Okay, buckle in for this nearly 30 year old hot take. Having just read the unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame, I have some feelings on Claude Frollo. Will I burn for them? That remains to be seen. Also, spoilers may lurk ahead. If you haven’t read this nearly 200 year old book or watched the 25+ year old movie, then beware.
1. He wasn’t a judge. Like, I get it. Archdeacon isn’t as accessible a title to an 8 year old as Judge. And yeah, the Catholic Church wasn’t exactly separate from the French judicial system in the 1480s, but still. The movie never directly puts Frollo in the employ of the church, so, technically, his lust for Esmeralda could be church sanctioned. But if he’s an archdeacon, he’s taken a vow of chastity. It matters, okay.
2. He was only 36. Yes, in the book it mentions he’s basically bald and by the end of the book what hair he has is white. But this isn’t some leering old man. And, yes, Esmeralda is only 16. Which is weird. I won’t deny it.
3. Frollo wasn’t trying to genocide the Travelers or Roma. In the book, he didn’t have any more animosity to this group than any other. There are specific characters who are very much against them. For example, a recluse nun who is convinced that a band of Travelers once ate her baby daughter. (Spoiler: they didn’t.) But Frollo himself doesn’t have anything particularly against them. He certainly isn’t out getting troops to round them up en masse. (Probably because he’s a priest and not a judge. See point 1.)
4. Frollo never tried to drown Quasimodo and he didn’t kill his mother. Frollo’s parents had recently died leaving him in charge of an infant brother. Around the same time, Quasimodo was left in a foundling basket. Frollo happened to be passing by and realized nobody was going to care for this baby. In the spirit of hoping someone would do the same for his little brother under similar circumstances, Frollo takes Quasimodo under his care. It’s an act of charity and selflessness. He’s not keeping Quasimodo for fear of eternal damnation or the possibility of his utility in the future.
5. He doesn’t name Quasimodo that because it means “half-formed”. The day he found the baby in the foundling basket was called Quasimodo Sunday. It was a religious holiday. Frollo wasn’t even particularly cruel to Quasimodo. When the bells make Quasimodo deaf, he and Frollo develop a sign language communication system. Does Frollo fail to save Quasimodo from the French justice system? Yes. But, again, he was a priest and not a judge.
6. Until he meets Esmeralda, Frollo is a pretty okay guy. He’s a little too into alchemy, I suppose. And he overindulges his brother. But, beyond that, he’s kind of a quiet nerd. Keeps to himself, mostly. A little grouchy, perhaps. But not the evil monster he is in the movie. And after seeing Esmeralda, he develops an unhealthy obsession that leads him to do a number of monstrous things. Which are not excusable. But I don’t think they define the whole of his character either.
So, what’s the point of all this? I’ve seen various people online say that Frollo is the most realist of the Disney villains. He’s certainly one of the only ones to get what is referred to as a “want” song (think Ariel’s Part of Your World or Lion King’s I Just Can’t Wait To Be King). We know what’s going on in Frollo’s head. And it’s a very human thing, lust. The problem is that is he doesn’t get a single redeeming factor.
From the first moment he is on screen, we know Frollo is the villain. His first act is to run down and murder a woman carrying an infant child. He is all set to drown the baby until a priest warns him of his eternal damnation. Every interaction with Quasimodo is filled with cruelty and manipulation. His lust for Esmeralda is all consuming and vengeful. His hatred of the Travelers/Roma is all encompassing. There is not a shred of mercy or decency in him.
And I think that’s a mistake. Now, I grant you, it’s a 90 minute kid’s movie. There isn’t always time for nuance. But, imagine the difference it would make if Frollo went from a stern but kind priest to a maniacal, crazed lunatic who will follow Esmeralda to hell and back. And a moment of realization, just at the end, of everything he’s lost in his pursuit of a girl who doesn’t want him.
Hellfire is still possibly the best song Disney has ever produced.