I’ve decided to catch up on Disney’s traditionally animated films I never saw, so I watched this 1996 odd duck which, along with Pocahontas, heralded the end of the early 90s Disney Renaissance and the beginning of the diminishing returns. If you asked me to name a literary source that could serve as a jumping-off point for a family entertainment blockbuster, Victor Hugo’s classic novel Notre-Dame de Paris probably wouldn’t be it. The Powers That Be at Disney obviously had a different opinion and greenlit the project; while the results are rather mixed I thought the film was definitely worth seeing.
I certainly didn’t expect a Disney film to closely follow the original novel, with its preoccupation with architecture and the dark gruesome ending, so it didn’t bother me that the movie had little to do with the original story other than a few basic points. It still follows Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but in this version he’s a child of the gypsies whose mother is killed by cruel Judge Claude Frollo, who is then bidden by the cathedral archdeacon to raise the child as his own. It’s not entirely clear why Quasimodo looks absolutely nothing like his gypsy parents, or why the kindly Notre Dame priests just didn’t raise the child themselves rather than entrusting him to Frollo.
Anyway, Quasimodo grows up into a good-hearted but horribly lonely young man who’s lived inside the cathedral his entire life. But one year, despite Frollo’s warnings, he ventures outside on the day of the Festival of Fools, where he meets Esmeralda, a feisty and beautiful gypsy dancer. Other than Quasimodo, Esmeralda also catches the eye of Phoebus, a ruggedly handsome captain of the guard, and Frollo, who has… very non-G-rated thoughts about her, despite wanting to wipe Esmeralda’s people off the face of the earth, or Paris at least. Good god, a Disney kids movie that makes me think of Schindler’s List.
Even though the film toned down Hugo’s original a lot, it’s easily one of Disney’s darkest entries. Frollo in particular is the darkest Disney villain I can think of, whose self-righteousness is even more terrifying for being very much grounded in reality. Hellfire, Frollo’s villain song in which he wrestles with his lust for Esmeralda (naturally, it’s all her fault), is the movie’s most memorable and visually effective musical number and is up there with the greatest Disney moments ever. It’s so masterfully crafted and a lot more emotionally complex than your typical villain song.
Dear Disney… can we pretty please go back to the memorable villains with real personality and style like Frollo, Maleficent, Scar, Ursula etc.?
Unfortunately, in order to soften the movie’s dark tone and adult themes, filmmakers introduced a trio of wacky stone gargoyle sidekicks for Quasimodo, whose wisecracks and childish slapstick antics go with the dark elements like chocolate sauce on pickled herring. Does it taste like complete tonal dissonance, oh yes. The uneven tone is The Hunchback’s biggest failing, followed by the fact that, Frollo aside, the rest of the characters aren’t that memorable, though there’s nothing particularly wrong with them either and the actors’ voice work (including Demi Moore’s husky tones for Esmeralda) is pretty solid. Esmeralda stands out simply for having the sexiest outfit and figure out of all Disney heroines, but though the movie is at pains to depict her as a strong independent woman with a passion for social justice, none of this is enough to actually make her interesting. I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought this about a “strong female character” in a film.
Though it’s patchy and no classic, I still enjoyed The Hunchback of Notre Dame quite a bit. It has energy, glorious animation, beautifully rendered medieval Paris, and though no other songs match the impact of Hellfire I appreciated the Gothic touch of the score.
P.S. mild spoiler
A few people were unhappy that, in the end, Esmeralda goes with hunky Phoebus leaving poor Quasimodo coming to terms with heartbreak, the reasoning being that Esmeralda should have fallen in love with Quasimodo because he’s such a nice guy. Honestly, I can’t see why anyone would think that they’d make a good match as people. Esmeralda is a grown woman of the world; Quasimodo is stunted and childlike because of his sheltered existence and sees Esmeralda in a fairly one-dimensional way as a wonderful vision that can do no wrong. Hardly a recipe for a successful relationship, nice guy or not.