The Hunchback of Notre Dame marks a return to form for Disney after the snore-fest that was Pocahontas. It is a more successful attempt at making a more mature and grown up animated movie and gets right a lot of what that film got wrong.
I am still sort of amazed that Disney actually made this film. Victor Hugo’s novel is not something that screams fun for all the family. Even after going through the Disney filter, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains the darkest films the studio ever produced. Even before a single image has popped up on screen, the sound of Latin chanting and those bells leaves you feeling unsettled. Then the film recounts Quasimodo's backstory, which includes the murder of a mother protecting her child and an attempt at infanticide. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like for young children going to see this film. And their parents. I'm sure many dragged their kids kicking and screaming out of the cinema when Frollo started singing 'Hellfire', a song awash with religious and sexual imagery, that is all about his secret desire for Esmeralda, which, naturally, is all her fault. It is one of Disney’s best villain songs and very much in keeping with the darker tone of the film.
The film is surprisingly faithful to the plot of Hugo's book. Up to a point, of course. No way were the Disney higher-ups going to keep the novel's bleak ending. The film also sidesteps the book's criticism of the church by changing Frollo's occupation from archdeacon to judge. He's still a religious fanatic, but one operating independently of the church. Frollo is one of Disney’s scariest villains because he is the most real. There are far too many people like Frollo in this world, who sees themselves as righteous and believe they are doing God’s work while committing the most horrid atrocities.
All the main characters have been tweaked so they are either more sympathetic (or more villainous in Frollo's case). Hugo's hunchback was deaf and could barely speak. For this film he has been re-imagined as an all-singing action hero with a heart of gold who, like all the protagonists from this era, just wants to be free. The bell tower is his home, his sanctuary, and also his prison. He wants to escape and step out into the world below, but has been raised by Frollo to see his deformities as "crimes" that the world will punish him for. The sad part is, Frollo is right. Quasimodo is not out of the bell tower one day before he is tied down, beaten and humiliated for the amusement of the city's citizens. The film doesn't shy away from the cruelty of that sequence.
Along with Hercules' Meg and Tarzan's Jane, Esmeralda is one of the forgotten heroines of this era. I don't know why, she's a great character. If I have one complaint about her is that she doesn't really have a story of her own. Her role in the film is to be a prize for the film's male characters to fight over, whether it be for love or lust. The relationship between her and Phoebus is more romantic than it was in the book (she was obsessively infatuated with him, while he just wanted to get into her skirt). It is not the best romance we've seen in Disney movies, but it is a lot better than the one in Pocahontas. Esmeralda and Phoebus have more chemistry in the duel in the church scene alone than Pocahontas and John Smith had in the entire movie. The film's Phoebus, who is exactly what I imagine a Disney Jaime Lannister would look like, is a far more noble character than the book's vain womaniser. He could've so easily been an insufferable dullard if they'd hired someone other than Kevin Kline to voice him.
The three gargoyles, Victor, Hugo and Laverne, are the film's most blatant Disney addition. I'm hot and cold when it comes to sidekicks in Disney films. Many have no narrative purpose. They are there either to keep the kids entertained or simply for merchandise's sake. That said, I think the gargoyles work. Although their primary role is to provide laughs, they also give Quasimodo someone to interact with. Without them he'd have no one to talk to when he's all alone up in that bell tower. And I've always liked the suggestion that they are not actually there, but figments of Quasimodo's imagination.
Alan Menken’s score, which is heavy with dramatic Latin chants, is one of his best. Shockingly, it was his first Disney score not to win the Oscar for Best Original Score. For the songs, he re-teamed up with his Pocahontas collaborator, Stephen Swartz. All the songs are terrific with the exception of 'God Help the Outcast'. It's the only song from the film I have no real fondness for. I don't hate it, but if I'm listening to the soundtrack I will more often than not hit the skip button when it starts to play.
Fools and Fanatics
--A direct-to-video sequel was released in 2002. Unlike many direct-to-video Disney film sequels, the entire key cast of the first film (apart from Tony Jay, the late Mary Wickes and David Ogden Stiers) returned.
--Did the filmmakers plan for Esmeralda to die, as in the book, and then chicken out? Or was Quasimodo just rubbish at taking a pulse?
--If Quasimodo has lived in the bell tower his entire life how does everyone know that the bell ringer is deformed or named Quasimodo?
--The MPAA insisted that when Frollo sees Esmeralda dancing in the fire before him they make Esmeralda's clothing more well-defined, as she seemed nude.
--I'm sure Hugo himself would've appreciated the animators' expert attention to detail. The book itself was full of large descriptive sections which far exceed the requirements of the story because Hugo wanted to make more people aware of the value of the Gothic architecture, which was often being neglected and destroyed.
--Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jacobi were all considered for the role of Frollo.
--You have to feel for the poor old guy in the cage. Nothing ever goes his way.
Laverne: "Quasi, take it from an old spectator. Life's not a spectator sport. If watchin' is all you're gonna do, then you're gonna watch your life go by without ya."
Quasimodo: "Is this the Court of Miracles?"
Phoebus: "Offhand, I'd say it's the Court of Ankle-deep Sewage. Must be the old catacombs."
Hugo: "Hey isn't that, uh, Feeble?"
Phoebus: "Candlelight, privacy, music. Can't think of a better place for hand-to-hand combat."
Phoebus: "You know where she is?"
Quasimodo: (presenting Esmeralda's map to Phoebus) "No, but she said that this will help us find her."
Phoebus: "Good, good, good. Ahhhh, great. What is it?"
Frollo: "Look at that disgusting display."
Phoebus: "Yes, sir!"
Hugo: "You're human, with the flesh, and the hair, and the navel lint. We're just part of the architecture. Right, Victor?"
Victor: "Yet, if you kick us, do we not flake? If you moisten us, do we not grow moss?"
Frollo: "Shall we review your alphabet today?"
Quasimodo: "Oh, yes, Master. I would like that very much."
Frollo: "Very well. A?"
Quasimodo: "Eternal damnation."
Four out of four Gothic cathedrals.