“Life’s not a spectator’s sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, than you’re gonna watch your life go by without cha” – Laverne
Warning: this review is LONG. Read at your own risk…
There are only a few movies in the Disney Animated Canon that I could call truly “Dark.” Up to this point, only The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron are in this category, in my opinion. There are a few that teeter on the brink, Like Pinocchio and even The Great Mouse Detective, but I’m hesitant to have those join these others.
Disney doesn’t like its dark movies, which is kinda a shame. Other than The Black Cauldron, most of its dark movies have actually been financial successes. These dark movies aren’t ones you know as a kid, unless they come out during your childhood. You have to really search to find these movies. Why? Because Disney likes it’s squeaky clean, family friendly, light hearted musical image. It tends to market re-releases of movies it’s guaranteed to make money on. These tend to be the classics, or the princess movies. Rarely does it include these “dark” movies.
That being said, many of these Dark movies have gotten blu-ray releases. They’ve gotten Anniversary Editions or even Diamond Editions. They may not have been marketed, but at least they got them. All except two: The Black Cauldron (for reasons we discussed here), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While Hunchback is available on blu-ray, you can bet they didn’t restore it or add anything or it doesn’t have any special features (It NEVER had even a good DVD release!). It’s 20th anniversary is in 2 years. I swear… Disney’s gonna get a letter from me if they don’t give it a good release then!
If you can’t already tell, I think this movie had been completely disrespected and mistreated. This movie was “technically” a hit (it more broke even – it made about a $117M profit: I’d call that a hit but apparently the movie world requires more…), and the critics liked it. But stupid Disney stupidly wants to shove it to the wayside. This is incredibly unfair. This movie is amazing. This movie is on levels that other Disney movies only hope to reach. Do I sound like I’m over-reaching? Maybe I am, but allow me to justify my decision.
This movie is based on the book of the same name (at least in english), by Victor Hugo, published way back in 1831. Hugo got the idea for the book upon visiting Notre Dame and seeing the word “Fate” chiseled into the wall in latin. While the Disney movie does follow the characters and the story, it is extremely different from the book. A lot of critics actually hated what Disney did to the book, saying they ruined it and changed the characters into unrecognizable cliches. While this may be true (to a point), let’s face it: would anyone want a faithful version of Notre Dame de Paris these days? Yes it’s a literary masterpiece and explores some really interesting themes and ideas in great ways, but I dunno… I think there’s a reason there hasn’t been an adaptation of this book (before this one) since the 1950s. *Ok that’s not true, there was a ’97 TV version, but it wasn’t close to the book either. It was closer to this movie and had Mandy Patinkin, Selma Hayek, and Richard Harris.*
So knowing that this isn’t at all like the book, what’s our Disney movie about? Part of me just wants to skip the plot because it’s complicated. I feel like I’m going to be explaining it forever. eh, ok. I’ll give it a shot.
The movie starts with Clopin, the king of the gypsies. He’s gathering local children for a puppet show to tell us all about the mysterious bell ringer that lives in the tower of Notre Dame. Through son, we find out that he was the son of a gypsy who was killed by Claude Frollo, the minister of Justice. Upon seeing his misshapen face, Frollo tried to drown the child, but the archdeacon stops him and tells him to look after the child as his own. overcome with guilt (and thinking the kid may be of use to him one day) he agrees, but sends him to live in isolation in the bell tower in isolation.
Fast forward 20 years and we meet Quasimodo, the hunchback who wants nothing more than to spend a day out in the real world, despite what his master Frollo tells him about the world being cruel. He decides to go anyway to the Feast of Fools, a festival happening right outside the cathedral. Upon being crowned the king of fools, cheer turns to jeering as the crowd turns on him. Suddenly stopping the bullying is Esmeralda, a gypsy who helps Quasimodo, despite what Frollo wanted.
Suddenly she’s a wanted woman. Frollo sends his captain of the guard Phoebus after her, but she escapes into the cathedral. Wanting to help her (and smitten with her), Phoebus exclaims she claims sanctuary, and suddenly Frollo is stuck guarding the doors until she comes out.
Inside the Cathedral, Esmeralda finds Quasimodo, and he agrees to help her escape by climbing down the bell tower. She thanks him and gives him a woven band necklace, claiming that if he ever needs sanctuary, this will help him get to safety. She runs off, and Quasi is smitten. Frollo finds out she somehow escaped and sends his guards to search everywhere for her. His methods get a bit obsessive (aka: burning people’s houses down with them inside…) and Phoebus can’t stand it. Frollo calls him insubordinate and suddenly he’s on the run as well. He gets shot in the shoulder and Esmeralda rescues him and takes him to Quasimodo. She leaves him in Quasi’s care, then leaves.
Frollo figures out that it was Quasi who helped Esmeralda escape and goes to visit the hunchback, pretending he knows where the gypsy hideaway is (the “Court of Miracles,”), and that he plans to attack with a thousand men. Realizing that they have to warn the gypsies, Quasi and Phoebus make their way there first with the help of the woven band Esmeralda gave Quasi. After a misunderstanding, the duo warns Clopin and the gypsies about Frollo, only to find out that the Minister of Justice used them to find the Court of Miracles.
All the gypsies are arrested and Esmeralda is set up to burn at the stake in front of the cathedral. Quasi is chained up in the tower, but gets over his sorrow and breaks out, rescuing esmeralda and taking her to the tower. A fight ensues, Frollo climbs the tower to destroy Esmeralda and Quasi, and truths are finally told. Frollo goes tumbling to the ground below and all is saved. At the celebration, Esmeralda and Phoebus invite Quasi to join them, and the cheering dies down. Everyone is a bit hesitant until a little girl comes up and accepts him. Yay. The end.
I will be the first to say that the critics who said the movie is nothing like the book are right: the characters in this book are completely different. For one, Frollo in the book is actually the archdeacon, not a Minister of Justice. Quasimodo is not as sympathetic of a character, Phoebus is a sexist man-pig, and there’s a whole character they cut out named Gringoire who is a starving poet that ends up marrying Esmeralda. The book is great. If you haven’t read it and you like classics, this is definitely one to read. I used it for my thesis in high school english and could literally go on and on about it. But like I said, we’re going to take this movie as a movie, and not compare it too much to its source material. We will a bit though, because I can’t help it.
That being said, what I love about this movie is they still managed to take some of the themes and focuses of the book and transfer them well onto the screen. Hugo was a big believer in the preservation of gothic architecture. In his book he goes on and on about the different buildings and lighting and everything about every single brick in the cathedral. You can tell he loved it (This popularity of book was actually part of the reason the Cathedral was renovated at one point and not torn down…). In this movie, the cathedral really is like another character. She’s incredibly central to the story and the setting, as a lot of scenes take place inside or just outside of her. The way the light moves in and out of the stained glass and the crevices is beautiful. The level of detail in the animation of the architecture is astonishing. When Quasi swings around on the cathedral, it shows her off.
The biggest theme of the book that this movie latches onto and arguably expands on is the idea that a person cannot be judged based on looks or appearance. This is what Disney really want kids to walk away understanding. In the beginning, Clopin poses a riddle after telling the story of Quasimodo’s origin: “Who is the monster and who is the man?” We spend the entire movie figuring it out, and at the end, he poses it again in a different way: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?”
In the book this theme is apparent in every character. In this movie it is as well, although they obviously want you to focus on two characters in particular: Quasimodo and Frollo. Appearances are deceiving. Quasi looks hideous and frightening, but turns out to be sweet, helpful, thoughtful, loyal, soft-spoken, and a bit naive. Frollo, on the other hand, is a man of power; a holy man that one would expect to be just, truthful and trustworthy. It turns out that he is corrupt to the point of insanity (we’ll talk about him later…).
There are other themes in Hugo’s book that transfer to the screen, but they’re not done in the depth that they are in the book. I honestly think this is for the best. This was already a hard one to put on screen. But in case you’re curious, Hugo also explored the idea of determinism (fate and destiny) as well as social evolution, revolution, loyalty, love (and how it’s bad for you – that’s an interesting one) and social strife.
This movie also focuses on religion and temptation, same as the book. In fact, it’s the only Disney movie to ever tackle this subject. It uses the words “God,” “Hell” and even “Damnation,” like they were drops in the hat. The influence that religion has on this movie is apparent everywhere from the music (a lot of the songs include sung prayers and organs or choirs) to the internal struggle that burns within Frollo’s heart for lusts of the flesh.
Oh yes, let’s talk about this man a moment. Frollo is by far Disney’s most complex and evil villain. I know I just gave that prize to Scar, but Frollo is hands down evil for seemingly no good reason. Scar had a reason. Frollo just seems to enjoy killing/torturing people for the hell of it. Actually no it’s not for the hell of it. He technically has a reason: he’s cleansing the world of “demons” that don’t belong here, but in hell. He’s getting rid of everyone he and the “church” (in his eyes) deems unworthy. WTF?!? Remember another person who tried to do something similar in real life?
Yes. I’m comparing Frollo to Hitler, and I’m not sorry. Of course there are differences, but really, they’re scarily similar if you actually stop to think about it…
Anyway. What’s so interesting about Frollo is that while he’s busy killing/arresting/torturing people, he’s also dealing with this intense inner struggle centering on Esmeralda. He, like every other man in this movie, is smitten with her. He wants to know her, but he’s a man of the church and a man of religion and knows that’s wrong. He still has urges. There’s an entire song that centers around this. A song that Disney almost cut but is now considered one of the most amazing songs ever written for a disney movie (also one of the only Disney songs that frightened me even as a 12 year old – I’ve obviously grown to appreciate it now).
Imagine how much worse this would be if they had kept him an archdeacon like in the book. The only reason I think they changed what he was was because they feared what people would think/say. (I swear, stupid PR – no one can say anything anymore without offending someone). Anyway, he deals with his obsession with her, but he still can’t really make heads of tails of it. In the end, he actually offers for Esmeralda to be his or die. A request to which she responds by spitting in his face. “Frollo found corruption everywhere except within.” Love that. In one sentence in the beginning of the movie, we know what our villain is all about, and it explains him perfectly.
On the other side of our man/monster debate is Quasimodo. First off, I love this character design. If you look at other adaptations of Quasi, he’s almost terrifying. I know that’s kinda the point, but Disney realized that for a movie aimed at kids (which I would argue this movie really isn’t appropriate for… at least young kids) they needed to make him a bit softer. His face is misshapen, sure, but there’s a friendliness to it. The second he opens his mouth, you know that this character is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. That’s a testament to Tom Hulce, the voice actor. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I think he was a perfect choice. There’s a lilt in his voice that portrays a lack of confidence and naivety but a friendliness. That is just what his character should be. Quasimodo isn’t confident, but through the movie grows enough and gains the confidence he needs to tell Frollo exactly how he feels. He grows to learn the lies this man told him. He learns who he can and can’t trust. He learns what love is and how it can break your heart (3 cheers for Disney creating a character that doesn’t get the girl!). The only thing he’s ever wanted is to live “out there” and be accepted. It’s hard, but he gets it in the end because of the type of person he is.
I think Quasi is hands down my favorite Disney protagonist. I don’t know what it is. Every time he’s on screen, I love it. I love him. He’s a great, well rounded character. I love the way he talks, I love the way he yearns and dreams, and I love the abilities that he has and the loyalties he shows to the people he knows are trustworthy. He also realizes that jealousy isn’t worth it, and accepts that Esmeralda won’t be his. I love Quasimodo. One of the nicest character’s Disney has ever created.
The other reason I think I enjoy Quasimodo so much is that he’s a sympathetic character, and deeper than most people realize. Deep? yes. Remember the gargoyles?
Yeah. Those three: Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. While a lot of people count them as the most distracting thing in this movie (and hands down the worst thing), I’m in another boat. There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to the gargoyles: 1) they’re real. They really turn from stone to life and help Quasi with his issues, or 2) they’re all a figment of Quasi’s imagination.
I agree with #2. Not only does this make the gargoyles a lot easier to watch, but it also deepens the movie. Suddenly, Quasimodo becomes more real. He’s been in isolation for his entire life, and how has he chosen to deal with that? By creating imaginary friends that embody everything that his world isn’t. Everyone would do that, because everyone wants someone to talk to. Think about it: they never interact with anyone else (maybe djali… I dunno though, he’s a goat), and each of them is almost a different personality to balance Quasi’s self-deprecating, timid self. Hugo is fun and annoying, Victor is the smart, educated, introverted wise one, and Laverne is the one that seems the most down to earth and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. What I’m saying is that it’s very easy for this all to be in his head. It makes the most sense. I know a lot of people will go “But we saw them in the last scenes doing stuff!” To that I say this: Quasi is so anti-violence, but in that instant he had to be to save his friends. By having the “gargoyles” do it, he was justifying it in his head. Super cool. (I didn’t get that on my own… that’s from another article).
Our only other characters in this movie are Esmeralda and Phoebus. While these characters are both good, they are much more boring and cliche than Quasi and Frollo. I do love that Esmeralda’s kinda a bad-ass and is willing to fight and get hurt at a time when most Disney Heroines were “trying” to get their hands dirty but wouldn’t really… It’s refreshing. Pheobus is in love with Esmeralda, and he’s a nice guy. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders and is almost there as a challenger to Frollo who stands up for his morals and almost leads a revolution. I guess they needed someone to do that.
The animation in this movie is beautiful. The Cathedral is done mostly with CGI when Quasi’s swinging around on it, and you can’t tell one bit. The architecture is gorgeous. The Bells are gorgeous. The character designs are realistic but not weird realistic like Pocahontas.
Where this movie really gets me, though, is the music. I’ve mentioned how the music is church infused. A few of the songs include sung prayer, while a few of them have choirs and organs. I haven’t talked much about the atmosphere of Disney movies, but this movie is dripping with it. The songs definitely help create the world we are going to be spending our time in. These songs are huge and grand in sound and substance, just like our titular cathedral. They move the story along or convey emotion better than any Disney songs before it (yes, even Beauty and the Beast, IMO). This movie is literally tailor made for broadway. “The Bells of Notre Dame” open us up to the idea of this bigger than life picture and tells us a background story. “Out there,” my personal favorite song, conveys exactly what Quasi wants. It’s a good introduction not only to our protagonist but our villain as well. “God Help the Outcasts” is beautiful. “Heaven’s light/Hellfire” is an incredible… INCREDIBLE song. “A Guy Like You,” the song the gargoyles sing, is fun and sweet. The two the gypsies sing, “Topsy Turvy” and “Court of Miracles” are fun and silly (but the latter is also serious, if that’s possible). These songs are great. I just want to listen to them over and over. Then that makes me always want to watch the movie again. It’s a viscous cycle.
Also want to do a random shout-out to the song in the credits, “Someday” by All-4-One. This song is also unbelievable, and the video is all sorts of 90s awesomeness.
It’s true: this movie is not like a lot of Disney’s other movies. It’s dark. It deals with adult themes, but it does it well, unlike our last super dark “I’m going to forget you exist” movie, The Black Cauldron. Animated movies don’t have to be just for kids. Look at Miyazaki and Princess Mononoke (or some of his other darker movies). Animation does not equal kid movie. Disney should not have to get or take crap from people that think they should only cater to children. This movie makes you think. It teaches a lesson, and it does it well. I was 11 when this movie came out, and I loved it. I love it more and understand it more as an adult, but it didn’t matter back then. I still loved it because it had great characters and a great message. I knew these were adult things it was dealing with, but that was always ok. There was still enough for me to enjoy. If anything, I felt honored that Disney made a kids movie and felt like we could handle it. Disney, you did a remarkable job. You shouldn’t pretend this movie doesn’t exist. Are there flaws? sure. This movie is far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t amazing and enjoyable. It’s my reason for making an “underrated” Disney list. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a classic and a masterpiece.
I have argued with myself for a long time about how to rate this and where to put it on my list. But I think I’ve figured it out.
I give The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) a 4.3 out of 5. This movie is much better than people give it credit for. It’s also dethroning The Lion King as my favorite Disney movie, I think…
Up Next: Hercules (1997)