Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in 1996, overshadowed by the previous year’s The Lion King and that same year’s Toy Story, and it has since languished as the unloved Disney’s 90’s Renaissance. I was smack in the middle of its target audience at the time, yet I’ve only seen it once, maybe twice. For me, like many other people, it’s a problematic movie. It’s got some huge flaws, but in the end I’m cautiously approving of this movie, because it also handles many things well, including themes that you rarely see anywhere else in the animated canon.
Bad parts first. Let’s get adaptation decay out of the way: It’s a problem with all Disney movies. Yes, it hits you hardest when you like the source material (I’ve always had a particular vendetta against Hercules), but the ending of Hunchback isn’t particularly more revisionist than the ending of, say, The Little Mermaid. A Victor Hugo novel does have a canon, unlike a fairy tale, and probably deserves more respect as a medium, both factors that make its wanton abuse less tolerable.
It’s plagued with the standard Disney complement of annoying sidekicks (though Frollo, thankfully, lacks 0ne); the most that can be said for the gargoyles is that they’re stuck in the cathedral and, therefore, long stretches of movie go by without them.
Oh, and the moral of the story is that you can’t get the girl if you’re ugly.
So Hunchback doesn’t suffer from a lot of problems, it suffers from one absolutely horrendous problem. Nigh unforgivable. It makes one long for the trite messages about being yourself or even the empty froth of the movies where everyone gets what they want and no one learns anything. It’s just such an ugly thing to do, particularly in a canon where the lead guy always gets the girl–always (the only other exception is Pocahontas, in a feeble concession to historical accuracy)*. There’s a direct-to-video sequel where Quasimodo does end up getting the girl–a different girl–but that’s too little, too late. This movie would need to have a huge volume of pluses to cancel out that one minus.
As it turns out, it does.
First off, it’s part of the Disney Renaissance, so the music is good and the visuals beautiful. The songs aren’t as catchy as, say, The Lion King, but the music goes together well into a holistic soundtrack with themes that repeat and mix, more like a proper musical than other Disney films, where unrelated songs pop up at even intervals. I prefer the Hunchback approach. Its songs also carry a lot of complex emotional content, ranging from wistfulness to the fear of damnation. The latter song, “Hellfire,” is one of the film’s moments of astounding success. More on that later.
The whole movie is wonderfully dark and un-Disneyish. It squeaked by with a G rating, Disney having learned their lesson about PG animated films from their previous foray into darker fare, The Black Cauldron, but it contains enough injuries (yes, Phoebus has the cleanest arrow wound ever, but you do actually see the arrow sticking out of him), “damn”s and “Hell”s (used in the religious sense) and implied sexual content that one wonders if the MPAA was really paying attention. This isn’t for everyone, but it’s a distinct and refreshing break from Disney’s standard mode of operation.
The lead trio is…unfortunate. One immediately wants to hate Phoebus for being the handsome love interest added because Quasimodo doesn’t fit the bill, and if he were a standard Knight in Shining Armor, you would indeed hate him. But he isn’t. He’s a snarker. He gets loads of one-liners, starting with the wonderful “Look at that disgusting display.” “Yes, sir!” exchange. His position as a soldier in an unjust city puts him in constant conflict between what he’s told to do and what he knows he should do, giving him more depth than many Disney protagonists and making his heroic moments that much more heroic**. If Quasimodo were not part of the picture, I’d rank Phoebus as one of the most likeable Disney lead guys. It would take an exceptionally good character to overcome the fact that he was just added as a love interest–but Phoebus is an exceptionally good character.
But he isn’t the character that makes the movie. As with many Disney movies, that honor goes to the villain. But Frollo is a unique Disney villain, motivated by sanctimonious pride–and lust. Not love, lust. It’s oblique, of course, but unmistakable. Which brings us back to his song, “Hellfire,” wherein he tries to maintain his self-image as a righteous man, which is challenged by his feelings for Esmeralda: “Like fire, hellfire, this fire in my skin/This burning desire is turning me to sin.” He tries to place the blame on her for seducing him, but can’t shake the fear (enhanced by a background chorus of ominous Latin mea culpas) that his soul is in danger. The song ends with a despairing “God have mercy on her. God have mercy on me,” accompanied by the kyrie eleison.
The weakness of this film is in its themes, but even those are not without redeeming value. The intended theme of the movie–that what makes someone a man or a monster is his actions, not his appearance–is well delivered and comes as a refreshing change from the underlying trend of Beauty Equals Goodness found so often in movies (remember, even the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is rewarded in the end by becoming a handsome prince).
Even better handled is the church. Churches and religion are conspicuously, if understandably, absent from Disney movies as a whole, but this one tackles the topic head-on, diving straight into the conflicts surrounding religion in a surprisingly nuanced and non-anvilicious way. The church isn’t, as often happens, the villain: Frollo is now a judge, and the priest is an unequivocally positive, if often powerless, character who urges Esmeralda to rely on God when she feels that no one can help her. God gets directly mentioned in Esmeralda’s subsequent prayer, which contrasts her desire to help the powerless with other’s wishes for wealth and power (a refreshing change from the standard Disney song about the hero’s own desires). Overall, the church is presented as a good institution that can be abused. Many more serious movies have handled the topic far less gracefully.
Good movie or bad movie? It’s complicated. The flaws are egregious, but there are great successes as well. The movie’s ability to inspire this much discussion at all is a mark in its favor, separating it from a lot of vacuous Disney films and pushing it into “worth seeing” territory. I think the good outweighs the bad. The movie is strong aesthetically, character-wise, and even thematically. But, if you watch it, you can decide for yourself how it measures up.
*You may recognize Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Phoebus as a Luke-Leia-Han trio, but that illustrates the problem: When the lancer gets the girl instead of the lead, it’s because there’s a serious problem with the lead getting her.
**Jordan and I decided that Phoebus is neutral good, willing to obey the system or defy it depending on which he sees as right.
All images belong to Disney; the screen captures were taken by me.