Remember that Disney animation based on a French gothic novel starring Demi Moore and Kevin Kline? No? To be fair, it’s not hard to see why. But when you do watch it you will wonder why this gem isn’t mentioned as often as the others.
The recent fire at Notre Dame got my four-year-old son’s attention, and when watching footage of the flames it occurred to me that we had an excellent Disney film in our possession that we hadn’t watched.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is, in my opinion, a marvellous animation. Yet while not exactly ignored, it probably won’t appear on many “best of” lists.
The reason is that on paper, it is a strange mix. Look at the cover of the DVD (or digital download thumbnail, kids) and you will see a traditionally fun image of Quasimodo swinging around Notre Dame’s architecture. And yet, watch and listen to the opening of the film and you will see why children, and parents, may get mixed messages. I mean, after reading this, try and identify the target audience and you may be scratching your head for a while.
This is a wonderful production, attempting to create an animated version of what we usually see as a horror story. The film is almost operatic in scale, the opening takes us skimming across the clouds and down into the Paris streets to the soundtrack of a booming choir, before ushering in a “pre-title” sequence which introduces the strict villain judge Frollo, whose pathological fear/hatred of “gypsies”, the poor, and indeed anyone who does not fit in with his moral code, is clearly shown in the eye-opening moment when he chases a woman on his horse, assuming she is fleeing with stolen goods, only to discover that she is just protecting a bundle containing her baby. Running her down and killing her on the steps of Notre Dame, he lifts the bundle and is horrified with the deformed baby he sees to the extent that he rides over to a nearby well and starts to drop the bundle. It’s a thrilling, scary and extremely effective opening which truly sets a dark and emotional tone. The priest from Notre Dame convinces him to stop, and Frollo decides the child should grow inside the confines of the church, never to experience life out in the world. He may be of use to him one day. And with that, the music sweeps up, the voices rise, the viewer is ascending through the bell tower where we see a brief montage of shadows, silhouettes and fleeing movements indicating the passage of time and Quasimodo growing up until we see him ringing the bells. Take a breath. This is going to be interesting!
The story sticks relatively close to the story you may already know. The deformed, and therefore shunned bell-ringer longs to live down in the streets but is physically and mentally imprisoned by his mentor. When Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) observes a “Festival of Fools” in the street below, he longs to join in. As the festival is full of costumed “fools”, he seems to fit in, until he is brought up onto the stage to be crowned their King, only for the bewitching Esmerelda (Demi Moore) to realise that he isn’t wearing a costume. When he is then ridiculed and tied down by the crowd, you feel the horror here – Esmerelda is the one to steps up to stop their mockery, freeing Quasimodo and humiliating the soldiers – making her a target for Frollo, who is officiating.
Esmerelda ultimately takes refuge in Notre Dame, assisted by Frollo’s new captain Phoebus, and Quasimodo himself.
Spoilers ahead in this paragraph – come back and read it when you’ve watched the film. As Frollo’s insane desire to get his revenge on Esmerelda leads to him questioning innocent citizens and terrorising Paris, Phoebus rejects his orders (fair enough, as Frollo has just asked him to burn a family in their home for not cooperating with his witch-hunt). Their home is a windmill, which burns ferociously, and a call back to the 1930s Frankenstein movies. Phoebus saves the family and narrowly escapes being killed by the soldiers. It is then up to Quasimodo, Esmerelda and Phoebus to try and resist Frollo’s vendetta. Frollo uses Quasimodo and Phoebus to lead him to the hidden lair of the Court of Miracles in the catacombs, where the gypsies and outcasts live. Frollo’s twenty-year quest to rid Paris of these people, which started with the death of Quasimodo’s mother, is now nearly complete – Quasimodo was useful after all. The finale sees Frollo punishing our heroes, and his soldiers trying to break into Notre Dame while the people start to revolt and burning oil falls onto the streets. As you may have guessed, Frollo meets an untimely end by falling from a great height into the hellish fires below (Alien 3 has nothing on this).
So, let’s recap – murder, possible infanticide, racism, religious zealotry, psychological torture, public humiliation, abuse of power, poverty, lust, obsession, hellish imagery, an arrow wound being stitched up, Esmeralda’s near-death, and Frollo trying to stab Quasimodo. Disney’s big 1996 animation really pushed against the usual expectations.
I haven’t even mentioned that, as you’d expect, it is a musical! And the Oscar-nominated score is fantastic – written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the first twenty minutes alone are wonderful: The Bells of Notre Dame, Out There, and Topsy-Turvy are great, and God Help the Outcasts is another standout. Indeed, the score was adapted to a stage musical in 2016 and I defy you to listen to the opening without your spine tingling.
Where’s the Disney in all of this, you may ask? Well, Esmerelda has a friendly goat (non-speaking, but funny), some horses have traditional Disney fun, the soldiers are hapless, and as for Quasimodo, he has three gargoyles who come to life and provide the banter.
The three gargoyles are named, Victor, Hugo, and, ahem, Laverne. They come to life for no reason, they aren’t a figment of Quasimodo’s imagination, as one of them interacts with Esmerelda’s goat, and they do move then freeze in different positions, which no one seems to notice. They should be annoying, but the three of them are nice characters with a couple of cracking gags and a good song.
The animation is a mix of traditional with some sweeping digital computer moves (see Quasimodo swinging down to save Esmerelda for example). There is a short running gag with a wiry old-timer being freed, from his cage, only to be immediately trapped again. There are some great/terrible puns: when Phoebus first speaks to Esmerelda and sees the goat, he comments “I didn’t know you had a kid”.
Frollo is an evil man through and through. No redemption for him. His obsession with ridding the city of outcasts is terribly grown up for an animated film. He even has a striking monologue/song “Hellfire” where his lust for Esmerelda (and his instant overpowering guilt at this attraction) literally floors him.
Quasimodo is represented very well here. Decent, honest, loyal, deceived, emotional, and a sense of justice that even Frollo couldn’t drive out of him, he is the emotional centre of the film. His humiliation scene is awful to watch. His reaction when it seems Esmerelda is dead getting your tears welling – and the slight slump in his posture when he sees Phoebus and Esmerelda’s kiss is heart-breaking.
Phoebus is more than the traditional good-looking beefcake – he gets some funny lines, is obviously conflicted about Frollo’s plans from the outset, and is crucial in saving the day. What a catch!
Esmerelda is hypnotic – the animation is fantastic, the dancing and illusions she performs make her a fascinating watch. She is arguably the strongest character on screen, a seasoned rebel who will fight for what’s right. She is not a damsel. And never in distress. Towards the end, Frollo is about to burn her in the town square (no really) and he whispers that he will let her go if she chooses him (no really) and her response? She spits in his face! Brilliant! Reminder – this is a Disney cartoon.
The floor is lava finale is great (although when our heroes leave the church to the acclaim of the Parisians the street is remarkably clear – my son shouts “wait, wait, where’s the lava, when did they tidy up?”.
When the people of Paris carry Quasimodo off at the end, but this time praising and supporting him, your heart soars – just as the audience fly up and away, back to the clouds, as the music reaches a crescendo again.
The film is thrilling in its own right – yet perhaps it seems more so because it is just so unexpected. It’s a film for anyone who is or considers themselves to be an outcast. For those who feel they aren’t in control. Or downtrodden. For the introverts amongst us. And love doesn’t save the day – decency does. Friendship does. Caring, compassion and a sense of justice destroy intolerance and evil. And that, I argue, is a much more relatable message for young children than a handsome prince’s kiss which will make everything all right.
I can’t recommend it enough. The visuals are wonderful at times: the use of colour in the Feast of Fools, the gritty streets, the scary cloaked visions during “Hellfire”, the burning windmills, the shot where Quasimodo takes Esmerelda up to the top of the church to look at the skyline of Paris, showing the sunlight on the Seine (my son commented “wow!”).
The film is wasn’t too much for a four-year-old. He wasn’t upset at the imagery or the story, he was invested: just because someone looks different doesn’t mean they are a monster. The knockabout comedy and soldier pratfalls had him roaring with laughter. The subtler jokes are there for the grownups. When a witty moment happened and I sniggered, he said: “Daddy, tell me when it’s funny so I know when to laugh”. To be fair though, I’ve said the same about The Big Bang Theory for years.
In January 2019 The Hollywood Reporter detailed Disney’s plans for a live-action remake of the film. It may take a while to get here, and the damage to Notre Dame may make the subject of a new film awkward, but there is the potential for a stunning movie musical of this material. All it would take is a visionary director.
Give Hunchback a shot. A very different and striking storyline with great humour, drama and characters, and a superb “princess” in Esmerelda who isn’t mentioned enough if you ask me.
The film was one of the highest grossing movies of 1996 and led to a straight-to-video sequel. We’ve not watched it yet. We’ve downloaded it, but not watched it. I’m not sure I want to.
My son’s now asleep. I might put the soundtrack on.