60 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
As we have a) returned to Disney and b) come to the first film in the Disney Renaissance, I feel as if I need to explain the backstory yet again. Well, there’s a different bit of backstory. Disney had been riding on a collective high with the four dynamic hits that were The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Even the flop of The Rescuers Down Under in 1990 couldn’t derail their momentum. Although the little kids probably didn’t realise it, Disney were finally dislodged from their pedestal with Pocahontas. While the rest of the films released in the 90s did well, they never quite enjoyed a mega-hit like those of the ‘Fearsome Foursome’ until Tangled was released. But of course, that doesn’t mean the films released in between didn’t have any merit at all. This one in particular I remember not liking as much when I was younger. But around the time I turned fourteen, I rediscovered it – and realised it was one of the most underrated Disney films in existence. You’d be shocked that this is the only Disney film to get a Razzie Award – because from my experience, defenders of this movie outnumber the critics.
As a brief bit of background info, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 19th century novel by French author Victor Hugo. It’s probably his second most famous work, after Les Miserables. It’s not quite as dark and heavy as that, but it’s still quite bleak. The titular character is a deaf, half-blind, deformed hunchback who was abandoned as a baby by his mother. He was raised in the eponymous cathedral as the bell ringer, and as the pawn to the Archdeacon Claude Frollo. Despite the book being named after him, the main protagonist is actually a gypsy girl called Esmerelda. The poor unsuspecting thing is just minding her own business one day when Frollo catches sight and has a reaction that’s not at all appropriate to describe. It’s a rather dark story that involves murder, suicide, prostitution, child snatching and more murder. Sounds perfect for a Disney film, eh?
The movie opens with a truly epic tracking shot – animated but still – through the clouds to Paris in the 14th century. We also go straight to our first musical number, “The Bells of Notre Dame”. The prologue was originally just going to be a simple narration, but they quickly realised how dull that would have been. It might be just me, but I think that the song itself is what helps the opening be so chilling. This is a very dark and bleak introduction for a Disney movie – and it lets the audience know right away that this is not going to be what people would usually expect from Disney. Clopin’s line “it is a tale of a man and a monster” never fails to make me shiver. The tale takes us to a dark night where three gypsies are trying to sneak into Paris. They’re unfortunately busted by…
Claude Frollo is changed from an Archdeacon to a judge, because the filmmakers felt it actually made him more sinister – since now he’d actually be in control of the city. It should be noted that Frollo was actually a bit more of an anti-villain in the book. He did have a sympathetic side – and actually raised Quasimodo of his own free will. It’s strongly implied that he was just a scared, lonely man who was driven to madness by isolation – and being forced to take care of his spoiled little brother Jehan. Of course he’s still a rapist and a pseudo murderer – but you do feel some sympathy for him. Here in the movie, he’s far more malevolent. Although a lot of the ambiguity is removed to make him a more straightforward villain, it still works because he is fucking terrifying.
Frollo chases one of the gypsies – a woman – because he believes she has stolen goods. He chases her to the steps of Notre Dame cathedral, snatches the bundle away from her and kicks her to the ground – killing her instantly. In my youthful ignorance, I somehow thought this woman was also Esmerelda when I first saw the movie. And in Frollo’s elderly ignorance, he didn’t realise the bundle was actually a baby. The child is born deformed, so he considers dropping it down the well. But the Archdeacon now finally answers the door and intervenes. He appeals to the one area where Frollo is vulnerable.
Yes, his faith. Even in the book, Frollo is devoutly religious (he’d have to be as an Archdeacon). He heavily believes in fate too, and his main Achilles Heel is that he will not mess around with the workings of fate. The Archdeacon persuades him to raise the baby in the cathedral. The boy grows up named Quasimodo and is given the job as the bell ringer. The prologue goes from eerie to epic with the final line in the song – and that amazing high note.
Quasimodo is now grown up, and we see that he’s become a good person – judging from the establishing character moment of helping a baby bird fly for the first time. He does however look like he has a few ‘roos loose in the roost – as he talks regularly to the gargoyles. The directors of the movie have flip-flopped repeatedly about whether these guys are actually real or just Quasi’s imagination – so it’s really up to all of you.
My opinion of the gargoyles is constantly changing. Naturally I loved them when I was a child. As a teenager, I hated them. I still can’t decide whether they fit in the movie or not. On the one hand, they’re sort of strictly formula – there because all the Renaissance movies had comedy sidekicks. But the film has a very dark tone, despite being for kids. It’s like how Jurassic Park is acceptable for children, but it doesn’t pander to them. So do these guys fit in with the dark tone of the movie or do they disrupt it? A good example of a recent film that tried to do both dark and silly at the same time is the disaster that is Pan. The gargoyle scenes are thankfully not that bad.
Helped by NOT featuring stuff like this.
The counter argument is that the gargoyles are actually necessary to give the audience a bit of relief. This is a movie aimed at children – whereas Jurassic Park was a more universal audience. So you’d need to have some lightness in there. The gargoyles aren’t that annoying – though particular one song does provoke me. And I think Quasimodo at least needs a friendly figure to encourage him to rebel against Frollo. That’s what the gargoyles do: suggest that Quasi sneak into the Festival of Fools that is to be on that day. There is one obstacle to that idea though of course.
In contrast to Mother Gothel’s manipulative affection, Frollo is rather up front. In a sense, he’s right; the world won’t accept Quasimodo at face value. He’s not sugar-coating his views, insensitive though they may be. That’s not to say that Frollo isn’t a real piece of work – because what he’s doing is still pretty cruel. You have to wonder if he just believes Quasimodo would be better off hidden away – or is he worried the public will find out his one great sin? Funnily enough, the lie he tells Quasi about his mother – that she abandoned him – is what actually happened in the original book.
Quasimodo agrees to stay in the bell tower. But as soon as Frollo leaves, we get “Out There”, the good old I Want Song. This is another really powerful number, especially the way the music corresponds with Quasimodo’s inner feelings. At first, he’s resigned himself to staying in the tower forever – and the music is very slow and sombre. As he allows himself to imagine what it would be like to go outside, it picks up. And when he decides he will go after all, it swells. It’s a pretty standard formula, with pretty standard lyrics – but it’s pulled off with such style. And Quasi’s voice actor Tom Hulce is good. I mean Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go” good.
I also feel as if the animation in this film doesn’t get enough praise. In this number, you really get to see the artists showing off their work. They lived in Paris for weeks, sketching every aspect of Notre Dame to get it right. I can’t exactly talk about accuracy, since I’ve only been to the place once when I was six, but it looks incredible.
Moving down to the busy streets, we meet Captain Phoebus, a returning soldier from the war. He’s voiced by Kevin Kline, who is also quite underrated in this film. Most of this is because Phoebus has a rather thankless role (we’ll get to that later). He’s brought to the Palace of Justice to meet Frollo – who’ll he be reporting to. Frollo’s orders are simple: see gypsy, arrest gypsy. He’s been hunting them down for years. But he doesn’t have the authority to outright round them all up – so that’s why he’s keeping his eyes peeled for their rumoured hideout. A sanctuary known as the Court of Miracles.
Duty calls, and Frollo has to attend the Festival of Fools. Quasimodo goes too, disguised under a cloak. The festival is celebrated with “Topsy Turvy”, which is about the only child-friendly song in the movie. It was the only one from this included on a Disney Sing-Along VHS I owned at the time. But now we get our first proper look at Esmerelda.
Esmerelda as a character is quite interesting in that her plot is roughly the same as it is in the book – she shows kindness to Quasimodo, Frollo lusts after her, she’s offered the ultimatum etc. But her characterisation is what’s different. In the book, she’s more of a naïve Ingénue. The movie ages her up and makes her more of a street-smart tough chick. You see this kind of thing a lot in modern adaptations of classic literature that feature rather dainty female characters. But this is a film that does it right; Esmerelda isn’t just a one-dimensional action girl. Her traits from the book – such as her kindness and selflessness – are intact. And the strength of her character comes from her courage. It’s also quite interesting to see that she’s drawn a little differently that the typical Disney heroine. Rather than being waify and willowy, she’s a lot more voluptuous.
What can I say? Except that this totally went over my head when I saw this at the tender age of six. Things soon turn ugly when Quasimodo is dragged on stage – and it’s a very hard scene to watch. It’s taken right from the book too, as is Esmerelda getting up on the stage to stop the abuse. I also have to give credit to Demi Moore. She really brings the character to life, especially in this scene. I’ll never stop loving the way she calls out Frollo – especially when she screams “Justice!” at him.
Needless to say, Frollo is not pleased that a gypsy has publicly defied him. He sets his guards on her, but clearly doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. Esmerelda wins the popularity of the crowd before making a dramatic exit. Things turn instantly sour, as Quasimodo hurries back inside the cathedral and swears never to leave again. Esmerelda decides to hide out in there too, which is where she bumps into Phoebus. As he’s the subordinate of the man she just pwned in public, much snarky banter and hand-to-hand combat ensues. But Phoebus won’t arrest her – since in a church they’re both bound by the laws of sanctuary. Frollo is none too happy about this and thus we get a rather shocking exchange for a Disney movie.
Frollo: “I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck of yours.”
Esmerelda: “I know what you’re imagining.”
Rape taunts aside, Frollo also smells her hair. You’re not saying…hmm it seems Frollo isn’t as much of a stiff as we may have thought. But he still warns her that, although she’s claimed sanctuary, she’s technically in a gilded cage. Sure enough, he posts a guard at every door. So Esmerelda for all intents and purposes is a prisoner now.
We now get one of my personal favourite songs in the movie – “God Help The Outcasts” – where Heidi Mollenhauer doubles as Esmerelda’s singing voice. I like this song first and foremost because it adds a great amount of depth to the character. As the title suggests, Esmerelda prays to God to…well help the outcasts. It shows that, although she’s a tough girl who’s had to live on the streets, deep down she’s still got a kind heart. She selflessly prays for the salvation of her people, contrasting with the other people in the church. They pray for superficial things like power, wealth and glory. One woman also prays for “love I can possess” – which is an interesting lyric by Stephen Schwartz to show a different kind of selfishness. Elsewhere, my favourite line in the song will always be:
“I ask for nothing, I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I.”
Quasimodo somehow overhears this internal monologue, and Esmerelda spots him. She follows him back up to the bell tower, intending to apologise for earlier. And so he shows her his pad – showing off his miniature of the city and townspeople, and introducing her to all the bells. They’re all named ‘Something-Marie’ – which is apparently the actual names of the bells at the time. I can’t confirm it so don’t quote me on that one. What I can confirm is the sheer gorgeousness of the view that Quasi shows Esmerelda.
I have to say that I’ve never been nearly reduced to tears by a sunset before. Coupling this with the stunning use of colours in “God Help The Outcasts” and this movie is giving me a serious artgasm. It’s also giving me warm fuzzies as Esmerelda offers to read Quasimodo’s palm – just as an excuse to tell him that he’s not a monster as Frollo has said he is. But despite the prettiness of the view and the quality of the conversation (and she hasn’t even MET the gargoyles yet), she can’t stay in the cathedral. With guards posted at every door, Quasi’s suggestion is “we won’t use a door”.
Just in case it wasn’t possible for me to love this movie even more, I only now realised that “Out There” was also foreshadowing that Quasimodo is athletic enough to perform this kind of heroism. He successfully gets Esmerelda out and she gives him a necklace that’ll help him find the Court of Miracles if he ever needs her – promising to come back and visit when she can. When he returns to the tower, he finds Phoebus checking to see if she’s alright. Judging by how Quasi orders the captain out, it seems he wants to defend Esmerelda’s honour. He now starts to sing “Heaven’s Light” – which is about how he’s now falling for her. This segues into Frollo singing “Hellfire”. To describe this song, first imagine this…
…being played for this…
Frollo’s inner conflict during this song comes from his religious faith – and he has always prided himself on his purity and virtue. So now he’s praying for forgiveness. Not for the millions of people he’s imprisoned, tortured and killed. But because he’s been given a pretty big boner by Esmerelda. He tries to reason that it’s not his fault. It’s hers. How dare she tempt his virtuous soul with her filthy sexiness? We’re going back to that Madonna Whore Complex I talked about in the Sirens review.
This film really challenges that attitude towards women, especially with how Esmerelda is presented. Esmerelda is neither a Madonna nor a Whore, and people in the movie pigeonhole her into one or the other. Frollo only views her as a Whore after the exotic dance she performs in front of him. He sees her only as a sexual object who existed to tempt him. And that is what will make up the conflict for the rest of the movie – going by the line “choose me or your fire”, which officially solidifies this as one of the best villain songs ever written. Not just in Disney.
Once Frollo hears that Esmerelda has somehow escaped, he goes on a mad Inspector Javert style search. Fitting, since the same author created Javert, but bad for the people of Paris. Anyone who could potentially have helped Esmerelda is arrested. Things really get out of hand when Frollo tries to burn down a mill with the inhabitants still inside. This is the last straw for Phoebus, who saves everyone inside – throwing away “a promising career” in the process.
As Frollo prepares to execute him, Esmerelda throws a stone at his horse to buck him off and allow Phoebus a head start. Although Phoebus gets shot in the shoulder with an arrow and falls into the river, Frollo is satisfied and leaves. Esmerelda then rescues Phoebus from the water. We now see that Paris is burning in Frollo’s search. But Quasimodo is more concerned with what Esmerelda could be doing. The gargoyles try to reassure him with “A Guy Like You”…
Oh boy, this song so does not fit in with the rest of the movie. Filmmakers ran into a similar problem when they were making Pocahontas too. They felt pressured to compose a big jolly ‘show-stopper’ for the middle of the film – just like “Under the Sea” or “Be Our Guest”. But Pocahontas and the more serious tone just didn’t lend itself to such a song – so they wisely left it out. Here unfortunately, this song is painful, unnecessary and awkward. I’m not saying it’s badly written or composed – but it’s a song that does not belong, and feels like we got interrupted by something out of another movie.
Esmerelda ends the agony by arriving with the unconscious Phoebus, asking Quasimodo to hide him for the time being. Quasi notices that there seems to be something between the two, which kind of throws a wrench into his whole falling in love with her plans. There’s a brief sad reprise of “Heaven’s Light” that’s brilliantly effective.
This aspect of the movie gets an unfortunate reputation from some people – usually the same crowd that claims Beauty & the Beast promotes Stockholm Syndrome. I’m happy that the movie went against an annoying trend that you see in a lot of 90s stuff. They tended to feature a lot of ‘nerd entitlement’. Not necessarily nerds, but homely and less attractive guys ended up with glamorous beauties. What was intended as a positive message about choosing substance over looks quickly morphed into a trope that implied that all less-attractive guys automatically had more substance and were owed a hottie as a result. I’d like to take a brilliant quote from the underrated Irish film Inside I’m Dancing. The context here is cerebral palsy but the message is still the same.
“If you want to be an equal then you have to show people the same respect that you demanded of them…and if a woman says no to you, you accept that maybe you’re not the right man for her! You don’t assume you have some automatic right to love because you’re in a wheelchair!”
Disney films are constantly under scrutiny for their depiction of relationships, but here we have a film that shows a woman’s right to choose. After all, only the other person can decide whether you’re a good match for them. And in the context of the story, Phoebus actually is one for Esmerelda. Going back to the Madonna Whore Complex, Quasi gave Esmerelda just as unrealistic an expectation as Frollo. Whereas Frollo viewed her as a sex object, Quasimodo viewed her as an angel. He put her up on a pedestal, much like Tony did for Estella in Sirens. Phoebus meanwhile is attracted to both Esmerelda’s beauty and sex appeal, as well as her kindness and courage. So he’s the one that gets the girl because he literally gets the girl.
Frollo arrives and worms the truth out of Quasimodo, also claiming to know where the Court of Miracles is – and that he’ll be launching an attack with a thousand men in the morning. Once he’s gone, Quasi and Phoebus decide that they’ll have to find the Court too and warn everyone. Quasimodo remembers the necklace Esmerelda gave him, and guesses that it’s a map to where the entrance is located. Said entrance is in a graveyard.
They’re ambushed by gypsies, who assume they are spies for Frollo. And since this movie makes a habit out of turning mundane things into catchy musical numbers sung by Paul Kandell – we get the song “The Court of Miracles”. It’s so dark, yet catchy. So fun, yet so creepy. I love it. Clopin prepares to hang the two, until Esmerelda puts a stop to it. Unfortunately, Clopin was more right than he realised. Frollo was bluffing, and followed Quasi and Phoebus here. He announces that there will be a bonfire in the square tomorrow.
Esmerelda is tied to the stake to be burned. Frollo gives her one last chance to repent – and she spits in his face. This is again something from the book, but Frollo has her hanged instead. Here however, Quasimodo gets his second wind, breaks free of his chains and does a truly epic run down the side of the cathedral to save her. Disney aren’t the first ones to spare Esmerelda in an adaptation either; she lives in the 1924 silent version too. Phoebus meanwhile escapes from his restraints and rallies the remainder of the city to rebel. The gargoyles participate in the final battle too, sort of negating that whole ‘they’re all in Quasimodo’s head’ theory. There is however another one that they’re actually his guardian angels.
Frollo breaks into the cathedral and finds Quasimodo and Esmerelda – who has just regained consciousness. As the shit has now hit the fan, he tries to kill them the old-fashioned way. They flee to the gargoyle statues, and Frollo gives chase. As he’s in the middle of a sanity slippage, he decides to tell Quasi about how his mother died. Then he gets one of the most terrifying Disney villain deaths imaginable.
I have heard that a more tragic end was considered for the film. In the book, after killing Frollo directly, Quasimodo commits suicide – and years later archaeologists find his and Esmerelda’s skeletons next to each other. Disney considered having Frollo stab Quasimodo, who would then die after asking to ring the bells one last time. It might be just me, but I find that ending to be a bit of a cop-out. I’m much more satisfied with the ending where Quasi gives Phoebus and Esmerelda his blessing, and then…
Oh God, I never can get over the warm fuzzies in that bit. The movie ends on a literal high note, as Clopin briefly reprises “The Bells of Notre Dame”. As an aside, there’s a line from Laverne about the birds that my brother and I constantly argued about. He said it was “don’t you ever fly great?” while I said it was “don’t you ever migrate?” – and I was very satisfied to discover that I had been right all along.
So I can never really get over just how much I love this movie. Is it flawed? Well, yes a little. But like Tangled, the good points far outweigh the bad. This is Disney going for a very unique project, and telling a story that’s drastically different from their usual output. Although the general public were left scratching their heads (hence the Razzie nomination), it met quite a positive reception in France. It’s finding more and more fans as the years go by, and I’m not sure if I can call it ‘underrated’ anymore. After all, pretty much everyone I mention it to will praise it. Regarding the apparent ‘ugly guy never gets the girl’ message, I instead look to a different one. It’s spelled out in the opening song that this is the tale of a monster and a man. Both fell for a beautiful woman, and both had to watch as she fell for someone else. Frollo was the monster who had to have her for himself, while Quasimodo was the man who respected that and moved on. And on a different level, Quasi probably wasn’t ready for a real relationship just yet. One of the few things the sequel has going for it is that Quasi has at least matured in time to get a girlfriend.
Hmm now what makes a movie and what makes its grades?
*Story? Despite applying some ‘Disneyfication’, a lot of the good parts of Victor Hugo’s story are still intact and it is by far one of the deepest stories Disney have ever done. The only problem is that they insert too many little gags that jar with the darker tone. It’s a minor gripe. A-
*Characters? Quasimodo is an awesome lead, as is Esmerelda. I like Phoebus too, even if a lot of the fans don’t. Frollo meanwhile is a terrifying villain – so of course we love him. The gargoyles…we won’t go there. A-
*Performances? Tom Hulce knocks it out of the park, both acting and singing wise. This is also Demi Moore’s finest hour in my opinion. Tony Jay is of course the one who really steals the show. Kevin Kline and Paul Kandell were good in their smaller roles as well. A+
*Visuals? Amazing recreations of the statues and architecture of Notre Dame, blended with beautiful colours and flawless character designs. A+
*Special Effects? The animation is fine, although the shots that blend it with CGI don’t look as solid as the rest of the film. A-
*Anything Else? A fantastic score, complimented by brilliantly written songs. Although “A Guy Like You” is ferociously out of place, it’s not badly written. A-
As we enter the 50s now, we get the second of our Honorary Picks – the messterpiece that is Jupiter Ascending.