Disney’s most mature and epic animated feature excels in complex characters, visuals and storytelling. The Hunchback of Notre Dame does everything right, packing in perhaps Disney’s most important moral lesson in a captivating film that is shamefully underrated.
From its very first shot, hovering over the clouds as the majestic bells of the famous cathedral are accompanied by Gregorian chanting and introduce the era and location of the film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame feels grandeur. Immediately we shift in time to the fatal pursuit by Judge Frollo on his dark horse of a gypsy woman holding a package. Through the small, snow covered streets of medieval Paris by night, the woman seeks sanctuary at the cathedral. Frollo takes the package from her and kicks her to her death down the steps of the Notre Dame. Upon discovering that it is actually a deformed baby, Frollo is prevented from drowning the child by the archdeacon who confronts him about his immortal soul in the eye of the God. This is all narrated in the opening song, that, when played out to the point the baby is fully grown to an ostensible monster who rings the bells in the iconic towers, immediately showcases the films flirtation with the complexity of both situations and character. Who is the monster and who is the man?
In a day and age that celebrates individuality and slowly opens up to the outcasts and misfits, the timeless plot is more relevant than ever. It is obvious, with his black attire and sharp edges that Frollo, though the authoritative voice of justice in his society, is the classic villain of the story. But the rebellious lead isn’t a sly fox or a beautiful princess; it’s a clumsy, shy and deformed twenty-year old guy. Quasimodo is by all conventions ugly, though his round features make him infinitely more likable than his master. This story is as much an education for this character as it is for the audience. We follow the unconventional protagonist from a sheltered and obedient worker who dreams of going outside for one day. Of course, Disney is an expert in telling the tales of captive leads who venture into the world but thanks to its literary source material, this particular version truly delves into the character development of it. Quasi is disconnected and strange to the outside world, both in experience and appearance. He actively defies the set boundaries and joins the people who are “heedless of the gift it is to be them”. In a painfully realistic turn, Quasimodo is humiliated. After all his dreams come true when he wins a competition, the crowd is quick to turn from celebratory to mocking and even violence. This pure hearted man, who was never corrupted by the world at large despite being indoctrinated by his caretaker, is immediately punished for wanting nothing more than to belong. The heartbreaking turn of events is but one of many important lessons the movie teaches Quasimodo. For the audience, it’s a direct confrontation with prejudice and superficiality. Very few rise up from the mob when faced with cruelty done to others. Which is why the character Esmeralda, who emerges from the crowd a savior in the sunlight, is so important to Quasimodo’s journey.
Despite being the movie’s only human female character with actual lines, the gypsy Esmeralda is an exemplary person to anyone. Forced to flaunt her exotic beauty through dance to make ends meet, Esmeralda is as much a captive by society as Quasimodo. It is after all her beauty that enchants Frollo and sets off an internal dilemma in the judge that creates much of the film’s narrative. The three male leads all fall for Esmeralda, showcasing a more complex look on lust, sexuality and love to the movies target audience. Yes, the captain Phoebus is quite literally the white knight, but both Quasimodo’s affections for Esmeralda and Frollo’s lust are an interesting leap from Disney’s usual clean cut take on true love. Fortunately, Esmeralda, like Quasi, is much more than a passive beauty. In one of the film’s funnest scenes, she uses unrealistic tricks to outwit the guards that try to catch her. “What a woman!” Phoebus cries out, and he is right. More so, the mandatory ballad by Es halfway through the film is a powerful though soapy statement of praying for the less fortunate opposed to for one’s self. It also segments the film as one of Disney’s most straightforward efforts to address faith. Through out the film, Esmeralda is the moral compass, teaching Quasimodo to look beyond what others tell him and rely on his own strengths.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is both a grand drama centered around a classical building and a simple commentary on society. With only four key players, the overwhelming scale of the defiance of authority, the prosecution of a minority and the distinct era the movie is set in, is focused and digestible. Frollo, Quasimodo, Phoebus and Esmeralda could have spend their lives never meeting each other. Yet, by their own actions and convictions, their lives intertwine. They navigate through the story, sharing quiet but character defining one-on-one conversations with each other as the consequences of their own actions ripple through the world they inhabit. Quasi, Phoebus and Esmeralda each save each other’s life at some point in the story, making their victory at the end, when they walk hand in hand as newfound friends, that more earned. Clocking in at 90 minutes, the movie wastes no time, showing us confrontations and entertaining exchanges as often as is possible. The righteous Phoebus, the rebellious Esmeralda and the lost Quasimodo are extremely well fleshed out. Frollo, despite offering one of the most genuine complex inner turmoils a Disney villain ever faced, remains the most stale one, hardly ever diverting the path of a stereotypical bad guy. What’s inside matters, tells the story, yet by going through such elaborate lengths to establish this lesson, it has no place for empathy for the character that needs it the most.
Though the story has a rich source that’s perhaps not best suitable for a Disney movie, the animation proves to be most valuable here. The Notre Dame is a character itself, both a safe haven and prison to the protagonists. Every time the West facade appears in its full glory the power of animation is on display. From beautiful sunsets to the haunting statues and the legendary image of lava pouring from all sides of the cathedral in the film’s climax. Even with the help of CGI, the artistic value of it, both in look and feel, is unmatched in its hand-drawn form. As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the movie, the action sequences defy gravity, giving the viewer a point of view that would never make it to a live-action feature. As Quasimodo swings from gargoyle’s and rooftops, the camera flies and turns offering a sense of freedom that is invaluable given the story.
Like any Disney movie produced in the Renaissance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame features a bombastic score by Alan Menken, supported by beautiful songs at the hands of Stephen Schwartz. The Broadway favoring Menken seems pleasantly at ease with a more serious soundtrack, such as when desperation and agony ripple through the music during the humiliation scene. The movie’s final battle scene, which is also one of the funnest and exhilarating of any period action piece ever, is masterfully introduced by the sweeping score. Some songs, such as the gargoyle’s A Guy Like You or the gypsy’s introduction to the Court of Miracles, feel out of place or unnecessary. It can’t be easy to work with such a serious story and implement cheery Disney songs. But Schwartz’ lyrics are still relevant to the story. What guy can’t relate to the quiet voices in his head, which the gargoyles basically are to Quasimodo, that says he has a shot to get the girl? A defining moment is Quasimodo’s “I want” song, which culminates with him standing on top of one of Paris’ most iconic buildings as portrayer Tom Hulce belts out a Broadway tune.
For all its social commentary, individualist value, musical galore and stunning animation, the movie doesn’t fail to be flat-out entertaining in the process. When it’s funny, it’s really funny. When it’s emotional, it cuts through the soul. There are excellent running jokes, there is sincere suspense and it’s all thrilling to see. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of Disney’s most epic films and with a lot of ground to cover, it is executed well to the detail. It’s entertaining, relevant and brilliantly told. Easily one of the best movies ever made.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Produced by Don Hahn
Written by Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Jonathan Roberts
with Tom Hulce, Demi Moore and Tony Jay
Released June 21, 1996