Original Release: June 21, 1996
Runtime: 91 Minutes
Directed By: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Notable Actors: Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay, Kevin Kline, Paul Kandel and Jason Alexander
The world can be a cruel place. Many a man or woman often feels that they are ugly or unworthy of love, and are often made to feel that way by the ugliest and most unworthy of all. No one knows this better than Quasimodo, the hero of today’s Vault Disney, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hunchback might just be the deepest film we’ve explored yet. It deals with corruption, genocide, classism and lust. It’s a film that seems to be making a grand point. Not to mention that it is stunningly gorgeous in both looks and sound. While The Hunchback might not be everyone’s favorite Disney film, or the most successful, it stands as one of the most important so far as it poses a question that touches our very soul: What makes the monster and what makes the man?
Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were actually working on an animated story of Orpheus entitled A Song of the Sea, which was about a whale, when they got the call that they would be working on the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This was extremely exciting to these two directors as they believed the characters were very memorable and the setting had quite a bit of potential for amazing visuals. Production began in 1993. The team took a ten day trip to France in order to get to know the setting. During this time, they even got to tour off limits areas of the cathedral in order to understand the places which Hugo spoke of his novel.
Many changes were made to the novel in order to give it the “G” rating. After all, the book is far more violent than this animated film. A line from the book, “The other statues, the ones of monsters and demons, felt no hatred for Quasimodo…The saints were his friends and blessed him. The monsters were his friends, and protected him. Thus he would pour out his heart at length to them,” became the basis of creating three gargoyle characters whom only came to life for Quasimodo. They would be his only friends. The evil Claude Frollo was changed from the archdeacon to a judge, in order to avoid the whole “Church is evil” thing. And of course, the story was given a happy ending.
Of course, changing the story of a world renowned classic comes with its ups and downs. Descendants of Hugo were not too pleased with the changes. Many church groups still found the film to be an attack on the religious right and a small group even protested the song “Out There,” for encouraging homosexuals to come out of the closet. To that I say, “Yes, in fact it worked on me!” I’m sure those same people loved “Let it Go.” Yet critically and financially, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a success, and there are plenty of good reasons why.
Hunchback is easily one of Disney’s darkest films. Normally I’d talk about our hero first, but no one makes this point quite like our villain, Frollo. Most Disney villains are flamboyant and fun but Frollo is quite the opposite. He murders a woman right from the start, attempts to kill families, almost throws Quasimodo down a well, and lusts after the woman he believes God wants him to kill. Frollo might just be the most real and complex villain to date. The scariest thing about him is that he is certain that, without a doubt, he is doing God’s work, and therefore everyone else is in the wrong. He feels incredibly dangerous and I could definitely see parents shying away from this one with the younger kids.
Quasimodo is a very important character. Production notes have described him as an angel trapped in a devil’s body. He lives high in the cathedral, halfway between the heavens above and the rabble of the streets below, trapped in limbo. I love that Disney really chose to make him ugly. He’s pretty disturbing to look at, but that somehow makes him more sympathetic and his kindness is revealed almost instantly as he appears in the film. Watching the crowd both curse him and throw food at him is heartbreaking. Something we’ve come to expect from Pixar films. Likewise, though, by the end, when a young girl hugs him, I actually started to cry because isn’t that what all of us really want? We want to be accepted and seeing this character who has been made to feel rejected his whole life, finally get the compassion he deserves is incredibly moving.
Esmerelda and Phoebus are both fun and caring characters and I quite liked Esmerelda’s song. I slightly wish that the love triangle between them and Quasi had not existed as I think it damages the point of the film in the end when Esmerelda ends up with Phoebus, the handsome gentleman, instead of Quasi. That being said, I do still think that all of these characters get very satisfying endings. I also like Esmerelda for the simple fact that she’s not a girly girl. She’s adventurous and a bit on the rough side and that gives her an edge that many Disney heroines don’t have. I love her kind heart and a moment in which she examines Quasi’s hand and declares that she “sees no monster lines,” is wonderful and really resonates throughout the film.
The film is visually epic. Every scene feels like it is being seen on a huge scale, which is helped by music that could easily be found in the trailer of a summer blockbuster. In particular is the scene during the climax in which Quasi swings in on a rope, saves Esmerelda, swings back to the cathedral and holds her up, declaring sanctuary as the city burns below. For a film which mainly takes place in one building, it manages to seem greater than the sum of its parts by having some gorgeous animation.
I know that this will sound odd, as my complaints of Pocahontas involved the film being too serious, but all the jokes in this film feel sort of out of place. I have a hard time transitioning from the gargoyles making fart jokes into Frollo singing about hellfire as he deals with his lustfullness. The story is just so pertinent and deep that any time a joke shows up, it almost feels as though that character got lost and ended up in this film. The humor is funny. It is. But it often seems simply added to appease families. I mean, obviously it was, and I’m sure kids love it, but for me, it just detracts from the overall experience. I don’t really need the gargoyles or Phoebus’ horse or the little old man who screams “I’m free!” only to fall into another trap. They’re charming, for sure, but in the end, they are the least memorable parts of the film.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was another surprise for me. I loved that it tackled so many real world issues while managing to still be rich and engaging. As I’ve mentioned before, Disney going dark often results in some spectacular film making and this film proves that point further. Frollo might just be the most evil of all Disney villains and he makes the threat on these characters as well as all of France seem very real. There’s a beauty in this film and a theme of acceptance. The old saying of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to light here and shows us that what makes someone who they are is all about what’s on the inside. Hunchback is Disney story-telling at its best even if the jokes are a little topsy-turvy.
Next Up: Hercules
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head overHERE and check it out!