The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – G, Historical Drama

Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise

Writers: Victor Hugo, Tab Murphy

Starring: Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay

There’s one scene in this movie that you need to see: the villain’s magnificent musical number.  Other than that, although it has its highlights and a decent story, this is a movie you can pass up.Many of the songs are good, as to be expected of a Disney Classic.  There will be no comparisons to the source material; for one thing, that would require reading the actual source material, and for another, as to be expected of a Disney Classic, the film uses the original story as only a loose basis alone.  It was never intended as a faithful adaption any moreso than The Little Mermaid, and it has its own identity.  And what an identity it has.

The interesting thing about this film is not so much the story or the characters as it is the unusual divergence from what you might expect from a Disney Classic, or to be more general, even a film with a G rating: while not a mature story, it does feature mild sensuality, violence, and explicit talk of Hell.  The G rating ain’t what it used to be.

As the movie begins, the sweeping visuals of Paris and dramatic, awe-inspiring music set the scene with a bit of exposition from Clopin, a gypsy who’s telling “a story of a man and a monster” to a group of French children.  The gist in a nutshell: there’s an hideous man who lives in the belltower, and he was raised by a man who is very cruel.  Overall it’s not a bad start (again, the music is epic) but there hasn’t been a real glimpse of the main character yet and already the movie wants to drop an anvil on our heads.

Clopin:  “Now here is a riddle to guess if you can”, sing the bells of Notre Dame.  “Who is the monster and who is the man?”

Yes, you’re very smart.  Now shut up.

In case you were unsure, the movie points out the bad guy by giving him an angry black horse.  If a villain ever has a steed, it must always be a foreboding one with bared teeth and pinned ears.  You might think that’s because opposing the main character goes hand in hand with animal abuse, but if the horse were angry at the villain, he’d just buck him off.  Like his master, the horse is angry at the good guys.  The horse’s motivation for this remains unclear.

Another side note: the gypsy woman shown in the backstory must be very fragile or winded or suffering from some kind of heart condition.  She just falls down and dies.  We’re not even past the five minute mark, and already a character has died onscreen.  This is a Disney movie.

Clopin (Paul Kandel) and Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) have fantastic voices in this, by the way.  They leave the main character, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), behind in the dust.  When the film transitions away from Clopin’s tale about Frollo’s adoption of the ugly infant, and when it turns next to the wistful musings of adult hunchback Quasimodo, everything gets a lot less interesting.

Quasimodo is lonely up in his belltower and talks to the gargoyles, which are supposed to serve as comic relief.  Today is the Festival of Fools, and despite that he’s been living up here for years, it only takes a few encouraging words for him to randomly acquire the nerve to leave, like it’s nothing monumental that the he’s breaking the rules for the first time in his life and venturing out into a world full of strangers, even though he knows a grand total of one person and would have a serious lack of social development.  The most nonsensical thing about all this is if it’s so easy to talk him into it, how come he hasn’t been talked into it long before now?  He looks to be somewhere in his twenties.  This can’t be the first time he’s thought about it.

Speaking of his character design, he does have enlarged, deformed features, but the large eyes undermine the grotesqueness of the image and make him is more bearable to look at, as well as easier to see as a childlike, kindhearted human.  That’s bad.  Large eyes have a way of making anything cute.  If a movie wants to tell an Aesop about looking past a monstrous outside to see the beauty inside, it needs more than a character with an ugly face and large eyes.  It needs a character that looks like Joseph Merrick.  When drawn with large eyes, Quasimodo looks only a bit silly at worst, which means his appearance is not disturbing or frightful enough to confront viewers and encourage them overcome their bias.

In other words, Disney, you’re cheating.

If the argument is that anything uglier would be too scary or repulsive for children to ever sympathize with, then that’s not putting much stock in the Aesop and begs the question of why bother teaching it to them in the first place.

Before Quasimodo escapes, Frollo stops by for a visit, complete with a picnic basket.  This is not supposed to be amusing.  Frollo is the deceptive, tyrannical, grim-faced father figure villain.  You might think quaint little picnic baskets might be off limits for him, but he can do what he wants.

Today the two of them review the alphabet together, giving viewers a taste of the ideology and worldview that Frollo has been passing onto him.

Frollo:  A.

Quasi: Abomination.

Frollo:  B.

Quasi:  Blasphemy.

Frollo:  C.

Quasi:  Contrition.

Frollo:  D.

Quasi:  ****ation.

Frollo:  E.

Quasi:  Eternal ****ation!

This is a Disney movie.

Frollo reminds Quasi that he’s not allowed to go to the festival, citing two reasons: thieves, drunkards, and the “dregs of humankind” will be there, and people will hate him because he’s ugly.  “I am your only friend,” he insists with a terrifying smile, right after lying to him about what happened to his mother.  He soon has Quasi convinced that he’s safest inside the belltower.  The guy still wants out, though, and once Frollo is gone he starts singing about it.  He wants to meet the people that he has long watched from afar without their knowledge.  …Maybe it will sound less creepy in his own words.

Quasi:  All my life, I’ve memorized their faces, knowing them as they will never know me.

Nope, still sounds like a stalker.  As for the music, here it’s bland and indistinctive.  At some point the song finds mercy in its heart and ends itself so that the movie can move along.  It’s a shame that while they’re trying to promote this inner beauty message, they make Quasimodo the least interesting or likeable.  In theory, someone with his complex background should be fascinating, but the lackluster execution here does not accomplish that.

Time to meet another character.  Captain Phoebus is a blonde soldier with a normal masculine appearance, stock standard for Disney male love interests.  If he possessed a hideous personality, it would help to drive home the movie’s intended point, but no, instead he helps an alluring gypsy woman escape from false accusations of theft.  Part of this involves stopping a guard by telling his horse to sit on him.  To be technical, it is possible for a horse to sit (and why a soldier would have put forth the time and effort into teaching his warhorse such a ridiculous trick is clearly demonstrated here) but considering the damage this could inflict on a man, it’s troubling to see this played for laughs.  This isn’t Looney Tunes.  He should be half-dead by now.

Once the two guards realize that the man they’re dealing with is a captain, and once Phoebus orders his horse off his rear, they go before him and start calling out “Make way for the Captain!” to show that he is important, even though the street is deserted and there’s no one in his way.

The gypsy he rescued is shown to be intrigued by his kindness, and—geez louise, those eyes.  Pupils shouldn’t be that pinprick small.  Stop staring at the camera; you’ll scare the children.

Esmeralda's creepy eyes

That's not natural.

So our hero Pheobus arrives in the dungeon to meet with Frollo and overhears him give a torturer instructions on how to increase a victim’s pain.  This is a Disney movie.  Frollo informs Pheobus that he was summoned from the wars to help keep the city of Paris under control—that is to say, Frollo thinks the gypsies are a corruptive influence and he wants them all killed.  This is a Disney movie.

Frollo brings Phoebus to the festival about the same time that Quasimodo talks himself back into attending, and Clopin makes another appearance to show off his ability to sing better than the main character.  Quasi’s attempt at stealth doesn’t work and he ends up stumbling into a Esmeralda’s dressing room.  She covers herself just in time to preserve the movie’s rating.  Quasi doesn’t want her to see his face, but she thinks it’s just a mask and all is well.

In a moment Esmeralda is onstage in a tight red dress and begins dancing with a pole.  This is a Disney movie.  In case you’re wondering about the context: don’t make the mistake of thinking the implications are accidental.

Frollo:  Look at that disgusting display.

Phoebus:  Yes, sir!

Frollo tries and fails to pretend he’s aloof and uninterested in the seductive dance.  Quasimodo, on the other hand, claps for her with a huge smile.  The uncomfortable thing about the shot is that you can’t tell if this is childlike innocence or carnal excitement or both.

When it comes time to crown the King of Fools, Quasimodo is chosen for his ugliness.  At first, there’s cheering and confetti (trivia fact: confetti was first used in Paris, France in 1891) and Frollo recognizes him.  He’s not happy.  For some unexplained reason the crowd already knows Quasimodo’s name and begins chanting it.  Then their actions turn to cruelty, and when Frollo does nothing to stop them, it takes Esmeralda’s intervention to rescue the guy.  Frollo orders her to stop.  She berates him.  That’s brave of her, but surely it’s possible to argue the point without wearing such a strange expression (presentation is important; influential folks are less likely to follow you if you look like you’re out of your mind).  Frollo calls for her arrest and she escapes, wiping out all the guards who come after her.  Phoebus is impressed.

Out of curiosity, why does everyone refer to the deformed man as a “boy”?  His eyes aren’t that big.

Frollo glares at Quasi and he apologizes as the sky darkens and rain begins to fall, responding to the mood of the protagonist the way proper weather should.  Phoebus has orders to capture Esmeralda, so he tracks her into the cathedral.  She must have received a sup-par animator.  Her face is so flat it’s cringe-worthy.  When he tries to sneak up on her, she spins around and disarms him because no amount of formal training can compare with her street smarts.

Phoebus makes a couple wisecracks as he snatches his weapon back at tries to get on her good side (orders, shmorders; he likes this lady).  They fight and banter and he gets around to informing her that he doesn’t intend to arrest her as long as she’s in the sanctuary.  Just as they begin to make nice, Frollo barges in and demands her arrest (What is this, the third time?  You don’t have to repeat yourself).  As the other characters remind him, you can’t do that in a church.  So, like a clever villain, he just waits until the other characters are gone.  Then he grabs her and sniffs her hair and acts suggestive and this is still a Disney movie.  He leaves only after assuring her that she’ll be arrested if she sets one foot outside the church.

Now Esmeralda gets a song about how selfless she is, praying for the wellbeing of others while the people around her ask for riches and glory.  Maybe it wouldn’t come off as pretentious if it weren’t so exaggerated.  The movie doesn’t acknowledge that the gypsies have their own religion, either; it was easier to just overlook that.  The most annoying part is that she refers to herself as an outcast, even though the people at the festival were more than willing to help her crowd surf.  Shut up, emo kid.  Paris loves you.

When she spots Quasimodo watching her, she gives chase and catches up with him in the belltower, where she discovers the art he’s created.

Esmeralda:  This is beautiful.  Oh, if I could do this, you wouldn’t find me dancing in the streets for coins.

Quasi:  But you’re a wonderful dancer.

It’s still not clear whether he’s just being naïve.

Growing less afraid of what she’ll think of him, he takes her on a tour of the belltower while her pet goat keeps trying to be the compulsory comedic animal.  She defies his understanding of gypsies as evil by being nice and trying to raise his self-esteem.  It’s boring.  Bring back Frollo or Phoebus or Clopin.

With the all strength of Fezzik and the agility of a gibbon, Quasi climbs out of the cathedral with Esmeralda plus her goat on his arm in order to help her escape.  A convenient distraction draws the attention of the guards.  Then before Esmemeralda leaves him behind, she gives him a kiss and a map.

When Quasi gets back to the belltower, he finds Phoebus looking for Esmeralda and attacks him.  He says soldiers aren’t allowed here—not that they’re forbidden from arresting those who claim sanctuary, but that they’re not allowed to set foot inside a cathedral at all (So there’s a rule against soldiers attending religious services?).  Phoebus is rather good-natured about all this violent prejudice.

Once the soldier is gone, Quasi sings a boring song about liking Esmeralda, but then Frollo does the same thing, minus the boring.  Here the music becomes dramatic and powerful again as Frollo agonizes over his lust for the woman, comparing his “buring desire” to the fires of Hell and declaring that he’ll kill her and everyone who stands in his way if she refuses to submit to him.  This is a Disney movie.

No, really.  You need to see this.

After Claude Frollo wins the award for Most Musical Aspiring-Rapist, he conducts a search for Esmeralda, capturing gypsies and trying to bribe them for information.  Phoebus makes the I-have-a-problem-with-this face but doesn’t do anything about it, not until Frollo orders him to burn a house to the ground while a family is trapped inside.  Phoebus refuses, so Frollo does it himself, so Phoebus rescues the family, so then the guard raises his sword to execute him for insubordination, but then Esmeralda… throws a rock at Frollo’s horse.  It’s very effective.

After Phoebus falls off a bridge while escaping, Esmeralda drags him out of the river to save his life.  It must be very difficult to swim while carrying a grown man in full armor.  She manages it, though.

As Frollo begins to suspect that Quasimodo had something to do with Esmeralda’s escape from the cathedral, the gargoyles try to be funny again, disrupting the serious mood.  That’s the point, of course, since the filmmakers don’t want children to get wigged out, but a) it’s not funny and b) it detracts from the story.  If they were concerned about how children would react to the story’s content, they should have gone with a different story.

Oh, God help us.  They’re singing.  It’s terrible.  Paris is on fire, and they’re doing a lighthearted musical number, with visuals such as a trio of figurines on the gallows.  No, really.  Smile and be happy.

Esmeralda returns to the belltower and requests that Quasi take care of Phoebus, who is now a fugitive as much as she is.  She and Phoebus kiss.  Quasi makes a sad face.  However, he’s still nice enough to hide Phoebus when Frollo comes for another picnic visit.  Frollo accuses Quasi of helping the gypsy and tells him that he knows where her hideout is.  The plan is to attack tomorrow.

Now it’s up to Phoebus and Quasimodo to warn her before it’s too late.

…Or not.  Quasimodo doesn’t want to disobey his master again.  Isn’t he supposed to be the good guy?

After he changes his mind, he catches up with Phoebus and shows him the map, which reveals the location of her hideout, although not in much detail (how they’re supposed to find a hidden location with such vague directions is anyone’s guess).  Despite their dislike for each other (the tension between them is well-written), they agree to work together for her sake.  A few seconds later and they’ve found the place already.  It’s the hideout for all of Paris’ gypsies, known as the Court of Miracles.

These gypsies ambush the duo for trespassing and hey look, it’s Clopin again.  Not giving them any chance to explain themselves, he beings an upbeat song about executing them.  It’s catchy.  Despite his questionable morality or lack thereof, Clopin is a fun character.  They should have cut a couple of Quasimodo songs to give him more screen time.

After Esmeralda intervenes and rescues the men (again), Frollo arrives, having followed them to the location (what a trickster).  He has Quasi imprisoned in the belltower and Esmeralda tied up to be burned at the stake.  Then he tells her she can marry him or die in a fire.  She spits in his face.  Quasi swoops in and saves her from the fire, despite that he was chained to the architecture a moment ago.  Stone columns and links of iron are no match for Quasimodo’s spontaneous plot-powers.

So he grabs the gypsy, who has already passed out from the smoke, and uses his parkour skills to get back to the cathedral with her, where he… holds up her body over the ledge and yells, “Sanctuary”.  There’s a time and a place for making your point, Quasi.  Don’t you think she might have some health concerns that you could tend to before using her body as a soap box prop?

Phoebus escapes from his cage (not his jail cell, no; it’s a portable cage) and makes a rousing speech, inspiring the people to free the gypsies and stop the soldiers from re-capturing Esmeralda.  A battle breaks out.  There’s lots of red smoke in the air to enhance the violent atmosphere.  What’s disturbing is that the filmmakers keep throwing in attempts at comic relief, trying to keep the tone from getting too serious as people attempt to kill each other.  A battle scene deserves to be treated like a battle scene, and again, if they were concerned that it would be too age-inappropriate, they shouldn’t have written one at all.

Quasi is excited that they’ve beaten back the attackers, but what he doesn’t know is that Frollo has broken into the cathedral.  Esmeralda is still unconscious.  As the hunchback is crying over her, Frollo steps in and tries to kill him.  Quasi gets the upper hand and takes the time to berate Frollo for being a bad father.  Then Esmeralda stirs and they realize that she is not dead.

Frollo:  She lives.

Quasi:  No!

Out of context, it sounds like Quasi wants her dead too, doesn’t it?  He’s supposed to be shouting an objection to Frollo drawing a sword, but even in context, that line came too soon for it not to sound silly.

Side note: Frollo has a grand, commanding presence, but at the same time he’s a gaunt old man, so he looks out of place wielding a sword.  That’s not to say that gaunt old men can’t look like formidable warriors.  It’s his particular character design, with his stately robe and whatnot, that make him appear like he should be ordering someone else to do this.  Maybe it’s the shoulder pads.

Frollo chases after Quasi and Esmeralda with the sword.  Although conscious, Esmeralda is too feeble to stand, so Quasi has to carry her.  Either that, or she’s allowing herself to be carried because she knows he’s an agile climber.  This fight-on-a-balcony deal is reminiscent of the climax in Beauty and the Beast.  However, at least in that—

French the Llama, did Frollo just slice through solid stone?  He did.  He sliced through solid stone.

This makes the second occasion where the architecture around here has been shown to be not all that durable.  What are they using for building materials in this city, anyway?

Cornering Quasi out on a ledge, Frollo mentions the truth about Quasi’s mother, which seems a pointless thing to do, but he’s already lost the guy’s trust anyway so hey, what’s the harm?  Then he pulls an impressive but improbable trick, knocking Quasi off the ledge with his cape.  No, really.

More choreography occurs, and long story short, Frollo gets dispatched like you standard Disney villain by falling to his death.  Quasimodo falls too, but Phoebus rescues him because he’s a nice guy.

Now all of the sudden Quasimodo is no longer resentful of Phoebus and even encourages his relationship with Esmeralda.  Look, man, sure he saved your life, but you don’t have to act like you’re over her already.  If this were realistic—

Gah, her face is so flat.

She and Phoebus step outside and lead Quasi along with them, prompting him to shield his eyes like he’s never seen sunlight before.  Then a random little girl goes up to him and hugs his head.  If the music is any indication, this is supposed to be heartwarming, demonstrating that the people of Paris love and accept him now, even though he’s not a nubile pole dancer, because he rescued Esmeralda.  It’s implied everyone appreciates him for this like he’s done them a favor.  Esmeralda does seem popular, but if they didn’t believe Frollo’s accusations against her and didn’t think she deserved to die, then why didn’t one of them speak out or stop him?  Aside from the folks who have the excuse of being in cages at the time, is it legitimate to say that Quasi is the only one who could—or is he the only one who tried?

Notice that the fire and corpses from the battle have vanished now and no one appears to have any injuries.

Another thing to take into question is the inconsistent speed of fire: it takes a while for the kindling at Esmeralda’s feet to alight and spread toward her, allowing ample time for Quasimodo to launch a rescue, but when Frollo sets fire to the occupied household, it is ablaze in a matter of seconds.  What do these Parisians use for building materials?

In this movie, the plot is heavily based on the characters’ relationships, or to be more specific, it’s based on the idea that every man wants Esmeralda.  For her part, she does manage to have a developed personality outside of being the hot chick, and she saves the lives her male comrades—more than once, even.  That’s commendable.  What’s less so is that she had to dance about like a skank in order to garner attention, which could be chalked up to the times and such behavior being the only way for her to make a living, but it does leave one to wonder if the other characters would have taken any notice of her if she hadn’t appealed to their hormones first.  In spite of the filmmakers’ apparent intentions, she never crosses the line into awesome territory (the lesson here: if you try too hard to make a character likeable, you will fail) but at least she does something.

Also, the eeriness of her flat-faced, pinprick-eyed character design must be unintentional.

As for the male characters, Quasimodo is very softhearted as an obvious contrast to his appearance and physical strength, but it takes him a long, deliberating time before he can scrape together some courage.  Phoebus, on the other hand, is more heroic and more likeable.  Even his cheesy banter with Esmeralda can be entertaining.  However, without a doubt, it’s Judge Claude Frollo who steals the show.

Unlike other classic Disney villains like Scar, Jafar, or Ursula, Frollo’s motivation is more complex than ambition.  He’s not just scheming for power.  He already has power.  What makes him a villain is how he uses it.  Furthermore, Frollo is unique among children’s movie villains—and among villains in general, for that matter—in that he has a realistic ideology and objective.

He’s a religious man who thinks he’s a virtuous benefactor for improving the city.  It’s not that he does evil for the sake of evil; on the contrary, he believes himself righteous, and in spite of the childish humor throughout the film, this trait of his gives the film a touch of maturity.  He experiences cognitive dissonance when he recognizes his lust for a gypsy woman, which disturbs him because it doesn’t fit with his image of himself and it goes against everything he believes.  An interest in Esmeralda is not unique—Clopin might be the only male character who doesn’t stare at her at some point or another, and differentiating Frollo from the heroes is how he responds to it, deciding that if he can’t legitimize and sanctify a relationship with her, he’ll have to kill her.

Again, Disney deserves commendation for creating a movie that not only has a bold female hero but also acknowledges the existence of religion, which is a daring move compared to the formulaic themes of their current tepid productions.  Not so positive is that it reinforces negative stereotypes of Catholics, even despite Esmeralda’s prayer.  Then again, she’s agnostic at most, considering the lyric “I don’t know if You can hear me, or if You’re even there”.  That wasn’t a memorable song anyway.

Frollo makes far more of an impression.  The combination of his appearance, his voice, his demeanor, and the emotional rapport established with Hellfire create an unsettling villain.  His incredible song demonstrates to the viewers that he’s not some fiendish maniac bent on world domination.  He’s very human.  He doubts himself.  He begs for mercy.  He’s not sympathetic, but it is made clear how he agonizes over his faults and reaches the conclusion that he does, which makes him a more relevant character in that he’s the kind of person that can exist (and has existed, and does exist).  More than anything, that’s what makes him creepy.  He’s real.

One can assume from the production company that this movie is supposed to have a happy ending.  Phoebus and Esmeralda are in love, Quasimodo gains acceptance, and everyone is free of Frollo’s tyranny because Frollo dies in a fire.  However, it all takes a darker turn from another perspective.  According to a stricter literary definition, Frollo is the film’s protagonist.  The central conflict is based on his attempts to accomplish a goal (marry or kill Esmeralda) and the antagonists are the ones who oppose him.  Although there are subplots about Quasimodo developing self-esteem and Phoebus establishing himself as Neutral Good, the story focuses on a troubled man who wants to do the right thing but whose power to chase after his fantasies enables him to stray down the wrong path, and he never redeems himself.  He perishes in the flames, alone and unloved.

If any of this ever occurred to the filmmakers, it doesn’t show in the joyous music at the end.  It is remarkable that Disney made this, it’s interesting for its peculiarity, and it’s not bad, but as a whole, it’s not worth recommending.

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3 responses to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – G, Historical Drama

  1. Although, the Hunchback is one of my favourite Disney films (don’t hate me! hahaha) I can’t help but agree with you. I like Disney and over the years I have learned to ignore the fact that it completely overlooks original storeylines. Like honestly, who can name the author of Beauty and the Beast? In that way I have a love/hate relatinoship with Disney, but I still think that it played a big part in the lives of many people.
    Do you ever notice how in most Disney films you really like the villain? I think its because they have more depth than the protagonists. So I totally agree with you on that Frollo comment.

    • Thanks for commenting. No hate; don’t worry. It’s not a despicable film, it just suffers from a messy construction. Anyway, isn’t Beauty and the Beast a traditional folk tale? It’d be difficult to track down the original storyteller for that one.

      Hades is certainly more charismatic than Hercules, but the villain phenomenon might not be restricted to Disney films. Then again, the only example that comes to mind is Rumpelstiltskin from OUAT, so that might not count for much (considering ABC’s parent company). There are plenty of other instances, though. One theory is that villains sometimes get more development because they make the plot, in a way, whereas heroes are supposed to be the generic everyman that everyone can relate to, which means a limited scope as far as personality goes.

      • Well there are many versions of beauty and the beast ( or La Belle et la Bête), and many different countries have their own. I think one of the more widely known was written down and published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. However, Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont I think rewrote that version, or made an abridged version and now we kind of credit her for the work as it is more widely known than the other version. But I think this was the version that Disney put on screen. It is a traditional fairy tale however. Whether it is a traditional folk tale also, I am not sure. It might as well be though.

        I think you’re right on that last part, (well the first one too but that last part caught my eye). Villains do seem to make the plot and if the hero had more of a personality it would be harder for “the regular guy” to relate to the hero.

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