Frollo, my favourite Tony Jay villain
In 1938, Tony Jay's parents treated him to a matinee of Walt Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, on London's West End. Like any other 5-year-old confronted by the cackling wicked witch, he had nightmares for years afterward.
Almost six decades later, the veteran English actor has recovered sufficiently to play a Disney villain with enough suave menace to send that witch packing on her broomstick. By giving voice to Frollo, the tormented magistrate of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jay does more than add a portrait to the rogues' gallery that stretches from Snow White's witch and Monstro in Pinocchio to Scar in The Lion King, Jafar in Aladdin and Sykes from Oliver & Company. He creates perhaps the most psychologically complex villain in Disney animation.
``I wanted to make as much as possible of Frollo's frailties and all the weakness that comes out of him,'' explained Jay from the Disney lot in Burbank last week. ``He's human, like the rest of us. But he just lets his feelings get out of control.''
Disney's 34th animated feature, which opens on Friday, could be tough stuff for tots. In seeking to appeal to a broader audience, Hunchback codirectors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise have created an unusually dark work that revolves around a deeply conflicted villain with realistic behavior and impulses.
Their conscious rejection of the outlandish cartoon nemesis will undoubtedly rekindle a long-running debate about the studio's extensive roster of villains.
Ever since the queen turned into a witch, slipped Snow White a poisoned apple, and began the era of feature animation at Disney, the question has always been where to draw the line. How much is too much? How far should the villain go in scaring kids?
Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is very freely adapted from Victor Hugo's classic 1831 novel. Hugo's glum fatalism gives way to a happy ending, but the action is still propelled by Frollo, who is very much the knave in the cathedral.
The story is set in 15th-century Paris. Frollo is the reluctant surrogate father of a deformed baby who grows up to be the outcast hunchback bell ringer Quasimodo. The plot rests on an eternal rectangle and the three men who love the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda - Quasimodo; Phoebus, a handsome soldier; and the all-powerful Frollo. The magistrate's unrequited desire for Esmeralda - who befriends Quasimodo and visits him in the bell tower of Notre Dame - drives him to deeds of escalating nastiness.
``Frollo is different from the other villains [in recent Disney films],'' conceded Trousdale, who teamed with Wise on the hit Beauty and the Beast. ``He's very righteous and moralistic, but he's falling apart at the center. Other villains, like Scar, know they're evil, and they revel in it. Frollo is convinced that he's the hero. He believes he is eradicating evil and that the end justifies the means.''
``The other significant difference,'' Wise said, ``is that he has a different motivation. Frollo already has wealth, power, and a high position. He doesn't act out of greed or revenge. He's on a moral crusade, but he falls in love with Esmeralda so he ends up loving what he professed to hate.''
Frollo's nature is partly dictated by Hugo's novel and partly by the directors' desire to make a more challenging film.
``We wanted to push the boundaries with something more mature and psychological,'' Trousdale said. ``I really believe that children can handle a lot. The dark parts of the film are all right for them as long as they know there is light at the other end. They see that evil can be defeated, and they emerge unscathed.''
Leonard Maltin, the critic and film scholar whose books include the authoritative The Disney Films, calls The Hunchback of Note Dame ``the darkest film Disney has ever done. Disney has made other dark films with dastardly villains, but Frollo is in a class by himself.''
``There is real evil. In most recent Disney films, we've had villains who were more comic opera like Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Frollo is scarier and more understandable.''
``I think children are equipped to deal with what some see as the `heavier' issues in life at their own level,'' argued Peter Schnieder, president of Disney's feature animation division. ``That's the reason these films become classic.''
It's certainly true that, in the Disney animation renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989, good villains have made for good pictures. Kids cheered the plucky Simba in The Lion King, but the character they remember is that ultimate bad cat, Scar. Simba's malevolent uncle was voiced by Jeremy Irons, who used a sardonic, aristocratic drawl similar to the one that earned him an Oscar for playing Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune.
Jay, 63, who springs from the same classical British stage tradition as Irons, can turn even the most inconsequential phrase into something ominous. He is looking forward to taking his 7-year-old son to see Hunchback.
``He's going to be scared, but that's a strong element in the story we're telling. Disney needs to risk a little horror,'' said Jay.
``My feeling is that you can't shield children from the hard realities and the harsher aspects of life. They're going to find out anyway. Why not introduce them to it in a painless way? If you want to shelter your children, you wouldn't take them to anything. Besides, they know a lot more than I did at their age. They're not as shockable today.''
Henry Berger, a child psychiatrist with a practice in Center City and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said parents could ask for no better guidance than in the wise pages of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. In his landmark book, the late psychologist argues that fairy tales are therapeutic for children.
``Villains and monsters and frightening kinds of fantasies serve a number of roles, and they are fine so long as they're not overdone,'' Berger said. ``Kids use these kinds of things in fantasies to work through their own developmental fears. Those fears can be of scary people or situations in their lives or their own internal fears.''
Berger, who recalls being mighty upset as a kid over the death of Bambi's mother, noted that ``in general, a cartoon character or cartoonish villain is easier for a child to take. A young child has a tough time differentiating between reality and fantasy. For kids, fantasy is not entertainment. They're working through their fears and concerns. Work and play are very close for them.''
With its sinuous, succulent upscale Brit vowels, Jay's voice recalls both Irons' as Scar and the elegant haughtiness that George Sanders brought to Shere Khan, the terrible tiger in The Jungle Book. Even with his experience in live-action films, theater and innumerable narrations for commercials and TV cartoons including ReBoot and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jay finds that acting with the voice alone poses a considerable challenge.
It is very difficult, he pointed out, to strike just the right note - and very important. ``We worked very hard,'' Jay said. ``You want Frollo to be a thinking villain, not a mindless villain. You always want to convey that he has reason and a clear motive for what he does and is destroyed by a very common sin we can all understand: lust.''
Although their readings are similar, Jay said that the difference between his work and Irons' is that ``Scar is a lighter and more comic villain. With Frollo, this is serious stuff.''
It is that realism, said Maltin, that distinguishes Frollo from his more infamous predecessors.
``You don't have all the exaggerations of a villainess like Cruella De Vil,'' said Maltin, referring to 101 Dalmatians' high-camp dognapper, to be played by Glenn Close in a live-action remake due out at Christmas. ``There's no comic leavening in Frollo, no twinkle in his eye. There's nothing redeeming about him, nothing larger than life for the sake of entertainment.
``In that sense he goes all the way back to the witch in Snow White. But then, it's the nature of the story they're telling,'' commented Maltin, who said he'll be fascinated to see how his 10-year-old daughter reacts to the character.
For his part, Jay looks forward to a more long-term bonus. The shelf life of Disney animated classics virtually guarantees immortality to the actors who do the voices.
``I like to think that when my son has children of his own, he can take them to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and they can watch what their old granddad did in his lifetime,'' Jay said, chuckling. ``It's a very rewarding thought.''