#34 The Hunchback of Notre Dame

#34 The Hunchback of Notre Dame

A story of lust, corruption, jealousy, and singing gargoyles.

This week I am very excited! The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favorite Disney movies of all time and, in my humble opinion, the most underrated film in the canon. Based upon Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name (though the two differ quite a bit), the film follows Quasimodo, a young man who is hidden away from the world in Notre Dame cathedral by the cruel Judge Frollo, but starts to explore and learn about the world with the help of a woman named Esmeralda. It’s basically Tangled but in Paris and with less magical hair and flowers and more government corruption and religious overtones. Fun for the whole fam!

Now, the original novel is fairly dark and dour, and the complete opposite of a stereotypical Disney movie. If you’re not aware, Hugo also wrote Les Miserables, just to give you some context. I actually tried to read the book years ago but just couldn’t get into it, and I usually enjoy classics, but in my defense this was the same writing of the guy who wrote twenty pages about the Parisian sewer system. Anyway, all this to say, why the heck did Disney make a movie out of this? Well, one of the executives at the time had read a comic book adaptation of Hunchback and thought it would make a great animated film (great animated film, maybe so, but great CHILDREN’S animated film? I don’t know buddy). This exec ran the idea by Jeffrey Katzenberg who must have liked it because he apparently basically ordered Beauty and the Beast director’s Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale to stop working on their current project and start working on HND instead.

Several members of the production team, including Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, went out to Paris to study the city and buildings to draw inspiration. The writing team worked hard to balance staying accurate to the book’s plot while also making sure that the film was appropriate and enjoyable for families and kids. To do this, they did have to make major changes (book spoiler alert: there’s a lot of death). However, when they could, they tried to draw inspiration from the text to make their adjustments. For example, when they were in need of some comic relief as well as friends for Quasi, they took a line that mentioned that the gargoyle statues around the cathedral “were his friends, and protected him” and voila! We got a singing Jason Alexander. One particularly interesting change was making Frollo a judge, rather than an archdeacon as he was in the novel. I guess they wanted to avoid any religious connections as much as possible, but, uh, hello, the movie takes place in a church and there is a whole song called “Hellfire.”

Tom Hulce was cast as Quasimodo and would later remark that the team “experimented endlessly” with figuring out the character – how old he would be, what his personality would be like, etc. Eventually, they would come up with the characterization that we see in the film today, which was significantly different than previous Hunchback film adaptions, as well as the novel, but I think it works for a Disney film. Demi Moore was chosen to play the lead heroine, Esmeralda, but after several musical sessions with Menken and Schwartz, requested that someone else be brought in for the singing. This wound up being a singer named Heidi Mollenhauer. For Phoebus, they cast Kevin Kline, who also happened to be one of the biggest inspirations for the character when the team was animating and writing. Finally, the sinister villain Frollo was voiced by Tony Jay, who also played the asylum owner in Beauty and the Beast.

You know, everyone talks about how hard Phil Collins went on the Tarzan soundtrack (and, sure, they are right and they should say it) but not enough people talk about the Hunchback soundtrack. From the very start you get absolutely blasted with an angelic chorus. Then there’s “God Help the Outcasts” which is so deep and beautiful. I think by this point in time we should ALL be appreciating “Out There” and Quasi’s desire to escape the attic and explore the world. Unfortunately, people in 1996/1997 had no taste and neither the score nor any of the songs won any awards.

Hunchback came in second at the box office during it’s opening weekend, earning a bit less than Pocahontas did during it’s opening. Worldwide the film would go on to be the fifth-highest grossing film of 1996. Critical reviews for the film were extremely positive, with many noting how surprising the tone and messages were for a kids movie. Roger Ebert actually said that he believed it was “the best Disney animated feature since Beauty and the Beast” which is certainly very high praise. Time magazine reviewer Richard Corliss said that it had “the largest, most imposing score yet for an animated film.” New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin remarked in her review that “there’s just no way to delight children with a feel-good version of this story” and I honestly don’t entirely disagree. However, not all audience members enjoyed the film, especially those who loved the original novel. These viewers complained that Disney made too many changes and sanitized the plot. Yet, other viewers complained that the film was too dark for children. Victor Hugo’s descendants even called the film a “vulgar commercialization.” I was only a baby at the time this movie came out, so it’s hard to gauge in hindsight exactly how the general public felt overall about this film, and what was just a few niche groups of people throwing hissy fits. But, I will say, I find it intriguing in a disappointed (though not entirely surprised) way that audiences seemed to be more upset about this misrepresentation of a FICTIONAL novel than they were about the misrepresentation of actual historical events and REAL PEOPLE the year prior when Pocahontas came out. Also, everyone was obsessed with The Lion King two years prior, and you’re going to tell me that anything in Hunchback was more traumatizing than Mufasa’s death? I don’t think so.

There was a Hunchback of Notre Dame sequel released in 2002, as well as a stage production based on the original film, though it did keep some of the darker plot elements found in the book. A live action version was announced back in 2019, though not much else has been mentioned since. In the parks, it is currently difficult to find much about the movie. Many years ago there was a show in the then MGM Studios park in Orlando, and characters make rare appearances.

Like I said in the intro, in my eyes, Hunchback is the most underrated Disney movie, though I can also understand why it doesn’t have as strong as a following as the other movies that came out in the ’90s. I think a lot of the plot and the messages go over the heads of kids, and for good reason since the source material is certainly Not for kids. However, the messages are quite powerful, I respect the risks taken creating this movie, it has gorgeous songs, and I just think it’s wonderful. With all that said and done, let’s journey back to Paris to watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

My thoughts on The Hunchback of Notre Dame

  • BEST OPENING OF A DISNEY MOVIE! BEST OPENING SCORE!
  • I’m sorry to Circle of Life – I know this is a hot take – but The Bells of Notre Dame is just *chefs kiss*
  • That choir!!!!! The music! The power!
  • Okay I’m going to try to calm down
  • I like Clopin’s puppet
  • Who? What? How?
  • “A figure who’s clutches were iron as much as the bells” is such a dope line
  • What are they doing wrong?!!
  • Why didn’t she tell them it was a baby? Is she afraid Frollo will take the baby?
  • God we really just saw her hit her head and die 
  • At least the “camera” cut away after Mufasa fell into the stampede
  • I can’t believe his first instinct is to kill a BABY like WTF FROLLO?!!
  • I know you’re the villain but this is DARK
  • Can you imagine the parents sitting in the theater with their kids when this came out? Not even FOUR MINUTES in and we’ve already had murder and attempted infantcide
  • Ooh that lightning burst of the Archdeacon and Clopin is such a cool animation detail
  • Welcome back David Ogden Stiers
  • “I am guiltless. She ran. I pursued” Good to see justice figures haven’t changed in four hundred years
  • “You can lie to yourself and your minions” this line is appropriate for SO MANY SITUATIONS in the year of our Lord 2020
  • The eyes of Notre Dame
  • The statues are SUPER creepy but effective!
  • If looking at the statues is all it takes for Frollo to do something not terrible why does he continue to do terrible things in front of/around/in ND throughout the rest of the movie?
  • The eyes are always watching Frollo
  • The Archdeacon seems like a good guy WHY does he think letting bad guy Frollo raise this child will be a good thing??? Like, why not convince him to take Quasi to an orphanage OR just take him in himself??
  • And why is he okay with Frollo keeping him in the bell tower? Me thinks that doesn’t fulfill the good deed point
  • “Who is the monster and who is the man” is SUCH a great and powerful line that is also relevant in many situations
  • As is the entire movie’s premise of examining figures in positions of power who are super religious yet super corrupt
  • Quasimodo is so sweet
  • After that entire deep and dark opening, Jason Alexander’s voice is so jarring lol
  • “Life’s not a spectator sport” i love that
  • If the statues are supposed to really be able to talk (which…they are right?) why don’t they just help Quasi out and attack Frollo? They’re stone, they’re stronger, he literally can’t kill them….
  • Or are they NOT really alive and Quasi just imagines them to keep him “company” in which case…how tf do they do the things they do later on???
  • This is the bleakest alphabet I’ve ever heard…creepy ass discount sesame street
  • Ugh it hurts my heart that he tells Quasimodo his mom abandoned him
  • This gaslighting and emotional manipulation…
  • Frollo is definitely one of the worst villains because of how real of a villain he is, like Gaston
  • Him telling Quasi how people will hate him for how he looks when he literally wanted to murder him for how he looked when Quasi was a baby
  • Out There is an underrated song – certainly not the best “I Want” song from a Disney character, but it deserves more attention
  • And it hits different in June 2020 [author’s note: for reference, this is when I did the watch/notes]
  • Actually, this whole movie with it’s topics of: being stuck inside, corrupt officials in power, corrupt officials administering “justice”, who is deemed a criminal and what is deemed a crime being up to those corrupt officials, persecution of people who look different, persecution of the poor, persecution of people with different beliefs, hits like a SUCKER PUNCH in June 2020
  • I wanna slide down the ND roof!!
  • Lol can anyone hear him belting from the rooftops?
  • I really like Phoebus’ dry sense of humor
  • Esmeralda!!
  • She has the coolest name, not that I’m biased or anything
  • I love that Phoebus helps her!!
  • And then has the horse sit on the police man for good measure
  • And he gives back the money
  • Phoebus is a TOP TIER Disney guy!! 
  • Like everything in this movie: underrated
  • And he’s good from the start, makes John Smith look like a chump
  • Yep let’s add torture scene to the kids movie
  • Ugh Frollo’s whole take a break from the whipping so it hurts more line is *blech*
  • Feast of Fools looks lit I wanna go
  • Esmeralda is so nice!!!
  • “Look at that disgusting display” “yes sir” hahaha
  • Is there no one else in charge of Paris? Why is Frollo the only official at the festival?
  • WHY WOULD QUASI GET ON STAGE FROLLO IS RIGHT THERE!!
  • Omg after they realize that Quasi isn’t wearing a mask, the guy who yells out uber dramatically “it’s the bell ringer from Notre Dame” never ceases to make me laugh out loud
  • But also…HOW does he know that? I thought no one ever saw Quasi??? Even if there were rumors about someone living in the tower, how would they ever get to the conclusion that the man on stage is it?!!!!
  • Was it all those times Quasi was belting from the roof? I bet it was
  • I mean, I guess I’m happy for Quasi??? At least they’re being nice….kind of? Are they? I’m conflicted
  • How does the crowd know his name?!!!
  • Is he not a secret??
  • Oh my god the festival isn’t fun anymore!!!!!
  • Do they do this to every king of fools????
  • I’d say “maybe I should read the book” but I know it’s not going to help me in this case
  • Esmeralda is such a great character, so kind, so strong, she deserves more praise
  • “You speak of justice yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help” YAS ESMERALDA!!
  • “Silence” “JUSTICE” 
  • Her disappearing act is awesome
  • I love this escape scene it’s so much fun
  • I LOVE the witty repartee between Phoebus and Esmeralda, it’s wonderful, one of my favorite conversations in a Disney movie, I can’t even choose one line to highlight
  • “I’m Phoebus. It means…sun god ;)” *blank stare* is a particularly good example, though
  • “Frollo learned years ago to respect the sanctity of the church” did he??? Because he doesn’t seem to respect it also he keeps a young man TRAPPED UPSTAIRS
  • The archdeacon is pretty complicit in Frollo’s treatment of Quasi, I think we can add “church passivity to mistreatment” to the themes in this film
  • Ewww the way Frollo sniffs her hair 
  • Sure, let’s add sexual innuendo to the kids movie
  • God Help the Outcasts is such a deep and beautiful song 
  • Esmeralda asking for help for the persecuted and poor over herself
  • “I thought we all were children of God” 
  • “A vision of loveliness” “the one in the dress aint bad either” is the Jason Alexander gargoyle thirsting after the goat?!!
  • How can Quasi see people so well to make them into figurines from the roof of Notre Dame?!!
  • I wonder if the bells of ND really have names?
  • I want to see that view so bad
  • I get that Quasi has been brainwashed by Frollo but does he really believe Frollo isn’t cruel?
  • For someone who’s never done this before, Quasi climbs down the church like spiderman

Esmeralda: How are we getting out of the church?!

Quasimodo:

  • Where in her hair was she keeping that necklace?!
  • Ringing those bells made Quasi strong man
  • I think that the problem is nearly all of Hunchback’s songs are slow and ballads, like they’re really beautiful but I can understand why I wasn’t super entertained by this as a kid
  • This cheerful melody is about to get super dark but I love that it’s the same melody
  • Hellfire is a really cool song in terms of music and imagery/animation but wow it’s all about lust and temptation like this is way too dark for a kids movie
  • “Let her taste the fires of hell” how was I not traumatized by this movie?
  • Can anyone hear Frollo belting in this hallway?
  • Oh my god Frollo is about to set this family on fire
  • “I was not trained to murder the innocent” go Phoebus!!
  • And he’s going in to save the family!!! He did not hesitate to jump into fire wow
  • Phoebus makes all other Disney men look like nothing
  • Go Phoebus go!!!
  • Haha he took Frollo’s horse
  • No!! He’s been shot!!
  • Thank goodness Esmeralda was there to help out.
  • Okay, like I said before, WHO ELSE IS IN CHARGE OF RULING PARIS?? Is there no one else to control Frollo??
  • WHERE IS THE KING OF FRANCE? IS HE CHILL WITH PARIS BURNING?
  • Even if they agree that Frollo should hunt down Esmeralda, even they have to admit he’s going too far right??
  • “If I know Esmeralda” but you don’t know her at all Jason Alexander Gargoyle!!
  • I know his name is either Victor or Hugo, because I know they are named after the author, but every time he speaks, I see Jason Alexander in my head so
  • They are STILL ON ABOUT ESMERALDA LIKING QUASI? Her and Quasi had one conversation?? The city is on fire have some perspective statues
  • Why does Quasi have a noose toy?!!
  • Finally we have an upbeat song and it’s not that great I’m sorry it’s just repetitive and silly
  • Esmeralda knows that Frollo keeps Quasi up there, why would she hide Phoebus there?!! She has to at least be nervous that Frollo might show up?
  • Why not take him to the secret, underground Court of Miracles??
  • “Feels like a 1470 Burgandy” funny and heroic
  • Poor Quasi
  • But, I do like that the movie shows that sometimes the people you like won’t like you back and that’s okay
  • See?! Now Frollo’s here!
  • Phoebus went from on his deathbed to up and walking and ready to fight really quick I guess Esmeralda’s mouth is magic
  • Quasi, no one’s expecting you to be heroic, literally just give a warning and hide back in your tower lol
  • Arabic? Ancient Greek? Lol Phoebus there’s no symbols on it to be letters??? There’s a cross and that’s it besides the lines???
  • I guess he can’t be perfect
  • The catacombs! Full of visible skeletons! More fun for this kids movie!
  • I want to know what kids who went to see this in the theater thought of it – not critics, not parents or general audiences, actual children who were the target audience
  • As Quasi and Phoebus walk through the catacombs, Quasi is openly talking about warning Esmeralda, so shouldn’t the people following them/keeping watch pick up on that and know that they come in peace?
  • Clopin knows so much, he narrated the whole beginning, but he doesn’t know that Phoebus is the most wanted man in Paris?
  • Wow! Perfect timing Esmeralda!
  • Dang it Frollo
  • These statues are guilt trippy
  • This movie really has someone being burned at a stake HOW did executives approve all this??
  • That rope swing down is pretty cool
  • How did he make that climb one handed????
  • I love how Phoebus raises the crowd into righteous anarchy!!!
  • POWER TO THE PEOPLE
  • I would like this movie so much better without the gargoyles
  • But this confirms they’re real right? Cuz they’re causing real attacks
  • How could they melt down THAT MUCH lava? It’s pouring out of all the windows the cauldron was not that big lol
  • Now they’re trying fake us out with this Esmeralda “death” because this movie doesn’t have enough darkness for children
  • NOW FROLLO HAS A DAGGER 
  • He really needed a dagger??
  • Geez I feel bad for the parents who had to have tough conversations with their kids on the car ride home hahaha
  • She’s alive! I’m shooketh (I’m not)
  • It was nice of Frollo to tell Quasi the truth about his mom before he died
  • Frollo quoting that line about evil plunging into the fiery pit and then the thing he’s standing on immediately cracks 
  • a bit on the nose, sure, but we still love to see it
  • How much lava is below the church??? A volcano didn’t erupt??? I really like this movie but for the most part it’s very realistic until this scene and it always bothers me
  • Phoebus to the rescue!!
  • See? Quasi shows that you can be happy for those you love even if they don’t love you romantically back
  • And now the streets are clean and clear in like a few hours yay!
  • shoutout to the street-cleaners of Paris
  • So…whose in charge of Paris now?? Just cuz Frollo’s gone doesn’t mean the corruption will stop, right? Are Esmeralda and Phoebus still wanted?…Oh well I’m just gonna enjoy the happy ending…
  • Aww the little girl hugging Quasi is such a lovely moment
  • ONE MORE ROUND OF BELLS OF NOTRE DAME!!!
  • ahhhAHHAHHHHH

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an interesting Disney movie, for sure. It’s dark, it deals with heavy topics, and the climax is a bit wonky to say the least. However, beneath all that is a story with admirable messages: fighting for justice, not judging people based upon appearances and stereotypes, those in power are not always right, to name a few. No doubt it was an odd choice to take an advanced piece of literature and make it into an animated kids film, but…the decision was made and the team did their best. [Author’s note: I struggled for legit 5 minutes on how to finish that sentence, but as much as I love this movie, I can’t deny that it was such an odd choice for Disney to adapt it and as serious as the book is the movie has some strange and silly scenes] [[Author’s note on the author’s note: this overthinking of words is why it takes me weeks between post #whoops]]. Nevertheless, this will continue to be a favorite of mine in the Disney canon and I hope that with streaming/Disney+ making it easier to access older Disney movies, more and more people will discover Hunchback and its ever poignant story.

Next time, another fave adapted from another dark story (but this one is actually fun and upbeat): Hercules!

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