I have no idea how you'd attempt to explain Claude Frollo, the villain of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to a kid. (For the purpose of this post, I'll be sticking strictly to the Disney movie, not the Victor Hugo novel.) How would you sit down a child in the target demographic of a Disney animated film and say, yes, the creepy judge is the bad guy and wants to kill Esmerelda, but he also really wants to make out with her? Maybe children gloss over the introduction of the lust/letch storyline to pay more attention to the singing gargoyles. But watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which turns 20 this month, as an adult, it's hard to shake the feeling that Frollo is Disney's creepiest villain, at least in part because he's the most recognisable.
Within the first 10 minutes of the film, the audience learns two things about Frollo: He has no remorse for directly causing the death of an innocent woman (the feeling that her life is disposable is fuelled by his racism), and he's pretty chill about drowning babies. Having a murderous streak isn't new for a Disney villain — Jafar is convinced Aladdin has died at his hand; Scar tries to off his brother and his nephew on the same day — but Frollo is the first Disney villain with attempted infanticide on his résumé.
And then there's this song. From a musical-appreciation standpoint, this song is pretty cool. But let's not forget that a group of people sat in a room — most, if not all, drinking from Mickey Mouse mugs — and approved a song about a man's duelling desires to sleep with and/or burn a woman at the stake. This is a woman who has rejected him for a number of reasons, such as his general ickiness and the fact that he spends most of his time committing genocide.
There are two things that make this song, and its singer, so terrifying. First of all, Claude Frollo might be the first Disney villain who doesn't think he is one. Ursula doesn't really think she's helping Ariel find true love. Scar might think he is the better ruler of the pack, but he knows he's doing the whole fratricide thing for his own gain. But, eerily, Frollo sings (to the Virgin Mary, NBD), "You know I am a righteous man, of my virtue I am justly proud." He truly believes all he does, from the murder of innocent people to the psychological torture of the man he would have murdered as an infant, is the right thing to do. He thinks he's the good guy.
Another line that makes Frollo such a scary yet familiar figure comes later in the song: "Choose me or your pyre, be mine or you will burn." He breaks down his perspective clearly — Esmerelda is a seductress who has him thinking sinful thoughts, and the only solution is for him to make her his girlfriend or kill her. It should be a sentiment as absent in the real world as flying carpets and mermaids, but unfortunately the "date me or I'll kill you" ultimatum is something that turns up in real-life news stories again and again.
Frollo meets the same fate as Gaston and Clayton — an epic death fall. But his time on screen serves as an important lesson — beware of "righteous men" whose actions are anything but.