It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the shift happened, but at some point in the 21st century, Disney decided it was no longer interested in telling traditional “happily ever after” love stories. Perhaps the turning point was the meta-comedy of 2007’s partially animated “Enchanted,” or perhaps the smirk of 2000’s “The Emperor’s New Groove” is to blame. We say “blame” as if this change is a bad thing. This is not necessarily the case.
“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” is where these winds of change began to blow. If you know the text of Victor Hugo, you will know that, however in love, Quasimodo does not understand the girl. While at Disney the end result is decidedly less morbid, Quasimodo’s flying solo is true. By the end of the film, Esmeralda is happily paired with the square-jawed, blonde Captain Phoebus, who fits the Disney Prince mold in a way that Quasimodo cannot.
There’s actually strong thematic justification for Quasimodo getting the cold shoulder. Where Judge Frollo handles Esmeralda’s rejection by burning down half of Paris, Quasimodo displays an admirable degree of emotional intelligence for someone who grew up in a steeple. When the reality of Esmeralda and Phoebus’ attraction is made clear to him, Quasimodo gives himself a moment to be upset, and then he moves on. You know, like an adult. And really, her emotional journey is about freedom, not romantic love. It makes perfect sense that he would respect Esmeralda’s autonomy and just be excited about her newfound freedom.