Continuing on with this month being a look at some classic animated films, let’s take a look at another classic animated film that I somehow went 20 years never seeing (kind of a funny coincidence, since the main character of this film spends 20 years never being a part of the world just beyond his home); the film I’m talking about is, of course, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And while I think it’s a great movie, I did have a few problems with it, from a storytelling standpoint, an animation standpoint, and just some general gripes I had with it. But let’s not dwell on the negative; that’s for later. For now, let’s take a look at The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also, some spoilers ahead; you have been warned.
The film centers on Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), the eponymous Hunchback, who was orphaned as a baby by the Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay). Frollo sees the baby as an abomination and plans to kill him, but a priest stops him by appealing to Frollo’s religious observance; the judge has killed a woman right in front of a church, and now plans to do the same thing to her child, adding more blood to his hands. He agrees to raise the child as his own, but has him kept in the bell tower as the bell ringer for Notre Dame. 20 years go by, and Quasimodo continues to have a fascination with the outside world that his master forbids him to be a part of. When he finally ventures out into the world, he meets a street performer named Esmerelda (Demi Moore) and all sorts of colorful characters at the Festival of Fools. When Esmerelda gets in trouble, she has to seek refuge in Notre Dame, and Quasimodo must work to keep her safe from his master. Trouble arises when Frollo starts to tear Paris apart to find Esmerelda and either kill her or have her as his own (pretty damn dark for a Disney movie, I know). It’s up to Quasimodo and friends both old and new to save the people who once ridiculed him and find his way in life.
So, what are the positives of this movie? Well, it’s beautiful. Paris comes to life in rich colors that only hand-drawn animation can bring you. The music is wonderful, especially Frollo’s fiendish “Hellfire” song. The choral background music was something I really appreciated, having been a singer for most of my life, and added to the majesty of the score. The voice acting is spot on, with Tom Hulce playing Quasimodo with the right amount of child-like curiosity and Tony Jay being sinister as Frollo. I also really sympathized with Quasimodo, which is a credit to Tom Hulce’s performance; you want Quasimodo to be happy, but so many things get in the way of his happiness that you really feel his struggle. The gargoyles were pretty funny, and the other side characters are a good deal of fun. One thing that I really liked and also didn’t like about the movie is the fact that (spoiler alert) Quasimodo doesn’t end up with Esmerelda in the end; I like that because it turns the audience expectations on its head, but I don’t like it because it results in some love triangle B.S. and is kind of insulting to the message of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Then again, it does kind of make sense of Quasimodo to not end up with anyone at the end: here’s a man who, for 20 years, his entire life, was shut up in a tower, forbidden to go outside or interact with anyone aside from his master. But at the end of the movie, he is free to come and go from Notre Dame as he pleases, so the whole world is open to him now; I don’t think I’d be focusing on getting a girlfriend if I was locked up in a tower for 20 years: I’d probably be focused on doing everything new and exciting that came my way. So I do like the fact that Quasimodo doesn’t end up with Esmerelda in the end, because they’re still friends and it makes sense with Quasimodo’s story arc.
Okay, so what are some of the problems I had with this movie? Well, its use of the word “gypsy” is a bit tough on the ear in today’s society, especially in a children’s movie. In fact, I wouldn’t exactly classify this movie as a “children’s” movie, maybe a movie for older kids or young teenagers, because there is a lot of dark imagery and religious symbolism that younger kids may not understand (or maybe I just don’t give kids these days enough credit. Who knows?). I do know that if I had seen this growing up, I probably would have been scared or confused for the majority of the runtime; maybe I didn’t have a complex understanding of the world when I was a kid, or maybe my parents preferred to show me a movie featuring lions and a meerkat-warthog duo over a movie where the main character learns the alphabet like this: “A: Abomination, B: Blasphemy, C: Contrition, D: Damnation, E: Eternal Damnation.” Also, while the animation was beautiful almost all the way through, there were large crowd scenes where the people in the crowd looked like something out of an early-2000s video game; it’s honestly pretty jarring and distracting. All in all, this is a great movie with some flaws in terms of language and some pretty mediocre animation for the crowds in some scenes (seriously, watching it in HD just makes it even more apparent).
Despite the negatives I listed, I still stand by The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a fine example of the Disney Renaissance. The hand-drawn animation is wonderful, the music is moving and full of life, the characters are enjoyable and heartfelt, and the themes are dark and intense. Not your typical Disney fare, but still an enjoyable film that teaches people to accept others regardless of what they look like on the outside; you’d have to be a real King of Fools not to follow that advice.
Written by Joey Sack