Oh, Disney. You really bastardized the hell out of the source material for this film. But somehow, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale managed to make a terrific, beautiful movie.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is based (or inspired, as the sleeve from Netflix says) on the novel by Victor Hugo. But Disney went and simplified a lot of the plot lines, cut out characters, made the characters much nicer, changed Frollo to a judge instead of being the archdeacon, and kept Quasimodo and Esmeralda alive at the end because Disney doesn’t make a habit of killing off their heroes. Disney also went and added three talking gargoyles to the film (more on that later), which really does change the tone of the film and is significantly different from the novel.
In spite of these differences, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is quite possibly the darkest film Disney has ever made, right up there with The Black Cauldron. The film can be enjoyed by children; I loved it when I was little. But because of the content of the film, an adult can find a greater appreciation for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although the film is much lighter than the novel, it still deals with the concepts of religious hypocrisy, lust, murder, prejudice, justice and injustice, sin, Hell, and mob mentality. Oh, and the word “damnation” is used twice in a religious context. But the complexities of the film and the fact that the characters, except the gargoyles, actually have depth is what makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame a movie that still is good watching it 14 years after its release.
The film follows Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), who is the adopted of child of Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) after Frollo killed his mother outside of Notre Dame and does it as a penitence. Quasimodo lives in the bell tower, where he rings the bells everyday, and has conversations with his gargoyle friends Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander), and Laverne (Mary Wickes), who might be a part of his imagination, but aid him in a climactic battle, so this is debatable. Quasimodo yearns to ventures outside of the bell tower, even though Frollo forbids him from leaving because, in his mind, the safest place is the cathedral. Meanwhile, out in the streets of Paris, Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) is returning to become captain of the guard for Frollo. He comes across the gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore) and is instantly taken with her.
When Quasimodo ventures down to the Festival of Fools, he is crowned the King of Fools for having the ugliest face in Paris, but Frollo is in attendance. Frollo’s guards then throw vegetables at Quasimodo, who is publicly humiliated while Frollo does nothing, before Esmeralda rescues him and calls Frollo out on his actions. For defying Frollo, running away, and performing some illusions, she is a fugitive and seeks sanctuary in the cathedral. Her and Phoebus fight before bonding, Frollo comes on strongly to her, and she gets to speak to Quasimodo and know him better. He helps her escape and he admits that he’s smitten with her. Meanwhile, Frollo sings about how he’s lusting for Esmeralda, knows that it’s wrong and a sin, blames it on Esmeralda’s “witchcraft,” and vows that “She will be mine, or she will burn.” This then causes Frollo to go on a hunt for Esmeralda, where he burns down the house of an innocent family while they are inside. Phoebus goes into the burning house, saves the family, and is deemed a criminal for defying Frollo’s orders. Phoebus is shot with an arrow, but Esmeralda saves him. Quasimodo helps the two and realizes their feelings for each other, but still helps Phoebus try to save Esmeralda and the gypsies, but Frollo is a step ahead of them and decides to burn Esmeralda at the stake in front of the cathedral.
The film is undeniably dark and while Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz wrote a rather unremarkable score for Pocahontas, the Gothic score of Hunchback of Notre Dame managed to send chills down my spine with the Latin chants set to the score. While Pocahontas has a, at best, hummable score and songs, the songs and score of this film sticks in your head, even with the lesser songs, “A Guy Like You” and “God Help the Outcasts.” And in the case of “God Help the Outcasts,” it feels more like a very lovely song in the film, but does ask, from Esmeralda, “I thought we all were the children of God.” In the film, we are presented with two characters that are outcasts from society because of their ethnicity and appearances, but are kind, good people as opposed to the self-righteous, God-fearing Frollo.
One of the finest numbers in the film is “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire,” which has a light, reflective number for Quasimodo, singing about the joy of the kindness that Esmeralda has shown him. It climaxes to jingling bells, a motif first heard in the opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame.” Then there are the chants of monks and the archdeacon in the cathedral, and we’re at the Palace of Justice where Frollo is praying about his lustful feelings for Esmeralda. As the song progresses, the orchestration becomes more complex and darker. In the film, as he prays, we see the figure of Esmeralda in the flames of his fireplace. Then, the red figures of monks appear around him as he becomes agitated and explains that it is not his fault that he feels this way and the chorus sings, “Mea culpa/Mea Culpa/Mea Maxima Culpa.” It is an incredibly dark sequence that ranks up there with “Night on Bald Mountain” in Fantasia and “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster. The song bares the emotions of Frollo showing his instability as a character, desire to have everything, be in control, and still be viewed to himself as a pious man. After all, he is praying to the Virgin Mary during this number.
Frollo is also, quite possibly, the most terrifying villain I can think of that comes from any animated film released in the 1990’s. His kindness only seems to be done to serve himself, such as him taking Quasimodo in as an infant being done to make up for him killing Quasimodo’s mother outside of the cathedral. He has a narrow face, wears dark clothing, and has twisted facial expressions that are reminiscent of the evil stepmother in Cinderella and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. And although a child or a teenager might not get the concept of lust versus love, the film makes it very clear that Frollo does not love Esmeralda, while Phoebus and Quasimodo do. The simplest way of showing this is that Phoebus and Quasimodo are willing to risk their lives to save Esmeralda’s, while Frollo has the attitude that if he can’t have her, no one can.
And while Shan-Yu and the Hun army burns a village down and kill several Imperial troops in Mulan, Frollo singlehandedly kills an innocent mother he suspects of stealing, almost kills a child because he believes that it is a demon, and locks a family in their house while setting it on fire.
Even with the deviations from the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame could have been a perfect example of animation being used to make a film decidedly not for children. But then there’s the element that makes the film kid-friendly: the gargoyles. In this film, they serve as the Cute Little Animal Characters instead of Djali, Esmeralda’s goat, because he really is there to do goat stuff. The gargoyles make jokes and have anachronistic remarks. They have the song that feels the most out of place on the soundtrack, “A Guy Like You.” It seems as though they only exist in the mind of Quasimodo, like Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes, but we see them fighting off the guards when they are attacking Notre Dame. (Although this might still be them serving a Hobbes-like role.) The scenes with them aren’t really that special and they actually seem to bring the film down. But without the characters of the gargoyles, the film would have been much darker than it is and probably would have received a PG rating.*
At the beginning of the film, Clopin, who sets up the story for us, asks “Who is the monster and who is the man?” While Pocahontas asks us what makes someone a savage in a horribly preachy way, The Hunchback of Notre Dame explores this question by simply telling the story. The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t quite reach its potential by trying to still be a “children’s movie,” the film is still worth a watch because of its complexity, darkness, and beauty.
*I spent a good portion of time trying to figure out how Hunchback of Notre Dame managed to not get a PG rating.