such as Hans in Frozen, or traditional antagonists such as Scar in The Lion King, Frollo seems to transcend upon the usual archetype of a Disney villain in a way that isn’t typical in Disney films, or children’s films in general, because it’s only when you’re older when you realise just how twisted Frollo’s motivations really are.
It doesn’t take more than the opening scene to convince the audience of Frollo’s evil nature. From the beginning, there’s a suggestion that Frollo’s motivations are power and control. He immediately chases after a gypsy woman who carries what he perceives as “stolen goods”, and eventually murders her on the steps of Notre Dame without as much as a flinch. He is shortly stopped from murdering her child, young Quasimodo, by the Archdeacon who seems to remind Frollo that there is a greater judge than him. Frollo has become so fixated upon his desire to purge sin from the world that he has become paranoid, resorting to murder and even justifying it (as well as the promise for murdering an infant- “an unholy demon” – too) by his quest to strike out evil. In his own mind, Frollo probably thinks himself as the hero rather than the villain: “I am guiltless, she ran, I pursued.”
It’s interesting, during the opening song, because it’s one of four times in the film where Frollo seems in genuine fear. The first is when the Archdeacon suggests that Frollo, so consumed by his power due to his position as a judge, cannot hide from the “very eyes of Notre Dame”, and of ultimately God. Frollo realises that he has gone to far, displaying genuine fear at the prospect that he has overstepped the line of his ability as a judge.
Cue The Dark Knight: You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.
However, Frollo doesn’t learn his lesson. Despite having the option to save his soul, he does not take it – he cannot bring himself to raise Quasimodo as his own son which inevitably leads to his own downfall. He considers himself above justice, which is his fatal flaw.
Another way that Frollo shows just how deluded he is, is by the way he dehumanises anything that is a threat to the righteousness of his conscience. Ironically, this contradicts to Catholic ideas about forgiveness and love.
He degrades gypsies to ants as they represent everything he wishes to wipe out, and reduces them to a scapegoat group. He lowers Quasimodo to a deformed, demonic monster to disguise Frollo’s inner guilt about the fact that he murdered his mother. He vilifies Esmeralda to a witch when he starts to develop sexual desires for her, all the time placing on the blame on everything but himself. He refuses to accept himself as a villain but instead as a holy man fighting a war.
Despite isolating Quasimodo for twenty years and emotionally reducing him to a monster, Frollo is able to justify this abuse by presenting himself again as a protector: “The world is wicked… I am your only friend”. Even calling twenty-year-old Quasimodo a “boy” keeps him in a state of emotional dependency.
Claude Frollo certainly has a hero complex.
While other Disney villains like Ursula and Cruella De Vil want something from the protagonists, it’s the other way around for Frollo – he presents himself as the hero and Esmeralda as an evil entity that wants something from him and a direct threat to his holy conscience. Frollo’s obsession with purging evil costs him his life: instead of dealing with the rebellion in the streets, he heads up to the bell-tower and stands out on the ledge, which cracks, sending him into the fiery pits of hell.
Frollo’s obsessive nature is entirely evident in the contrast between the two songs: Heaven’s Light (sang by Quasimodo) and Hellfire (sang by Frollo). Both immediately after each other, they serve as a direct dichotomy: two conflicting versions of love both evoking religious imagery.
Quasimodo is innocent in his affections, he only dares to hope that Esmeralda might share his affections and bring him happiness. The semantic field of heaven creates a beautiful image for his affections: “heaven’s light”, “glow”, “angel” and ultimately he sees her as a gift from God. The soft blue light and the dark shadows show the slightest inch of hope and light that Esmeralda has brought into his life. Overall, his song is like a melody, a prayer of contentment and hope. Even though he doesn’t get-the-girl at the end, he still manages to find hope and happiness in the fact that she finds somebody who she can love and be happy with.
For Frollo on the other hand, there is a direct opposite response to his feelings about the girl. Sang as a prayer, Frollo fears for the safety of his soul. He praises himself for his lack of vulgarity and uses hellish imagery to blame the girl for his attachment towards her: “smouldering eyes”, “sun”, “blazing” , “scorch”, “burning desire” which results in thoughts of “sin”. Immediately he rejects her as a “witch” and suggests his weakness is only because of the power of the devil compared to the inferior power of man. Unlike Quasimodo, he cannot stand the thought of her with another man: “be mine or you will burn!”
Way to bring on the charm.
Most of all, Frollo fears Esmeralda’s power over him, because it threatens his control. Throughout the film he is portrayed as calm and calculated, but his lust blurs the objectivity of his actions which eventually turns the people against him.
Ultimately, Frollo is such an interesting and memorable villain, and well worthy of watching again to notice the little things that you never realised before, if you watched the film growing up. I do wish that Disney would stop rebooting old classics and start coming up with fresh, darker ideas again, taking new risks.
Do you agree? Do you have other ideas about the character? Please let me know in the comments!