Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996)

Image: Disney, Wikipedia.org

One of the best bells Disney has created so far…

PLOT –

Locked away in the Notre Dame belltower by his guardian Judge Frollo, young disfigured Quasimodo wishes to go to the Festival of Fools. He sneaks out but gets more than he bargained for, meeting friends, foes, and learning about the importance of self-worth, love, and mind over matter.

This film has way more depth than that summary…

On the surface, this is a story of self-discovery, but it also contains lust, religious abuse of power, parental abuse, religious and racial persecution, rioting, attempted child murder, gaslighting, arson, kidnapping, social reform, and attempted genocide.

And it’s great here.

The depths to which this plot goes is astounding, dark, and most decidedly not meant for kids, and that’s why I love it so much. This plot breaks the mold of its predecessors (Pocahontas showing some cracks but not quite) and really digs in to the adult themes. The parallel storylines here all flow incredibly well (even the Gargoyles, who are an extension of Quasi, but that’s for later) from the heroes’ to villain’s (especially) and the tension and melancholy doesn’t let up unless desperately needed (the Gargoyles are even gone for a small stretch of drama, then return). There are also some themes of racial (and subtextually, sexuality / gender) acceptance in society here, the Festival of Fools being similar to a city-wide sanctioned event like a Pride Parade, or, going farther back, ‘Black Monday’ (you may know it’s other name, ‘Negro Day’ from the musical Hairspray!).

The film goes pitch black when it can and that makes it all the more powerful, showing children what real life can be like (just turn on the news in 2020 (then watch this film and see how they parallel)), yet it also shows the beauty of the human soul when it can as well. This blend of dark and light is mixed perfectly, allowing this film to be one that seriously considers catering to adults more so than children. While there are parts that do cater to children, they are woven well with the more adult portions and are gone quickly so as to keep the drama pressing.

My PLOT RATING is 10 / 10.

CHARACTERS –

Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is one of my favorite Disney Protagonists, mostly because he reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger. Quasi is more withdrawn and shy than most, is comfortable with routine, has a collection of figures, a love for animals, some unrequited love, an artistic side, some imaginary friends, and has been told hurtful things about himself (I’ve met many a bully whose problems were more with themselves than me (I wasn’t conventionally handsome nor conventionally ‘ugly’ like him), and for the record, I seriously have the most loving, supporting, awesome parents ever), yet both of us have turned out to be awesome people who have become more social even though we both have behind-the-scenes professions.

Quasi is a great Disney Protagonist. He is incredibly soft and sweet, yet gets mowed over easily by others. He works hard to please them but doesn’t seem to catch a break, and when he does, it’s short-lived and takes him a long time to build that good will up again. He does this all in service of Frollo, the first and only, for a while, person he trusts, and as his worldview opens up to love, it also opens up to hate, yet he doesn’t let that get him down. He eventually overcomes that depressing feeling by the climax of the film, spreading his wings and flying, defying what he knows is wrong and doing what is right. He does have a lot of anger within him, and that comes from his social stunting and the ‘gilded cage’ of the bell tower, with the entire city within view and reach, yet inaccessible to him. He is a gentle giant who uses his strength when absolutely necessary, and only goes for the jugular when his loved ones are threatened. His selflessness is one of his best traits, yet also a downfall of his in places, as his care for others can supersede his self-care.

Frollo (TONY JAY!!!) is one of the best villains Disney has to offer, next to Maleficent and Jafar (it’s the black floor-length robes, I guess). He’s more realistic than those two in a more Lady Tremaine (Cinderella) kind of way, having no magic or powers, making him like any one of us (we’ll see this kind of villain in the 2010’s). In the first five minutes he murders a woman and almost drowns an infant just for being ugly. His dynamic with Quasimodo is interesting in that he tells a lot of half-truths to him instead of outright lies, saying how cruel the world is, and that does pay off by the end of the festival. As for other characters, they are just obstacles to his goals, or used as strategic chess pieces (the Archdeacon and the soldiers), but some of the worst acts he commits himself (throughout the film: the well, the mill, the court, and Notre Dame).

He later deals with his burgeoning sexual desire for Esmerelda (displayed in the best Villain Song, if not best song in the Canon), going as far as sniffing her hair (I genuinely was repulsed), and his thirst for absolute control and power over others is backed by his shifting of blame to others and believing himself to be in the right, his conscience cleared with himself and God (even though deep down he’s wracked with guilt). To sum up, he’s literally the worst. The only ‘good’ thing about him is his voice actor, Tony Jay, who I’d listen to read the dictionary.

Esmerelda (Demi Moore, Heidi Mollenhauer (singing)) is a more savvy female character. She has a nice rapport with both Phoebus and Quasi, yet while she is in love with Phoebus, she still thinks of Quasi as a friend. She some sarcasm and wit, as well as guile and trickery (her way of nonviolent protest) yet she is soft and kind to those who deserve it. She’s also somewhat sexualized in the film, and kind of a ‘troll’ about it, knowing that it messes with the men of the film, particularly Frollo. She knows that her mind is her best asset rather than her body, and that is clear after watching the film. She challenges the ‘natural order’ of things, and helps incite a revolution with both Parisians and Romani (called ‘Gypsies’ in the film) against the soldiers. Her goat, Djali is really cute and provides some comic relief, but not much else.

Phoebus (Kevin Kline) is what John Smith was trying to be. Phoebus is brave, charismatic, and a do-gooder. His relationship to Esmerelda is of a lover, and with Quasimodo is of an older brother, with some personality tension. He, like Esmerelda, does what’s right even though it costs him his job and credibility. At first, he seems like he would be a threat to Quasimodo and the Romani, yet quickly asserts himself as on the people’s side rather than the law’s, focusing on what is right for the citizens rather than what is best for them. Kline is also perfect for the role, bringing earnestness and sarcasm to what could have been a flat character, and strengthening secondary male leads for the future, focusing on good dialogue and delivery.

Gargoyles Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander), and Laverne (Mary Wickes, Jane Withers) are much-maligned, yet important characters. Their purpose here is two-fold: to distract from the heavy subject matter in a children’s film, and to provide Quasimodo’s thoughts to the audience without providing constant voiceover. They all have their cute moments in the film, their song is a nice break from the drama, but their jokes are pretty weak, and they don’t really have that much importance in the plot. While there’s speculation abound on whether they are really influencing the final battle at the end of the film, I still believe them and their actions to all be in Quasi’s imagination, even the reactions of the soldiers as well. The immediate aftermath of “A Guy Like You” cements this imaginary Gargoyle theory nicely.

Clopin (Paul Kandel) is narrator and characterin the film. It’s kind of confusing when he actually appears in the later parts of the film, especially as to what his alliance is, but really, he represents the Romani and their struggles. He hides behind a mask so as to conceal his ethnicity, and acts as a jester complete with all the bells and tassels, later donning skeleton and executioner costumes for intimidation. We never see him in what he normally would wear, reflecting the society’s oppression against the Romani. He also carries around a small puppet of himself, acting as the citizens at large, frequently beating or berating the puppet, showing his true colors towards the citizens of Paris. Overall a complex character with little screen time, but no less important than the others.

A few minor characters to touch on… The Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) is more stern and wise than his previous Disney characters, and as the film goes on, becomes more and more of a pushover. He initially kickstarts the central conflict of the film (the film would be really short without his character) and he rides the line between the citizens of Paris and the law of Paris, but is often sidelined and used when needed instead of being prominent. The Old Heretic (Gary Trousdale) provides a great running gag in the film, and the Oafish Guard (Bill Fagerbakke) is notable because it’s Patrick Star’s voice actor three years before Spongebob Squarepants first aired.

My CHARACTERS RATING is 9 / 10.

DIALOGUE –

The dialogue in this film has great range. From epic to comedic, it’s all here. The transition from dialogue to song is smooth, and a lot of lines are memorable. The actors give their all to voice the characters, and true emotions are felt, particularly sadness from Tom Hulce. His meek delivery that strengthens over time makes for some great nuance to the character, and Tony Jay’s line delivery is also top notch, dripping with malice and self-righteousness.

My DIALOGUE RATING is 10 / 10.

EFFECTS –

The crowd effects are fantastic in this film. CG models are used to swap clothes and hair between them easily, and the sheer amount of people packed into the film is awesome. The film also has great fire effects, particularly during the climax and Frollo’s song. The character animation is fast and strong, showing subtleties in the characters’ faces, and the walking animation for Quasimodo has small differences in how he carries himself from scene to scene.

My EFFECTS RATING is 10 / 10.

MUSIC –

One of my favorite soundtracks in the Canon. Put Latin chanting and vocals in your soundtrack and I’m there. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are back from Pocahontas (and their songs are better, sorry, guys) and this is just pure awesomeness. The Latin words in the score and songs are also actual words that make sense in the context of the scene, as seen in the video below:

“The Bells of Notre Dame” – Sets the stage for the film, and is equal parts exciting and depressing, given the events told. Contains spoken word and song, as well as some intense action, and a literal high note at the end.

“Out There” – Initially depressing when Tony Jay is singing, this song turns into one of my favorites in the canon. Incredibly Uplifting and sung in vibrato by Tom Hulce, this song is a bright spot in an otherwise dark film.

“Topsy Turvy” – A raucous and fanfare-laden crowd song, this is another bright spot, yet I’ve always felt like there was some tongue-and-cheek tone here. The Romani after all, are putting on a showy act here in front of the soldiers and judge instead of being their normal selves on this day of acceptance. The song is another of my favorites, and it’s an earworm.

“God Help the Outcasts” – This song is beautiful, and pretty religious, too. It really speaks to the issues of society here, when the people are praying for themselves, and Esmerelda is praying for her people and others instead of herself. It’s really touching, and something we all should be doing, every day, religious or not. Just send out some good vibes.

“Heaven’s Light” – A soft, slow song that I really love. It shows Quasimodo’s inner thoughts and slow acceptance of others in his life, and I just love the bells at the end.  It segues directly into…

“Hellfire” – This wins. Everything. The slow build from the Archdeacon’s Confiteor to the first chorus is so good. One of the most emotionally complex songs in the film (covering guilt, lust, anger, pride, and possibly all five stages of grief) with the Latin chanting responding in the negative towards his claims of being right, Tony Jay proves himself to be one of the best features the film has.

“A Guy Like You” – A good place to go get popcorn, use the restroom, or take a nap. Nah, just kidding, it’s all right. I kind of like Jason Alexander’s singing here. It’s a pretty quaint, funny song with cute visuals, and a nice break from the drama of the film. It’s also interesting to think that this song is a wrestling match between the rational and irrational parts of Quasimodo’s mind asking the question: does Esmerelda really love him, or is she a friend?

“The Court of Miracles” is another crowd song, having a more tongue-in-cheek bend than “Topsy Turvy” with a more threatening, menacing aura. It’s pretty short though, and features Clopin more so than the crowd, who all sing with gusto.

My MUSIC RATING is 10 / 10.

OVERALL –

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Disney’s darkest film in regards to subject matter, but it makes up for it with some comedy here and there. Everything (barring a few out-of-place comedic interruptions) in this film is basically perfect. It’s an endearing film that has gained a following over the past few years, and gets more and more relevant as time goes on. Themes of social justice, racial profiling, and brutality by officials, as well as murder and sexual harassment probably will never be in a Disney film again (barring a remake of this), and that is why this film needs to be remembered and preserved, not only for the work of art that it is, but for the lessons that it gives.

“Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.” – Romans 12:21, CSB

Just please, be a good person.

We all need a little Heaven’s Light instead of using Hellfire.

Image: Disney, Characterscentral.net, John Fiedler

My OVERALL RATING for The Hunchback of Notre Dame is 98%.

Next time, we answer the question:

“Who put the ‘glad’ in ‘gladiator’?”

Stay tuned!

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