51 Days of Disney (Day 34): The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Pocahontas didn’t exactly make massive waves at the box office, both financially and critically. It was reasonably successful in the box office (there was almost no chance of it making Lion King money), but it ended up being the worst reviewed film of the Disney Renaissance. 1996’s Hunchback of Notre Dame would end up not making as much money as it’s predecessor, but did a whole lot better critically.

Our story begins with a group of Gypsies being smuggled into city of Paris, but they are ambushed by Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) and his soldiers. A gypsy woman attempts to run from the guards and Frollo, but he chases her down with the idea that she is harbouring stollen goods and kills her by kicking her down the steps of Notre Dame and cracking her head open. It turns out that the “stollen goods” was actually a baby, a deformed baby. Naturally, Frollo tries to drown the child but is stopped by the Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers). The Archdeacon convinces Frollo to raise the child as his own as a sort of karmic retribution to the murder of the mother. He agrees, but only if he can hide the child in the bell tower of Notre Dame as so no one ever has to see the child or know that he is Frollo’s adopted son. Within the first five minutes of the movie, someone has already died. This is already turning out to be a very different breed of Disney film.

The film then jumps 20 years to find the child, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), grown up and doing his job as the bell ringer of Notre Dame. Quasimodo has survived all these years because he befriended three “talking” gargoyles (who may or may not actually talk. They could just be a manifestation of Quasimodo’s broken psyche or loneliness as no one else ever really sees them talk or move except Djali the goat, who doesn’t believe what he’s seen) named Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander), and Laverne (Mary Wickes). Quasimodo desperately wants to get out for at least one day to see the Festival of Fools, a yearly festival where everything is reversed and topsy turvy. The gargoyles try to convince him to go, but they’re stopped by the arrival of Frollo who finds out that Quasimodo is thinking about attending the festival and proceeds to tell Quasimodo about the evils of the world and even uses Catholic guilt to great effect! Quasimodo just wants to be accepted by the people of the world and live along side them, so he decides to go to the festival.

We are then introduced to Phoebus (Kevin Kline), Frollo’s new captain of the guard, and the gypsy Esmerelda (Demi Moore). Esmerelda dances on the street for money in order to survive, but some guards start to hassle her because they thought she stole the money but are stopped by Phoebus. Frollo tasks Phoebus in the eradication of the “heathen and immoral” gypsies for the eternal soul of everyone in Paris, but Phoebus is perplexed by the idea that he returned from the wars to Paris to get rid of “palm readers and fortune tellers” but doesn’t have enough time to question the matter before he and Frollo are called upon to attend the Festival of Fools.

Quasimodo decides to sneak out of the tower and arrives just as the festival is starting. He eventually runs into Esmerelda who is actually nice to him, as opposed to what Frollo had been telling him for his entire life, but it turns out that she thinks that his face is a mask. During the festival, Phoebus becomes quite smitten by the beauty of Esmerelda, but Frollo sees her as a witch. At the Festival every year, they crown a new King of Fools. The King of Fools is the person who can make the ugliest face, and the “award” of course goes to Quasimodo. Much to the chagrin of Frollo when he finds out that Quasimodo left the tower, he shows his frustration with the boy when the crowd turns on the bell ringer and torments him by pelting him with eggs, produce, and insults and even tying him down to a platform to keep him from escaping. Frollo doesn’t make the crowd stop, but Esmerelda does when she sets Quasimodo free and shows that there is actually some good in the world. Esmerelda’s act of kindness does not keep Quasimodo from never wanting the leave the bell tower again, though.

Frollo tries to have Esmerelda arrested, but she flees to Notre Dame and, with the help of Phoebus, declares sanctuary but Frollo posts guards at every door to the cathedral and imprisons her inside. She meets up with Quasimodo and shows him that what Frollo has been telling him all his life is not necessarily true, in return he helps her escape by climbing down the face of the cathedral.

Frollo discovers that he has a newfound lust for the gypsy girl and decides that she can either choose him or burn at the stake as a witch, he then doubles his intensity in both finding the gypsies and killing anyone who gets in the way of finding said gypsies. Phoebus finally stands up against the insanity of the judge and saves some people from a building that Frollo set ablaze that he deemed as traitors. Phoebus flees from the soldiers, but is wounded in the process. Esmerelda saves him and takes him to Quasimodo for help shortly before Frollo arrives to tell the bell ringer that he knows where the gypsies are hiding and that he will attack at dawn with a thousand men. It’s up to Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and Phoebus to stop the now genocidal Frollo from carrying out his vendetta.

What really sets the Hunchback of Notre Dame from other Disney films is the fact that religion is actually present. There are many people out there that will derive religion from the messages present in some Disney films but it is rarely ever brought up as a topic. This film is all about religion and actually shows one of the most balanced views of the subject that I have seen in film. It shows both the good and bad that is present in religion. The Archdeacon is a kind, generous, and giving man who would help anyone in need if given the opportunity to do so. Frollo uses religion almost as a weapon. He will eliminate anyone whom he deems to be immoral or unholy, he tangles with his self-inflicted celibacy with his new found lust of Esmerelda, and is incredibly prejudiced against anyone who is different from him. It also mentions the concept of Hell and damnation on numerous occasions, it even becomes Frollo’s theme for the movie.

Honestly, the religious angle of Frollo combined with his manipulative and brainwashing nature is what makes him such an amazing villain. What’s worse than killing a mother and imprisoning her child in a bell tower? Also imprisoning the child in his own mind by constantly telling him that he is a monster and that the world outside his tower is a living hell on earth minus the fire. The damage he did to Quasimodo would be almost irreversible in real life and knowing that is one of the many things that makes Judge Claude Frollo such a contemptible human being and what makes him the real monster in the film, not the man who only looks like a monster. Frollo is one of the greatest Disney Villains of all time (I rank him at number three, as you can’t really beat the devil or the Mistress of all Evil).

This is a Disney film that a surprising amount of people have not actually seen. It was released during the Disney Renaissance, but is oddly looked over by most people. The same can be said about Pocahontas (but there is kind of a reason that Pocahontas is slightly looked over), but that movie will never be forgotten because it was a Disney Princess film. Numerous parents would not let their children see the Hunchback of Notre Dame due to the darkness of the film, it’s themes, and it’s portrayal of religion as not being completely good. The movie is definitely a more family friendly version of Victor Hugo’s novel, but that does not mean that it is some saccharine-sweet version of the story. Hunchback still deals with a lot of complex ideas about religion, what actually constitutes a monster, and the persecution of anyone who is different.

The score was done by Alan Menken and he really took the religious nature of the film and ran with it. The score incorporates a full chorus for numerous pieces and they are all actually singing in Latin when used, it really ups the epic nature of the score and the scenes that use the chorus. Stephen Schwartz returned from Pocahontas to write the songs. The real standouts of the film are “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire”, “God Help the Outcasts”, and “Out There.” “Out There” is one Quasimodo’s themes for the movie (the other being “Heaven’s Light”) and sets up his boundless optimism, despite his ghastly appearance, and is very uplifting and sets the feeling for the first act of the film very well. “God Help the Outcasts” is definitely the “Beauty and the Beast” or “A Whole New World” of the film. It’s the song that everyone remembers for this film, it sets up the theme of the movie and like “Out There”, it’s a very touching song. “Hellfire” is easily the best song in the film, though. The sequence for it is intense and actually kind of scary with it’s almost demonic choir, illusions in the fire of Esmerelda dancing that eventually turn into Esmerelda writhing in pain and BURNING TO DEATH.

In the “Out There” segment, when the camera starts to pan across a street in the city, be sure to look for Belle walking down the street at the beginning of the camera movement.

Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite Disney films, I actually saw it twice in theatres when it was released in 1996 (which was almost unheard of at that time with me, now I’ll see movies 3, 4, and even 6 times in theatres (that movie is going to come later in this countdown)) and would incessantly quote “pour the wine and cut the cheese,” even when there was no context (especially when there was no context). The film is dark and mature, but still has that same Disney feel with the sweetness of it’s story and characters, the amazingness of it’s animation, and the epic music. This film is definitely in the upper echelon of Disney films and desperately needs an HD release because the 2002 DVD just isn’t cutting it any more. Seriously Disney (because I know that the big-wigs at Disney are TOTALLY reading this blog), get on that.


One response to this post.

  1. *Belle walking down the street, Pumba on a stick, and the Magic Carpet being shaken out. 😀


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