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DISNEY'S MICKEY-MOUSE RELIGION

12:00 AM, Jul 1, 1996 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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There can be no doubt about the answer, though it is interesting to note that Esmeralda, who teaches Quasimodo to hate Frollo for calling him a monster, still gives him not the slightest consideration as a lover. This gypsy dancer carries another stage further the rather disturbing sexiness noticeable in the title character of last year's Pocahontas. The Indian maiden had a cute little off-the-shoulder dress which showed off her figure to advantage; but Esmeralda is obviously a more experienced woman. he does a pole-dance that could have come out of Showgirls and positively leers at her admirers -- all except Frollo, whom she dislikes on sight. When he cries " Witchcraft!" his opinion appears to be ironically confirmed by the fact that she disappears into thin air. But of course she's only a cartoon witch and therefore quite harmless, at least compared with a Christian believer like Frollo.

At one point Esmeralda seems to pray to the Virgin after she has taken sanctuary in the cathedral, but only after expressing skepticism about Mary's existence and confidence that, if she does exist, it is as a protector of " outcasts" like herself. Thus the religious theme neatly elides into the more political one that it is wrong to be prejudiced -- against the ugly, against gypsies, against gargoyles, or against anybody, really, except Christians.

At the climax of the film, Frollo tries to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda together, crying out in old Bible English: "And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!" But the gargoyle on which he is standing gives way and he falls to his death. "Three cheers for Quasimodo!" cries the crowd below.

Laughton's film (directed by William Dieterie) is a radical simplification of Hugo's astounding feat of literary and historical imagination, but it at least bears some resemblance to Notre Dame de Paris: It is not just about a few individuals, their desires, their passions, and their crimes, but is a large-scale portrait of ideas about freedom and popular will that were to affect the whole of mankind. The Disney version ignores all that. Instead it produces a cookie-cutter version of the standard Disney message, which is that over-indulged children and sentimentalists are good and moralistic adults are bad. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Disney's hands may not look much like Victor Hugo, but it is morally indistinguishable from The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas.

To be sure, it has never been particularly difficult to distinguish between a Disney product and great art. Not long ago, Minette Martin of the London Sunday Telegraph took the occasion of the death in the same week of the original of A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin and of P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, to note that Christopher Milne's fictional counterpart

met his end long ago. He was murdered, struck down by the dead hand of Disney. Christopher Robin, Pooh, and Eeyore and all the rest were then resurrected as tasteless, anodyne Disney stereotypes, mass-market ghosts sent out to possess the imagination of the world's children, to enrich the evil cartoon empire.

Disney destroys almost everything it touches. When the creator of Mary Poppins . . . first saw the Walt Disney film version of her book, she burst into tears. It was, she said, a desecration of her work.

I passionately agree with her. The strange and mysterious world of the book that I read as a child has been travestied in the film in every way, complete with the mincing Dick Van Dyke among a crowd of sycophantic dancing cartoon penguins. "They missed the point," Travers said. "It's not about sugar and spice."

It is worth noting that, even for those who loved the Disney of the 1960s, the Disney of Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, the company's more recent products have been not just sentimental but morally pernicious as well. For culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and into the bland vacuousness of the standard Disney fantasy of talking animals and childish sentimentalists has rushed a ghastly kind of political correctness.

This became apparent with The Little Mermaid (1989), the first of the new Disney animated megahits and the one that set the pattern for the steady stream of Disney animated products that have followed at 18-month intervals ever since. The 16-year-old mermaid Ariel is tyrannized by her father Triton, who is unreasonably prejudiced against "humans" -- whom he variously calls " barbarians" and "fish eaters." When the girl falls in love with one of them, the prince Eric, her father automatically condemns him.

"Daddy, you don't even know him," whines little Ariel.