Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Rating

Director

Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise

Screenplay

Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, Jonathan Roberts (Novel: Victor Hugo)

Length

91 min.

Starring

Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Kevin Kline, Tony Jay, Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, Mary Wickes, Paul Kandel, David Ogden Stiers

MPAA Rating

G

Buy on DVD/Blu-ray

Soundtrack

Poster

Source Material

Review

It may seem a strange choice of settings for a Disney animated musical, but Victor Hugo’s 1831 gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame forms the basis for one of Disney’s greatest animated features.

Hugo set his story of cultural evolution and degradation, of loyalty, and of the enduring, but fateful, power of love. While The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t delve into the darker, more depressing elements of the novel, it keeps intact Hugo’s themes with minor shifts to make them more palatable to children. In addition, the script gives a new spin on the production by instilling the virtue of acceptance in spite of appearances.

The animated Disney story takes place in 1482 as a gypsy puppeteer (voiced by Paul Kandel) recounts the tale of Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), a hunchbacked bell-ringer living atop the bell tower of the legendary Parisian edifice Notre Dame Cathedral. There under the protection of the cathedral’s Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) and the grudging custodianship of one of the city’s judges, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), he pines for moving among the people in the streets of Paris whom he can only watch from afar.

At the urging of his imaginary friends, the talking stone gargoyles Hugo (Jason Alexander), Laverne (Mary Wickes, who died shortly before the film’s release), and Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Quasimodo uses the guise of the Feast of Fools to slip amongst the peasants of the festival to partake in the glories of normalcy. He competes in a contest to find the ugliest mug, which he wins. While he’s initially accepted and welcomed, the crowd becomes violent and he’s strung up for his crime of malformation where only the gypsy woman Esmeralda (Demi Moore) steps in to protect him.

Accused of a crime, he brings her to the cathedral where she’s protected by sanctuary and becomes a prisoner not unlike him. Along the way, she catches the eye of a handsome Guard Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) who wants nothing more than to help her escape while Frollo realizes his love for her and tries to keep her confined to the cathedral until he can figure out a way to have her to himself.

Apart from the stone gargoyles, a lot of this narrative is quite dense for young children. The gargoyles add a nice touch of levity at times, as does the perpetually incarcerated beggar, but what keeps the film from becoming too overwhelming are the lovely songs composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.

Hunchback‘s opening is one of soaring narration that sets the stage with grim purpose. A guilt-ridden Judge Frollo kills Quasimodo’s mother before isolating him in the bell tower. Disney’s animators vividly capture the gorgeous bas-relief carvings and stone statues of Notre Dame, establishing the building itself as one of the most prominent characters in the story. Their judgmental glances pave the way for Frollo’s act of generosity, the only act he seems able to give. This beautiful opening number puts the audience firmly in the film’s Baroque setting, and the equal parts lively and bleak story that will consume the viewer for the next hour-and-a-half.

Disney’s animators have always filled their narratives with buoyant, vibrant landscapes, jaunty constructions and visually resplendent worlds that are as much a part of fantasy creation as any artistic endeavor in modern history. While Hunchback has its moments, the attempt at architectural realism is a staggering accomplishment. Much like tackling natural environs in The Lion King and Pocahontas, the animators created a crisp environment so richly detailed that you feel like you’re there. The designers even took a trip to Paris and visited the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral to sketch up their ideas and get an honest sense of perspective and setting. The film marks one of Disney Animation’s most astounding and gorgeous renderings in its storied history.

What might make parents squirm with its G-rated construction is the attempt to take Disney’s villains in a more genuine and marvelously authentic directions. Until this film, Disney villains were mostly vain, self-centered creatures that used their power as a form of control, but they wanted money, power, success, or beauty. What they never portrayed was sexual or emotional lust. Judge Frollo, swapped from the novel’s Catholic archdeacon to a civil magistrate to avoid burning too many bridges, displays a sinister lustful greed of Esmeralda, making her a sexual object to be held and controlled rather than a person to be cherished and respected.

In the brilliant and unparalleled musical number “Heaven’s Light / Hellfire,” we are presented two men consumed by feelings for Esmeralda. During the first portion of the song, Quasimodo wonders if “she might even care for me” and by virtue of his enlightenment about the possibility of love, he feels he’s been blessed by Heaven’s light. Then we’re presented with Frollo’s revelation that the lustful feelings he’s been having for the woman must be a sorcerous spell cast by the witch who is trying to turn him from his pious ways. He feels he’s being judged by God and threatened with Hellfire if he cannot have her for himself.

This visually striking sequence is so perfectly sculpted, from the shadowing figures damning Frollo’s immortal soul to the twisting fiery rendition of Esmeralda, it’s a sumptuous, graphically inspired moment in a film that is otherwise largely traditional in its scope. For a brief moment, Disney grew up and gave audiences a new form of villainy, one built entirely on human frailty of emotion exacerbated by a culture of religious piety. It may be a one-off moment for the Mouse House, but it’s absolutely thrilling to see them go for something entirely out of their wheelhouse and succeeds so amazingly.

Not long after Hunchback, Disney began its third slide into mediocrity. It wasn’t that they couldn’t accomplish great things on this level, but perhaps because there was some push back regarding the film’s dark subject matter and visceral imagery. They were well known for making family-friendly narratives and while there’s plenty in the film to give kids a fun time, this one touch of darkness may have caused them to pull back and rein in that perceived depravity, making each subsequent outing a bit more cautious than it might otherwise have been.

The Huncback of Notre Dame was an attempt to elevate its own brand of cultural relevance. Much like the slow degradation of culture at the time this novel was written, Disney’s version exposes a level of hypocrisy and bitterness that had been building at the time of the film’s release. Here we had the rich begging God for wealth, fame and glory as exemplified in the song “God Help the Outcasts;” we had a public official threatening to destroy a woman if she would not become his supplicant; we had a populace ready to pillory an innocent man because he was hideous and deformed. Society had been homogenizing culture throughout the 1980s and Hunchback repudiated much of that social collapse.

The rich did not gain wealth or fame or glory. The pontificating judge succumbed to his own hubris. The protagonist didn’t get the girl and he was okay with it. In the end, everyone accepted him and loved him because of his heart, and not because of his countenance. These were ideals that Disney had long advocated even if they had presented them in some of the most harsh and visually daunting images they’d produced in decades. Unfortunately, the innate beauty of a film like this just couldn’t eradicate the pervasive selfishness and exclusion that had been developing in the world.

Yet, one should not despair. Those who grew up on a film like this may have learned this lesson and are becoming a part of the generation that’s trying to change things. They are trying to broaden viewpoints and expand societal horizons so that the poor and downtrodden can eventually emerge from their supplication and find a place in the world where they won’t be judged by those who have more, or look more beautiful, or seek to possess love and never let it live free.

The immediate effects of a film like this cannot be appreciated in the near-term, but in the long-term. Twenty years later, The Huncback of Notre Dame remains one of the most vivid and exciting films Disney ever produced. While it may not be the most popular, it is certainly the most forward-thinking and expansively idealistic of their 1990s output.

Review Written

October 5, 2016, 2015

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