Classic Movie Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Directed by: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise.
Written by:  Geefwee Boedoe & Tab Murphy & Irene Mecchi & Bob Tzudiker & Noni White & Jonathan Roberts based on the novel by Victor Hugo.Starring: Tom Hulce (Quasimodo), Demi Moore (Esmeralda), Tony Jay (Frollo), Kevin Kline (Phoebus), Jason Alexander (Hugo), Charles Kimbrough (Victor), David Ogden Stiers (Archdeacon), Mary Wickes (Laverne).

Out of all the films during the Disney Renaissance – that stretches mainly from 1989’s The Little Mermaid to 1999’s Tarzan, 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the one I had never seen before. It fell through the cracks for me – in that brief time when I was a teenager where I thought I was too cool to watch Disney movies, yet before I started babysitting so I saw films like Hercules, Mulan or Tarzan. It is seen by many as one of Disney’s weaker efforts from that decade where they once again proved to be the best game in town for animated children’s movies – but for me, while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King – its significantly better than some of the other films from that period – like Pocahontas, Mulan, Hercules or Tarzan. Yes, Disney certainly Disney-fied Victor Hugo’s gothic horror tale – especially the ending (but considering the original novel ended with the heroine – who wasn’t that innocent in the first place – being hanged, the hero becoming a murderer, and then essentially committing suicide, how could they not? The film is still stunningly animated, contains some great songs, and is somewhat more thoughtful than many Disney movies.

The film is about Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) whose mother dies trying to protect her newborn son – who is hideously deformed. He ends up being confined the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral, with no one to talk to except for the stone gargoyles (which may well just be in his head) – and visited by the brutal Frollo (Tony Jay) – the man responsible for the death of Quasimodo’s mother, although he lies about that. He fills Quasimodo’s head full of lies about his past, and about the city, and forbids him from ever leaving the bell tower. But Quasimodo cannot resist – so during the annual Festival of Fools, where everyone is wearing masks and costumes anyway, he ventures out. It’s there where he meets Esmeralda (Demi Moore) – a fiery gypsy, and the only person who will stand up for him, where his horrible secret is revealed, and he is mocked and humiliated by everyone else in Paris. While Quasimodo falls in love with Esmerelda, Frollo lusts after her – and vows to either possess her for himself, or see her dead. The other major character is Phoebus (Kevin Kline) – an army officer brought to the city by Frollo to help quell the gypsy uprising – and finding himself also drawn to Esmerelda, and fighting against Frollo – who he thinks is a brutal, horrible person.

Frollo is perhaps the most underrated, horrific villain in Disney movie history. He doesn’t get the attention of a Cruela De Ville or Scar or Ursula or Maleficent or Jafar – but he perhaps even more evil – a cruel man driven by lust and greed, who uses religion to justify his actions, and ends up almost literally falling into hell – which in his case is all too justified. Jaa relishes his evil dialogue, and turns him into a truly frightening creation. Quasimodo is not a typical hero for Disney either – he is destined for heartbreak from the beginning of the movie, and although the film gives him a somewhat happy ending, it is still undercut by the fact that he will never get what he wants. The film doesn’t make his rival for Esmerelda’s affection, Phoebus, into a bad guy either – he’s honorable, attractive and funny – a perfect match for her – something even Quasimodo eventually has to admit.

The film simplifies Hugo’s novel, and its themes, but still provides a good lesson for children about not judging a book by its cover. And it makes up for that simplification by being stunningly animated from started to finish, and being filled with great music. The film isn’t as jokey as many Disney movies, and it is quite a bit darker than many of them. The film may not be quite at the level of the best movies Disney have ever made – but that’s an impossibly high bar to reach for most films. And the film comes a lot closer to that bar than many seem to think.

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