Disney Classics #34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I remember going to see this in the cinema and it being the first Disney movie that didn’t impress me, aside from Pinocchio and for years I carried residual bad feeling about it and didn’t rate it. However, WoM and several other people have raved about it, I gave this another watch a couple of years back and was pleasantly surprised, although I can kinda see why it didn’t work for me as a kid.

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At eleven years old, my major interest was football. I was obsessed and didn’t have much time for anything else, geekdom not yet having claimed me. I was also in that awkward phase when you’re starting to get judged for what you like, and this wasn’t going to earn me much credibility.

Also, at the time I think the slightly dark tone of the movie wouldn’t have won me over and I’ve had viewed it as a bit dull. This is ridiculous as I’ve grown to quite like gothy, moody stuff in moderation and this film massively lightens the source material. Not that I’ve read the Victor Hugo novel but a read of the Wikipedia summary makes it sound grim as all hell. What turned me off as a kid is actually what I really dig about it now.

The darkness starts early when villainous Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay) chases a gypsy woman through the streets, finally catching her outside of the eponymous cathedral. He snatches her bundle away and she falls, cracking heer head and dying. Cheery.

The bundle is actually her young child, who has severe deformities (apologies if deformities isn’t the correct term here, but that’s the only word I can think of. If you suggest one politely in the comments, I’ll switch it). Frollo, being a top guy decides that he should drown the baby in a well, but fortunately, the Archdeacon is on hand to lay some serious Catholic guilt on him, reminding him that “the eyes of Notre Dame” have seen his actions. We then get treated to the staring, hard faced gothic statues of saints and kings staring down at Frollo ending with JC himself.

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Creepy

The Catholic theme is strong throughout, and not just because it takes part in the cathedral. We see characters praying to Mary for help and it’s evident that religion is behind the motivations and issues of the antagonist. Frollo is incredibly dark and far more human than most Disney villains, a raging man who believes himself just and righteous. He hates the gypsies of the city with a manic fervour, decrying them as heathens and corrupt, and placing himself above them morally.

He’s manipulative and bullying to Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), the deformed child he took responsibility for, drilling into him that he is a monster and that the world is cruel. He demands obedience and gratitude from Quasimodo, despite constantly insulting and lecturing him. But the darkest part, and one I didn’t fully understand as a kid is Frollo’s interaction with Esmeralda (Demi Moore), the gypsy dancing girl who captures the attention of all the male characters. Despite his hatred of gypsies and his moral posturing, he is deeply attracted to her, and this obsessive desire, which threatens his image of himself as a pure, virtuous man drives him towards madness.

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Frollo’s lust conjures Esmeralda in the flames of his fire

It’s a very adult angle for the villain, with the repressed desire, guilt and hatred all bubbling away within, a far more psychological motivation than the the average kids’ movie villain. As a kid I probably missed all of this, as I definitely hadn’t clocked what Esmeralda was talking about where she angrily replies “I know what you’re imagining” when Frollo grabs her and talks about imagining a rope around her neck. She sees through his facade, and recognises the urges he has.

When his desires are frustrated Frollo erupts in a storm of violence, ordering houses burned and the gypsies rounded up. It’s racial hatred presented plainly as horrible, unfair and cruel, and the film should be applauded for addressing this head on. Similarly it shows the ugliness of mob mentality, the way the crowds jeer and humiliate Quasimodo the character who the audience know to be sweet, kind and innocent.

Quasimodo’s attraction to Esmeralda is far more innocent than Frollo’s, based largely on the fact that she is the first person to be genuinely kind to him. And yet, when he realises that she cares for Phoebus (Kevin Kline) he reacts by going in a self pitying sulk and initially refuses to help Phoebus warn the gypsies of Frollo’s impending rampage. It’s the only moment that Quasimodo’s heroic character cracks, the moment he deals with the sting of rejection. His own petty hurt almost pushing him to ignore doing the right thing.

Of course, he comes good in the end, allying himself Phoebus and Esmeralda in winning the day, giving the couple his blessing. The central characters are well done here, with Esmeralda being a fiery, strong willed heroine who stands up for herself. She rallies the people against the injustice of Frollo’s rules and also shows kindness to others throughout. She’s also given a bit more of a sexier vibe than the traditional Disney heroines, which works for the character who knows that she is desirable and uses this for her own gain.

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The best looking Disney heroine?

Kline’s Phoebus almost steals the show, however. Phoebus looks every inch the hero with his gleaming armour and dashing looks, but there’s a knowing humour to Kline’s performance which stops him from being a cheesy archetype. He’s sarcastic and somewhat overconfident, but charming and heroic, to such an extent that he threatens to overshadow the hero.

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Scene stealing Phoebus

While the human characters are brilliant one of the movie’s missteps is the inclusion of three talking gargoyles who serve as Quasimodo’s friends within the bell tower. While the vocal work of Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander and Mary Wickes is fine and they have some funny moments, they jar against the heavier, darker tone of the rest of the film. I appreciate that the filmmakers probably felt they needed to inject some humour into proceedings but this is done better through the dialogue of Phoebus and Esmeralda. Perhaps it was just a way to allow us insight into Quasimodo’s thoughts, which it achieves, but it could have been better.

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Funny but feel out of place at times

The disjointed tone is one of the things that hampers this film, as is the fact that Quasimodo is a rather dull protagonist. He’s likeable to a point, but he’s so consistently nice for much of the film that he doesn’t feel like a real person.

The gothic touches and human aspects are probably a bit too dark for kids, but some of the humour is a bit lazy for adults. There are moments when it really gets going, but it fails to maintain this over the course of the whole movie, which is a shame. It’s a lot better than how I remembered it as a kid and I’m glad I gave it a second chance, but it’s still a distinctly second tier Disney movie, due to it’s inconsistency.

Disney Score: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

3 thoughts on “Disney Classics #34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

  1. Interesting take on the film.
    And deformity is a fine word to use nowadays, just don’t use gypsy as apparently that’s not accepted!
    I liked your review but I would have to disagree with your paragraph saying that quasi is a dull protagonist. I think he’s quite the opposite; yes he is nice but I wouldn’t say consistently. He gets angry quite a few times during the film, he plainly is jealous at some points and doesn’t hide it well, is defeatist and quite outwardly stubborn. I think he’s a very realistic character. And though he is nice for the most part, he upholds a lot of emotional intricacies that are very human and real.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Maybe further rewatches will change my mind on Quasi, I just felt he was overshadowed by the supporting cast, which happens in quite a few films.

      1. Yeah he absolutely was, it doesn’t help that the ‘dashing prince charming’ came in to the equation, pushing him to the back a bit! But some great insights in your review!

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