The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the darkest Disney animated movies ever made. Even darker than The Black Caldron in my opinion. How it managed to receive a G rating is baffling. The MPAA have given film’s PG ratings for far less than this. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a rare animated kid’s film that deals with religious themes. As uncharacteristic as it is for the studio, I have to admire Disney’s willingness to tackle such subject matter. Especially after Pocahontas didn’t win everyone over with its heavier material. The thirty-fourth Walt Disney animated feature is notably based on the 1831 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Which had been adapted a number of times in black & white.
The gothic story is so dark that I still can’t believe it was greenlit. In the book, the Hunchback is half blind, deaf, and more likely to be violent. A 16 year old Esmeralda is hanged and Quasimodo holds her lifeless body until he starves. This obviously had to be changed, but Disneyfication can only change so much. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is surprisingly faithful to the book in every other regard that maintains a kid friendly rating. I haven’t seen the classic Lon Chaney version or any others, but I can’t image a more sophisticated take than this surprisingly mature interpretation of the Disney Renaissance…
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was not something my brother and I watched frequently as children. Although we owned it on VHS, I definitely had to be in the mood for its intense, often upsetting material. Which was more difficult to watch as a Christian. That being said, I still loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame for respectfully handling faith, its spirit lifting music, and well placed light hearted moments. As I got older, I grew to see it as an underrated classic. Especially after what happened to the real life Notre Dame cathedral. The story takes place in 1400’s Paris, France. Since it’s the second French story in the Disney Renaissance after Beauty and the Beast, Belle can be seen reading in the background. Jester dressed Gypsy storyteller Clopin tells the dark tale of the mysterious bell ringer of Notre Dame.
Born to a Gypsy family, the ruthless Judge Claude Frollo hunts down the mother until he causes her death on the steps of the cathedral. Then he attempts to murder the deformed baby before the archdeacon condemns his soul with damnation (a Disney movie). Frollo is easily one of the most irredeemably evil Disney villains ever created. Made worse with Tony Jay’s sinister voice work. There’s nothing more sinful than a “man of faith” twisting the Lord’s word in order to commit heinous crimes. Frollo reluctantly raises Quasimodo to believe he’s a monster that people will never accept. Yet Quasimodo ends up a gentle soul with the angelic voice of Tom Hulce. Disney was able to honor the book’s description of the Hunchback without going too overboard. Rather than become deaf, years of ringing the bells have made Quasimodo very strong and acrobatic. While years of isolation have given him an opportunity to carve a perfect miniature replica of the city and its inhabitants.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be the most serious Disney movie if not for those darn gargoyles. Of course you can’t expect Disney to abandon their formula entirely. Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and the late Mary Wickes are a trio of gargoyles that come to life as Quasimodo’s only friends. The cultured Victor, goofball Hugo, and motherly Laverne have their occasional funny moments, but sometimes their antics are too tonally jarring. Quasimodo disobeys his master by attending the Festival of Fools. An absurd celebration where he meets Esmeralda and her faithful goat Djali. Esmeralda is a gorgeous Gypsy with a kind heart who dances far more seductively than other Disney heroines. Although she’s meant to be Romani due to her green eyes, I sometimes confused her for black. Which was more confusing when I learned Demi Moore voiced her. Rounding out the high profile talent is Kevin Kline as the far more heroic Captain Phoebus. Who first works as Frollo’s Captain of the Guard before turning against him.
Quasimodo’s appearance earns him admiration as the King of Fools, but the celebration takes a dark turn when he’s tied up and humiliated. One of the most difficult moments to watch in any Disney movie. The only person to show Quasimodo kindness is Esmeralda. He falls for her when she receives sanctuary in Notre Dame. Although it’s just what Quasimodo needs to feel good about himself, his heart breaks when she chooses Phoebus over him. Esmeralda & Phoebus are another interracial Disney couple that I adore. As if it wasn’t already pushing enough boundaries, Frollo is also lustfully attracted to Esmeralda. And he’s willing to burn down all of Paris just to have her. Quasimodo & Phoebus set aside their differences long enough to track down the “Court of Miracles” Gypsy refuge. Frollo’s war on the Gypsies comes to a head when he follows them there.
Esmeralda is sentenced to burn at the stake, while Quasimodo is chained up. It’s always satisfying to see Quasimodo break free from his chains and rescue Esmeralda yelling “Sanctuary!” The book’s ending is hinted at when Quasimodo thinks Esmeralda has died, but she lives long enough for them to faceoff against Frollo. The final fight in Notre Dame is intense with fire blazing all around them. Frollo’s wickedness is judged when a statue takes demonic form and he’s cast into a symbolic Hell (a Disney movie). Quasimodo accepts Phoebus & Esmeralda’s love and I get emotional every time citizens accept him for who he is. Although some might find it uncomfortable, it’s not too much for kids to understand. The animation brings out the beauty in Paris and the Catholic church. CGI sequences around Notre Dame are especially impressive. Whether Quasimodo is escaping with Esmeralda or freeing her from the crowd in a sweeping shot. Luckily computer animation hadn’t completely overshadowed the accomplishment.
The large assortment of music is sophisticated to the point of resembling an opera. No Oscars were won, but this is a soundtrack worth appreciating. “Out There” is a spirited longing song for Quasimodo. “Topsy-Turvy” is the closest thing to a fun catchy number. While “God Help the Outcasts” is a deeply sincere pray by Esmeralda, asking God to help the less fortunate. “Heaven’s Light” is a beautiful song in sharp contrast to “Hellfire.” A seriously dark, lustful, and powerful Disney villain song by Frollo that I can’t believe Disney approved. Immediately followed by the goofy comic relief gargoyle song “A Guy Like You.” “The Court of Miracles” at least balances those tonal shifts. For me, the most fitting and triumphant musical composition will always be “The Bells of Notre Dame.” The Hunchback of Notre Dame preaches an important message by taking as many risks as possible.