For a less talked about Disney movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, was actually a decent success when the film was released in 1996. It was the fifth highest grossing film that year. Does this Disney Renaissance movie still hold up today?
What better place to start than talking about the Hunchback from the Paris cathedral itself? Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is gentle, kind, and has so much heart. There isn’t a more sensitive male Disney character out there; I’m sure. He’s also, unfortunately, all too familiar with unrequited love. As he so cleverly states, “She already has her knight in shining armor and it’s not me.” But does that stop our hero from saving the day? Not a chance. I learned a lot from Quasi growing up. Not the obvious lesson about ‘not judging people by their appearances’ but rather about finding the strength to chose right over wrong—even if it means disobeying those you respect. To Quasi, this means disobeying his master Frollo.
Frollo—voiced by Tony Jay who also lent his voice to Monsieur D’Arque in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast—is one of Disney’s best and creepiest villains during this Renaissance period. The power he has over the people combined with his gravelly commanding voice is chilling. He’s not two-dimensional either. He’s not after gold or power. He’s actually battling with himself. He loves Esmerelda (‘lusts’ would be a more appropriate word) and doesn’t know how to deal with this desire. It is this struggle that makes him complex and interesting.
The romance between Phoebus (Kevin Kline) and Esmerelda (Demi Moore) is a little lacking at times. It’s probably why you never see them on any ‘Best Disney Couples’ list. On their own, however, they’re great characters. It’s admirable how Phoebus turns his back on his cushy job as Captain of the Guard to do the right thing, and Esmerelda’s sassy maturity is a refreshing change from the more demure previous Disney heroines.
The story is very loosely based on the Vicar Hugo novel of the same name. There are small elements that are similar, namely the character’s motivations like Quasi’s love for Esmerelda and Frollo’s battle with temptation. It’s notable to point out that Quasimodo doesn’t mean ‘half-form’ at all but was named in the novel because he was found by Frollo on Quasimodo day (the first Sunday after Easter). You know when you go into the film that it’s not going to be a faithful retelling when you see ‘Disney’ above the title. What we get instead is a simplified story but with all the complexities of the characters.
Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz return for their second collaboration for Disney after Pocahontas, and it doesn’t disappoint. While “A Guy Like You” and “Court of Miracles” aren’t really classics, songs like “The Bells of Notre Dame” and “Hellfire” more than make up for it. “The Bells of Notre Dame” is the brazen opening song, complete with Latin chants, to get us right into the story. Originally the opening scene had only dialogue but the inclusion of a song gives the movie so much more power. While this song was added, “Hellfire” was actually close to being cut for being too dark and inappropriate. To have a musical number with lyrics like “He made the Devil so much stronger than a man” is certainly a step in a darker direction for the studio. It’s hard not to love it though. I don’t think I’ve seen a song as powerful since the musical Les Miserables (which also happens to also be based on a Victor Hugo novel). Everything ties together perfectly in this musical number: the animation, the cloaked figures, the fire, and the creepy desire from our villain Frollo. What’s not to love?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, like Pocahontas, has to balance the child-friendly fun with the darker themes of the story. I happen to love the darker themes of lust, sin, judgment, and prejudice. There are many more themes; I’m sure. Though I do like the darker sides of the story as an adult, as a kid all I wanted was the fun that came with a Disney movie. This is where the gargoyles come in. Love them or hate them, they do seem to appeal to kids. In fact, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the first movie I remember seeing at the cinema. I remember bouncing up and down in my seat and laughing when the gargoyles attacked the guards. I remember whispering over to my mother, “They always do this at the end”, as if I knew Disney’s game.
The animation in this film feels epic and grand too. Take a look at the screencaps below. They’re worthy of any art gallery.
However, I need to borrow a line from The Sword in the Stone, “with every high there is a low.” While the animation is certainly impressive and the ability to create such large crowds this early in animation is commendable, if you pay attention to the crowd in the background, you notice they move in a stiff repetitive manner. It’s not the best blended CG, and their eyes appear a little dead.
This is such a minor problem that doesn’t really take anything away from the overall beauty of the movie.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that this movie is an acquired taste, but you do have to prepare yourself for a Disney movie that has a slight shift in tone. For me, there’s too much to love to deny it a place in the Disney Renaissance period, even if it does have a song about Hellfire.
What do you think about The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Is it one of your favorite Disney movies?
MJ is a writing and film graduate who loves to relax with scented candles and herbal teas. She is a dog-walker by day and a pie-maker by night. She loves movies starring Christopher Reeve and her favorite animated film is Meet the Robinsons. MJ also loves anything that LAIKA and Tim Burton come out with.