Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Classics: A Review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame By Lauren Ennis

More than a pretty face
During the 1990’s Walt Disney Studios experienced a revitalization of its animation department known as the ‘Disney Renaissance’. During this time, the studio overcame near bankruptcy following a series of mediocre efforts and outright flops (most notably the high costing Black Cauldron) to create a series of exquisitely animated and thematically complicated films that have since gone on to become classics of children’s cinema. One of the most unique achievements of this era in the studio’s history stands out for its innovative style and mature themes, even amongst its acclaimed predecessors; 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Based upon the 1831 Victor Hugo novel of the same name, this musical adaptation follows the basic story of the literary classic while adapting its content to suit juvenile audiences. The film begins with Gypsy entertainer Clopin (Paul Kandel ) relating the tale of the mysterious bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral to a group of children. The film then launches into a flashback that takes up the majority of its running time, which begins with the disfigured Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) being adopted by corrupt city official Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) after Frollo accidentally killed the child’s mother during an overzealous arrest. Quasimodo then grows up hidden away from society in the church bell-tower with Frollo acting as his teacher, adoptive father, and only link to the outside world. As a result, Quasimodo sees himself as the unworthy monstrosity that Frollo consistently refers to him as, rather than the sensitive, talented, and valuable person that he actually is. After years of isolation, Quasimodo finally disobeys Frollo and ventures into Paris’ annual Festival of Fools, only to find that the locals are just as cruel and narrow minded as Frollo. After being harassed by the festival crowd, he regains his hope in humanity when he is defended by the courageous Gypsy dancer, Esmeralda (Demi Moore). Unfortunately, her act of kindness draws the attention of Frollo, putting her into direct and mortal danger. It is then up to Quasimodo and his unlikely ally, soldier Phoebus, to rescue Esmeralda and stop Frollo before he is able to fulfill his goal of annihilating Paris' entire Gypsy population.
While Disney films often utilize well known stories and tales as source material, Hugo’s classic was a truly unusual choice for the studio to adapt. The original novel explores such adult themes as religion, hypocrisy, prejudice, and sexual repression; far cries from typical children’s fare. Although the film does soften many of the source material’s sharpest edges (in the novel Frollo is a corrupt priest, Quasimodo is abandoned because of his disfigurement, Phoebus’ interest in Esmeralda was strictly sexual and neither Quasimodo nor Esmeralda was afforded a happy ending), it maintains the tale’s central ideas and refuses to talk down to its audience. For instance, Frollo’s prejudice against the Gypsies echoes the atrocities of the genocides that have occurred throughout history, and his fixation upon capturing Esmeralda is an obvious result of his repressed lust for her. As a result, Frollo is truly one of the darkest and most realistic villains of the history of Disney, whose actions are made all the more chilling  by the fact that he commits them with the firm belief of acting on the side of the greater good. While the film does digress into instances of typical comic relief via Quasimodo’s interactions with a trio of talking gargoyles (Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and Mary Wickes), even this aspect of the film hints at darker possibilities as the film’s directors have stated that the gargoyles are actually figments of Quasimodo’s imagination and manifestations of his loneliness. The film further maintains the story's complexity by refusing to rely upon easy answers and black and white characterizations as Esmeralda’s fellow Gypsies are shown to be a diverse group of individuals who are neither all good nor completely bad rather than merely innocent victims, and the city mob is revealed to be fueled by ignorance rather than malice. Through its textured characterizations and gritty content the film is a truly intelligent work that teaches valuable lessons without lecturing to its audience, and as a result is truly enjoyable for the ‘whole family’.
All for one and one for all!

The film’s intelligent script is only rivaled by its equally complex animation. While Disney had previously utilized a combination of traditional and computer generated animation in the past, the full possibilities of this technique come to vibrant life in Hunchback. The cathedral bears a remarkable resemblance to the actual Cathedral of Notre Dame complete with spire towers, dazzling stained glass windows, and an array of statues. Similarly, the Parisian backdrops draw viewers into the world of the characters while remaining true to history. The characters are also excellently animated with varied and natural facial expressions and physical movements. The animators were especially successful in balancing the daunting extent of Quasimodo’s disfigurement, which is essential to the plot, and the need to make him approachable to the film’s young viewers.

Through its unique approach to children's entertainment, The Hunchback of Notre Dame became a true landmark for Walt Disney Studios and American animation. The film not only completes the difficult task of telling a mature story in a child-friendly manner, but also does so in a truly memorable way. Its combination of witty lyrics, catchy tunes, dazzling animation, and layered characterizations allows the film to work as both entertainment and education as it relays important messages about tolerance, morality, and friendship in a manner that is accessible and acceptable to all ages. Join Quasimodo and Esmeralda for a revitalizing tale that will show you why the 90’s were truly animation’s renaissance.

Since when is pole-dancing G rated material?!


  1. Great review. Now I have a question: why is that when The Horned King wanted to resurrect his Army of the Dead in "the Black Cauldron" it was frowned upon, but Judge Frollo wants to commit genocide and receives praise and applause???

  2. You'd think evil plans that can actually happen would raise more eyebrows...
    Frollo just had better PR

  3. This is brilliantly written. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favourite Disney film and it did used to freak me out as a child. I love the themes and morals of it; that it's what's on the inside that counts, and that you should fight for what you believe in even if you're alone. Esmeralda and Phoebus are my favourite Disney couple; they're both strong and support each other and are active characters as opposed to simply being a prissy prince and princess. They fight for justice in Paris (I think the story was also a comment on the French Revolution?) I love Esmeralda because she's a poor Gyspy girl who just wants justice for her people, and Phoebus is funny but also kind and doesn't mindlessly follow Frollo's cruel orders. And Frollo is the best and darkest villain ever (the guy that does his voice is the same guy that voices the creepy Asylum dude in Beauty and the Beast). Quasi is lovely and kind and obvi if he existed today he wouldn't be ostracized. I think the film also shows the cruelness of humans; laughing and taunting a poor boy for being different, and their ignorance towards Frollo's corrupt behaviour. I could rave on about this film all day. Marvellous and underrated imo. The Renaissance Disney movies were the best I think; Mulan, Tarzan, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, Pocahontas.

    1. Sorry for the late response, I just saw your comment now. Thank you so much! I absolutely agree Hunchback has to be one of Disney's finest. If you get a chance to see the live production I totally recommend it; all of the grittiness of the novel but with all the great songs!