Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blessing the Outcasts

I'm excited to host another guest blogger, Christopher Maslanka. The first time we met, I discovered that he and his wife were Disnerds and, naturally, we became instant friends. He shares his thoughts here on his favorite Renaissance film.
When I watch a Disney film, I am particularly drawn in by the animation artistry, something The Hunchback of Notre Dame has in spades: the quality of light throughout, enough beautiful fire animation to fill three movies, the background work, detailed shadow movement, etc. Heck, the entire pre-title sequence is a perfect short film in its own right. And, of course, the movie has a gorgeous centerpiece: the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris. But that beauty is set against one of the most intense and adult dramas Disney has done. And I say that despite the presence of dancing gargoyles.

Hunchback features a stock figure that occasionally bothers me: the Evil Christian. You’ve probably seen an example somewhere in pop-culture: a hypocritical villain spouting off Bible verses fighting the more enlightened, virtuous heroes. Disney mitigates the situation by making Frollo a judge instead of a priest. (Frollo is the Archdeacon of Notre Dame in Victor Hugo’s book. For the record, I have no problem with adaptation. If Disney hadn’t adapted Pinocchio, children would have been traumatized.) Despite the change, Frollo is clearly a believer, seeking what he sees as God’s will. Of course he is terribly, tragically wrong about what exactly God wills. His Christianity is an excuse to hide from his own desires and fears. Those desires and fears creep out along with an intense sense of guilt, making him a complex and very frightening villain. We can recognize that he espouses is not what Christ teaches. However, there are many outside the faith who look at Frollo and think they are seeing an example of Christianity.

And, to tell the truth, the stock Christian villain occasionally reflects real life. I was once a bit like Frollo. I had a taste of the truth of Christ, but I used that truth to support and defend attitudes and a sense of self-righteousness that were not Christian. In high school, I felt so confident in my faith that I put myself above those who did not share it. Thankfully, I moved out and went to college. I saw the world as far more complex, beautiful and frightening than I had ever realized. When I looked more deeply at the truth of Christ I learned that I was not in a position to look down on anyone but was called to love.

Which brings us back to Hunchback. Esmeralda sings “God Bless the Outcasts” in Notre Dame after the Archdeacon tells her someone in the Cathedral can help her (He ain’t talkin’ about the Hunchback, kid!) She sings about being alone, about being abandoned, but also recognizes that God’s love is universal. It is the most overtly Christian song in the Disney canon that I can think of off the top of my head. Further, its message rings true.

In a world torn apart by selfishness, self-righteousness, and self-hatred, we are called, like Quasimodo, to step beyond our safe homes, our self-imposed limits, and actively love those around us, especially those condemned and abandoned. Like Quasimodo, we have a unique perspective on the world, one that renders everyone beautiful and worthy of love: we can see everyone as a child of God. Quasimodo looks down on Paris from his bell tower and sees everyone bathed in heaven’s light and wishes to be a part of that. Frollo, in his own palace of justice, looks down and sees a reflection of his own twisted corruption. Now, I think it’s fairly clear which perspective we are supposed to buy into by the end of the movie, and I think it’s a perspective our King would approve.

Currently completing his PhD in Medieval English Literature, Christopher has long considered himself a Disney Apologist in that he attempts to defend the artistry of Disney animation against those who would dismiss the work as juvenile or overly commercial. He was very excited to hear of Laura’s project and feels it an honor to be writing a guest blog.  He also likes the term Disnerd much better than Apologist and is sticking with it instead. 

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