THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Directed By: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Produced By: Don Hahn
Inspired By: Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831)
Premiered On: June 19, 1996
Distribution By: Buena Vista Pictures
A film that is arguably one of the more controversial of Disney Animated Films and is often debated as the start of the slow decline of the Disney Renaissance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film that is, in essence, The Black Cauldron of its generation. I say this insomuch that while it hasn’t been shoved to the wayside as the afore mentioned film has been, it comes pretty close to being all but nonexistent. Even I, an avid fan of all Disney works, quite nearly forgot about this film.
While I’ve said the likes of The Rescuers is one of the darker Disney films, both literally and figuratively, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is much more so in the figurative sense as far as overall story. The plot begins in the year 1482 where we learn the origins of titular hunchback named Quasimodo, which is incorrectly stated as meaning “half formed” when it in fact means “Low Sunday” the day that Claude Frollo found him.
Of course, Frollo only found him because he had, quite literally, chased Quasimodo’s mother to the steps of Notre Dame where he had, inadvertently, killed her thinking she was making off with stolen goods. Realizing his mistake, Frollo initially attempts to kill Quasimodo as he views him as a monster but the archdeacon of the church stops him proclaiming that for the crime that he did, on the very steps of a church no less, his soul is stained with sin and to try and make recompense, he must raise and care for the child as his own.
We fast forward several years and learn that Frollo has cared for Quasimodo in the loosest sense of the word, barring him from ever leaving the towers of Notre Dame where he serves as the unseen and oft mysterious bell ringer. Here is also where we have a unique twist on the usual “I want” song insomuch that it’s Quasimodo who sings it versus the main female lead, that being the most recognized fictional gypsy the world over, Esmeralda.
Thinking himself safe to mingle in the crowds during the Festival of Fools celebration, Quasimodo and Frollo both meet Esmeralda for the first time. In the case of the lonely hunchback, he falls in love with her because she was the first person to ever show him kindness whereas Frollo… Is seduced by her charms and, eventually, comes to the conclusion that his lust can only be sated by either having her for himself or by burning her as the seductress that she is, in his eyes, so that his soul may be saved from eternal damnation.
There’s more to the story than just that of course, what with the three talking gargoyles that may or may not be nothing more than figments of Quasimodo’s imagination speaking to him as different aspects of his personality. There’s also the captain of Frollo’s guard, Phoebus, who is quite likely the only decent human being in all of freaking Paris as far as he treats people, especially the likes of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and their respected people.
This film, for how dark a tale it spins, pales in comparison to how the actual book goes. First and foremost as the most glaring difference of all is the fact that Quasimodo was not the protagonist in the story but rather Esmeralda’s husband, whom she only married as a means of saving his life as he had unwittingly stumbled upon their secret Court of Miracles and could only leave by way of death or by joining with another in matrimony.
Heck, Quasimodo in the book was actually far worse off than the film version in that he was half-blind and completely deaf from the ringing of the bells. More to the point however, contrary to how the film opens, his becoming a ward of Frollo’s was not because of the man accidentally murdering his mother but because Quasimodo had been purposefully left there in an equal exchange as another baby had been taken to replace him. A baby who was born with the name of Agnes but was given a new name upon her abduction…
The truth bombs don’t stop here, oh no, for you see ladies and gentlemen, the illustrious Phoebus? The man whom I stated not more than a few paragraphs ago as being a shining example of human decency? He is not only engaged to be married in the novel but is totally okay with sleeping with Esmeralda and is only interested in seducing while she herself is actually in love with him for the fact that she thinks of him as being a “true man” unlike the so-called “coward” that she had married.
The novel also ends far more tragically than the film’s version as not only does Esmeralda die, by way of hanging, but so too does Quasimodo as he goes to the graveyard where the bodies of the condemned are laid to rest and stays there beside Esmeralda’s body until he dies of starvation. The feels only pile up higher as, a little over a year later, the tomb is opened and their skeletons are found. When the attempt is made to separate them, they crumble into dust.
… Is it me, or does this whole affair sound a lot like a soap opera to anyone else?
Surprisingly enough, this film did well enough for itself in Germany that, in 1999, a musical version of it premiered entitled Der Glöckner von Notre Dame or The Bellringer of Notre Dame. The musical is almost exactly the same as the film itself with a few minor differences such as the names of the gargoyles being changed and their comedy being toned down by several large degrees.
In point of fact, this musical actually has more in common with the original novel than the film itself does as, just like in the book, Quasimodo is unable to save Esmeralda who dies from smoke inhalation but not before giving him her thanks and appreciation for being a good friend. Frollo arrives and says that the two of them are now safe from her seductive poison but Quasimodo doesn’t hear this.
No, he only hears the roaring chant of the gargoyles telling him to kill Frollo and he does so gladly by tossing him off the cathedral. Phoebus arrives on scene but is too injured to help Quasimodo who takes up Esmeralada’s body and lays her down upon the steps leading into the cathedral.
Fearing that he will be blamed for her death, he turns to flee when a small girl emerges from the crowd and twists her body to show that she is just like him. The rest of the crowd follows suit and the musical ends with the discovery of Quasimodo and Esmeralda’s bodies in the crypts of Notre Dame.
The musical ran for three years, becoming one of Berlin’s longest running musicals, and had, rather surprisingly, been picked up again for a North American release back in 2014 but failed to make it to Broadway.
Speaking of music, I suppose that now is as good a time as any to discuss my opinion on the one song that fits this film as a whole. I’ll admit, it was a though choice to make as quite a lot of the songs can fit this slot. Quasimodo’s “Out There” for example in describing the courage it takes to go out into the world despite the fears and troubles that might tie you down.
Heck even the songs “Heaven’s Light” and “Hellfire” sung by Quasimodo and Frollo, make for a good example of how one can be as afflicted by love as another is by lust and how, oftentimes, it is how one views and interprets these feelings that shows what kind of person they are.
However, these are not my choice for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. No, that honor goes to Esmeralda’s song “God Help the Outcasts.” While it is no visual marvel compared to the likes of The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” nor is a song that entices one to sing and dance like The Jungle Book’s “The Bare Necessities” this is a song that I think ought to be listened rather than heard, and believe me is there is a difference.
Overall, I give The Hunchback of Notre Dame… eh, three out of five stars. It’s a good story with a great message to it but it’s hunkered down by dark undertones that most would not be comfortable in viewing as adults never mind as children. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard the word Hell used in literal context, as in referring to the actual place rather than as cuss, in Western animation.
This here is always the first to come to mind. It’s not a film for everyone but I think that it’s one that everyone should see at least the one time, if only to come away from it with the idea that the difference between monsters and men lies not with what is one the surface, but what is buried beneath.