Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fool for Christ

Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a great Christian movie.

I feel a little guilty saying that, but hell, Easter was only a couple weeks ago; 'tis the season for forgiveness. But no, really, I watched it last week for the first time since it was in theaters, and aside from the painfully bad comic relief provided by the three gargoyle sidekicks, it is really quite good. It's one of the better Disney animated features, and certainly the most adult, beginning as it does with its villain dashing a woman's head against the steps of Notre Dame and attempting to throw her hideous baby down a well. Not your typical Disney princess fare.

Hunchback is also one of the most explicitly Christian films Disney has ever produced. This is inherent in the Victor Hugo source material--the struggling poor, the noble man of the cloth, the obsessive hound of justice; all of these character types make it an obvious kissing cousin of Les Miserables--but it's still a little shocking to see characters praying to the Christian God in a movie produced by a studio that, despite its cultural conservatism, only rarely broaches the subject of religion. Perhaps that rareness is why the religious theme goes down as well as it does; though this is almost certainly a bastardization of Hugo's novel (I haven't read it, so I wouldn't know), in certain respects it presents an excellent universal appeal for Christian morality.

I'm thinking mostly of the pivotal Festival of Fools scene early in the movie. Quasimodo, the hunch-backed bell-keeper, having lived his life in the Cathedral and having only been able to observe the people running riot at the Festival below, sneaks out to witness it first-hand. He ends up being drafted into a competition for the ugliest mask and is good-naturedly crowned King Fool when the audience finds out he really is the ugliest man in Paris. Then things take a bad, bad turn.

The cruelty lasts only a minute, but it feels like it goes on forever, so abject is Quasimodo's public humiliation. It's remarkably upsetting to watch, and it brings to mind nothing less than the Crucifixion, complete with mock crown. The Son-of-God-made-flesh nailed to a cross is first of all a brutal image, but the violence that captivates Mel Gibson, to the exclusion of almost everything else about Jesus' life and message, is only one part of the scene's broader degradation. Half the power of the crucifixion is not the punishment itself, but its public nature and attendant humiliation that comes with it. The image of the deformed Quasimodo, tied down, abandoned by his father figure, jeered and pelted with food, draws from the same well of abject shame as Calvary and can't help but be moving, especially when we're operating under the assumption that this is a kid's film.

The mockery ends when the Gypsy Esmeralda, alone among all others, steps up to offer Quasimodo comfort, which in the book (according to Wikipedia) is the only act of kindness he's ever known. As she very enthusiastically informs us, she is herself of a despised minority seeking merciful treatment. Her song, "God Help the Outcasts," is rather mawkish, yet it's as good a summation of the Christian message as could be hoped for:

Yes, I know I'm just an outcast
I shouldn't speak to you
Still I see Your face and wonder...
Were You once an outcast too?

God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy
They don't find on earth
God help my people
We look to You still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will

I know I'm risking my credibility by insisting on a Disney cartoon as a paragon of Christianity, so let me turn the accusation around to point out that mainline Christianity has largely become a discredited cartoon version of itself. Andrew Sullivan, who actually believes in Jesus and has written on faith extensively, can detail it better than I can. But essentially, a religion that systematically shields child rapists, hounds gay youth to suicide, and comprises one of the most powerful special interests in Washington, has little credibility when it comes to its stated mission of comforting the weak. Incidentally, Hunchback deals with the religious hypocrisy issue head-on in its very best song, "Hellfire" in which villain Judge Frollo--originally an archdeacon in the book--wrestles with his bewitching lust for Esmeralda:

To jump back to the modern day, Jesus was at best indifferent to power and made a point of associating himself with the dregs of society, and his submission to crucifixion in the absence of any crime is by design the ultimate act of powerlessness. It's hard to square the oratory of "blessed are the meek" with this:

I don't want to belabor this point too much more, except to say that one need not be an atheist to believe a Christianity which keeps the bully out of its pulpit would be a positive development. And to be sure, the Disney cartoon trades in this kind of muscle hero imagery as well, at the beginning of its third-act lurch for a ridiculously unearned happy ending. As I said, I'm speaking of certain elements of the movie, not of the movie as a whole.

It's of the same tension as those obnoxious gargoyles, the impulse to produce a soothing kiddie flick at war with the original story's austere demands for nuance and moral ambiguity. Yet this too may be seen as yet another reflection of today's Christianity, which is torn (in part by Mel Gibson?) between the tremendous political power it wields and the atomized and personal nature of the faith itself. It even has its own hideous gargoyles, in the form of Pat Robertson, the deceased Jerry Falwell, and other telegenic vulgararians.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is compromised, and so too is the belief system that informs it. Yet one can always hope for change; some enterprising YouTube users have taken to re-editing the film to minimize the gargoyles' presence. The same is possible in the real world religion. For what was Christ about, if not redemption?

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