The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) (G)
When you consider that Disney took a Victor Hugo work and made a children's movie based on it, it comes as no surprised that the end result is a blistering inferno and pretty adult for the intended age bracket. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a movie that's easy to shrug off, to forget about. It's not the best Disney film or the most complete; yet it does hold within itself one of the most important messages that the studio ever promoted.
A chilling prologue, masterfully constructed, sets up the scene. Based in Paris in the 15th century, we are told the story of priests and gypsies. Wanting to rid the streets of the vermin from hell, one slightly unhinged priest named Frollo (Tony Jay's voice lends its icy perfection to the character) takes it upon himself to seize and exterminate all of the gypsies...no reason is really given besides an uneven moral obligation for him to do so. He genuinely seems to believe that he is doing the right thing.
When he tracks down a family of gypsies and is about to kill them, one of the women, holding a child, escapes and tries to claim sanctuary on the steps of the church, but Frollo kills her before she has a chance to get inside the building and is about to dispatch her deformed child before he is stopped. Perhaps it is God's hand that stops him, a guilty conscience, or watching eyes; but he decides that the baby should be kept alive. Disgusted by its appearance, Frollo demands that the baby be raised in the church, in the bell tower and gives it the name Quasimodo.
Years later, Quasimodo is on the cusp of adventure. He is now voiced by Tom Hulce and he dreams of spreading his wings and flying away. He wishes that he, like many a Disney protagonist, could just be rid of all earthly annoyances and worries; but after many trials finds that like here is more beautiful amidst all its hardships.
Decidedly more cheerful than the Hugo work, the Disney team that brought the film to life—imdb has over 20 names listed as contributing to the screenplay and story—the film is perhaps the darkest of all the Disney films. It's morbid, adult, humorous, sexual, and unashamed of all these things.
Frollo is one of the best villains, someone you can really fear. Yet the idea behind Frollo is all the more reason that the film should be respected. He believes in an idea, and he takes the idea too far; but he still
considers himself to be a moral man...what's more frightening than that? To put this in perspective, Christopher Nolan taps into the same general area for The Joker.
Quasimodo refers to Frollo as "Master" and on the day of the Festival of the Fools, he decides that he wishes to abandon his master for one day and visit the crowd.
Loneliness has taken its toll on the boy because he believes that three gargoyles come to life and speak to him. Perhaps they are magical, but I think the film cheerfully glosses over the fact that Quasimodo could be hallucinating. No matter.
As Frollo's determination hasn't waved in his quest to wipe out all the gypsies, he calls in a new captain to aid him. Phoebus (Kevin Kline) doesn't quite have the same disdain for the gypsies that Frollo has. (Side note. Great drinking game—take a shot every time you hear the priest's name. Because FROLLO!) Phoebus finds some of the gypsies quite alluring and here we meet the shapely and provocative Esmerelda (Demi Moore). A dancer, a singing beauty...everyone wants Esmerelda.
When Quasimodo descends to the crowd, she is the one person who is nice to him; but will she be able to evade the long arm of the law?
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is certainly as ambitious as any Disney movie has been and it's no perfect film; but it is quite stunning in moments. Tony Jay's voice is absolutely perfect for Frollo and in comparison everyone else seems kind of awkward. The talking gargoyles aren't always funny and the gags don't quite work in a movie this serious...but you can't condemn them for trying.
The moral of the story is to not judge. Yes, it's been done before—get along with everyone; but has it ever been so radically about inner and outer beauty. Esmerelda is flawless but Quasimodo is no Greek god, there is no beauty to him...yet there is so much beauty.
In the year where "Frozen" is instructing girls to let it go while flaunting a perfect figure, what better way to remind us that not everything is about outer beauty than revisiting "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"?
It's surprisingly emotional.
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