Movie Reviews

A Decade of Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Munir: Welcome to another “A Decade Of…” article, where we are currently reviewing the Disney Renaissance. Today, we’re going to take a look at 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After the tepid success of Pocahontas, the filmmakers at Walt Disney Animation Studios returned to adapting well-known works of literature. However, in this case, they didn’t go the fairy tale route, opting instead to adapt a novel by the French writer Victor Hugo called Notre-Dame de Paris. The novel was published in 1831, and anyone with a passing knowledge of the story could tell you that it was a dark and grim book, not exactly suitable for a Disney animated film. The people at WDAS, led by Beauty and the Beast helmers Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, took up the challenge and delivered one of the darkest films in the Disney canon. While it is not a straight adaptation of the novel (but, then again, what Disney film is?), the movie nonetheless deals with many subjects that you don’t find very often in a movie that’s primarily aimed at children. Racism, genocide, lust, religious hypocrisy, xenophobia, and more are all present in this adaptation. While it ends on a happy note (something that the book does not), what comes before is dark and very relevant to our times. Fresh off their Oscar wins for Pocahontas, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz returned to create the score and songs for Hunchback. The result is one of the strongest soundtracks in the Disney canon. However, there is some valid criticism at how the film uses moments of levity, mainly from the sidekicks, which break the serious tone of the story in a jarring way. In the end, Hunchback was also successful at the box office, but less so than Pocahontas, and got only one Oscar nomination for best score, which it did not win, ending Menken’s winning streak. Even so, Hunchback is well regarded nowadays and is appreciated as a bold and ambitious film. It continues to shock, entertain, and surprise, even if it has some missteps with its story and characters. I really like the film and, gargoyles aside, I think it’s one of the strongest offerings from WDAS. What do you think of the film, Virginia?

Virginia: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my very favorite Disney movies, and one of my favorite films in general. I agree that it has one of the finest soundtracks as well; the whole movie has only one song I don’t like, and the score is one that I frequently play in my car or while I clean. Hunchback’s themes and characters are among some of Disney’s boldest and most complex, and I think that’s the real reason it didn’t take off at the time. It’s a little too dark for Disney’s main fanbase, and too light for fans of the original novel. However, for me, it’s akin to DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt in that it sounds like a terrible idea on paper but turned into a fantastic piece of art.

M: I agree with you on why the film wasn’t more successful, but I also want to point out some other factors that could’ve contributed to that. First, Pocahontas was successful, but it wasn’t nearly as successful as The Lion King, and it wasn’t as universally adored as that one or any of its immediate predecessors. Also, in the fall of 1995, Pixar released the first-ever computer-animated film, Toy Story, which was a giant hit and completely changed the animation industry. I think those two factors contributed to Hunchback’s more tepid response. I want to clarify that the film was still very well-received by the public and critics (Roger Ebert gave it a 4-star review). Hunchback is also one of my favorites, which frustrates me because it didn’t live to its full potential. Don’t get me wrong; the finished product is fantastic for the most part. But if Disney’s top brass hadn’t been scared, I think the film could’ve benefited for a more cohesive tone, which would’ve made it an undisputed classic.

V: I totally agree there. Without the gargoyles and their ridiculous song, “A Guy Like You,” this would be a perfect film. If you remove them, every character and every scene carries thematic weight, and the story is very succinct and satisfying. I will say that they have a couple of nice moments, like when they tell Quasi that they may be made of stone, but they thought he was made of something stronger. I also like when Laverne says that life isn’t a spectator sport. But for the most part, they provide unwelcome, unfunny, and tonally dissonant humor.

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M: As you said, I’m not entirely opposed to the gargoyles. They do have some nice moments, but they should’ve had way less screen time, and “A Guy Like You” should’ve been cut altogether. It’s a jarring song because it comes at a point where Paris is burning, people are getting killed, and they are singing and trivializing the pain that’s happening around them. I absolutely despise the first line of the song: “Paris, the city of lovers, is glowing this evening/ True, that’s because it’s on fire, but still, there’s ‘L’ amour.” I find that wholly inappropriate, and it kills the momentum that the previous scene carried. Also, I get that they are trying to raise Quasi’s morale; nonetheless, it’s a feeble attempt, especially when he gets his heart broken in the following scene. After such a strong midpoint where Frollo sings “Hellfire,” watching this is like watching a completely different (and worse) movie.

V: Personally, I would have made the gargoyles into serious characters, and perhaps made them a figment of Quasi’s imagination. At first, it seems like they might be, but later events in Hunchback prove that they must really be alive. I also think that their song totally derails the plot and tone the film is going for. This is similar to the “troll wedding” sequence in Frozen. On another note, “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” is one of my favorite sequences in the film. It perfectly demonstrates the differences in Quasimodo and Frollo, particularly the way the Catholic faith has shaped them.

M: That’s my absolute favorite sequence. Tom Hulce is great singing the first part, but this is Tony Jay’s show, and he gives it his all. That song perfectly encapsulates the fake righteousness that Frollo has. It expresses how dangerous and creepy he really is. And the best part is that he is the one singing it. He reminds me a lot of Donald Trump: self-aggrandizing, xenophobic, and someone who preys on the weak and less fortunate. I don’t want to politicize this, but the parallels are so obvious it’s scary.

V: Frollo is Disney’s most complex villain, and to me, the scariest. He’s a man of faith and conviction, and truly believes in his own sick way that he’s doing God’s work. He sees Esmeralda and her people as a dirty, lascivious and inhuman plague upon the Earth. At the same time, his own sexual repression bubbles over at the mere sight of the young, beautiful woman. I really admire this film and its makers for their willingness to push its themes so far. And it’s not even subtextual; he smells Esmeralda’s hair, is clearly enthralled by her dance at the Feast of Fools, and prays to Mother Mary to save him from his own dark desires or give him the girl.

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M: Agreed. Frollo is a very menacing villain because, above all, he feels like he could be living in our world (and he can be seen in many people). I’d also like to talk about the relationship between him and Quasimodo. It’s an abusive relationship, and the dynamic is chilling. Frollo appears to be caring, but he always uses crude language and insults Quasimodo, but masks it as genuine concern. It’s a dynamic that would be used later in Tangled between Gothel and Rapunzel, although I think here it has darker tones. This brings me to the Topsy-Turvy scene, where at first, Quasimodo is hailed as the king of fools, but the guards turn it into a vicious attack. Frollo doesn’t intercede and allows the crowd to humiliate and denigrate Quasi, thinking that it’s a teachable moment for him. That shows you that his cruelty is always masked in righteousness.

V: I’ve also noticed the parallels between this film’s parental relationship and that of Tangled, and I think that both cases go underappreciated, as it’s easy to imagine abuse being a problematic theme to present in a Disney film. Both children are also locked away in towers, hidden from the outside world. And you’re right about the Feast of Fools; Frollo confuses kindness and mercy with their very opposites in all of his pursuits, child-rearing being no exception.

M: I think that the only Disney animated films that have shown parental abuse are Cinderella, Hunchback, and Tangled. And as you say, it’s not an easy theme to tackle in a film that’s supposed to be easy breezy. Curiously, all these relationships are between someone who’s not the real father or mother of the victim, just guardians or impostors. I wonder if that’s also because showing parental abuse from blood relatives would be too much for a Disney film. Let’s move on and talk about the other characters. As the lead, I think Quasimodo is excellent. Even though he has been abused his whole life, he’s kind and brave, though he doesn’t believe he’s those things because he sees himself as Frollo sees him. His arc is excellent, and my favorite part is when he breaks his chains (literally and figuratively), rescues Esmeralda, and claims Sanctuary at the top of the cathedral. I always get chills in that scene.

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V: That is an incredible scene. The animation, music, and build-up are just spot-on. When he swings down to save Esmeralda from the flames, I always want to cheer. I hate to keep saying this sort of thing, but this sequence and many in Hunchback deserve more credit. It must have been difficult to accurately animate the cathedral, evoke all these different moods, and still focus on showing the characters’ emotions and struggles. I agree that Quasi is a good protagonist, and I love Tom Hulce’s performance. He’s so vulnerable, eager, and lovable. He doesn’t have a great singing voice, but you can’t help but root for him when he performs “Out There” or “Heaven’s Light.” I also think the animators did a fantastic job of making him ugly but still kind of adorable; animation truly is a wonder. Esmeralda is a fantastic character, and one of my favorite Disney female leads. She’s smart, quick on her feet, and snarky, but ultimately motivated by a desire to help the less fortunate. “God Help the Outcasts” is a high point in a film full of them, and one of my favorite Disney songs. In it, Esmeralda, who herself doesn’t believe in God, nonetheless prays to Mary to help all of God’s children, including her people. Again, great contrast here to Frollo’s supposedly saintly beliefs. What do you think of Phoebus? Kevin Kline is hilarious as him, he’s likable enough and has some great dramatic moments. For me, his saving the Miller’s family from Frollo’s inquisition comes to mind. However, I feel like he’s almost a little too perfect to be compelling, even more so than Esmeralda.

M: Well said about Quasi and I agree about Esmeralda. She’s strong, resourceful, and compassionate. I do like Phoebus, although the scene where he and Esmeralda kiss while Quasi is watching always crushes me a little, and I hate him just a bit for that. The gargoyles are the weak point of the film, but I don’t think the cast is to blame there. I think all three actors did a good job, but the writing and the overall presence of the characters is the thing that doesn’t work.

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V: I agree totally. I mean, they give Jason Alexander jokes about wanting to hook up with a goat and losing at cards to a bird. I really don’t think he can be blamed for the character not working when they gave him such bad material. The scene with Esmeralda and Phoebus is devastating for Quasimodo, but while I feel sorry for him, I don’t blame them. They don’t know how he feels, and even if they did, it’s not their responsibility to let him have what he wants. I also think it’s interesting how this film shows that even if someone is kind to you and wants to be friends, that doesn’t mean that a romantic relationship will follow. Again, not a very common theme for Disney.

M: Absolutely. I don’t “hate” Phoebus, but I do feel sorry for Quasi. And as you say, this film deals with the fact that not every relationship has to be romantic. This is surprising to see in a Disney film, especially when the lead is the one that does not have that romantic relationship. I want to talk about the beginning. The Lion King (rightfully) has been hailed as having of the best film openings ever, but I think Hunchback’s opening is spectacular as well. It really sets the tone of the film, and it’s not afraid of showing things like murder and attempted infanticide. Also, “The Bells of Notre Dame” is a beautiful and epic song that just makes you excited for what you are about to see.

V: I also think the beginning is spectacular. It’s the first look we get at the cathedral, and as I mentioned, it looks incredible. This scene really sets up Frollo as the religious fanatic, and we see how far he is willing to go in his righteous crusade. I also love it when he looks at Quasi after killing his mother and says, “A baby? A monster!” And again, we see that he’ll do anything, as he’s willing to plunge the infant into the well and drown him. “The Bells of Notre Dame” is an amazing song and, as you said, it’s the perfect way to set the film’s mood.

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M: I also love the climax. From the moment that Quasi saves Esmeralda to when Frollo falls to his death, it’s a frenzied, action-packed sequence. I especially like the moment the cathedral literally spits fire from all its gargoyles. It’s a fantastic visual and one of the reasons I love the animation medium; I don’t know if it could’ve been conveyed so well if it was live-action. And the ending is really good too, with the hero not getting the girl as usual but being the hero of the city, and being accepted and celebrated by everyone. It’s a sharp contrast of what happened earlier in the “Topsy Turvy” scene.

V: The entire scene is incredible to look at. This is also when Quasimodo realizes that Frollo hasn’t just misunderstood the Gypsies, but that he’s really a monster who will never stop. I also like how, as they’re fighting (physically and verbally) inside the cathedral, Phoebus rallies the people below to fight back against Frollo’s guards to protect the church. I really can’t think of a single issue with this whole sequence. I also like the visual of Quasimodo and Esmeralda clinging to the gargoyles as Frollo raises his sword, preparing to strike. This leads to one of the cathedral’s gargoyles coming to life and snarling at the Judge before he falls to his fiery death. This is the only time Hunchback offers any “proof” that God is, in fact, real and participating in the plot. I do have a bit of a nitpick with the very last scene, though. I love how Esmeralda guides the shy bell-ringer into the light, and it’s very sweet when the little girl embraces him. However, I think it goes a little overboard when the townsfolk all lift Quasi up and cheer his name. For a film that is so grounded and believable for most of its runtime, I just find this bit a little ridiculous. I don’t believe everyone would really accept him and totally give up their prejudices. After all, these were the same people who pelted him with tomatoes at the Festival, and who were ready to literally string him up. I also wish we could learn what happened to the rest of the Gypsies since the film makes such a big deal about them. However, like Quasi, I somehow doubt they could be welcomed into society.

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M: I completely understand what you’re saying, and you are right, but this is a film that struggles with tone once the gargoyles appear. What “The Bells of Notre Dame” offers is not completely delivered on because the film is often hindered by these sidekicks and other silly moments. I agree that not everyone would welcome him to society. However, this being a Disney film, it had to have a happy ending, and in this instance, they didn’t care about nuance. It was black or white, and they went all-in with the final celebration. I agree with you, but it doesn’t bother me too much because of what came before and the studio who made it.

V: That’s true as well. Pocahontas likely gave us the most bittersweet ending Disney is capable of. I truly think The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be just about perfect without the Gargoyles, the unbelievably happy ending, and things like the old man who keeps tripping. I don’t know why the studio thought it was funny to show an old man repeatedly tripping and falling into traps, but if anything, it’s a little depressing. Regardless, the good far outweighs the bad, and this is one of my favorite Disney movies overall. The best scenes play on the film’s themes of the flawed nature of religion, what it means to be a monster, and prejudice. There’s one more major theme in the film that’s a little harder to define, and it deals with how men relate to and treat Esmeralda. Quasimodo sees her as this flawless angel who can save him, while Frollo considers her to be a temptress sent by the Devil. Finally, Phoebus sees her for what she is, a flawed but good human being worthy of love and respect. Every aspect of this film produces a strong emotional response, be it positive or negative. It seems like people either love this movie or hate it, and this may be why. Corporate meddling aside, this film had a mission, and it succeeds more than it fails because of the passion in its filmmaking. This stands in stark contrast with Pocahontas, in which it’s very difficult to form an emotional bond with anything or anyone.

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M: Indeed, the flaws of this film do not outweigh the bold and emotional filmmaking that makes it work. It’s funny because Kirk and Trousdale found the perfect balance with Beauty and the Beast, and did very well with Hunchback, despite the aforementioned flaws. However, when I think of their third and last effort, I think the balance completely broke off. Atlantis is one of the most frustrating films for me because it has lots of potential, but is really hindered by fatal mistakes that make it more bad than good, in my opinion. I don’t blame them for this; corporate meddling was even worse by then, and Atlantis paid the price. Returning to Hunchback, it’s true what you say about how all three men see Esmeralda. Phoebus is impressed and obviously attracted, but he never idolizes her. I think Quasi sees her as some sort of goddess at the beginning because she’s the first human being that genuinely showed him compassion and love. I think that after the scene between her and Phoebus, he starts seeing her as human and as a true friend. As for Frollo, he would’ve never seen her as anything other than a witch who makes him have sinful thoughts. He would never accept responsibility for those failings. That’s why he puts all the blame on her. To wrap up, I think The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a near-perfect film. The soundtrack is spectacular for the most part, and the themes the film deals with are bold and unheard of in a Disney movie. The characters are also mostly great, with three-dimensional personalities. One last question before we leave: What do you think of the proposed live-action remake? Many have said that it could be an improvement if they get rid of the gargoyles, but Disney is not in the business of that. If Aladdin and The Lion King have taught us anything, it’s that they will most likely stick with the same version and add one or two new songs. So I’m actually dreading the prospect of seeing grotesque CGI gargoyles in the near future.

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V: I actually quite like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, warts and all. Maybe we can discuss that one in-depth sometime. I agree that you can see the fingerprints of corporate meddling, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch the film from time to time. I think it’s fun. I also agree that Beauty and the Beast is the duo’s best and most well-rounded film, being that I think it’s Disney’s best movie period. As for the remake, how I feel about it depends a lot on how they choose to go about it. I tend to agree with people who think the film could actually be improved if they cut the annoying sidekicks out, but as you said, there’s no guarantee that they’d do that. They may just copy-paste the original with an added song, as they have been doing lately (excluding Dumbo). I count myself as cautiously intrigued.

M: What do you think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to come back for our review of Hercules!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1996)

Plot - 10
Acting - 10
Direction/Editing - 10
Music/Sound - 9.5
Comedy - 5

8.9

Great

While it's not Disney's most consistent film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be their most daring. The film's comedic beats rarely land, but a stellar cast of characters, gorgeous visuals and incredible music more than compensate.

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