The Hunchback of Notre Dame
When you look at Disney throughout the 1990s, its track record was jumbled yet consistently irresistible. Disney kept churning hit after hit after knocking it out of the ballpark with The Little Mermaid. It scored the first Oscar nomination for Best Picture for an animated film with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King became the highest-grossing 2D animated film of all time (to this day, no less), and Disney revolutionized the computer animation medium with Toy Story. But after that, Disney suffered a few hiccups with animated films that never reached the creative heights of those from the early 1990s. Nonetheless, however, they were unique enough, each in their own way, to have burrowed a place in everyone's hearts many years later.
Out of their animated efforts from the late 90s, of course, the one that many people declared the riskiest, darkest, most adult, most heavenly, and arguably most overlooked of them all, especially from Disney, was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Unless you're familiar with the story, allow me to run it down for you. Set in Paris in 1482, the story is about a young man named Quasimodo, who was deformed and rang the bells of the Notre Dame cathedral. He upheld this job for 20 years of his life after he was adopted, or rather, abducted, by a prejudicial judge named Claude Frollo. But when Quasimodo took a bold leap to sneak into town and attend the annual Feast of Fools, he endured some hardships from the Parisian folk because of his appearance. But with social brutality came moments of beauty, such as when the lovely gypsy girl, Esmeralda, helped him after his humiliation at the Feast of Fools. So, this put him on a path of self-discovery as he slowly uncovered bits and pieces of his place in society and the darker parts of his history with Frollo.
While that went on, Claude Frollo went on about his duties until he saw Esmeralda dancing at the Feast of Fools. Since then, his inner yearnings over her started taking hold of him. So, his burning desire, coupled with the prejudice he held against the gypsies, drove him to keep pursuing Esmeralda for himself. His obsession escalated until he questioned and incarcerated anyone who either never knew Esmeralda's whereabouts or defied giving him that information. He started with the gypsies but soon targeted the Parisians themselves, as if anyone who was in cahoots with the gypsies was against him. Above all, being a devout Catholic, he believed that everything he did or planned to do was out of servitude to God. The deeper he went with his pursuits, the more ruthless he became.
Elsewhere, Esmeralda lived her gypsy life until her meeting with Frollo. Since then, she always avoided him and his guards who scavenged Paris, which gradually turned into ransacking Paris, to find her. Ultimately, she and her pet goat, Djali, became imprisoned inside the Notre Dame cathedral via its sanctuary, by the Captain of the Guards, Phoebus, who turned out to have imprisoned her only to keep her safe from Frollo. While there, Esmeralda ran into Quasimodo, who was shy to approach her after what happened in the Feast of Fools, and they became close friends as Quasimodo concocted methods to sneak her out into the streets of Paris. In addition to her run-ins with Quasimodo, she had more run-ins with Phoebus. During then, a bond started to develop between Phoebus and Esmeralda. In their case, that bond grew into something much more profound and heartfelt, which would have tested Quasimodo's faithfulness more than he would've anticipated.
Long story short, it's a three-way battle between the main characters: Quasimodo's desire for freedom, Esmeralda's struggles against the prejudice against her and her people, and Frollo's desires for Esmeralda and what he perceived as proper justice against the guilty.
When I was a little kid, I was awestruck by its wonderful atmosphere, the soft and cold yet soothing colors, the more exuberant colors during the Feast of Fools, and even the Gargoyles, though I'll get to them shortly. I also liked Quasimodo back then because there was something about his distorted form that I found charming and unique. Of course, I was also into the bright colors of Esmeralda, the darker, more striking colors of Judge Claude Frollo, the happy-go-lucky colors of Clopin, and just the overall feel of the movie in general.
Now, after watching the movie again, there is a lot I fell in love with about this film, and not just because the nostalgia factor I had with this film sweetened the deal.
To start with, I found the characterizations pretty cohesive. They all left impressions that were simple enough for the kids to enjoy wholeheartedly while also cluing the adults in with their dilemmas and why they did what they did. Quasimodo felt like a tender and kind-hearted yet insecure young man who feared rejection because of his deformity. As he admitted at one point, he just didn’t feel normal. Of course, once he grew enough of a spine, no pun intended, to venture outside of Notre Dame and into the Feast of Fools, it showed determination on his end to be seen and treated like he was normal like everyone else.
Sure, he dealt with public humiliation by the crowd after being roped and tied down at the Feast of Fools, even if it was one guard who started it. But he soon came to appreciate the love that can be expressed to him, like Esmeralda's first act of compassion for him when she came to dry his face. Quasimodo was determined to safeguard Esmeralda and keep her safe from Frollo and the guards in gratitude for this act of kindness. However, this ignited within him an identity crisis as he had to find out who he's most faithful to, especially after all the years of neglect and abuse he endured under Frollo.
There were times when I saw myself in Quasimodo: observant of the world, willing to do anything in my power to make things right, but also nervous because of how different I may be from everyone else. Yet, there are things I know I have in common with other people, and heck, I even look about as normal as can be, whereas Quasimodo's self-esteem issues stemmed more from his outward appearance. I think anyone who ever felt like an outsider in their life might find something of value from this character.
And it's not just me. People like Owen Suskind from Life, Animated also saw himself in Quasimodo, partially because of his autism. That kind of connection is what makes me see Quasimodo as a relatable role model every time I watch this movie. It reminds me of what it's like to be loved when the rest of the world seems relentless and uncaring.
Esmeralda felt like a slightly mysterious character. The first few times I saw her, she felt like an average gypsy who expressed very little conviction. Esmeralda only did her typical gypsy routines, especially at the Feast of Fools, where she performed seductive dances. After that, however, she slowly unveiled herself as a cunning but equally intelligent and kind woman who would've done whatever it took to help others in desperate need of help, whether it was Quasimodo or one of her people. Also, the movie occasionally showed some snide visual expressions from her pet goat, Djali. Sometimes, he felt like he had a slight no-nonsense demeanor, like he knew what was right for him and Esmeralda, especially whenever they concerned Phoebus.
Speaking of whom, Phoebus was a dashing character who lived up to the general image of a knight in shining armor. The first time he appeared, he returned to Paris to serve Frollo after serving time in a war. At first, Phoebus confronted any obstacle he faced whenever they concerned Esmeralda or anything else with snide remarks or general indifference. He upheld his position as a soldier and followed orders whenever given to him. But when Frollo's orders got more out of hand, as well as out of line, he knew when to put his foot down and call it quits, this time for the greater good. And though the movie generally treated it as a side-thing, his witty butting of heads with Esmeralda before it steadily grew into a budding romance displayed a full-on character development on his end. Little trials such as these tested him as he went from a high-ranking soldier to a considerate man willing to do what he felt was right.
Judge Claude Frollo? Hoo, boy. This character was practically everything you'd want from a memorable, self-righteous, insane villain. He was a local judge of France who harbored a substantial prejudice against the gypsies, for he felt they inspired the ongoing lack of morality in the general Parisian populace. So, he used this notion to incarcerate whoever he believed guilty of such wrongdoings, whether they were guilty or not. As Clopin creatively summed up about his character:
Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin
And he saw corruption everywhere except within
However, it's not just his bigotry against the gypsies; he went further. Once, he stole a mother gypsy's baby—that being Quasimodo—after mistaking it for stolen goods and killing her. Then, he reacted to the baby's appearance with repulsion, attempting to drown him because of it. But he stopped and agreed to take him in after the Archdeacon intervened and warned him of the dangers from beyond that would've awaited him if he was to step out of line within the eyes of God. But that didn't stop him from raising Quasimodo with general unorthodoxy. Frollo raised and groomed him hoping that Quasimodo would've made a decent servant for his plots and endeavors. Frollo told him of nothing of the outside world but how horrid it was and that, regardless of who he may have met, the people would only have belittled him because of his appearance. However, Frollo and his collective sanity and devotion to God were all brought into question when he first laid eyes on Esmeralda. Because she was a gypsy, Frollo suspected her of committing the usual wrongdoings he expected from gypsies, but his inner lust over her frightened him immensely. He thought that the best way to handle this was to either have her for himself sexually - definitely a risky move on Disney's end, mind you - or execute her for witchcraft. These mental challenges pushed him to do continuously evil and heinous deeds, even if he legitimately believed they were righteous and for the good of all his fellow people. And frankly, this is what makes him such a fascinating bad guy. He was not evil for evil's sake; Frollo did what he did because he thought it was the right thing to do and expressed self-conflict and inner moral struggles as he tried to pinpoint what was right or wrong ever since Esmeralda came along.
Also, I find it interesting how Frollo was a judge in this version of the story. I remember reading that it was a reference to his brother, Jehan, being a judge in the 1939 film. But in this case, Frollo being a judge pertained to his beliefs in the Christian religion. Being a judge, he always assessed people and things, and we all know that God would eventually come to judge the living and the dead. The more I think about that, it tied into his beliefs in the righteousness of his actions. He legitimately believed that he was a devout embodiment of Christian values when really, his actions demonstrated otherwise. They became so twisted and deplorable that what Frollo came to embody instead are the perversions of Christian values.
By the time Frollo was about to swing his sword down upon Esmeralda, you can tell that he sank into the very essence of evil under his unhinged beliefs in the so-called righteousness of his actions. And when he called out…
And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!
...and you see the gargoyles he's clinging onto come to life, you can feel as if this was God's way of replying with:
Way ahead of you!
You might wonder how this particular gargoyle came to life, but it didn't matter. At the heat of the moment—again, no pun intended—you can feel God's wrath striking Frollo down.
Frollo was as ravishing as he was sickening—a perfect balance—so it was little wonder he became hailed as one of the all-time best Disney villains.
Now, the gargoyles? That's a bit hard for me to put my finger on. I admired them because of their goofy personalities and devotion to Quasimodo, always giving him advice on what to do, who he should do the right thing for, and continually lifting him out of his despair. I admired them for that as a kid, anyway. Now? Yeah, they seem a little too childish in a movie about a deformed bell ringer acknowledging love for the first time in his life. But I don't know, something about their personalities, wisecracks, and camaraderie. I felt like they left their mark in just the right amount, they felt good-natured and humorous in small doses, and their design felt childish yet periodically fitting. They just felt no different from Olaf in terms of being a child-friendly character in an otherwise more complex, mature environment. And at the scenes where the situations looked bleakest, mostly courtesy of Frollo, their comedic timing, though abrupt, didn't feel unwelcome. If anything, I almost didn't mind them. Almost.
As I saw the gargoyles do their thing, I could tell that pleasing the kids, from a creative standpoint, was the top goal with these characters. Although, surprisingly, they're not without some decent moments of their own. During their fight against the guards, they attacked them with an elaborate trap they made that landed in front of the guards. And when it did, after a few seconds, the platform swatted them down like a mousetrap. Sheesh, they sure have some sick tricks up their sleeve for kid-oriented comic reliefs!
One other reason I found them so appealing might be the next topic that makes this movie work: the voice acting.
Mary Wickes—one of the Andrews Sisters in her final film role—Charles Kimbrough, and Seinfeld's Jason Alexander voiced the gargoyles. And all three of these actors did a great job infusing the gargoyles' personalities with a myriad of vocal expressions, ranging from tender, considerate, and thoughtful to exaggerated, wacky, and confident. Mary Wickes exceeded because of her motherly demeanor whenever Laverne was most concerned, not to mention her humorous side whenever Laverne felt aggravated by the birds nestling on her. Charles Kimbrough honed Victor's sophisticated personality with an elegance hinting at a high sense of taste. And Jason Alexander as Hugo felt equivalent to a boisterous little brother. You know what I mean; the one member in the family who always made wisecracks about dire life situations and tried to liven up the moment with his sense of humor. So, I can see where people are coming from with these gargoyles feeling too wacky or immature to be taken seriously. But for the most part, they all felt enjoyable enough for them to entertain me without distracting from the story too much.
And how about that? Victor and Hugo in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. That's quite a play on words and names.
The rest of the voice actors were terrific as well. Demi Moore was downright exuberant in her role as Esmeralda. She balanced out her tones quite nicely as she expressed a tenderness that signaled what kind of person Esmeralda was underneath her gypsy image. She also demonstrated a feistiness that showed her relentlessness and determination to set good examples for others and herself on the harms of discrimination courtesy of Frollo.
Tony Jay utterly owned his role as Judge Claude Frollo. He emanated his character's dark impulses while elevating his character into a more irresistible level of deviousness. His voice was slithery, cackly, and alluring, adding tons of delicacy and sophistication to his character. Add to that his character's growing complexities, and you have another shred of proof of why he's one of the best villains out there.
Kevin Kline expressed nothing but respectability as Phoebus. He made his character sound like a high-ranking soldier who followed orders. And yet, his voice alone suggested, even when Phoebus worked for Frollo, that underneath his snark lay a torn yet honorable man who started waking up until he could finally tell the difference between what's righteous and what's not.
Paul Kandel almost felt like he had the time of his life portraying Clopin, a goofy clown who, at first, didn't feel substantial in the film. The first time he was seen, he was the narrator of the story and then was at his joyful self at the Feast of Fools. Regardless, Paul sounded so committed that every time he spoke, he sounded theatrical, and whenever he sang, it was very funky, giddy, and even masterful. Once Clopin revealed himself as the leader of the Court of Miracles, of course, he had fun throwing in a more morbid and slyer undertone to his over-the-top performance. He just made the character for me despite the character's shortcomings, mainly in the first half.
And, of course, you have Amadeus’ Tom Hulce as Quasimodo. He spiced up his already shy and sheltered character with more modest, tender inflections. Every time he spoke, he sounded like an adult-aged little kid who was on the verge of giving it his all in society, even if the possibilities of ridicule for his appearance were more than likely. He even expressed some genuine concern whether they concerned his feelings for Esmeralda or his intake on Frollo once he started seeing his true colors. He hit home every appropriate inflection with a man who was young at heart underneath his twisted adult image before owning up to the situation and proving himself a man. Not to mention whenever he sang on screen, his delicacy came on full display, adding to the already harmonious vocals he expressed whenever he was hopeful or even brokenhearted.
I must also give props to the animation. Whether it's on the characters, the scenery, the buildings, or even the Notre Dame cathedral, it was all expressed with an essence of modesty and sheer grandness to make it larger and more majestic. The environment was pretty and defined, with a slightly misty shade of colors before unfurling into a brighter, more ominous, war-torn, or calmer mood. The entire scene at the Feast of Fools, from Quasimodo sneaking into the festival to sullenly walking back inside, exploited the environmental transitions to stunning displays. It started as regular and anticipatory, then into colorful and festive, hostile and unfriendly, bright and calm, heated and energetic, and ultimately, downcast and somber. Whenever the movie strolled along in the streets of Paris, it felt just like a late 15th-century French town should. Whenever it wandered through what little I saw of the Palace of Justice, it felt like it was strict and completely adhering to law and order. Whenever I peeked inside the Court of Miracles, it was spacious and colorful but hidden and not without its elements of underhandedness, despite being more frightened than frightening. And whenever it walked into the halls of Notre Dame...man! It was just so serene, massive, heavenly, contented, and full of consideration for the needs of the most righteous people on Earth. You feel like you want to go to mass there. You feel like you want to extend your prayers for others within these halls. And once you step into Quasimodo's abode in the bell tower, with the bells that Quasimodo rang every day, it felt massive and striking yet also homely. All the environments in this movie lunged forth with the right colors and mood at just the right angles.
Another part of the animation I felt stirred by was the visual personifications of the cathedral itself. Even though the cathedral remained a cathedral, the movie hinted at a slight personality stemming from it, as if it was alive. And I don't mean on the same level as Casita from Encanto; I mean on a far subtler, more innermost manner. The most effective one was when Frollo killed the gypsy woman. The Archdeacon stopped Frollo from drowning the baby and then warned him about Notre Dame's impending judgment on him, as demonstrated with the cathedral statues staring down at Frollo in contempt. There were several moments like this throughout the movie, and they made the house of God feel as if God himself lived there with everyone else, watching over them every step of the way.
The animation was also impressive when applied to the characters. Although stylistically out of place, the gargoyles still moved in an over-the-top, cartoony way. And give the movie credit; I recall moments when they stood there in silence as they observed what went on. No over-the-top expressions, no exaggerated movements, it’s just just simple observations from the three of them as they let their facial expressions say it all.
You know, while my mind is still fresh on the silent moments, I should also talk about the ending. Sure, it's different from the one in the book, but I should give it props for how it played out. After all the chaos the characters endured throughout the climax, especially Quasimodo, they all eased up, became more at peace, and ventured out into the world without any dialogue. And I timed it; this went on for two minutes straight. It allowed the audience to feel the same contentedness as the characters did, thanks to nothing more than their visual expressions. It all felt solid and well done.
I was legitimately impressed by the computer animation snuck in throughout the film. I think it was most apparent when the film gave off 3D angles of the Notre Dame architecture and its bells, and usually, they looked cool and helped make the scenes look spectacular. The computer animation also felt best utilized with the crowds. Whether they were at the Feast of Fools or waged war against Frollo and his soldiers, they all moved about with a noticeable diversity in each person's movements or individuality. They moved, felt, and looked as believable as you would hope for with crowds that had too many people in attendance to count. It worked for this movie the same way the stampede sequence worked for The Lion King.
All the other characters felt nicely animated, too. I like how some of the characters' clothes changed once their characterizations became more out in the open during the movie's progression. They looked as colorful or dashing as ever in their first appearances, only to be seen later in more basic clothing.
Esmeralda first introduced herself as a stylish, exotic gypsy girl with her purple gypsy outfit. Then, she ended up in her undergarments by the time she revealed herself as the good-hearted and genuinely righteous yet vulnerable person she was.
Phoebus started as a proud, loyal, noble leader of the guards ready to serve after his time in the wars, with hints of a righteous demeanor sneaking somewhere within him until he was in regular clothes. By then, he started embracing the more heroic, conscientious parts of himself.
Clopin started as a cheerful, colorful, and wacky clown, only to be shown in darker colors when his position as the leader of the gypsies was revealed. Also, though he remained comedic, he was more mischievous this time around, which jibed with the general personality of the gypsies he watched over.
Judge Claude Frollo was stunning to look at as well. With his large hat, elderly disposition, judge's clothes, and overall dark flair, you can tell right away that this guy was not to be trusted. His clothes moved in a stilted manner, and his small red cape swinging around called me back to his charming...ly sinister exposition to him. And, his regality shone through no matter where he was or how he felt.
However, if I had to pick the greatest accomplishment of the film's animation, my money would be on Quasimodo. Look at him; he had a hunched back, large brawny arms, short but muscular legs, and a distorted face. And yet, underneath his firm, unusual, and twisted body structure, he was animated as fluidly and naturally as you would expect anyone with this body shape to move. Admittedly, he was a little stilted in his movements and walked weirdly. Yet, through it all, Quasimodo still expressed sheer softness and likability to his character until you no longer cared if he was deformed or not. I might be wrong here, but I recall reading that James Baxter, or any of the film’s animators, visited a graveyard to study the skeletal remains and structure of a deceased hunchback for reference. Glen Keane got the inspiration to animate the Beast’s transformation sequence from Michelangelo’s David. And these animators, after studying it from every corner, got similar such inspiration to animate Quasimodo with the up-close inspection they needed of the skeleton’s anatomical features. Quasimodo was as nicely animated as he was, from his structural components to his expressions, enough to leave us gazing into the man that Quasimodo was. On the movie’s end, I consider this to be one of its most commendable accomplishments.
And above all, the music. And the songs. I could not have believed what I heard.
These are some of the most awe-inspiring musical pieces I've ever heard. Whenever I think of Disney music at its absolute best, this is usually the first movie that pops into my head. The music just blazed forth with all the oomph, beauty, potency, passion, cheerfulness, glee, yearning, conviction, charm, and wit you would want in this movie.
It hammered in all the commonplace musical cues you would typically hear in a church, complete with Latin chanting spliced throughout the musical score for dramatic effect. And yes, the Latin phrases were real, like 'Kyrie Eleison,' which means, 'Lord have mercy,' to name one. These chants helped add an adequate amount of size and scope to the music and make the story’s musical accompaniments all the more pitch-perfect. But whenever it wasn't grand, epic, or going all out there in its musical torrents, it snuck in some modest, tender, and pleasant moments, providing just the right and equally pitch-perfect amount of whimsy to the movie.
And I'm not kidding; this movie has what I consider some of the best songs I've ever heard in a Disney movie. Yes, even when I compare it to The Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, Frozen, you name it, no musical piece from Disney ever continued to take my breath away like those of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. First, The Bells of Notre Dame was the perfect introductory song for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It demonstrated its story through its musical chords, mighty singing moods, and inflections from Paul Kanden as Clopin before finally topping it off with a grand, haunting crescendo.
After that is probably my all-time favorite Disney song outside of Arabian Nights from Aladdin, Out There. At first, it started as a cold, relentless piece by Frollo warning Quasimodo of the dangers of venturing into the outside world, portrayed with genuine sternness and aloofness. But that all melted away when it segued into Quasimodo's hope and longing for the outside world as he expressed it through song. The melodies accompanying his optimism and determination reached their all-time high, and they capture my heart every time. It's like it conveyed what I generally feel, only with its emotional core being front and center.
Next is Topsy-Turvy, which also went all out there with its emotional fluctuations, only it was in a catchy, joyous mood. Now, this I found fitting for such an anticipatory event as the Feast of Fools. The jubilance of the song and its hand-in-hand wittiness all just marched on as if it owned it with every step and was not afraid to show it.
Next up is one of the loveliest, most brooding, hopeful songs ever created by Disney, God Help the Outcasts. Sung by Esmeralda while residing in the Notre Dame cathedral, she expressed her innermost hopes for the helpless to get all the help they could ever need. In contrast, on the side, the more egotistical parishioners sang about only what they wanted for themselves. The song hit every note so convincingly and with such a genuine prowess that it always swept me away for how passionate it was about its hopes for the welfare of humanity. And Heidi Mollenhauer, Esmeralda's singing voice, captured every note here with grace and conviction, sealing the deal and making the song shine.
And let's not forget one of the most incredible, stylish, ominous, and almost raunchiest villain songs ever assembled in a kid's movie, Hellfire, sung by Frollo as he tried to wrap his head around his obsession over Esmeralda. He started singing modestly and in thought until he slowly unleashed his inner turmoil as he concluded how best to handle and deal with Esmeralda. With the visuals, chilling music, and the urgent, conflicted, ominous moods scattered throughout the song, the song was a home run, especially as a villain song. It laid out all the inner desires for a villain to express, and it pulled no punches in displaying it all in its more adult elements.
Next up is the song that played throughout the end credits, Someday. Sung quite lavishly and with such evident emotion by All-4-One, this song initially started as Esmeralda's song before God Help the Outcasts took over. But that doesn't mean it didn't have any merit to what the song had to offer. It was as hopeful as God Help the Outcasts, except it felt more desperate about its desires; it expressed its wishes for a light to shine at the end of the tunnel as long as it may come at all, no matter how or when. It had more melancholia than the other songs, but it indulged in its emotional strengths the best way it knew how.
The other songs were good, too, like Heaven's Light, which felt like the polar opposite of Hellfire. Quasimodo felt his inner admiration for Esmeralda with as much softness and swooning as you'd want, as opposed to in Hellfire, with Frollo being passionate about his lusty desires for Esmeralda, and how much that scared him. There's also the song, Court of Miracles, where Clopin and his henchmen sang about how they dealt with intruders in their hideout with just the right amount of underhandedness and enough energy to add to its delightful wiliness.
The only song that didn't feel like it had the most 'it factor' to it was A Guy Like You, sung by the gargoyles. They sang it as they encouraged Quasimodo to express his feelings to Esmeralda and that he's too precious even for Esmeralda to resist. And once you see who Esmeralda ultimately likes, well, that just got old fast. However, like the Gargoyles, this song was not without some charm. The singing voices did a great job of expressing the joyous natures of the gargoyles that would be fun for the kids but still decent enough for the adults. It is to this movie what Fixer Upper is to Frozen. Come to think of it, however, I don't recall that song ever being as energetic or, dare I say it, toe-topping as this song was, especially near its end. So, in that regard, it makes this song go from being okay to being the astonishing kind of okay.
And for what The Hunchback of Notre Dame came with, it's just spectacular. One okay song, two good songs, and six—count them, six—magnificent songs! That's quite a remarkable feat for any film, animated or otherwise, to pull off. So, in my book, the soundtrack cemented itself as one of Alan Menken's and Stephen Schwartz’s masterpieces.
With all this in mind, you might be wondering, is there anything bad to report about this movie? Well, I wouldn't dare call it bad, but the story here felt a little jumbled:
It felt like it was telling the story of Quasimodo and how he found confidence in the real world before suddenly focusing on his love for Esmeralda, before then settling for him trying to help Esmeralda and save her from Frollo. And that's not even considering Quasimodo's needs to live out of Frollo's shadow and live as himself.
There's also Esmeralda's journey and how she tried to fend off Frollo and his troops from reaching the Court of Miracles before showing her feelings towards Quasimodo, then settling for a romance with Phoebus, and finally her trying to escape death at the hands of Frollo.
There are Frollo's battles with his sanity and religious beliefs, how mesmerized he became with Esmeralda, and how he thought it was dangerous for him. He felt he should be loathing gypsies as a Christian but just couldn't accept that he had the hots for Esmeralda.
It just went all over the place!
On another note, however, I can't help but wonder if this was a mistake or if the movie decided to be more of a character study than a full-functioning story about life's prejudices and how goodness can hide in the ugliest of facades. And me? Personally, there's something about character studies that I find so fascinating and irresistible. They generally emphasized the problems that a character went through instead of relying on what the take-home message concerning them was supposed to be. This film felt like it tried to be a complete story with a more obvious moral but focused more on the characters than the narrative. Now that's generally not bad, as it made the characters feel a lot more engaging. But yeah, I feel like the story and characters could've worked more to each other's advantage.
Of course, there were two things that I must make a note of here. One, the directors also directed Beauty and the Beast. It also had an obvious take-home message of the qualities of a man vs. the qualities of a monster. But while Beauty and the Beast did a great job demonstrating it so vividly and so cleverly, there's something about the message's application in a more realistic setting such as that in Hunchback that added to its narrative strength to me. It fitted nicely to Quasimodo's character and how there may be more than meets the eye, just like Frollo's character. But, of course, I am more impressed with how the movie felt more grounded than the other Disney films of its era, outside of the gargoyles. It presented real characters in an authentic setting and told its story as such.
On a side note, I saw circulated about this movie that the one thing that would have wholly saved the gargoyles was if they were as alive, goofy, and wacky as ever because these gargoyles were Quasimodo's imaginary friends. As if, in his solitude in the bell tower, Quasimodo fantasized these characters as someone to talk with to make himself less lonely, and that everything the gargoyles told him was in his mind. I completely agree; that suggestion alone would've added a new layer to Quasimodo's personality and added proper family-friendly elements to succinctly tie into the story’s heavier themes. But nope, the movie still made the gargoyles look like they were sentient beings living outside of Quasimodo's head, though there were still some heavy leanings.
Speaking of adult, the second thing I want to talk about is how much adult content slipped its way into this movie, a family-friendly animated Disney film, of all things. Despite its G-rating, there were so many questionable things seen, mentioned, or implied here that many people believed the movie was instead more deserving of a PG rating. For example, the elements of Frollo's hots for Esmeralda, as I pointed out, were touched upon throughout the movie, such as how Frollo felt that he could save her only if he could have her, as in as his prostitute. That, and when he held Esmeralda in the church, at one point, he sensually sniffed her hair. Wow! Creepy, depraved, and full of sexual instincts! Just when you thought Frollo couldn't have gotten any nastier or the movie couldn't get any more risqué, this film went all out there, but in a satisfactorily subtle way. There's even a scene while Esmeralda danced at the Feast of Fools where she took a spear and spun around it, as a visual resemblance to pole dancing. Man, it's always shocking to see a family-friendly movie push the limits of what it can get away with, whether it's in a Disney movie or a family-friendly way. But if they did it so that adults understood it, but kids could mistake it for something only they would understand, that feels like an acceptable way to go with subject matter such as this. And it can also work if it's in service to the characters and story, and in the case of Hunchback, they generally were. So, as shocking as it was to see in a Disney movie, I'm glad that it took the chance and generally excelled at that.
But now, here's one more story I think you'd find fascinating. I was a Disney fanatic when I was a little kid, and I still am. I watched many of the movies my family and I had at our house on VHS, whether it was in Washington or Colorado. I just enjoyed them to the point where I watched them over and over again. Without knowing much about the films back then, I enjoyed them for their vivid colors, delightful music, and recognizable characters. However, I didn't know until I was in middle school that many of these movies, as my parents told me, were based on classical books and that the movies translated them as they offered their take on each classic story.
The more I investigated it, the more fascinated into it I became. I discovered bit by bit, and film by film, just how many of these movies adapted books, and it clued me in to how different these movies were from the books when I read the general synopsis of each original story. I noticed then just how dissimilar to the movies these stories were.
Ultimately, during my last leg of high school, one of my assignments was to select a classic book to read over the summer as I assessed the story and characters and studied them for my assignment for the next school year. And what was my choice? The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. I read the book, found myself entranced by it, and was utterly shocked by how gruesome the book was, compared to the animated film I knew so well. I mean, not only did Esmeralda die in this but so did Quasimodo, out of despair for her death! That's just dark, man! But that's how I gained an appreciation for the process of adaptation. I love how so many stories told over the years can be retold differently depending on the audience to which it's aimed and the medium in which it's retold. And this high school assignment led me to my first major discovery with the process. I can't thank my Mom and Dad enough for cluing me in to this process and discovering all the artistic capabilities and possibilities to explore with artistic practices such as these.
Of course, this leads me to discuss how the general populace reacted to this when comparing the two different versions to each other. Victor Hugo's distant relatives were disgusted with this movie, feeling that it was too cutesy and marketable and pertained to none of Victor Hugo's craftsmanship. They weren’t even pleased with how their great-great-grandfather’s name wasn’t on the movie’s advertisements. Others hailed Victor Hugo's novel as a masterpiece because of how dark it was but dismissed this movie as too lighthearted to be taken seriously by comparison. I can see why this movie wouldn’t have been up their ally and that the book had so much more to offer. But again, the way the story is told or retold depends on its medium and audience. And because this is an animated movie for families, I think it did an excellent job retelling such a classic story in a way that children can follow up on and in a way that adults can admire in equal measure. Not to mention, I enjoy both the book and this movie.
The result is a stylish emulation of Victor Hugo's classic novel that felt substantial enough to stand out from the crowd, especially as far as Hunchback adaptations go. While it's not necessarily the best or most cohesive of such retellings, this was still spellbinding. The animation is mesmerizing, the music is beyond glorious, the characters are memorable, and the story, though unsubstantial, surprisingly hits close to home.
I just adore this movie. I can relate to Quasimodo, I enjoy how hefty this is as a Disney film, and I will be singing the bells of Notre Dame with utmost pride.
— According to the movie’s script, the guard who threw the tomato in Quasimodo‘s face, which soon escalated into the entire crowd laying it on him at the Feast of Fools, was ordered to do so by Frollo. That might make the scenario look like the Quasimodo endured his humiliation in the festival because Frollo arranged it that way. Usually, it would make it look contrived. However, in the cathedral, as ‘God Help the Outcasts’ finished up, Quasimodo looked over at Esmerado until he was caught and harassed once more by one of the churchgoers. I admire how the movie decided to show it both ways, subtle as they were.
— Speaking of which:
A lesson needs to be learned here.
…said Frollo to Phoebus. Cue Esmeralda teaching Quasimodo one of his first most important lessons of his life. Go figure!
Williams, M. (1997, March 12). Disney's 'Hunchback' irks Hugo Progeny. Variety. Retrieved from https://variety.com/1997/scene/vpage/disney-s-hunchback-irks-hugo-progeny-1117342764/