If you were to ask me what the most theatrical Disney film that the studio ever produced would be, it would easily be a tie between “Beauty And The Beast” and “The Lion King“, with “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” following behind as a close second. Unlike most of the Disney renaissance films, which I had seen at least twice as a boy, I never knew “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” existed or that Disney had even adapted such a book until two years ago – that’s how good a job Disney has done distancing themselves from this movie. I learned about it when it kept cropping up on people’s personal lists of underrated / overlooked Disney films. I tracked it down on Netflix and I really enjoyed it. I also found myself wondering for the first time, how this Disney film didn’t get slapped with a PG rating. “Hunchback” has murder, attempted infanticide, child abuse, racism, lust and depravity, religious intolerance, genocide, Esmeralda’s pole dance. It certainly counts as one of Disney’s darker stories, along with “Pinocchio“. I think it can best be described as a modern tar and sugar film (the oldest Disney movies are sometimes referred to as tar and sugar films because of how often their tones veered between charming and disturbing) and this is actually a flaw with “Hunchback”.
The movie seems to have a hard time deciding whether it wants to be silly and childish or serious and dramatic, resulting in mood whiplash. There’s no reason why it can’t be both. Disney films have walked that line plenty of times in the past and usually done so well, but the problem with “Hunchback” is that it often tries to be both in the same scene. Quasimodo’s crude gargoyle friends are often blamed for this and while they hardly ever feel like they belong in this movie, I think they’re really only a symptom of the problem with the movie as a whole. The Festival of Fools sequence snaps back and forth between nihilistically bleak and cartoonishly silly within minutes (while attending a ludicrously audacious festival, Quasimodo is savagely torn into by a two-faced crowd out of nowhere in front of his abusive father figure, which is then followed by Esmeralda having a Looney Tunes style chase sequence complete with slapstick). The film comes surprisingly close to jumping the shark during “A Guy Like You”, a Vegas buddy comedy number that’s the definition of filler, since it adds nothing we don’t already know, and in a bit of bad judgment comes right at the despair point of the movie (people are probably dying and Quasi’s thinking about how much he really wants to get with Esmeralda). Basically, anytime something serious or dramatic happens in this movie, “Hunchback” feels weirdly compelled to undercut it with a gag, but it doesn’t understand that sometimes less humor is more.
Quasimodo is refreshingly different from your usual Disney renaissance protagonist, especially after Pocahontas was such a boring retread. Don’t get me wrong, Quasimodo’s character arc is still a coming-of-age story and he still has an “I Want” song laying out his life goals, but unlike Ariel, Belle and Simba, Quasi’s big dreams aren’t really that big. He’s spent his entire life hidden away with only stone gargoyles to keep him company (who may or may not be imaginary), being abused, neglected and lied to by his parental figure. He longs to make new friends, have fun and see what the city below him has to offer. In an inverse of the usual Disney renaissance formula, what Quasi wants, more than anything, is to live like a regular person, and he’s an incredibly sympathetic character. He’s also not that rebellious. He’ll help when he’s asked or when he’s needed, but for the most part, quiet Quasimodo wants to keep his head down and stay out of trouble (which actually ties into one of the themes of this movie, that there are times when you can’t keep your head down and you have to take a stand. Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Phoebus all have moments when they realize this, with Quasi’s being the most empowering). Quasimodo’s loyalty to Judge Frollo is whittled away throughout the movie, but it’s not until Frollo threatens the lives of the first friends he’s ever had, the first good thing he’s ever had besides the gargoyles, that Quasi renounces him entirely (and even then, he doesn’t let his old ass drop to his death when he has the chance). Cutting all ties with controlling, abusive parents isn’t ever easy, because insane or not, they are still your parents.
Quasimodo performs several daring acrobatic feats (which has become the norm for him, having to ring the church bells all by himself), and there’s an early scene where he lashes out at Phoebus over Esmeralda, which is the first hint that under his silky exterior lies nerves of steel. Sure enough, Quasimodo goes into full-on survival mode in the last act of the movie; at one point trying to burn his would-be killers to death in a cascade of molten slag. It’s awesome. Quasi’s secondary arc in the movie is learning to reject the lies Frollo told him since childhood – that his worth is determined wholly by his looks – learning to love himself and seek acceptance from others. Quasi becomes smitten with his first friend, the gypsy Esmeralda, because she was kind and understanding to him, but it quickly becomes clear his hopes of having a relationship with her won’t be happening. Not only does she have eyes for the soldier, Phoebus, but Quasi isn’t emotionally ready for a relationship yet. His incredibly low self-esteem leads him to put Esmeralda up on pedestal and think of her as a perfect woman, an image the real Esmeralda could never live up to and an imbalance between them that wouldn’t lead to a healthy relationship. After some heartbreak and a bout of bitterness about being the loser in the triangle, Quasi focuses on what makes Esmeralda happy and keeps her safe and does what’s right for her (Phoebus as well, eventually), behaving the way a true friend would and proving himself a much better man than Frollo (who behaves quite differently in a similar position). Quasi may remain single at the end of the film, but with Frollo finally dead and no longer in his way, he’s free to live, be a part of human society, make new relationships and maybe seek out new girls.
Esmeralda is an unexpected pleasure in this movie; she’s a Romani dancer and the character on which a lot of the movie’s plot pivots. Esme’s grown up on the streets of Paris with her pet goat Djali, so she’s a very feisty, hot-blooded, and street-smart young woman, but she can also be very kind and open-eared. She’s witnessed a lot of the oppression and discrimination her people suffer underneath Frollo’s authority, which greatly affects her view of the world and her treatment of others. There’s a captivating scene mid-movie where Esmeralda speaks to the Virgin Mary and questions both hypocrisy and religious intolerance, wondering how everyone could be God’s children except for the ones society deems are heathens and are damned just for existing. After trying to mend a colossal fuck-up and doing right by Quasimodo, Esmeralda finds herself becoming both a fugitive and a freedom fighter of sorts, and even though her life has just been changed forever, she can’t find herself regretting her decision. She’s not a fan of having a homicidal maniac obsessing over her, but when it seems her and her friends’ luck in outwitting him has run out, she resolutely spits in Frollo’s face and chooses to face death with as much dignity as she can muster, and I’ll be damned if I don’t respect that. Throughout the movie, Esmeralda has a growing attraction to Captain Phoebus, the only member of Frollo’s guard who seems to be a decent person, and he’s certainly enamored with her, though Phoebus’ occupation obviously presents a conflict of interest between them. After Phoebus officially ‘resigns’ and jumps in the same boat with her and Quasi, Esme seizes the opportunity and makes her move, and I really can’t say I blame her.
The blond-haired Phoebus and his role in this story is interesting to think about because his character is more of an archetypal hero than Quasimodo and Esmeralda – the handsome, knight-in-shining armor who fights in wars and charms the womenfolk. It’s easy to see how he would be the hero of a different story (since he shares many of the same qualities as the archetypal Disney prince), but “Hunchback” gives him an interesting edge and more room to grow by making him the tritagonist of this movie and having him play on the wrong side for most of it, having to work his way around being the token good soldier and questioning his values. Phoebus is initially called in to replace Frollo’s last captain of the guard, and is assigned to keep order in Paris. He quickly discovers this means enforcing a theocracy and rounding up innocent people to be imprisoned / murdered. Since Phoebus is neither racist nor insane, this obviously perturbs him, but as a soldier he’s been trained for years to follow orders. Phoebus’ crush on the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, complicates thing further. It’s a testament to what sort of person Phoebus is and how deranged Frollo is that this abusive situation only lasts for two days before Phoebus jumps ship and throws his lot in with the gypsies. He also finds himself becoming one-third of a love triangle with Esmeralda and Quasimodo. The hilariously awkward tension that persists between Quasimodo and Phoebus in the last act (which Phoebus does try to assuage by being nice to Quasi, even when he knows he doesn’t like him) will make you wish Esmeralda’s boys had shared more scenes sooner. They really come off as two guys who would never hang out if they didn’t have a mutual acquaintance, and it’s kind of cute seeing them eventually move past this stage.
The film’s antagonist, Judge Claude Frollo, is seriously creepy. Not just because of what we see in the film, but because of all the implications surrounding him. For one thing, Frollo hunts down gypsies so he can kill them, and he’s been doing this for at least twenty years. He’s been actively attempting genocide off-screen for decades, and his body count has to be massive. For another thing, Quasimodo is absolutely terrified of crossing him or even pissing him off and the film implies he has every reason to be. We know Frollo emotionally abuses Quasi – we see him callously manipulate the boy into wasting away years of his life just to protect his own image – but considering their body language and the way Frollo explodes at him later it’s not hard to imagine Quasi was badly beaten and physically abused as well, several times growing up. Like Scar from “The Lion King”, Frollo is the type of evil that can actually exist in the real world: the delusional, hateful religious zealot who holds others to higher standards than they hold themselves. In the past, people like Frollo would have been authoritarians, leading witch hunts. In the present day, they’re the sort of people who claim to be wise, loving theists while also harassing people and parading around with signs saying AIDs is God’s gift to gay men. They give whatever religion they belong to a bad name. Frollo in particular despises gypsies because he believes them all to be witches and heathens, but his quest to rid his city of them is complicated when he develops an obsessive lust for the gypsy, Esmeralda.
The film’s signature song, “Hellfire”, explores Frollo’s inner conflict when he himself falls from grace, and it’s truly a unique villain song. Before now, we’ve seen Disney villains manipulate others (“Poor Unfortunate Souls”), boast about their abilities (“Gaston”) and lay down their life goals (“Be Prepared”), but “Hellfire” is the first song to really give us a glimpse at how a Disney villain thinks; and as you would expect from someone who’s already been characterized as a tyrannical, child-abusing mass-murderer, Frollo’s mind-space is nine different flavors of crazy. He knows by his own twisted standards he himself is now a lowly sinner, but instead of taking responsibility for that he doubles down; he lashes out at Esmeralda, at the devil, at God himself – he twists things in his favor as he always does. What makes it even more fascinating to watch is that Frollo is not entirely delusional. He knows, somewhere, that he’s lying to himself, that this path probably won’t end well, but he’s lost the will to care. Up until now, Frollo’s been written as a monster who’s just barely been kept in check by his ‘principles’ and his fear of God, but now not even that is enough. Frollo is going to get what he wants out of this situation, whatever the consequences may be. By the end of the film, he’s grown so self-centered that he starts to think of himself as being above God himself.
Frollo also shows himself to be quite crafty. He’s prone to doing unexpectedly sneaky things like breaking away from his posse to threaten Esmeralda in private or using Quasimodo’s good intentions to track her down, which helps to keep the film feeling fresh and unpredictable. I ultimately love Frollo’s death scene. Throughout the film, it’s left frustratingly vague whether Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends are actual real creatures (reviving the idea proposed in “The Bells of Notre Dame” that the cathedral might be sentient) or if they’re simply figments of his imagination the boy crafted so he wouldn’t go insane from isolation. That ambiguity returns for one last parallel between himself and Frollo. Just as Frollo is about to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda a gargoyle he previously damaged gives way, and before the man can drop several stories to his death the gargoyle roars at him. Considering Frollo has already been well-established as delusional, it’s entirely up to the audience’s interpretation whether this is one last hallucination of his, or if God finally grew tired of Frollo and took his advice at the time (“And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!”) to prevent him from killing more people in his place of worship. I tend to think it’s the latter.
The animation in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is incredibly well-done and exceeds many of the expectations you might have already had about the movie considering the period it was produced in. Most of the action in the film is set inside or around a cathedral, and the furthest we ever stray from Notre Dame is some dark catacombs, but the film never feels like less of a grand adventure because the scale that’s lent to Notre Dame and all its faucets as a location is simply awe-inspiring. Disney has also got their pan-in shots down pat at this point, with the opening tour of Paris feeling like less of a trip through a pop-up book than some equivalent shots in prior Disney movies did. With that much having been said, the animation is rougher than usual here for a renaissance film, and there is some noticeable CG, though nothing as distracting as the CG work in “Aladdin” and “Tarzan”.
While “Hunchback” as a film never broke out, the individual songs managed to become classics. The rousing build-up in “The Bells of Notre Dame”, which frames the film’s premise as a fable, is positively riveting, especially when Clopin starts hitting all the high notes in the song’s climax. “Out There” is a serious contender for the best “I Want” song from the Disney renaissance, and this is coming from someone who adores “Part Of Your World”. Tim Hulce sings it with the sort of passion you only get from spending twenty years being mistreated by a madman and longing to be free. While the visuals in “Topsy-Turvy” are very surreal and immature, the song itself is pretty strong with lots of gusto. “God Help The Outcasts” is simply beautiful, and noticeably softer-spoken than any of the other songs in the movie. I think my favorite section is the bridge, when Esmeralda’s selfless pleas are juxtaposed with a congregation of devout Catholics praying to God for glory, wealth and fame (between this and the public humiliation scene, the Parisians in this movie are not painted in a good light, are they?). “Heaven’s Light / Hellfire” is the film’s iconic centerpiece, where the two ends of the Madonna-Whote complex are contrasted against each other. Quasimodo’s tender hymn versus Claude Frollo’s thundering choir. The beginnings of what could easily become an obsession pit against an obsession that already’s well underway and burns hotly and wholeheartedly. Despite being one of the low points of the movie, “A Guy Like You” actually isn’t a terrible song and Jason Alexander has more vocal talent than I expected from him, but it really doesn’t belong in this movie. “The Court Of Miracles” is the only song that I would say is forgettable, since it’s very short, though it does add to Clopin’s character by making him more morally murky.
Alan Menken has slowly become my favorite of Disney’s many composers. Ever since “The Little Mermaid“, I’ve appreciated how lush his scores are and how easily he’s able to weave a movie’s songs into the score. “Hunchback” has this in spades. When Tony Jay belts out “Hellfire’s” last chorus and his vocals blend together with the film’s bombastic main theme, it’s pure aural bliss. The score also mines “Hunchback’s” catholic background, utilizing seldom-used instruments like an organ, and layering several of the cues with a frenetic choir chanting in Latin.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is quite the adventure and one I’m glad I discovered. It’s a shame there’s more cringe in this movie than there ought to be, since it would have been an even stronger film and gained more recognition if it had smoothed out it’s tone, but as it is it’s definitely one of the highlights from the latter half of the Disney renaissance, alongside “Mulan“.
* Disney Wiki tells me this gypsy is Quasimodo’s father. Upon rewatch, I definitely pick up on the implication, but if flew over my head the first time around because ‘Shut it up, will you?!’ isn’t something fathers often say about their newborn kids.
* “Who is the monster and who is the man?!” Well Clopin, so far Frollo has killed some lady, tried to drown her kid and gave said kid a cruel name, while Quasimodo has done nothing except almost die. I think the kids might already have some good guesses.
* You know how I said the gargoyles often feel like they don’t belong in this movie? It’s mostly because of Jason Alexander. Every time he speaks, I wonder why there’s a George Constanza gargoyle in this film.
* “Just one day and then, I swear I’ll be content with my share! Won’t resent, won’t despair! Old and bent, I won’t care! I’ll have spent one day out there!”
* “Look at that disgusting display!” “Yes sir!”
* You know, in one draft of “The Lion King” Scar was meant to lust for Nala. I’m glad this was dropped, because between Gaston creeping on Belle, Jafar creeping on Jasmine, and Frollo creeping on Esmeralda, there’s already enough villainous lust in the Disney renaissance.
* “You sneaky son of a-” “Ah, ah, ah! We’re in a
church kid’s movie!”
* “I’m Phoebus. It means ‘sun god'” Why would she care about that, man?
* “I thought if just one person would stand up to him!” Sorry Esme, in stories like these no one ever cares about the mistreated outcasts until they’re in trouble and said outcasts’ unique abilities become useful to saving their assess. See also “Balto” and “Rudolph and the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.
* “I ask for wealth, I ask for fame, I ask for glory to shine on my name! I ask for love I can possess! I ask for God and his angels to bless me!”
* “Hellfire, dark fire, now gypsy it’s your turn! Choose me or your pyre! Be mine or you will burn! God have mercy on her. God have mercy on me! But she will be mine or she will BURRRNNNN!!!”
* I always laugh when Frollo hisses “Get out, you idiot!” at that guard, but not as much I do when he dramatically flops down to his knees on the floor. That was quite the performance he threw for himself.
* The gargoyles do have one genuinely funny moment: when they try to keep cool around Quasimodo, the British gargoyle (Victor) fails epically and dissolves into a sobbing mess.
* “That arrow almost pierced your heart” “I’m not so sure it didn’t” Despite that earlier sun god flub, Phoebus can be smooth, man.
* Quasimodo kicks Phoebus twice to hide him from Frollo, and since he’s already jealous about Esmeralda, I doubt he had any regrets.
* “What am I supposed to do? Go out there and rescue the girl from the jaws of death, and the whole town will cheer like I’m some sort of hero?” Pretty much.
* “Great, great, good! Um, what is it?”
* “Sorry” “No you’re not”.
* “Frollo, I will not tolerate this assault on the house of God!” “Silence you old fool!” You’re not that young yourself, Frollo.
* I have to say, I’m impressed. Considering Phoebus was shot the day before, and Esmeralda was literally burnt at the stake twenty minutes ago, they both manage to hold onto Quasi and keep him alive in the climax. Good job, you two!
* Those church steps look awfully clean at the end. Shouldn’t Frollo’s corpse and a whole lot of molten slag still be out there?
* “Sing the bells, bells, bells, bells! Whatever their pitch you can hear them bewitch you, the rich and the ritual knells, of the bells of Notre Dame!!!”
* Nostalgia Critic; The Animation Commendation; The Animation Commendation (2); Animatedkid; Katejohns619; Katejohns619 (2); Silver Petticoat; Taestful Reviews; Taestful Reviews (2); A Year Of A Million Disney Dreams; A Year Of A Million Disney Dreams (2); Tor; Author Quest; Roger Ebert; Jaysen Headley Writes; Disney In Your Day; A113 Animation; All The Disney Movies; A Year With Walt; Healed1337; Coco Hits NY; From The Perspective Of An Old Soul; Magical Movie Review; Manju Reijimer; The Disney Project; Richard’s Weekly Journal; Simbasible; Rhyme And Reason; Life In Review; Movie Micah; Film Junkie Confessions; Man With A Blog; B Plus Movie Blog; The Gunn Range; Movie-Movie Blog-Blog; Domestic Sanity; Variety;
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