The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

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Throughout by travels through Disney’s continuity, the films have, for the most part, lived up to my expectations.  There were certain moments I hadn’t remembered, or particular scenes that felt ill-placed in a kid’s film, but overall they have remained on par with what I’ve come to expect from Walt Disney Animation Studios.  At least, they have until I watched “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.  This film is, to put it mildly, a trainwreck of epic proportions, and one I can’t imagine any in their right mind would ever consider a children’s movie.

Before I tear into this film, let me be clear on my stance on such films: I don’t believe in sheltering kids from the truth, or that they should be “protected” from harsh realities that we have to face as adults. That being said, I do think that certain subjects, when placed in a context for children, have to be approached with a level of sensitivity and awareness, so as to not scar or unnecessarily upset the kids watching.  I think this is a pretty fair requirement, and one that I think, for the most part, 90s Disney looked to uphold. At least, until this film.

I still cannot fathom what possessed Disney producers to think it was a great idea to base a kid’s movie on a 19th century novel, and a tragedy to boot.  Yes, for those who don’t know, Victor Hugo’s novel does not have a happy ending. Disney changed that for their version, but decided to keep in all of the remaining horrifying details. Let’s review:

The film opens on Frollo, a minister of justice (and an all-around crazy) in France, who has made it his personal goal to hunt down each and every gypsy in the city.  He arrests a family, but the young woman flees with her infant in her arms. Seeking sanctuary on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral, Frollo forcibly rips the baby from her arms, knocking her down the steps and killing her.  Upon seeing that her baby is deformed, he planned on throwing him down a well, only to be stopped by the cathedral’s archdeacon, who reminds him that God will judge him for what he does.  Fearing for his soul, he instead raises the child himself, but insists that he live in the bell tower of Notre Dame, never to interact with anyone else.

Yeah, this is all in the first five minutes. Pretty heavy stuff, if you ask me, but I was willing to overlook it. Disney likes to craft dark openings to help explain its main characters, while lightening the mood in subsequent scenes.  I wish I could say that was the case here.

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The young deformed child grows up to be Quasimodo, a painfully sweet yet naive young man who believes he is a monster, as his “master” Frollo has always told him. He longs to leave the bell tower, and even does so without Frollo’s permission. We’re met with a few other characters at this point: Phoebus, the captain of the guard, and Esmerelda, the enigmatic gypsy dancer who befriends Quasimodo.  I could detail their characters more, but there’s not much of a point; they’re side characters at best, and somewhat one-dimensional ones at that.  The movie isn’t about them, and although the trailer and plot description might try to tell you otherwise, it isn’t about Quasimodo either.  Frollo is the real focus of the film, and that’s where the movie takes a major jump off a cliff.

Frollo is a bad guy through and through, and generally I wouldn’t balk at the idea of centering a film on a villain. We get a peek into the inner workings of his twisted mind, we learn in detail what makes him tick; in essence, we get to truly understand why we’re supposed to hate the guy.  Generally, that’s a great way to provide different context for a film. In this particular instance though, it creates a truly disturbing and problematic story.

The thing is, Frollo is pretty twisted.  He prides himself on his piety, hunting down “sinners” and torturing (or even killing) them.  When he sees Esmerelda dancing, he’s overcome with an “unknown” feeling (read: lust) that he can’t explain.  Unable to grasp the fact that perhaps he’s not perfect, he blames her for these unholy feelings (highly relevant in today’s society where the concepts of rape culture and victim blaming are under scrutiny).  In a visually dark and disturbing scene, Frollo sings about these feelings (interspersed with Latin chanting) and voices his concerns to God as he declares that this young gypsy woman must be his, or he’ll burn her to death.

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Say what now?

This is the major problem with this film. Whereas other villains feel less real due to their use of magic or fanciful ideas to accomplish their goals, Frollo relies solely on his religious beliefs as motivation. The connection between religion, lust, and damnation is far to heavy-handed for any child to fully comprehend.  Even moreso, it’s downright disturbing to consider the fact that the entire plot of the film (Frollo hunting down all the gypsies in Paris, looking for Esmerelda, and Quasimodo doing what he can to save her) stems from Frollo’s perverted lust for the very type of person he’s sworn to rid the world of.  As a children’s movie, this is much too dark to be entertaining, yet it fails as an adult film as well.

Disney execs must have known this was all a bit heavy for kids, since there are plenty of poorly written attempts at humor tossed into the story, in a sad attempt to balance all of the violence.  The main carriers of said humor are the gargoyles, whom we are either meant to believe actually come to live via Disney magic, or who are simply figments of poor Quasimodo’s lonely mind; the film is never clear on this point.

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Their humor is very much akin to the Genie’s style in Aladdin, with the one major difference being that the gargoyles are not funny in the least.  Their jokes are juvenile and overdone, and there are odd moments of modernity in their skits that jerk the viewer out of the film.  It doesn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the movie, and were each and every one of their scenes removed from the finished product, it wouldn’t change the story one bit.  These brief scenes are clearly meant to lend some levity to an otherwise dark story; unfortunately, the story is just too dark for this brand of humor to work.

I still can’t understand how such a film was made. Who at Disney decided that this was the story the company needed to tell?  They made this film while countless better suited fairytales and stories sat untouched.  A part of me wants to fault Disney for changing the ending, but after reflecting on it I’ve determined that that, at least, would be unfair; Disney has a history of re-writing classic stories to give them kid-friendly endings. After all, at the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, Ariel dies; it wasn’t until Disney tackled the story that she was granted a happy ending.  Given the fact that I’m okay with that change, I can’t fault them for changing the ending here. What I do fault them for is even attempting to transform Victor Hugo’s novel into a kid-friendly story; it was never intended to be such, and the writers simply left too much of the original material in for it to be considered a kid’s movie.

It’s not often that I look back on a movie from this era poorly. Is it really possible that this movie was released a mere two years after The Lion King?? It seems unfathomable that these films came from the same company, and yet here we are.  I generally regard movies from this era in a positive light; even it they’re not my absolute favorite, I can acknowledge that they’re good.  That just isn’t the case with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  This movie should never have been made, and honestly has no part being included in Disney’s canon.  Both the story and the way it’s handled are far too dark to be appropriate for younger viewers, and as an adult it’s still too heavy handed and disturbing to be enjoyable.  This odd misstep feels more akin to something Disney would have churned out in past decades, and feels incredibly out of place among such classic animated films. I doubt I’ll ever watch this one again.

-Jess

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