Movie 34: Hunchback of Notre Dame

The_Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame-_1996If you had asked me going into this project what my least favorite Disney movie is I would have said Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Indeed when I asked my friends on facebook and instagram what their least favorite was Hunchback and Pocahontas were at the top of the list:

friendsTo my knowledge I don’t know anyone personally who likes Hunchback (I’m sure they will come out of the woodwork since I said that but I did ask and nobody defended it).   And yet online it has lots of fans.  I have seen it on numerous top 10 lists and people claiming it is the best Disney ever made.  On Amazon it has 230 5 star reviews and only 36 bad reviews.

amazon reviewsSo what is this separation between the people I know and the online community of Disney fans?  I am not sure.  It probably has something to do with my being very religious, conservative and family focused.  Hunchback is not a great fit for any of those adjectives. It’s tough on religion, morally relativistic and definitely not family friendly, so I suppose it makes sense for it to be at the bottom of most of our lists.

When I first saw it I was 18 and just starting college.  I was visiting a friend and we were watching her nephews.  In an attempt to placate them we decided to put on a Disney film and Hunchback was there.  Boy was I stunned!  The kids were completely uninterested in the story and we probably should have turned it off but it was on and I watched in shock as we had a girl dance erotically, characters singing about rape, a deformed man mocked and tied down, and a family nearly burned in their house for no reason.  I was stunned! This wasn’t the empowering Disney I had grown to love in Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

After that unpleasant experience I had no desire to watch it again but this project came and I turned it on last night with an open mind hoping to be dazzled.  Unfortunately, while it does have its strengths, and I can see why people love it, it has serious problems and contradictions which make it hard for me to recommend.

You can’t serve 2 masters is the takeaway from this movie.


The strange idea to do an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Hunchback of Notre Dame came from an executive reading the Classics Illustrated comic book version.

illustrated classicsThese comic books were published from 1941-1971 and were a fun way to introduce children to classical literature in a format they could absorb easily.  I wish they had picked Jane Eyre.  That would have been so cool to see with this same type of treatment. They had to know going into it Hunchback was going to be a tough sell at the box office.

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise from Beauty and the Beast were approached with the idea and they ‘jumped at the chance’ to do something new.

I couldn’t find a ton of other production notes out there on the movie (the behind the scenes video is laughable and not in a good way).  But my overall consensus from what I’ve read is the creative minds who had been successful were able to steamroll over the practical considerations of the studio, with a few exceptions.

It seems clear  the production team wanted to make a film for adults where the studio wanted Burger King toys, sing along videos and even a ‘my first read along’ for toddlers…yes, Victor Hugo for toddlers!

my first read alongI really wish Disney had just allowed its team to make a movie for adults because the end result of creativity and commerce mixed together is extremely uneven and frustrating.

Back in the early days of Disney they had darker themes mixed with commercial appeal (think Pleasure Island mixed with Jimminy Cricket) but such a mixture is tough to swallow when your kids are wanting to act out the scenes from a movie where Quasimodo is beaten and tied up with their Burger King hand puppets:

The music is gorgeous with songs and score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.  And the voicecast featuring Demi Moore, Tom Hulce,, Tony Jay and Kevin Kline, is all fine.

The Story-

I must admit up front to having never read the original novel by Victor Hugo.  However, I do understand it enough to know this is a very loose adaptation.  The biggest change they make is the villain Frollo is a judge not a priest, which doesn’t make any sense.

In the original story  Claude Frollo, as Archdeacon of Notre Dame, had an all consuming power and righteous indignation to condemn anyone he didn’t agree with, and the authority to do something about it.. In the Disney version Frollo chases a gypsy woman to the cathedral and when she dies he almost throws the baby down a well because it is ugly (you know for kids!).

frollo and babyThe Archdeacon stops Frollo and as penance for killing the woman and almost killing the baby he insists Frollo raise the child who will live in the cathedral of Notre Dame.  Yes, that makes so much sense.  An Archdeacon wants a baby to be raised by a madman who wanted him thrown down a well?

If Frollo was the Archdeacon instead of a blah judge it all makes so much more sense for him to take the child in out of guilt over the mother.  In a way by ‘trying to not offend Catholics,  they do more harm than if they were outright villains.  The whole church in the film is an apathetic institution to the suffering of those  living within its walls. At least in the novel Frollo is consumed by Satan, which is an interesting conflict for a holy man to have.  The Disney version just left me dumbfounded at the Archdeacon’s choices.


Next we see Quasimodo as an adult who is basically a prisoner to the cathedral.  Again, why would the Archdeacon allow such a thing?  The film does not explain it well enough.

His only friends are 3 gargoyles who come to life making terrible puns. We never really know if they are imaginary or can only talk to Quasimodo or magic or what they are because nobody else can see them but they can shoot people?  Even reviewers who love this movie usually agree the gargoyles are the weak spot.  It so screams ‘we are trying to make this is for kids’ which is off-putting when the rest of it is so not for kids.  Got to pick one or the other Disney not both. Worst of all, they just aren’t funny.


The story gets going when we learn there is a Festival of Fools which Quasimodo has long dreamed of attending but Frollo won’t allow it.  Why?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to abandon Quasi now that he is an adult?  He is 20 years old so why does Frollo bother with his charge?  I guess just to get a feeling of power but that is never really explained adequately.  And again would the Archdeacon allow such treatment of someone in his church?  It’s very strange.

Nevertheless, the gargoyles encourage him to go and Quasimodo sings a gorgeous song called Out There


I love that Quasimodo’s voice is normal, unprofessional sounding.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a voice like it in a musical but it is beautiful.

For the first time Quasimodo ignores Frollo’s counsel and goes down for the festival (and why they gave Quasimodo spiderman like abilities to climb up and down the cathedral is beyond me.) Nevertheless, he makes it and is immediately picked by the gypsy Esmeralda as having “the ugliest face in all of Paris” because they think it is a mask. I think we are supposed to like the gypsies but it is hard when they are so cruel to our lead character.

Esmeralda eventually saves Quasimodo after he is tied up, beaten, mocked and thrown food at (you know, for kids!)

quasi tied up

Esmeralda then dances for Frollo and the other men in a strange scene.  The movie can’t seem to decide if Esmeralda being a sexual object to men is a good thing or bad?  Frollo is clearly in the wrong for his lustful reaction but Phoebus can say ‘what a woman’ with no sense of condemnation at all?

esmerelda and frollo


Frollo chases Esmerelda but Phoebus refuses to arrest her and she appeals to the Archdeacon for sanctuary in the cathedral.  (Again, why does the Archdeacon not do anything more than give sanctuary? In that day and age they had tremendous power!).


Stuck in the church Esmeralda sings the best song in the movie- God Help the Outcast (singing voice Heidi Mollenhauer).

Quasimodo is able to help her escape using his spiderman skills and she gives him a necklace with a map to the gypsies hideout “The Court of Miracles”.

We then get the oddest but well done song of the film where Frollo sings to Mother Mary about his lust for Esmeralda.  Tony Jay is very good and it is filled with creepy animation.  Perhaps I would like it again if this movie was not marketed to children, but even for adults a song about rape is a tough sell.

The song is called Hellfire and he says

It’s not my fault…  I’m not to blame.

It’s the gypsy girl.  The witch who sent this flame….

Protect me, Maria
Don’t let this siren cast her spell
Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone
Destroy Esmeralda
And let her taste the fires of hell
Or else let her be mine and mine alone
Dark fire
Now gypsy, it’s your turn
Choose me or
Your pyre
Be mine or you will burn

Hmmm…So he wants to have sex with her but she doesn’t, but he’s going to kill her if she doesn’t.  Great we’ve got rape and murder in my Disney movie marketed to kids…(for the record I don’t enjoy adult movies about rape and murder but one even marginally marketed to kids is even worse)


When Frollo finds out about Esmeralda’s escape he does a massive search burning down homes, setting Paris ablaze.  (What kind of judge is this?  I’m not expert on medieval France but I don’t think this was how it went down? Not even Napoleon could have burned down France looking for a woman)


As captain, Phoebus (a thoroughly undeveloped character) must help Frollo, but we get to a scene where Frollo literally wants to burn a family in their home for being gypsy and nothing else. (you know for kids…)

The fact this movie got a G rating with that kind of violence should convince anyone the rating system is a total joke.  Do not pay attention to it!

So Phoebus gets shot with an arrow for not burning down the house and Esmeralda brings him to the cathedral for refuge.

Before they arrive we get a little comic relief that sadly is not comical.  The gargoyles are trying to convince Quasimodo that Esmeralda will fall in love with him. It actually comes across as kind of cruel and at best patronizing.

Esmeralda arrives with Phoebus and Quasimodo helps them but also see’s them kiss and his heart is broken.  (you know for kids…).

Esmeralda leaves and Frollo comes causing Quasimodo to hide Phoebus under a table while Frollo lies about attacking the Court of Miracles.  Again where is the Archdeacon in all this?  You would think he would have a lot to say but not until the very end do we see him again.

Quasimodo goes with Phoebus to find the Court of Miracles where the gypsies capture and almost hang them (Aren’t the gypsies supposed to be the moral good in the story or is just everything corrupt except for Quasimodo?)

Frollo follows Quasimodo and arrests all in the Court of Miracles (again do I feel that sorry for them when they were minutes away from hanging our heroes?).


But Frollo wants to burn Esmeralda at the stake and even starts the fire.  Quasimodo breaks the chains which Frollo has bound him with in the tower and he and the gargoyles start attacking the crowd watching the burning (I guess they aren’t imaginary then.  They are like the toys in toy story who only move in certain conditions?).

The whole final battle is really slapsticky and so off the established adult tone. It’s almost like Home Alone with bricks falling on people’s heads and teeth coming out.  It feels so discordant from the rest of the picture. brick

And then out of nowhere Quasimodo has turned Notre Dame into a molten ore refinery with lava spewing from giant vats out all sides of the tower.  It’s bizarre.

lavaThe death of Frollo is pretty well done but again not appropriate for children. It’s too scary.  It’s too religiously confusing and too tense.

At least the movie has the guts to have Phoebus and Esmeralda together and not Quasimodo. That would have been so lame and I do like the optimistic tone we are left with.

Esmeralda_y_Febo_finalMovie Review/Conclusion-

This movie is very hard to grade because it is a failure at what it is trying to do but it has some wonderful moments.  I just wish they had made an animated movie for adults and forgotten all the softened edges for kids.  As it is, I feel frustrated.  The violent moments are too much for kids, they will be bored by a lot of the story and the commentary on religion, madness of crowds and power gets diluted out of a fear of offending people and institutions. But then the comedic moments are all wrong for adults so it is a miss for them too.

The messages in the movie are very muddled.  Power is bad, except for when it is used to save others.  Discrimination is bad except when it is done by the minority.  A hero can oogle a woman dancing but a villain cannot.  An Archdeacon can jump in when needed and then be absent  when literal crimes are being committed under his roof.  How am I supposed to explain even one of these things to a child?

People say ‘well, it’s not for kids’.  Well, then don’t market the movie for kids or have kid-friendly elements.  Don’t put it on kids meals and make plush toys.  Don’t have wise cracking gargoyles and slapstick home alone violence thrown in.

And I’m sorry when you have a song where the lead character is singing about wanting to rape another character that is where I draw the line.  I do not want to have to explain such a thing to my child, and especially have to tell her that bad people think rape isn’t their fault but the fault of the vixen who tempted them.  Are you kidding me Disney!

Hunchback actually makes me kind of mad because it has so much potential.  I wish it was a grand movie just for adults.  The animation is certainly stunning.  It is layered and beautiful.  The stained glass alone is awesome.

the-hunchback-of-notre-dame-75The music is also wonderful.   If I heard it in a Broadway show meant for adults I would probably love it.  But sadly the picture is both too grown up for kids and too childish for grown ups leaving me frustrated.  The rape undertones and burning the people in the house were just too much for me to support given the silliness of other elements.  Got to pick an audience Disney!

In the end, I admire what they were trying to do but I think it was a failure.

Overall Grade- D