Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a dark, powerful story about finding acceptance and spiritual guidance in a sometimes judgmental world
A Movie Review By Victor DeBonis
From the first five minutes or so that begin Disney’s version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” there’s a strong sense that this film is aiming for a different type of tale than the studio is normally accustomed to. The calming voices of those from the choir, followed by their powerful chanting and the gorgeous, almost angelic vision of Paris’ towers piercing through the clouds, slowly brings the audience into this world before the backstory of this film’s hero is depicted, one that involves a villain almost drowning a disfigured infant and reflecting with absolute horror at the idea that he may be eternally cursed for killing a Gypsy woman. The grand shots that take time to absorb the beauty and darkness of this city and time, coupled with a puppeteer bringing the right level of feeling of awe and terror to his young listeners, instantly tell the audience that this version may not particularly be diving as much into the religious themes of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name(or truly representing it), but they do give a notion of the weight and power that this tale has as well as the humanity and passion that breathes from it.
Disney’s “Hunchback” was a 1996 film that wasn’t a complete flop from its time but also didn’t stand out as the big money-maker that the studio was used to. It was released in the time when the Disney Renaissance was slowly starting to wane and the studio wasn’t reaping the benefits as strongly as it did with “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” and so forth. Part of this is attributed to just how much darker the tone was for this film than previous films from the Mouse, and this will be touched upon in greater detail, later. However, despite the odd shifts in tone and a few other elements from the film that keep this tale from reaching true perfection, “Hunchback” is a movie that definitely deserves more credit than it’s given. For the film’s faults, there’s a raw power and grandeur breathing from its wonderful music and animation and a true compassion echoed towards its hero and the beautifully illustrated theme of embracing and accepting others who are different and being loving towards outcasts in order to know the lovely nature that breathes inside of them. It knows that trying to translate the original novel into an animated film, especially for a crowd of kids and adults, is not an easy task by any means, and, while knowing that it can’t truly capture the overall feel of a story that was even darker and dabbled in themes, such as church corruption, this film still dedicates a great level of sincerity to its narrative and characters and manages to take undeniably bold risks with it while still maintaining its giant heart and powerful emotions. The story takes its time to ponder upon the eloquent presence and thoughtful nature of its own themes, but it also gives a strong amount of entertainment guided by characters who you root for, whether they’re lovable heroes or unforgettably haunting villains.
As one would expect from the work of the Mouse, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. One practically wants to roam through the streets of 15th century Paris and experience the golden sunlight and humble nature of its villages and narrow corners with puppeteers and bakers because the place radiates with such warm colors. In general, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise help guide their artists towards terrific artistry here. The colors look amazing in this film and burst with just the right intensity needed, whether they’re vast shades of blue or gray that rain down from the gray weather in a tragic moment or angry hues of red and orange that burn from the flames that result from sheer prejudice and unresolved rage. Honestly, the fire in this movie crackles and flows with a fierceness that definitely lends more to its own destructive nature in their appropriate moments, and simple touches, such as this, lend a certain realism. Due to such great artwork as this, the city truly feels alive, and the epic shots of how tall the amazing architecture is or how grand the cathedral looks with its colorful, stain-glassed walls help make this film feel gigantic and wondrous to explore. In a number of Disney’s films, part of what resonates from the depicted worlds comes from just how massive they appear and are drawn. “Coco” “The Lion King” and even “Bambi” understand and demonstrate that in perfect fashion with their massive environments, and “Hunchback” gets that, too, and revels in the knowledge of this with every massively atmospheric frame. The shadows especially look amazing in this movie, and they practically swallow buildings and the poor souls who crumble within them in their weaker moments, and the sheer size and ominous appearance of them help lend to the darker tone and feel of this movie in a way that truly earns it and makes no apologies for it.
The characters who inhabit this massive world provide the genuine humanity and darkness that a tale, such as this, requires. Tom Hulce plays the main hero of the movie, Quasimodo, and he echoes nothing but raw vulnerability and a sincere compassion that rings true from every spoken word. The character moves with great agility and is impressive with how much skill he utilizes in leaping from one building to next as well as any seasoned acrobat, but he crumbles all the more when he questions how others will accept him with how physically deformed he is. The sheer fright on his face when he notices how people reject him speaks volumes, even if he doesn’t utter a single word when such tragic events happen. Yet, much like Mrs. Brisby from “The Secret of NIMH” the pain and trials that this protagonist goes through make it even more rewarding when the audience gradually discovers what courage and strength comes from within him. Simply listening to Quasimodo sing is nice because he delivers his song in the film with absolute passion and a genuine hope to venture beyond the bell tower that he’s been sentenced to for most of his life.
Demi Moore and Kevin Kline play Esmeralda and Captain Phoebus, respectively, and these are decent characters who are funny, charming, and devoted to protecting others who are under the threat of the villain of this movie. I admire what comes from Moore’s character because the actress brings a sincerity and loveliness to her role that shows the kindness from someone who is trying to help her outcast people from her town (Gypsies) find better peace and life under their circumstances. She also excels in helping Quasimodo recognize the good that can come from others who are not part of the more judgmental majority of people that surrounds him. Kline is also great in playing a lovable soldier who wants to do good for those that he’s ordered to serve under but also starts to question the moral justice that his leader is demonstrating. As someone who admires his comedic work in “A Fish Called Wanda” and other films and shows, I greatly welcome the charm and refined voice, mixed with comic frustration, that comes from him at times, and, while I think that his friendship with Quasimodo could’ve been built stronger, it works nicely by establishing them as two allies seeking solace from a vicious leader and conflict bent on wiping out minorities from this city.
Those who are on the heroic side and don’t work are, as one might imagine, the gargoyles that live with Quasimodo in the bell towers, specifically Hugo (Jason Alexander), Victor(Charles Kimbrough), and Laverne(Mary Wickes). As much as I love Alexander for his voice-acting and work on “Seinfeld” and in live-action character roles elsewhere, it pains me to see him saying unfunny lines that simply miss the mark. He and the other actors are clearly giving it their all with what they’re supposed to say and are probably trying to make up for the bad jokes with the quick way that they’re trying to speak, but the timing is usually off, and they just don’t get a laugh. I understand that the studio probably included them to help ease much of the darker elements of this film, and I wouldn’t mind them as much if they were, at least, funnier or if they were more believable as characters who were just in Quasimodo’s imagination as a way of creating company for himself amidst such lonely circumstances. As it is, these characters just come across as awkward comic relief, and the tone of the film tends to screech to a strange halt for most of the times that they’re present or trying to create humor.
For as odd as the tone and humor can be from them, few will deny that much of this film’s shortcomings, such as those, are more than made up for with the presence of one of the best Disney villains ever, Frollo, as voiced by the late-great Tony Jay. Frollo, who is chosen to look after Quasimodo, is everything that you want from an amazing adversary. He constantly commits despicable acts, but he tries to justify why he does such horrible deeds by reminding others that he has an important position and sees himself as having a strong relationship with God. He claims to love God, but, whenever his lust for Esmeralda rises to the surface, he hates himself more for it, and he tends to lash out towards higher beings from his religion about why he feels as strongly for her as he does. Frollo isn’t an ordinary, one-note villain with a desire directly driving him towards one goal. He genuinely sees himself as trying to prove himself as a good human being and working towards the Lord, but he is lost in his own obsessions, his own prejudice, his own refusal to look more at the bad elements about himself that he only loses himself further to his own madness and the destruction that he causes to those around him. It’s fairly reminiscent of real-life leaders who want to do good for people and possibly themselves but are too selfish and vain to see the deep flaws within themselves, refuse to do better, and only cause more harm in their wake.
And, of course, Tony Jay has an absolute ball with this role. His deep voice brims with power and disdain for those who defy him or try to point out the deviousness of his demeanor, and it matches well with the chilling smile on his face that he gives towards his enemies. Jay’s presence commands the attention of the audience whenever he’s on-screen, and he makes it more entertaining and ominous to witness his character’s further descent into wickedness and madness. It makes me and others miss him all the more.
Musically, this film truly excels. Most of the songs have a deep, booming presence to them, and, when the stringed instruments and choirs are used for their given songs, they carry an immense power and beauty to them that, similar to the animation, makes everything feel gigantic and wondrous in this movie. The previously mentioned song, “The Bells of Notre Dame” is terrific for how well it instantly sets the prominent mood and carefully establishes the story that places the main hero and villain together, and “God Help the Outcasts” is a beautiful tune, directly asking God to help others who are underappreciated, mistreated or seeking to be accepted in a confusing world. The latter works incredibly well for how it’s set in the church, and the tune blends in perfectly with the gorgeous scenery of the church from within. Also, “Out There” is wonderfully sung by Hulce, and the sheer power of his voice wonderfully rings through to help compliment these incredible shots amidst the rooftops and is the type of uplifting song that I could easily imagine others singing along to in moments of hopefulness or immense joy. (Side note: In a few of my more joyous moments at home and without anybody else around, I admittedly have sung this song aloud for the sheer feel-good nature, even if my particular voice isn’t the best. I have no shame about this.)
And, of course, I have to talk about what many argue to be one of the best (if not, THE best) Disney villain song ever made, “Hellfire.” All of the motivation for what drives this villain and the horrid nature thriving from within him comes roaring to the surface through fiery visuals and an image that only grows darker and more satanic with every moment that passes. Those powerful flames from the fireplace and those hundreds of red-hooded figures that arise from the shadows only heighten the mature and daunting tone of this scene in a way that feels epic, chilling, and definitely more ominous than what Disney is used to showing in its own movies, especially its animated features. And, as the instrumental music slowly speeds up before getting louder and more intense, the madness of this villain and his own haunting desires suddenly fill the screen. Everything about this song is simply amazing. It’s big, it’s dark, it’s perfectly representative of everything that makes this villain unforgettable as he is, and it’s the golden standard of writing and composing a song that perfectly captures the motivations and nature of said villain while also sealing why he’s so devious and memorable. Plus, Jay completely sells his vocals and paints a vivid picture of a high official who wants to follow in God’s footsteps but is blaming the Devil for his lust and is asking for help in destroying her if she can’t be his woman. It’s a rather twisted moment to say the least but absolutely impressive for the spectacle all the same. In short, this song rules. The song practically captures the sometimes ominous tone of this movie as a whole.
As mentioned before, “Hunchback” is a rather dark film, especially for Disney. The scene with Quasimodo in how he’s treated in the festival is a rough sit, but there are also scenes in which entire villages and buildings are being consumed by flames and killing families inside, which are ominous moments in themselves, but then, there’s a scene where Frollo actually sniffs Esmeralda’s neck. As a kid who was noticing this scene, I actually almost wasn’t believing that this was a cartoon that possessed this type of image. Lust and fear of damnation are ideas that the film tosses around quite a bit, and, as an adult, I became more astounded that this film was willing to mention them towards a family-friendly audience. If this film were released in theaters today, there’s not a chance that it wouldn’t get slapped with the “PG” rating instead of “G.” Some of the topics in this film are rather heavy ones, and, while one could debate whether children would even notice, let alone, understand them, I personally felt that the movie never went too far with them and its subject matter as a whole. I’ve definitely seen my fair share of family films that try too hard to be dark or act more “mature” but, in the case of “Hunchback” it somehow never managed to venture too far. Its imagery and tough moments fit with the movie’s idea of trying to find solace in a sometimes dark and not understanding world and the importance of straying away from real sin, which, in this film’s case, greatly comes from prejudice and lust. At times, the tone can falter in an odd and heavily obvious way, particularly when there’s slapstick humor and occasionally silly sound-effects and, of course, most of the scenes with the gargoyles. On the one hand, such humor can take away from the mood, and it could’ve gone even further with its’ serious tone a la “The Prince of Egypt” and, maybe, resulted in being an even stronger movie than it already is but, on the other hand, the audience is fully aware that this is a movie with the Disney brand attached to the title, so it knows that, as many chances as this film takes, it’s also smart enough to know that it can’t go completely menacing and bleak, either, so one has to definitely keep that in mind when watching.
In terms of ideas, seeking God and trying to understand Him in the search for answers is a theme that is explored with surprising meaningfulness in this film. Audience members can see the good in how people, such as Quasimodo and Esmeralda, either honor God with their duties and kindness or even talk to Him and ask Him for guidance when they feel completely lost alone. And, on the flip side of that coin, they can also witness the wickedness in how vile people, such as Frollo, can incorrectly misinterpret their Lord as someone who is already flowing through them and uses them as an excuse for committing awful acts. In either way, it can teach adults and even kids who get older and catch on that following a spiritual path and honoring it ultimately means doing what is good to help others and one’s self and not committing sin by further spreading cruelty. As someone who is a longtime Catholic follower, this film speaks to me on a rather personal and powerful level, and it only maintains greater relevance and impact on me as I watch it more as I get older.
There’s also the timeless theme of embracing outcasts and accepting the beauty of those who are different from others in their own ways. This is far from one of the first movies to depict this theme, and they certainly won’t stop creating tales that explore this. As someone who is wrongfully taught from childhood onwards that his physical deformity is a cruel crime, Quasimodo has a harder time accepting himself for how he is, and so, it makes sense that he would have the uncertain, wavery voice and sometimes clumsy mannerisms that he maintains. Yet, as a minority in her own way, Esmeralda poignantly explains that everybody has their own qualities and separating differences from each other, but she teaches him that it is ultimately the good from one’s soul and behavior that counts, no matter how unusual one might act or appear. The sensitivity, strength, and real heart of Quasimodo can teach kids that the lovely nature about someone comes from what they do and what their strengths are, and the presence of Esmeralda and the Gypsy culture can speak greatly to minorities about the community and independently charming nature of those who feel or act different and can ultimately come together and show their unique talents and qualities in the face of others who may judge them in a bitter way.
Part of why the dark tone works as well as it does doesn’t come from the mere fact that it is dark but that the ominous moments of wickedness from specific people and beliefs only makes it more powerful and wondrous when people see the good that shines from the positive, hopeful nature of what this film is trying to teach. To me, “Hunchback” feels so much like a classic 80’s Don Bluth film in the sense that, similar to, say, “An American Tail” “NIMH” and “The Land Before Time” it goes to undeniably tough and even frightening places with its material but ultimately causes the daunting scenery and images to be worthwhile in order to make the hopeful spirit and empowering strength and joy that shines through it all the more magical and wonderful. This movie earns its mature edge because it never loses sight of the generosity and warm soul that blooms from within its powerful themes and story.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is an awesome movie that only becomes greater as time goes on and gains more fans with its unique identity and presence. There’s no denying that it can be awkward, at times, with its humor, and its tone doesn’t always remain completely consistent. Yet, for the flaws that “Hunchback” sometimes fumbles with, there are so many other qualities that make it amazing. The hero is lovable and sincere, and one truly empathizes with his predicament and those of the outsiders, in general. The voice acting and other characters are unique and fondly stand out. The villain is wonderful and incredibly complex. The music is fantastic, the animation shows off some of Disney’s best work with its details and huge presence, and the movie, by itself, is a genuine love letter to outcasts everywhere that still tries to entertain and even educate kids about good and evil but also take more risks and go further than many would expect something from this studio to do.
It’s true that, as daunting as this film can get, it’s not the most faithful adaptation of its source material, especially one that dived much more heavily into themes, such as tackling the corruption that a church can have. Yet, it’s a situation that’s similar to “The Little Mermaid” and “Cinderella” in the sense that, as adaptations go, there are specific elements from the mature, original material that just wouldn’t sit well with a film aiming towards a family-friendly audience, and, given the challenges that the writers were faced with and what they gave us, “Hunchback” does great with the overall product.
A part of me can understand why the film didn’t get quite the fonder reception with audiences as it did back then with people not being quite ready for an animated film as dark as this, but, at the same time, the tough moments never went too far, and, as they work in this movie, they actually serve to not only bring some terrific visuals and illustrate their message in a more powerful way but also show a little more trust to younger viewers who are wanting something a bit more challenging and complex than what they expect from something with the Mouse’s name attached to the title. That trust from this movie and how it even touches upon faith-related themes in a way that could connect with both kids and adults really speaks to how special and unique this movie is.
This is, hands-down, one of my top 10 favorite Disney films. It’s just wonderful, and, in addition to what it says to me as an adult, it’s also rewarding in how it brings me back to those darker Bluth films that I and others joined as kids with its tone and moments that can get uncomfortable but only make the beautiful and heartwarming characters and story more lovely to experience and reach. Others should definitely check this one out if they haven’t already because, similar to its hero, the film may appear unusual on the surface, but the heart and spirit from within shines with immense courage and warmth, and it never dwindles.