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12:00 AM, Jul 1, 1996 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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When the Southern Baptist Convention recently voted to censure the Disney Corporation, principally for offering health insurance coverage to the partners of gay employees, a spokeswoman for the convention explained the vote: "The Disney Company is not the same Disney that it was years ago when we were growing up. We find there is a philosophical shift at the highest levels of the company which is not friendly to families and people of faith." She spoke more truly than she knew. For it is not Disney's policy on gay employees, nor even the distribution by its subsidiaries of such trashy and anti-Christian films as Kids or Priest, that constitutes a threat to the "family values" Disney still claims to uphold. On the contrary, the very films touted as the most "wholesome" and "family-oriented" movies made in the world today tend to undermine not only civil and religious but also parental authority.

The latest in the long line of the company's popular animated features is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, named for and modeled more on the film version of 1939, starring Charles Laughton, than on Victor Hugo's 1832 novel Notre Dame de Paris. The anti-Christian tendency of Disney is more obvious in this film than ever before.

The only prominently believing Christian in the cartoon, set in and around a church, is the evil Claude Frollo. In the novel and even in Laughton's version, which was largely devoted to an attack on "superstition," Frollo was a good man and a sincere believer tormented by a pride and a passion with which he could never come to terms. In the Disney version he is nothing but a villain and a hypocrite. As the jolly song in which we are introduced to him has it:

Judge Claude Frollo wished to purge the world of sin, And he saw corruption every where -- except within.

At one point, it's true, Frollo does seem to be praying, in his toffee- nosed English accent (voice of Tony Jay), for grace to resist the illicit passion he feels for the gypsy girl, Esmeralda (voice of Demi Moore). But he is quickly reduced, like a moustache-twirling villain of melodrama, to crying out to her phantasm in the fire: "Be mine or burn!" The only spiritual sustenance he receives from the church comes in the advice of the archdeacon (in the novel Frollo was the archdeacon, but to make a clergyman the villain would have been, perhaps, just a little too blatant) that he "can't run from the eyes of Notre Dame" -- by which is meant, of course, not Our Lady but her animated Cathedral. To make the point, the Cathedral's statuary moves its eyes to look balefully at Frollo.

It seems somehow fitting that Disney, our most effcient mass marketer of universally venerable icons, should encourage an idolatrous, if not blasphemous, view of religion. The comic sidekicks that have ever been a staple of the Disney formula are here not little animals but three animated gargoyles from the cathedral. Appropriately, it is the world-class spoilsport Frollo who forces Quasimodo to admit that stone cannot talk, though we have just seen it talking to him. Quasimodo, too, has been turned into a stock Disney figure: a sensitive child (or childlike figure) the constraining of whose imaginative life by a stern and unsympathetic father (or father figure) stands for or accompanies a larger curtailment of freedom.

Disney's gentle Quasimodo (voice of Tom Hulce), though ostensibly ugly, is in fact quite cute, a much softened and cleaned-up version of the hunchback as conceived by Charles Laughton. But naturally this Quasimodo has none of the dark side of Laughton's -- let alone Hugo's. His kidnapping of Esmeralda and his furious misanthropy are omitted from this version (as is his love fbr Frollo). The grotesque and the frightening is, as always, sanitized and banalized and made safe, and where it cannot be made safe it is simply dropped. Instead, everything reinforces the film's central premise: that it is wrong to be prejudiced against people on account of their appearance. It is really Frollo who is the ugly one, because of his inner corruption, and Quasimodo who has an inner beauty, because he's nice to gargoyles and others. "Who is the monster and who the man?" a song asks.