Friday, January 11, 2013

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) - A Dark Disney Movie with Flashes of Inspiration

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Courtesy of Disney Animation

Hunchback of Notre Dame poster Disney movie
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996).
After a string of Disney movie hits during the Disney Renaissance of the early 1990s, Walt Disney Feature Animation was looking for something fresh. Everything the studio had cranked out since "The Black Cauldron" had been light and breezy, exemplified by the romantic "Beauty and the Beast" and comedic "Aladdin." The mood of the studio with the television hit "Gargoyles" was darker than it had been, though, so story developer David Stain came up with the idea for a Disney movie from reading a comic book.

Hunchback of Notre Dame poster Disney movie

The idea was to adapt 's classic "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) into a children's film. There was a lot to be said for the idea of this Disney movie, as the visuals of Paris would be breath-taking, Hugo's story is an epic tale, and possibilities abound for cute gargoyle characters and the like.

Quasimodo gargoyles The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The gargoyles provide comic relief.
The one problem was that the basic plot of the original "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is full of adult themes and violence. So, this Disney movie did what so many had done before (see, oh, "The Jungle Book" or "The Fox and the Hound," for example): it changed the characters of the Disney movie "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" to make it palatable to children. How you feel about that kind of change will likely determine whether you like this Disney movie, because otherwise, it is technically proficient and full of an exciting adventure.

The cathedral The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
The star of our show, ladies and gentlemen.
It is Paris during the middle ages (1482 to be precise). Judge Claude Frollo is out to keep Paris pure. He chases a group of gypsies out of the city, but the deformed baby, Quasimodo, of a gypsy woman that he kills somehow survives. To atone to his boss the Archdeacon for the crime of killing the woman, Frollo adopts the boy and raises him (some atonement!) to be the bellringer of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Quasimodo and gargoyles The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
Better than four dogs playing poker on black velvet, I suppose.
Quasimodo, who as a young man becomes a self-imposed outcast from society (heavily encouraged by mean Judge Frollo), lives alone in the Notre Dame belltower with his three friends Victor, Hugo and Laverne. They are stone gargoyles on the cathedral roof that comes to life when only Quasimodo is around. Frollo forbids Quasimodo from leaving the cathedral, but one day Quasimodo can't resist the attraction of the annual Festival of Fools. Quasimodo becomes popular at the event, but Frollo's men spot Quasimodo and arrest him. Esmeralda, a sympathetic gypsy girl, frees Quasimodo. Curious about him, she follows Quasimodo back to the cathedral.

Gargoyles The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
Paradoxically, the stone gargoyles are the liveliest part of  "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
Captain Phoebus, one of Frollo's soldiers who like Esmeralda and Quasimodo, observes all this and detains Esmeralda within the cathedral for her own safety. There, Esmeralda becomes friends with Quasimodo, who shows her a way out past the guards. In gratitude, Esmeralda gives Quasimodo a map to the fabled Court of Miracles, the gypsies' secret camp (you just know that is a bad idea).

The cathedral lit up The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
A very pretty picture that really didn't need an animation to achieve.
Frollo falls in love with the beautiful Esmeralda and orders the soldiers to find her. The soldiers burn down homes where gypsies live as part of the search, but Phoebus refuses to participate. He is sentenced to death, but escapes. Unfortunately, he injures himself, and Esmeralda finds him and takes him back to the cathedral to recover. Frollo figures out that Quasimodo knows where the Court of Miracles is located and threatens to burn it down, inducing Quasimodo and Phoebus to set out to warn the gypsies. Frollo, following behind like the cagey fox that he is, then has his men spring out of hiding and capture the gypsies at the Court of Miracles, including Esmeralda.

Quasimodo The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
"Look at me, I can fly... Oh, wait, wrong Disney movie."
Frollo orders Esmeralda burned at the stake because she doesn't like him (this part may confuse some children). Quasimodo swoops down and rescues her, returning her to the cathedral where she enjoys sanctuary. To settle matters for good with Frollo, Phoebus incites an uprising of the people of Paris. They come after Frollo and his men, who try to seek safety in the locked cathedral. Quasimodo, though, is ready for them and pours molten copper from the cathedral roof. Frollo manages to get in and confront Quasimodo, and they struggle to see who shall prevail and who shall die.

Quasimodo acting silly The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
"I'm just a wild and crazy guy!"
While there are many strong characters in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," there is no question that the real star of this animated Disney movie is the cathedral itself. Not only does most of the action take place in and around it, but parts of it actually come alive and talk to Quasimodo. All that is well and good, but a stone building is not something that is an ideal setting for animation, however immense and regardless of the views. The animation is best with fluid scenery and quick changes of locale. Putting aside the usual animation flourishes, there is little in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" that you couldn't see or re-create in a live-action version. The drab colors of the clothes - lots of white/black stark contrasts, muddy browns, olive, subdued reds - are not ideal for animation, either. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" looks very washed-out at times.

Festival of Fools The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
There is something very disturbing about this picture.
Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, though, who had helmed the pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance, "Beauty and the Beast," knew what they were about with "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." They dumbed down the story to make it kid-friendly, adding "kindly" characters like the archdeacon and changing others. Phoebus is vastly nicer than in the novel, and most of the overt sexuality and violence now is only hinted at. All these changes open the dynamic directing duo up to charges of turning edgy characters into cute clichés, but really, what do you expect in a Disney movie?

Esmeralda The Hunchback of Notred Dame Disney
Esmeralda is quite vivacious.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame," despite their efforts, remains very dark, and dark doesn't usually play well with family Disney movie audiences. There is a song called "Hellfire" sung by Frollo, and frequent uses of words like "strumpet" and "licentious" and "damnation" with which little children - if they even understand them at all -may have trouble. The entire ending, based on Esmeralda's rejection of Frollo, is packed with sexual innuendo and the tragic consequences of that rejection. This is a children's Disney movie that wasn't really aimed squarely enough at children, though it isn't aimed at adults, either.

Esmeralda holding Phoebus The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
"Nyah Nyah, I have Esmeralda and you don't!"
The soundtrack is by veteran Disney composer Alan Menken, working with Stephen Schwartz, and is unremarkable. Menken is a terrific composer, with numerous Academy Awards, but this is not his best effort. The soundtrack album did not make the top ten in the United States, and there were no radio hits. Part of that may have been related to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"'s setting in medieval times, leading to songs loaded with Gregorian chants and religious influences which are not the types of bits that lead to radio airplay (unless you like "Enigma" with its sexual overtones, but that's another story).

Hunchback of Notre Dame poster Disney movie

The main setting is a church, so the songs tend to be quiet - Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" wouldn't fit in at all despite the fact that Quasimodo actually does that, well, you know what I mean. Dark songs like "Hellfire" with Latin chants are not big crowd-pleasers, though they certainly support the plot of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and create the mood the animators needed.

Esmeralda comforting Phoebus The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
Oh, my poor little soldier man.
The voice actors are fine but not really exceptional for an animated Disney movie during the Disney Renaissance period. Tom Hulce, enjoying a continuing period of fame after "Amadeus," voices Quasimodo like a pure innocent, which he is, but that makes him bland. Quasimodo is drawn with some resemblance to the classic Charles Laughton character. Hulce, whose voice is clear but not very distinctive, is overshadowed by practically everyone else, particularly hammy Jason Alexander from "Seinfeld" in a high-profile role as one of the gargoyles (watch the trailer below and listen to see whose voice you hear more often).

Hunchback of Notre Dame poster Disney movie

Demi Moore with her distinctive throaty voice is Esmeralda, and it cost Disney a pretty penny to get her, making her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. Kevin Kline shines as Phoebus, with several funny lines delivered only the way he can do it. Disney movie stalwart David Ogden Stiers ("Beauty and the Beast," "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Lilo and Stitch" and several animated Disney series) plays the small but pivotal role of the Archdeacon in typical Stiers arch fashion. Tony Jay, the voice of Monsieur D'Arque in "Beauty and the Beast," voices Frollo in fine, deep villainous tones. That role almost went to Marlon Brando, which would have been epic. Marlon, though, didn't like the material and turned it down.

Esmeralda dancing The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
"If you're sexy and you know it, clap your hands."
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a competent job. It is akin to reading an abridged version of a classic novel or seeing one of those five-minute versions of an hour-long television show. The high points are there, and you get a feel for the basic story, but a lot of the richness, complexity, and satisfaction of the original is absent. Part of that is simply the limitations of the media, and another part the attempts by the producers to reach a mass audience. A real problem is that the love affair between Esmeralda and Phoebus never really ignites, leaving "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with an empty core, but children are unlikely to notice. The most fun scenes happen early on, at the Festival of Fools, and it is a shame the entire film could not have retained that light-hearted tone. Oh, and Esmeralda isn't a princess, either, which excludes her from that pantheon of Disney Movie heroines.

Frollo The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
"I really shouldn't have eaten that lemon...."
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was a successful Disney movie upon release, earning over $100 million in the States and $325 million worldwide, but it is not a high point of the Disney Renaissance. Still, there are many very devoted fans, and it did well enough to justify a sequel, 2002 direct-to-video "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II" (compare the two, and you will see that Disney dumbed the sequel down even more and made it much more kid-friendly). There also have been stage shows and comic book adaptations of the Disney movie (somewhat ironic, that), and this story may well play out better on stage than it ever did on film.

Hunchback of Notre Dame poster Disney movie

The story has been around for almost two hundred years, though - who really needed Disney to put together a stage version?. In Germany, where they like dark, Gothic productions like Wagner's "Die Nibelungen," the stage version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was a huge hit, which may tell you something about the tone. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" receives occasional revivals elsewhere as well, pushed heavily by Menken. If you like Gregorian Chants, it's about as enjoyable a soundtrack as you'll find anywhere, and the song "Hellfire" is well-remembered by many.

Frollo grabbing Esmeralda The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996
Watch that hand, buddy!
When you mess with the classics like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," you take your chances with the critics. Here, Disney escaped without too much damage, though, looking at it now, one might wonder whether today this would have had lower-profile actors and gone straight to video. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was a fairly good adaptation of the novel, and the same team went on to do "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," another mediocre animated Disney movie. Neither of those was nearly as good as the team's first effort, "Beauty and the Beast," but few Disney movies are. 

Charles Laughton The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The original Quasimodo, played by Charles Laughton.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is worth a look, but this Disney movie may not be appropriate for the youngest children. It also may require a little patience from some others, though ultimately it should be worth the trouble. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" will be released for the first time ever on Blu-ray alongside its sequel in a Special Edition "2-Movie Collection" on March 12, 2013. so if you are interested, you might pick that version up.

Hunchback of Notre Dame poster Disney movie



  1. I disagree on your views of the film's soundtrack. It is amazing, and is agreed upon by many I've talked to (and people who aren't hardcore Disney fans like myself, mind you) that it has one of the greatest Disney soundtracks ever. It's wildly underrated.
    Is the film mature? Yes, very much so, and I agree with you on that. It's dramatically uneven at times because it tries to be mature but kid-friendly. It's risky--something Disney doesn't do very often.
    Is it one of Disney's best? Hell no, but I don't think it is bad. It's more of a introductory version of the classic novel, if anything, and may inspire people to read the novel (I know it did in my case).

    1. I absolutely with that statement.

      To me personally, who watched this movie in movie theaters at the age of 14, I have to say I absolutely enjoyed it, and it is still one of my favorites by Disney to this date, simply because it tackles more serious issues underlying our societies, such as tolerance, superficiality ("who is the monstre and who is the man?") as well as a profound criticism of Christianity as displayed by the character of Frollo.

      I loved Disney since I was little, but 'Pocahontas' and "The Hunchback..." made it feel to me, like Disney was growing up with me, and providing me with more critical movies that went beyond the pure fluffy 'happily-ever-after' fairytales of the years before.

      The song "Someday" is full of poetry and criticism that is very well applicable to the world today.

      I guess with those movies it really depends whether you as an adult can find the harmonic balance between getting over yourself about the changes Disney made to the original material and the pure blue-eyed naivité that accompanies every Disney movie.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful replies, folks. The soundtrack is of high quality. Whether it resonates with you outside of the film depends upon your appreciation of that sort of music. It isn't something I'd listen to while driving to work, but it works well within the context of the film.