The Hunchback of Notre Dame

‘It’s not my fault, if in God’s plan, he made the Devil so much stronger than a man’ – Frollo


If you have read my review of The Black Cauldron, you may have noticed that I did not give the film a warm reception.  The one thing it did have on its side was that it strayed from the traditional Disney movies by taking on a much darker subject matter.  Another film which is considered to be one of Disney’s ‘darker’ efforts is The Hunchback of Notre Dame which was released in 1996.

The film is based, albeit loosely, on the novel by Victor Hugo which was published in 1831, and is centred on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  It took Hugo six months to write the 200,000 word epic, and he apparently did it with only one bottle of ink!  The Disney team who were working on the film spent a lot of time in and around Notre Dame, exploring it and taking notes to get a feel of what it was like to be there.

At the start of the film we are introduced to Clopin, a jester who is telling the story of Quasimodo to a group of children.  He actually sings the story, as the folks at Disney thought that it would be a nicer introduction to the film rather than having him dryly tell the story.  He tells of how Judge Claude Frollo mistakenly snatched Quasimodo as a baby from his mother’s arms, causing her to fall down dead after hitting her head on the steps of Notre Dame.  The Archdeacon tells Frollo to look after the baby as his own, since he had killed its mother.  After glancing at the baby and seeing it is deformed, Frollo decides to name him ‘Quasimodo’ which means half-formed, and takes him to live in the bell tower, causing the people of the city to know him only as ‘the bell ringer of Notre Dame’.  The story then skips ahead 20 years, where we are introduced to adult Quasimodo.  The audience begins to see what the relationship between Quasi and Frollo is like, with Quasi referring to Frollo as ‘master’, and obeying his every word.   Frollo is determined for Quasimodo to stay up in the bell tower, as he is embarrassed by his hideous form.  In the bell tower we are also introduced to Quasimodo’s ‘friends’, three gargoyles name Victor, Hugo and Laverne.  It is debatable whether these gargoyles really do come to life and speak with Quasi, or if they are simply brought to life by his lonely imagination.  The latter is most likely, as he is the only one in the film who interacts with them properly.We soon find out about Frollo’s strong loathing of the gypsy people who live in the city when he summons Captain Phoebus from the wars to help him drive them out.  As Phoebus arrives, we are also introduced to the leading lady of the story, Esmeralda, who happens to be a gypsy, and her goat (who plays a small part in the film) called Djali.  Esmeralda is a strong-minded woman, with a kind heart, and speaks up for her people as well as Quasimodo.  Phoebus is also a strong character, who does not particularly agree with Frollo’s hatred towards the gypsies, especially after meeting Esmeralda.

Quasimodo longs for freedom, to be allowed out of the bell tower for just one day, and with a little encouragement from the gargoyles he escapes Notre Dame and attends the Feast of Fools for the first time.  The festival calls for the ‘ugliest face in Paris’, and Quasi ends up accidentally taking part and winning.  Realising that, unlike the other contenders, his face is not a mask; the crowd quickly turns on him, ties him down and start torturing him by throwing fruit at him and spinning him around.  Judge Frollo lets the cruelty continue, as a punishment for Quasi leaving the tower against his wishes.  Esmeralda intervenes and frees Quasi, only fuelling Frollo’s hatred of the gypsy people.

I won’t give the rest of the story away for those who have not yet seen it, however, be assured that it does not end the same way that the book does!

While many Victor Hugo fans are quick to mention that the story is simplified and edited a lot compared to the original novel, it has to be noted that in the original story most of the main characters die, and it is understandable that Disney avoided this dismal conclusion to the film in favour of a happy ending.  While it still remains a dark film compared to the likes of Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas for instance, it is still a family film and children love it just as much.

Quasimodo is not as misshapen as in previous adaptations of the story, with his features more rounded and less grotesque.  His hunger for freedom is told through the song ‘Out There’, and his vulnerability shown at the Feast of Fools.  He has strong feelings for Esmeralda, which are not returned in the same form, causing him to despair particularly when he sees her falling for Phoebus.  This same despair is also felt by Frollo when Esmeralda goes missing and cannot be found.  He becomes fixated with her, and Quasi becomes depressed by his lost love; the song ‘Heaven’s Light/Hellfire’ echoes the feelings of these two characters, and the contrast between innocent love and disturbing obsession.  The scene with Frollo singing ‘Hellfire’ is dark, as he stands in front of the fireplace seeing Esmeralda’s form in the flames, surrounded by gigantic faceless figures in hooded red cloaks.

‘Destroy Esmeralda/and let her taste the fires of hell/Or else let her be mine and mine alone’

 This part of the film was met with criticism from many concerned parents as well as religious bodies, (you know it caused a stir when it has its own Wikipedia page!) however, the scene is totally in-keeping with the story and does not, in my opinion, overstep the mark at all.  Frollo believes that what he is doing is right, when it is actually wrong, and his madness swiftly gets out of hand when he orders his men to burn the city to the ground in order to find Esmeralda.

The design of Frollo (Tony Jay) consists of many vertical lines, making him spindly and gothic, yet powerful, much like the architecture of Notre Dame.  This is in huge contrast to the styling of Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), obviously with a hunched back and much smaller than Frollo and consisting of horizontal lines, therefore being overpowered by his cruel master.  Esmeralda (Demi Moore) is sassy and tough due to her life on the streets, no Disney princess!  Her body language is similar to Megara from Hercules, with her no-nonsense hand-on-hip attitude, though she does not show as much vulnerability as Meg, and is very courageous.  Phoebus (Kevin Kline) is the good guy in a bad town, and as well as being an experienced soldier, he is smart and funny, and soon sees through Frollo.  Though his design may make him look gallant and suave, it can soon be seen that by standing up for what he believes in like Esmeralda, he becomes an outcast too.

The backgrounds are stunning, particularly of course, the ones depicting Notre Dame, which is essentially another character in the film.  For the CGI spotters amongst you, you will notice that the bells of Notre Dame are CG, as well as the gypsy caravan which runs into the river, the confetti at the Feast of Fools, and many other elements throughout the story.  For the people out there who like to spot other Disney references in Disney films, you can catch Belle from Beauty and the Beast walking through the street, as well as the Carpet from Aladdin and Pumbaa from The Lion King, all in the same scene!

The music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz are superb, and the songs seem very complex in relation to other Disney films, and of course a lot darker.  As well as deep songs like ‘Heaven’s Light/Hellfire’ and ‘God Help the Outcasts’, there is light relief with the songs ‘Topsy Turvy’ and ‘The Court of Miracles’ sung by Clopin.  The latter are bouncy and energetic, whereas the former are Disney’s darkest and more depressing.  Saying this, I believe it to be one of the best Disney soundtracks ever.

As for the DVD release which I am reviewing from, it could be better.  If you have read my Hercules review, you will remember me hoping for a 2-disc edition of the film.  The same goes here.  Where Pocahontas gets a jam-packed double disc edition DVD and a Musical Masterpiece edition, these two films are left with single disc editions, not containing many special features.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame DVD contains a History of Production, Early Presentation Reel, History of Notre Dame de Paris, Deleted Song ‘Someday’, CGI Demo, Multi-Language Reel and the traditional Disney game.  There are a fair few features there, with the best and most comedic being the CGI Demo, which is a demo of the CGI crowds which were generated for the film.  Highly entertaining!

What is notably missing from the DVD is some of the artwork from the film in a gallery form as seen on other Disney DVDs.  It would be nice to see some of the character and background designs, as they are beautiful.  These can also be seen in The Art of the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Stephen Rebello; if you get a chance to take a look at this book please do, there are some amazing drawings and paintings in it, particularly of Notre Dame.

To conclude, I believe that this film, like many others of its time, is overlooked too much.  However, if you watch it with a deeper knowledge of the story and as less of a cartoon, I believe that you will appreciate it a whole lot more.

I give this movie 4 Tinks.


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