Perhaps one of the most underrated films of all time, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, adapted from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, is an impressively spectacular experience that serves as one of Disney’s finest offerings.
As you will probably guess, I absolutely adore animation (especially traditional animation) and I absolutely adore Disney. I like to consider animation to be the supreme medium, as I think it offers the most possibilities for artistic expression of any medium. If you can dream it up, you can make it happen in animation.
Of course, animation is expensive and animation is difficult. With live action films, one need only point a camera and shoot. The result might not be any good, but that’s the bare minimum requirement to produce that kind of film. To even produce a poor traditionally animated film, you must draw many frames of at least one subject. All by hand. To give you an idea of how much work that is, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs contains more than 250,000 separate, hand-drawn pictures.
That kind of work is costly. During the production of Snow White the artists actually produced more than 2 million pictures. With a rough estimation of a modern anime artist’s salary (which is criminally low, by the way), such a product would cost $7.5 million for the animation alone, without even taking into consideration things such as sound, acting, or even finishing stages for the drawings such as inking, cleaning, or coloring. Yeah, there’s a reason Disney was told he would go bankrupt if that film failed.
What this means is that traditional animation is tremendously risky and tedious to make. Even when such a movie receives respectable sales, such as with the case of Sleeping Beauty, it may still loose money due to its inability to recover its high, difficult-to-market cost. Obviously this means that such films aren’t attractive investments, and that’s why we see so few high-quality ones. Disney actually shut sown their traditional animation division because (by their logic at least) the films weren’t capable of carrying their own weight.
And you know what? They’re kind of right. Traditionally animated movies don’t make their budgets back. But you know what else? That’s not the films’ fault. It’s ours. Traditionally animated movies don’t sell because we Americans don’t think of them as “real movies.” We think of them as being “just for kids,” despite the Japanese having clearly shown that this is obviously not the case for decades. Nonetheless, we Americans don’t care an iota about other cultures, so we don’t pay attention to them or learn from them. So while those other cultures are producing Fullmetal Alchemist and Howl’s Moving Castle we’re stuck with Shark Tale and Teen Titans Go while masterworks such as The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers and The Iron Giant quietly fade into obscurity because we think that animation is only for children and, even more infuriatingly, that no effort should be put into them because children are supposedly stupid.
Well you know what? I’ve had enough of that nonsense. I’m incredibly smart, I always have been, and I’ve always been able to detect passion and quality. I’ve loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame ever since I was quite small, and this film is dark, complex, and thought-provoking, so don’t you dare tell me that kids aren’t smart enough or they’re too innocent for films like these. Above and beyond that, don’t use that stupid excuse to not see this film yourself. This is a mature film that respects its audience, and in fact its greatest weaknesses are the parts where it doesn’t. Films like these need to be rewarded because we need more of them. With that in mind, here’s why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is so excellent:
The film opens with a monastic choir singing in Latin, followed by a booming, grandiose overture featuring powerfully ringing church bells and the monastic choir vocalizing the film’s main leitmotif as the camera cuts through a sky of clouds towards the distant, accurately-drawn structure of the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. Rarely have I seen an opening that so perfectly sets the tone for the rest of a work; it’s grand, beautiful, and demonstrates the dedication that went into the film. Furthermore, it foreshadows the themes of the film; that leitmotif is from the villain’s song, which is all about the nature of temptation and evil, a subject explored throughout the entirety of the film.
The camera then moves down to the city of Paris down below, where the Gypsy king Clopin sings the exposition of the film’s backstory to some children: twenty years ago, the dogmatic, zealously religious Judge Claude Frollo trapped some Gypsies and attempted to have a Gypsy woman’s baby taken from her, thinking it to be stolen goods. He pursued her to the steps of the cathedral, where he took the baby and killed the woman. When he looks at the baby he sees that it’s deformed, so he becomes convinced that it’s a demon from Hell and attempts to drown it in a nearby well. He is stopped by the Archdeacon, however, who warns him that he must raise the child himself to atone for the sin of murdering its mother. The Archdeacon allows Frollo to raise the child in the cathedral’s bell tower, and though Frollo is resentful of his punishment he decides that the child may someday prove useful to him. Clopin concludes the introduction by informing the children (and by extension the audience) that Frollo gave the child the cruel name Quasimodo, meaning “half formed”, and asking who between the deformed Quasimodo and the wicked Frollo is truly the monster and who is truly the man.
Twenty years later, Quasimodo has grown into an ugly but kind young man who wishes to go to the annual Festival of Fools. His gargoyle friends Victor, Hugo, and Laverne urge him to go despite Quasi’s master Frollo forbidding him to ever leave the tower, and he eventually relents and decides to. However, while eating with Frollo Quasi accidentally slips that he wants to go, leading Frollo to tell him as he’s told him before that the world outside is cruel and they will hate and revile him for his deformity. Nonetheless, Quasi sneaks out and goes to the festival.
Meanwhile, the good-hearted Captain Phoebus arrives in Paris from the wars to become Frollo’s new Captain of the Guard. Frollo tells Phoebus that his duty is to help him exterminate the Gypsies, as their “heathen ways inflame the people’s lowest instincts.” Frollo tells Phoebus that to do this they must find the Gypsies’ hideout, known as the “Court of Miracles,” which Frollo has been searching for for 20 years. They then go to the Festival to oversee it.
While at the festival Quasi meets the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmeralda, who draws the attentions of Quasi, Phoebus, and Frollo. It is declared that the man who could make the ugliest face in Paris would be crowned King of Fools, and thinking Quasi is wearing a mask Esmeralda brings him onto the stage with the other contestants. However, he is revealed to not be wearing a mask, which initially shocks and horrifies the audience, as well as exposing Quasi to the furious Frollo. However, the crowd is quelled when they are reminded that they asked for the ugliest face in Paris, and since Quasi is he is the rightful King of Fools. Quasi is initially happy but the townspeople begin torturing and mocking him. When he begs Frollo for help Frollo coldly refuses to intervene as punishment for his disobedience.
Esmerelda stops the crowd and frees Quasi, defying and angering Frollo. When Esmerelda accuses Frollo of being unjust and cruel, Frollo sends his guards after her. Using parlor tricks (which Frollo is convinced is witchcraft), Esmerelda escapes into the cathedral. Phoebus follows her in and informs her that he has no intention to harm her. When Frollo enters and finds Esmerelda, as well, Phoebus lies that she claimed sanctuary and there’s nothing he can do. When Frollo tries to have Esmerelda dragged out to arrest her the Archdeacon forbids him, commanding him to respect the sanctity of the church. Frollo threatens and makes advances on Esmerelda before he leaves and posts guards at every exit.
Esmerelda prays to God to help the oppressed and outcast while Quasi watches, and when she notices him she follows him to his tower, where she learns that Quasi has been emotionally abused by Frollo his whole life and believes Gypsies to be evil and himself to be a monster. After Esmerelda tells Quasi that Frollo’s wrong, Quasi helps Esmeralda escape by carrying her as he climbs down the walls of the cathedral. Esmerelda asks Quasi to come with her, but Quasi refuses, so Esmerelda gives him a band and tells him that if he ever needs anything he need only consult it to find her. When Quasi goes back into the cathedral he finds Phoebus looking for her. Quasi tells Phoebus to leave, and Phoebus does after asking Quasi to tell her that he didn’t mean to trap her there, but he had to, and that she’s lucky to have a friend like Quasi.
Frollo is tortured over his lust for Esmerelda, and sings that she will be his or she will burn in the fires of Hell. The next day he begins ransacking Paris in search of her. At the home of a family who has housed Gypsies, Frollo bars the door and commands Phoebus to burn it. Phoebus refuses, and so Frollo lights it, forcing Phoebus to save the family before the burning house collapses over them. For Phoebus’s insubordination, Frollo attempts to have him executed, but Esmerelda stops them and allows Phoebus to escape. Phoebes is shot and Esmerelda takes him to the cathedral.
Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends tell him that Esmerelda loves him, and when Esmerelda arrives at the cathedral she asks him to hide Phoebus as he heals. Quasi agrees. As Esmerelda treats Phoebus’s wound, they kiss, devastating Quasi.
After Esmerelda leaves, Frollo comes and tells Quasi that he knows that he helped her escape. He again tells Quasi that Gypsies are evil and that Esmerelda is twisting his mind. Frollo then tells Quasi that they will soon be free of her sorcery, as he now knows the location of the Court of Miracles and will attack it at dawn.
Phoebus urges Quasi to help him find the Gypsies and warn them of Frollo’s siege, and Quasi reluctantly agrees. Quasi deduces that the band Esmerelda gave him is a map of the city, and that the Court is in the cemetery. He and Phoebus go there and find some catacombs, where they are ambushed and brought to the Court. The Gypsies try to hang them, believing them to be Frollo’s spies, but Esmerelda stops them. Phoebus tells them that Frollo is about to attack them, so they begin preparing to flee. However, Frollo then reveals himself and attacks, revealing that he used Quasi to lead him to the Court. He captures the Gypsies, Phoebus, and Quasi, and has Quasi chained to Notre Dame’s pillars. He has a pyre prepared for Esmerelda’s execution as Phoebus and the Gypsies are forced to watch.
Frollo tells Esmerelda that she must become his lover or burn, to which she spits on him. Frollo then lights the pyre, giving Quasi the renewed resolve to break his chains and rescue Esmerelda, bringing her onto the cathedral’s rooftop. Frollo and his guards begin laying siege on the cathedral as Phoebus frees himself and rallies the people of Paris and the Gypsies into battle against him. Quasi and the gargoyles force the guards back before pouring boiling lead over the roofs onto them, leaving only Frollo.
Frollo cuts through the front doors and assaults the Archdeacon when he commands him to stop. He then tries to kill Quasi, who is morning over the seemingly dead Esmerelda. However, Quasi disarms him and tells him that he was wrong about the world; the only thing dark and cruel about it is people like him.
Esmerelda awakes and Frollo continues trying to kill them. He reveals to Quasi that he murdered his mother before attempting to send him falling off the roof. When Esmerelda catches Quasi, Frollo tries to behead her, but the gargoyle he’s standing upon breaks under his weight and sends him falling into the molten lead below.
Esmerelda accidentally drops Quasi, but Phoebus catches him. Quasi gives Esmerelda and Phoebus his blessing to be together before going out into Paris, where the people at last accept him.
Pretty hardcore, huh? Not your typical Disney fare. That’s what makes this film so great; they made it so dark and so deep, knowing that such an endeavor was quite risky. This is a film that treats you like an adult, and does so excellently.
First of all, the characters are fantastic. Quasi is endearing and extremely human; watch at the way he quietly echoes every put-down Frollo has for him. This is quite a realistic portrayal of what emotional abuse is like, and his profound humanity doesn’t stop there; his heartbreak over being unable to have Esmerelda is completely believable, as not only is his display of the emotion executed flawlessly, but that’s the way such a situation would almost certainly play out. It’s tragic, but it’s true; the deformed don’t get the opportunity for love as often as others do. I cannot applaud the film enough in this regard; it doesn’t shy away at all from the harsh truths of reality.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the character of Claude Frollo. Claude Frollo. Oh my, Claude Frollo. This is hands-down, no question, without exaggeration, one of the greatest villains of all time. First of all, he’s easily the most audacious decision Disney has ever made; he’s a religiously fanatical, perverted, abusive, sadistic, genocidal old tyrant. That’s not just a vile villain by Disney standards; that’s a vile villain by the standards of anything.
But even though Frollo is mind-bogglingly evil, he’s still realistic and believable; his actions are a result of a combination of self-righteousness, repression, perfectionism, and bigotry. Off the top of your head I know you know some people like that. He also pulls of the truly astounding feat of making us sympathize with (if not agree with) his motivations; in his villain song Hellfire he sings of being tortured by his sexual desire for Esmerelda, as he believes lust to be evil and Gypsies to be especially evil and therefore his longings are very unwelcome to him. He shows quite desperately that he’s in extreme denial over being even remotely wicked or at fault for his own desires, blaming Esmerelda, Satan, and ultimately God for his temptations. It even shows that he might have, deep down, some remorse for and awareness of the immorality of what he’s doing with the lines “God have mercy on her / God have mercy on me,” but weather he does and to what extent he does is ultimately left up to the audience. Because of this Frollo is complex, sympathetic, and perhaps even tragic, which is what defines a fantastic villain.
Oh, did I mention that Frollo is insanely cool? Because he is. Disney deliberately attempted to make it so he would be seen as anything but, and never has anyone failed so spectacularly. They took Frollo, gave him a swishing, dramatic black robe, an awesome tricorn-like hat, excellent swordsmanship skills, the greatest villain song ever, and the voice of Tony freaking Jay, and they expected him to not be cool? Yeah, that went well. Word of advice, Disney: nothing absolutely oozes cool like evil, and unless you make your villain an unbearably obnoxious one (such as Dolores Umbridge) or make them lame nothing will ever change that.
Anyway, now that I’m done with that tangent, back to the review. Phoebus is charming, competent, and also awesome. Esmerelda is one of Disney’s best heroines, because she’s kind, intelligent, and badass, like any good main character should be. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and stands up to Frollo before anyone else does. Oh, another thing: I hate fan service. Hate hate hate hate hate it. I categorize it with all my other most-hated cinematic pet peeves known as “Blatant Audience Pandering/Manipulation,” which include gratuitous pop culture references, fourth wall humor, and jump scares. The reason for this is I, as a storyteller and audience member, expect all media to adhere strictly to the law of Chekhov’s Gun, which states that all unnessecary elements of a work should be removed. In other words, if it doesn’t contribute to the story, don’t put it in. The reason I bring this up is I think Esmerelda does another thing well: fan service though she might be, it’s not gratuitous; her sexualized presentation is a critical plot point of the film, and is therefore necessary. Esmerelda is how you do fan service right.
In fact, my greatest criticism of the film is Gratuitous Audience Pandering in all its cynical glory; it’s the one element of the film that doesn’t respect its audience, and treats it as though it’s too delicate and innocent to be able to handle the darkness and depth of the film without getting inconsolably disturbed and bored by it. If you’ve seen the movie, you can probably guess where I’m going with this: what I’m talking about, of course, is the gargoyles.
Grrr, the gargoyles. They are members of perhaps the most-hated of my Gratuitous Audience Pandering pet peeves: the dreaded, hateful Comedy Relief Characters.
These are the worst of all characters; the characters that can dethrone great films and make bad films abominations. Some notable names from this most infamous circle include the Minions from Despicable Me, who made an already funny, good film with a protagonist I can greatly relate to into a more mindless, mediocre film; the Hyenas, Timon, and Pumba from The Lion King, who made an awesome, dark Disney take on Hamlet an overrated waste of potential; and of course Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace, who made a disappointing waste of potential a painful train wreck.
The gargoyles from this film are unambiguously the worst part; their jokes are unfunny and unwelcome (except of course for their comment on Frollo’s nose and clothes), their song is uninspired and puts a blemish on what’s otherwise an incredible soundtrack, and they contribute little to nothing to the plot.
Their only saving grace is that they talk to Quasimodo and thereby give us an opportunity to look into his mind. One possible interpretation of them is that they’re figments of his imagination (it’s made ambiguous by the film) and aside from their expositional dialogue with Quasi and helping in the final battle against Frollo they could have been removed from the film without anything changing. Come to think of it, the movie would have been weaker without the exposition they provide…. You know what? I take it back. Let’s not remove the gargoyles. Let’s just remove Hugo, because the others are (mostly) fine, and he’s far and away the largest source of my complaints.
Aside from the gargoyles (and especially Hugo) I can’t think of anything else about the movie that wasn‘t done superbly; the animation (particularly of the always faithfully-recreated Notre-Dame) is incredible, the dramatic scenes are as well-written and acted as those of masterfully performed Shakespeare, and the soundtrack is (aside from the gargoyles’ song) likely the best Disney’s ever produced. Regarding the soundtrack special mention again goes to Hellfire, which is ingeniously composed and as I said before provides the leitmotif to the rest of the film and is almost certainly the greatest villain song of all time.
In conclusion, I think this is absolutely one of Disney’s finest offerings, and I think it’s shameful that it’s not more acclaimed and well-known. I imagine a big reason it’s not is because of its rather significant deviations from Hugo’s original novel, which rubs Hugo fans the wrong way, and to those detractors I reply: again, take a look at this as a self-sufficient work independent of its source material. I think you’ll find that it stands quite well on its own. And even if you don’t, take it from a fellow enormous Victor Hugo fan: remember how his works have the pervasive theme of subjugation and mercy for the downtrodden? I think that‘s the heart of his works, and I don’t think this film’s deviations from the novel should matter because I think this film is ever faithful to that spirit.
The only Disney film I think surpasses this one is Beauty and the Beast, and I think if the gargoyles were removed and/or fixed it would be Disney’s single greatest work. Nonetheless, as great a weight as they are on this film I don’t think they drag it down from greatness or timelessness.
This film is a masterpiece that I adore.