THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, 1996
A deformed bellringer must assert his independence from a vicious government minister in order to help his friend, a gypsy dancing girl
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“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is one of Disney’s most interesting and risky endeavours, and considering its source material, it’s admirable that they even undertook it. Victor Hugo’s novel “Notre Dame de Paris,” like the author’s later works “Les Miserables” and “The Man Who Laughs,” is a saga of unrelenting cosmic injustice, culminating in the death of every single sympathetic character. Doesn’t exactly sound like Disney material, but nevertheless, here it is: Walt Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
The adaptation is kinder to its audience than the source material. While staying as true as possible to the original story’s darkness, the filmmakers tone it down a bit, and they can be forgiven for that. Instead of sending our heroes to their graves, the Disney version lets them have the happy ending we were all hoping for anyway. Along the way, we’re treated to some of the best animation and music The Mouse has ever produced.
In the opening sequence, we’re told how the gypsies of Paris live in terror of Judge Claude Frollo, who’s made it his mission in life to stamp out any signs of wickedness he sees. Convinced that a gypsy woman is carrying stolen goods, Frollo chases her down and accidentally kills her on the steps of Notre Dame, only to discover that the “stolen goods” were a bundled-up baby. Seeing that the child is deformed, Frollo intends to drown him, but the Archdeacon puts a stop to it. Frollo is a God-fearing man, and knowing that God has seen what he did, he promises to raise the baby within the confines of the cathedral. Twenty years later, the baby has become Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame. In his loneliness, the young man treats discarded gargoyles as confidants and builds a detailed model of the city below. More than anything, he longs to leave the bell-tower and join the world, but knows that Frollo would never allow it. After sneaking out to join in the annual Festival of Fools, Quasimodo meets the gorgeous gypsy Esmeralda…and so does Frollo.
Alan Menken’s music is gorgeous, ranging from hummable musical theatre numbers to soaring choral pieces. With such solid songs, it’s difficult to pick a highlight, but in terms of popularity, it’s a toss-up between “God Help the Outcasts” and “Hellfire.” The former is Esmeralda’s big solo number; sung by Heidi Mollenhauer, it represents a touchingly unselfish prayer on behalf of all who suffer. As for “Hellfire,” it probably horrified parents with its frank references to Hell and sexual conquest, but it’s an incredible showstopper that shows us the true darkness of Frollo’s character. Also check out “Someday,” the song that plays during the credits. Originally intended to be Esmeralda’s solo, it was eventually replaced with “God Help the Outcasts.” Performed for this film by All-4-One, it’s a stirring wish for a better world. It’s also worth noting that this is probably the only children’s film where you’ll hear the words “calumny,” “consternation,” and “licentious.” And in song, no less.
The voice cast is top-notch, and isn’t so much about casting big names as it is about finding the right performances. Tom Hulce is marvellous as Quasimodo, conveying a youth and innocence that is not often associated with the character. Demi Moore makes a worldly-wise Esmeralda, while Kevin Kline brings charm to a Phoebus who’s far more likable than his literary counterpart. With his unbelievably deep voice, the late Tony Jay excels as Frollo, as does David Ogden Stiers in the role of the Archdeacon. Paul Kandel is a real crowd-pleaser as Clopin, narrator and King of the Gypsies. Jason Alexander and Paul Kimbrough gets some laughs as Hugo and Victor, while Mary Wickes rounds out the gargoyle trio as the motherly Laverne (Wickes passed away before she finished recording all of her dialogue, so Jane Withers performs the rest of the character’s lines).
From the very first shot, which shows Notre Dame in all its majesty, the animation is truly something special to behold.* The animators recreate the cathedral in painstaking detail, down to he spectacular Rose Window. The characters are also beautifully animated. Somehow, Quasimodo comes across as both ugly and adorable. As for Esmeralda, how that pole dance made it into a G-rated film…the mind boggles, ladies and gentlemen, it simply boggles. Another tiny detail about Esmeralda that really brings the character to life: whenever she moves, the filmmakers make sure we hear the jangle of her every bracelet. It’s these little touches that make you really appreciate the care that was put into this film.
One of the highlights of this version is the sanctuary scene. While it’s the most famous part of the original story, none of the previous cinematic depictions ever seemed to live up to its power. Disney’s interpretation is an absolute thrill, perhaps because an animated character knows no limits. Here, there’s no need to scale things back for the safety of the actors.
Quasimodo can finally move with the ease of a man who has spent his entire life leaping across rooftops. We also become aware that with his strength, it’s a very good thing that Quasi is on the side of the angels. Chains can’t hold him, and in his grip, another person is little more than a ragdoll. At last, this scene is as epic as it should be. As for the music, it’s the perfect soundtrack for battling injustice.
It’s easy to criticize Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for deviating so far from the source material, but at the end of the day, it’s still a highly enjoyable film with spectacular imagery and music. And since Disney is all about giving us a message to go with our entertainment, it’s understandable that they would ditch the “real” ending. That would be a great moral: if you’re a decent person who shows compassion for those in need, you and everyone you love will wind up dead while the unrighteous prosper. Suggesting that doing the right thing can make the world a better place isn’t so much a cop-out as an attempt to draw something positive from a deeply tragic story.
If “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” had been better received, maybe Disney could’ve continued experimenting with darker material. As it is, the filmmakers should be applauded for tackling challenging material and coming up with a genuinely mature, impressive work of art.
* Okay, so the cathedral doesn’t even come close to touching the clouds in real life, but it’s still a stunning opening image.