The Hunchback of Notre Dame has plateaued in its enjoyment level for me. As a kid, I hated the film and it’s increasingly grown to be an unsung gem of the mid-90s from an animation and musical standpoint. However, as is the case with Pocahontas, you really can’t water down this film for children without ruining some key elements of the story and reinforcing some negative stereotypes regarding women and the disabled. Hunchback is a decent film, probably the best Disney put out in what would become a lengthy lull post-Renaissance, but I can’t ignore the harebrained narrative elements utilized to tell a palatable kids story.
In 15th-century Paris, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce), simply wants to be accepted by the world. Unfortunately, his “master,” Judge Claude Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay), has conditioned Quasimodo to believe he’s forever an outcast. When Quasimodo meets the beautiful Gypsy, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore), the two band together and form an unlikely friendship.
Who thought that adapting Victor Hugo’s novel was a great idea for a kid’s film? I mean, the various adaptations all end in shades of sadness. What did Disney believe they could obtain by putting this production together? Awards, that’s what they thought. This is perfect awards bait that Disney imagined would put them back in the Best Picture category like they were with Beauty and the Beast. Hunchback would get an Academy Award nomination, but only for the music, which it would lose to Emma (this was when Score was divided into Dramatic and Musical/Comedy). Of course, the intent of the movie is onerous and deals with complex themes that Disney had never dealt with prior to (and that they’ve never done again). In the original book, Frollo was associated with the Catholic Church, whereas here he’s in the secular role of Judge. Interestingly enough, Frollo is closely concerned with his “immortal soul” and finds that he’s sexually attracted to Esmeralda. Listen to the lyrics of “Hellfire,” in which he prays to God to either make Esmeralda his mistress or have her burn in the flames of Hell; the fact that this movie talks of “Hell” and “damnation” was taboo for the time. Outside of that, the movie explores the idea of a benevolent God and condemns materialism (a concept that would be contradicted with next week’s film, Hercules).
Of course, the predominant motif of The Hunchback of Notre Dame deals with inner beauty…and that’s where Disney botches the entire thing. Quasimodo is the worst kept secret in Paris; everyone knows him, yet no one recognizes him. They know his name, where he came from, his entire history, and yet when he arrives they don’t recognize him and immediately connect him to the bell tower. Once Esmeralda complicates things the entire movie becomes a competition between Quasi and Captain Phoebus (voiced by Kevin Kline), who acts and is animated similarly to John Smith, as I mentioned last week. The two men literally stop to argue who is right about Esmeralda, proving that she’s simply a sexual pawn utilized to make the men fight, and eventually work together. It also sets up the ending, that Quasi will lose the girl. For a movie that touts being about “inner beauty,” Quasimodo isn’t allowed to win the girl at the end. In fact, the script places Esmeralda in areas where Phoebus will be – having no prior knowledge of where he’ll be and when – just so she can see that he’s a good man and force the audience to understand why Esmeralda can’t be with Quasimodo. It’s not because he’s deformed, kids! It’s because she’s in love with another man she conveniently met before AND who has proven to be the perfect man….for her. It’s not as if I expect them to force a relationship, and it would be contrived if Quasimodo and Esmeralda ended up together purely out of pity, but it’s the fact that there has to be an Adonis figure in contrast with the deformed Quasi, and that while Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl, he gets the respect of the people; even then, he gains the town’s respect and returns to the bell tower to be a slave to the city…only now he can go out without being assaulted.
I talked last week about the continuation of cutesy side characters with Pocahontas; it reaches annoying levels with Hunchback. In the film, Quasimodo has three talking gargoyle friends voiced by Jason Alexander (the gross one), Charles Kimbrough (the classy one) and Mary Wikes (the woman). There’s an amusing bit of ambiguity that’s never sufficiently explored and I wish it was – the possibility that the gargoyles are alive only in Quasimodo’s mind. It would certainly be better than the cockamamie idea that they’re alive only in front of him, but I guess the animators didn’t want children believing Quasimodo is crazy. Unfortunately, the characters are annoying as can be, complete with Alexander’s character being the king of fart jokes and anachronisms…in song! On top of that, their characters are used to remove agency from Quasimodo, himself. The script refuses to have Quasimodo take responsibility for himself, but gives it to the inanimate objects. Quasimodo wants to go to the Festival of Fools? Have the gargoyles force him to. Quasimodo doesn’t know whether to care for Phoebus or not? Have the gargoyles do it for him. Quasimodo becomes a tertiary character in favor of inanimate objects!
Quasimodo isn’t particularly intriguing despite Tom Hulce’s compassionate vocal performance. Kevin Kline plays a flat prince character with little charisma as Phoebus and Demi Moore plays Demi Moore playing Esmeralda; a shining example of how A-list actors would come to overshadow the characters they’re voicing. In the case of Esmeralda, she’s the typical hot Gypsy complete with pole-dancing scene. I kid you not, she pole-dances. The best acting, though, comes from Tony Jay as Frollo, one of the best villains in the 1990s. His character is a fully realized man grappling with sin and want. He’s a man of God and the law, but can’t compel his human desires, which are entirely sexual. Frollo’s performance of “Hellfire” is fantastic and leads to my favorite element of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the music. This is another score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and it’s consistently better than Pocahontas. Almost every song is impressive and the vocal cast projects like they’re singing to an omnipotent entity. The songs that utilize church music and chanting such as “Bells of Notre Dame,” and the aforementioned “Hellfire” are beautiful on an adult level. Other songs like “Topsy-Turvy,” “Out There” and “God Bless the Outcasts” propel a specific type of emotion or character development. This is a film where the songs clearly overshadow the maudlin story.
I’ve grown increasingly appreciative of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, particularly as a bold experience for Disney to advance into subject matter not necessarily made for kids. It ends up failing due to a mixed message and a core set of characters that are suits for the A-list cast, but the music elevates things and takes on a moral overtone that’s intriguing. It’s all downhill from here in terms of unique content.
NEXT WEEK: Disney goes Greek with Hercules!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.