Roma as Portrayed in Disney's
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in its many renditions, has never been touted as being a masterpiece of accurate portrayal of Roma or, to use the story's own term, Gypsies. Likewise, no one has ever accused Disney of being a haven of enlightened artists whose only goal is the betterment of society as we know it. Even so, the corporation manages to keep a fairly clean track record as far as political correctness is concerned. Fairly clean is a relative term, however, and often they misstep in the case of stereotypes of the smaller minorities such as Native Americans, as is the case in Pocahontas, and Roma, as is the case in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The movie opens with a song sung by Clopin (Paul Kandel) who is dressed as a jester and is singing to a group of small children while doing a hand-puppet show from a wagon. We later learn that Clopin is a "Gypsy" (i.e. Romani). He spins a tale of three Gypsies sneaking into Paris with a small baby, only to be accosted by the city guards and Frollo (Tony Jay). Frollo is a magistrate of sorts who has the idea (which was, in truth, quite pervasive in that era) that Gypsies were inherently evil, thieving con artists. He arrests the arriving Gypsies, but the young mother escapes with her baby. Frollo chases her on horseback through the streets of Paris to the very steps of Notre Dame where she beats on the door for the right to claim sanctuary, and thus, be immune to arrest and persecution. Before she can gain access to the church, however, Frollo grabs her bundle which he has taken to be stolen goods, and knocks her to the ground where she dies due to a head wound. He is about to cast the bundle, which he has discovered is actually a baby, into a well when an Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) appears to lay the guilt to him. He charges Frollo with the care of the child, which Frollo grudgingly accepts, but relegates the boy to the bell towers of Notre Dame, giving him a name to fit his disfigurement: Quasimodo.
At this point the movie cuts back to the "present", twenty years later. Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) plans with his gargoyle friends to go to the Feast of Fools against Frollo's wishes. Then we meet Phoebus (Kevin Keike), the new Captain of Frollo's guards, who has just arrived in Paris. Phoebus rescues Esmeralda (speaking: Demi Moore, singing: Heidi Mollenhauer) from the everyday harassment Gypsies receive at the hands of the guards and allows her to escape. He then proceeds to Frollo's fortress for a discussion about his new duties which seem to consist solely of helping Frollo in his maniacal quest to rid Paris of Gypsies. The pair then proceed to the Feast of Fools. Quasimodo sneaks into the Feast and meets Esmeralda for the first time amidst a song sung by Clopin. This scene is the first place the viewer is allowed a look at Gypsies as envisioned by Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. The Feast is, apparently, a holiday "incited" by the Gypsies on January sixth in which rules are ignored and general chaos reigns. All the Gypsies depicted are performers and are dressed as clowns or dancers, except in a few cases. During the line, "Join the bums and thieves and strumpets," three characters who look about as Romani as any of the Gypsies in the movie stream by for each of the three professions listed. There is a heavy implication that these three things are to be normally associated with "Gypsies" and, thus, Roma: beggars, outlaws and prostitutes. Then Esmeralda dances.
Not only is Esmeralda's dress only vaguely Romani (in that it includes a dress, a shirt and something that might feasibly be misconstrued as an apron), but her dancing can only be described in relation to cabaret scenes in movies aimed more at adults than children. It is watered down somewhat for consumption by children, but that means she "only" displays lots of cleavage, neck and shoulder, and her legs to the knee, both of which are extremely taboo in Romani culture. The dance moves she employs are also highly suggestive, including one portion where she uses a spear jabbed into the stage as a pole to the hooting approval of the Parisian men present, which would simply not occur with an actual Romani.
Then there is a kind of contest for ugliest person in Paris which Quasimodo "wins" which means he "gets" to be tied to a wheel to be bombarded by tomatoes, eggs and other food stuffs. Esmeralda comes to Quasimodo's rescue, which angers Frollo, and then leads the guards on a chase filled with typical Disney slapstick. In the end she and her pet goat escape via a magic disappearing trick as the crowd voices it's amazed approval. Here is the typical association of Romani with magical abilities so prolific in fiction involving Gypsies.
Quasimodo returns to his towers accompanied by a dark look from Frollo and the jeering of the crowd as Phoebus sets the guards to search for "the Gypsy Girl." He sees her in disguise near Notre Dame, but, having been entranced by her dancing, follows her in, rather than raising the alarm. Inside, they fight, then he introduces himself and charms her just before Frollo bursts in demanding her arrest. Phoebus claims she has sanctuary and, thus, cannot be arrested, but Frollo tries to argue only to be interrupted by the Archdeacon who throws everyone out except Frollo, who hides, and Esmeralda, to whom he grants sanctuary. With the crowd gone, Frollo steps out to threaten Esmeralda wither her new "prison", Notre Dame. He, too, has been entranced by Esmeralda's dancing, and creepily smells her hair. She gets free of him and flees to his hollered threat that guards will be posted at every door.
She then speaks to the Archdeacon about her troubles and the cruelty of the Parisians towards Quasimodo and her own people (the latter of which has only been displayed in passing once amidst several instances of Parisians getting along fine with Gypsies). The Archdeacon says he cannot help, but suggests that, "someone in here," might be able to. Then Esmeralda sings a predictable song to God asking "selflessly" that people have understanding for those different from them. Quasimodo hears her singing and sneaks down to listen at which point he is spotted and effectively chased back to his towers again, this time with Esmeralda in tow as she tries to apologize for getting him into the contest.
Above, in Quasimodo's rooms, Esmeralda catches him up and gets to "meet" the bells and talk with Quasimodo, who falls in love with her. He asserts to her that she is not like the other Gypsies because she is not evil, as Frollo has told him all Gypsies are. She speaks as to the humanity of Gypsies as well as Quasimodo which solidifies them as friends. Quasimodo then helps her and her omnipresent pet goat escape Notre Dame by climbing down the walls, rather than using one of the guarded doors. She then gives him a pendant and a riddle which ends up being a map to the Court of Miracles. Upon returning to his rooms, Quasimodo runs into Phoebus who wishes to apologize to Esmeralda for trapping her.
Returning once again to his rooms Quasimodo sings about Esmeralda's kindness which acts as an ironic introduction to a song sung by Frollo about his lust for Esmeralda in which he blames her and the Devil for his sinful feelings. This sequence includes a depiction of Esmeralda made of fire doing even more suggestive dancing, including much running of her hands down her body, which almost pushed the movie from a G rating to PG. This is a prime example of the objectifying of Gypsies in fiction. Frollo is not in love with a woman, but lusts after an object. In the end he resolves that he will kill her if she will not be with him.
The following morning he begins a campaign to find Esmeralda in which he threatens Gadje who might be hiding her and arrests Gypsies when they refuse or are unable to give her whereabouts. The campaign comes to a head at a farm which Frollo suspects is hiding Gypsies, but has no proof. He tells the farmer that he is relegating them to house arrest while the matter is being investigated, then locks them in and orders Phoebus to burn the house down. When Phoebus refuses, Frollo does the deed himself. Phoebus jumps through a window to save the family, but upon emerging is accosted by his men and told that the penalty for insubordination is death. Esmeralda comes to his rescue by means of a rock flung from a make shift sling, and he escapes, but is shot with an arrow.
After the guards and Frollo return to the city, Esmeralda finds the injured Phoebus and takes him to Notre Dame (with the help of an unnamed Gypsy who looks like he might have been an extra from the Jolly Roger in Disney's Peter Pan). Quasimodo agrees to shelter Phoebus and Esmeralda sews up Phoesbus's wound as he makes advances on her. They kiss, which dashes Quasimodo's hopes. Nonetheless Quasimodo urges Esmeralda and her friend to escape to the Court of Miracles before Frollo's eminent arrival. Before Frollo comes, Quasimodo hides Phoebus, now unconscious, under a table. Frollo, having guessed that Quasimodo had helped Esmeralda escape Notre Dame, questions the hunchback and blames Paris's burned state on him. Just before storming out Frollo reveals that it does not matter because he has discovered the location of the Gypsy hideout (the Court of Miracles) and will be bringing one thousand soldiers there at dawn.
Once Frollo is gone, Phoebus comes out from under the table and attempts to convince Quasimodo to help him warn Esmeralda and the Gypsies. Quasimodo at first refuses, but catches up to Phoebus in the street and joins him. They use the necklace given Quasimodo by Esmeralda to locate the Court of Miracles in an old grave yard and venture in.
The Court of Miracles gives the biggest group scene involving Gypsies. First a song sung by Clopin introduces the scene as Quasimodo and Phoebus are accosted in the dark by Gypsies in skeleton costumes (to blend into the surrounding crypt walls). "Maybe you've heard of a terrible place/Where the scoundrels of Paris/Collect in a lair," he sings, implying that Gypsies are terrible scoundrels. He then continues, "....Where the lame can walk/And the blind can see," as Gypsies who have faked blindness or lameness reveal that they are collecting alms as a con, rather than as a right. Up until this this point the viewer could almost be proud of Disney for avoiding, by and large, a seriously negative view of Gypsies (regardless of how incorrect the morally neutral details were), but apparently they could not break the stereotype and finally succumbed to the blatant statement that Roma are criminals and con men.
The scene then proceeds to a large underground room with a great many people in it, all Gypsies dressed in the afore mentioned pirate-like manner. Clopin takes the gagged and tied-up Quasimodo and Phoebus to a gallows made for two and tells them of their fate. They are to be hanged for finding the Court of Miracles so they cannot spread the location to unwanted ears. "We find you totally innocent," he sings, "Which is the worst crime of all./So you're going to hang!" These lyrics imply that Gypsies have a twisted, if not totally void, sense of right and wrong. Esmeralda arrives just before the trap door is dropped, thus saving the two heros, who may then give their warning. The Gypsies scatter to begin packing up their gaudy tarps and blankets all striped in bright colors so stereotypically found, and Esmeralda greets Quasimodo and Phoebus warmly, but Frollo, having followed the heros, crashes the party.
He arrests everyone and sends Quasimodo back to the towers of Notre Dame, to be chained up. The following day he puts Esmeralda on "trial" for witchcraft as Quasimodo watches forlornly from above. She refuses to recant and so Frollo puts her to the flame. Seeing this, Quasimodo's anger is aroused and he breaks free, swings down and rescues Esmeralda, then climbs with her over his shoulder, back up to a balcony of Notre Dame and claims sanctuary loudly. Frollo, enraged, orders an assault on the cathedral which allows Phoebus time to trick his guard, escape and incite a riot among the citizenry which includes freeing Gypsies, fighting guards, burning things and Disney-style semi-violent slapstick "hilarity". Above Quasimodo has laid Esmeralda on his bed and begins throwing things down at the assailants who begin using a battering ram. Things culminate in Quasimodo dumping a molten substance out of the rain pipes of the cathedral which by means of exaggeration turns into, effectively, lava flowing down all of the walls and into the streets.
Frollo slips into Notre Dame, avoiding the burning liquid, and makes his way to Quasimodo's rooms where Quasimodo is failing to revive Esmeralda. Frollo and Quasimodo fight, during which Esmeralda does, in fact, come to. The three end up outside on the parapets high above Paris which now looks astoundingly similar to Hell, thanks to the riots and Quasimodo's anti-siege tactics. After a bit of acrobatic fighting, Frollo is about to strike at Esmeralda with his sword as she holds Quasimodo from falling to his doom when he issues a very biblical line about smiting "His" enemies and casting them into the fiery pit of Hell just before the outcropping he is standing on gives way and Frollo falls to his death. The implication here is that God has now cast His enemy into the pit of Hell (i.e. the burning Paris).
Quasimodo then slips from Esmeralda's hand and falls, too, only to be caught by Phoebus leaning out a window. Esmeralda joins them and they hug. Quasimodo puts Esmeralda's hand into Phoebus's, marking his resignation that Esmeralda is not for him, then follows them down to meet the public. The ground outside Notre Dame is mysteriously not destroyed and the public cheers them all. We are left with a song by Clopin and the feeling that, from now on, everyone in Paris will be understanding, tolerant and accepting of those different from them, including specifically Gypsies and those who are physically deformed.
The Gypsies are decidedly sympathetic characters, despite the two fairly specific references to thievery and conning. The greatest mis-portrayal of Roma is in the sexually charged way that Esmeralda dances and dresses and her relationship with Phoebus, a Gadjo. There is little hint of the community orientation of Romani culture, nor the fact that Esmeralda's parents would have arranged any marriage between her and Phoebus (which means it would not have been a likely outcome). One might fault the movie, too, for containing not a single word of the Romani language, but French makes an only marginally more prominent appearance: one word in a song, and once on a sign. The movie, as a whole, is a typical example of mediocrity in animation and scripting with typical usage of stereotypes. This, sadly, seems to be all too common for Disney.