Since the time I first saw it, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was my favorite Disney animated film. Others would come close, but I would always ask my parents to let me watch it again and again, rewinding the VHS tape so often it started showing signs of abuse. As I was growing up, I realized that not everybody shared this same love of one of Disney’s darkest animated films to date. So, if people asked I would say my favorite Disney movie was some princess film, or maybe an adventure flick. Now that I’m older, I’m not ashamed to proudly shout that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is still my hands-down favorite Disney animation, and that it’s one of the most underrated films in animation, period.
It wasn’t until I watched it again as an adult that I understood just how deep the rabbit hole goes with this film. It’s full of messages that may be subliminal to children but become glaringly obvious for adults over time. There was a purpose behind the dark approach to this film, compared to Disney’s other happy-go-lucky adventure romps, and this surprised a LOT of people when it was released. That could be why it did relatively poorly at the box office, compared to their other films, even when critics were raving about it.
But today I wanted to take a closer look at why this Disney film resonates with me. These are mostly traits that I noticed only recently, while looking at the film with a critical eye. People often ask for Disney, Dreamworks, or Pixar to dream up characters and stories like these following categories, but they don’t realize that it’s been here all along in the form of the “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Attraction Doesn’t Define The Main Character
Compared to Victor Hugo’s dark novel, Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is (as Nostalgia Critic put it) more of an “ugly duckling story.” The main character Quasimodo, has been disfigured from birth, but doesn’t let that sway him from his sense of optimism. He’s bright, cheerful, compassionate, and protective. An easy hero to get behind, even though he’s not as dashing as someone like Flynn Rider from “Tangled.”
I always admired Disney for their work on characters like Quasimodo and the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast.” They found ways to (for lack of a better word) “tastefully” create characters that showed their flaws superficially without frightening children or putting us off.
Main Character and Love Interest End Up As Friends
Holy crap! This was huge when I was a kid.
Quasimodo develops a crush (or maybe even love) for Esmeralda, the gypsy woman who saves him out at the festival. While he shows obvious signs of affection, he later realizes that she doesn’t share the same feelings, and they continue as friends. He even helps save her love interest, Phoebus, from falling to his death. That’s some true platonic friendship right there.
At the time when animated films were full of heroes and heroines, whose motivations were saving their love interests – and being rewarded with true love – this was pretty surprising. The main hero does not get the girl in the end, and he’s okay with it. Shocking!
Music to Give You Goosebumps
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was the first time I was aware of operatic soundtracks. I was raised on a healthy diet of musicals from the many Broadway recordings in my mom’s collection, but it was the first time I had heard it to this scale in a Disney film. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the opening song of the film, “The Bells of Notre Dame”, and tell me that doesn’t give you chills.
The bells, the choir, the dramatic orchestration…it gave the film so much more of a sense of ‘awe’ and grandeur and I soaked it up like a sponge. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” songs are the only Disney soundtrack on my iPod.
Two more songs from the soundtrack that beckon tears are “God Help the Outcasts” and “Sanctuary!” which plays at the climax of the film. True goosebumps.
Jawdropping Animation and Set Design
Are you hankering for an animated film with fantastic animation and design? While Disney has many films that would fill this void, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a great choice too. Similar to how the music developed the sheer size of the movie, so did the settings. Notre Dame herself, inside and out, looks phenomenal and I loved how all the characters were dwarfed within her walls. Notre Dame was a main character as well, not just Quasimodo’s home, and the animators understood that.
My favorite scene to look at is the climax of the film, when the angry mob is storming the church after Esmeralda’s been rescued. That was the first time I had seen an angry mob as a kid! And the camera angles they chose for that scene were great. There’s one of Quasimodo swooping over the crowd, then a bird’s eye view as the crowd attacks the soldiers. Even the part where Quasimodo dumps a molten substance down the drainpipes and out of the gargoyles’ mouths was so cleverly handled.
Frollo was not the first Disney villain to scare me as a child, but he was the first Disney villain to disturb me as an adult.
This film was my first introduction to what an abusive parent-child relationship looks like. While he never physically struck Quasimodo (from what I can remember), I was keenly aware as a child that Frollo was supposed to be Quasimodo’s guardian and I got scared when this “father” figure would shout abuse at him. Hell, he even tried to kill him in the end!
Frollo’s villain song, “Hellfire”, is fantastic, one of the best villain songs to date. It doesn’t metaphorically hint at his motivations, but shows you front and center that he is lusting after Esmeralda and is deeply conflicted about it. The Catholic undertones, where the entire song is a prayer to God and the Virgin Mary begging for forgiveness for his lust, is tantalizing and thought-provoking. What a clever way to show how the character is feeling, through an expression of his religion.
Watching it again as an adult, I was surprised about the sexual connotations, but also was surprised by how logical it was. Frollo’s motivation was not a silly, contrived MacGuffin plot to take over the world or kill the hero, but was drawn from realistic human instincts like lust and rage, and how he gives in to them.
A Disney Film with Complex Issues
In today’s charged climate, where racial tensions are still as high they ever were, I think it’s appropriate to bring attention back to this film. The conflict between Frollo’s government powers and the plight of the gypsies can very easily be compared to what we are facing today. It’s the conflict between when to be silent about oppression and when to voice against it, whether it’s related to race, religion, or sexuality.
In a way, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” also briefly touches on separation of church and state, and how each have their place in our lives. You can see it in the way that Notre Dame stands as a beacon of protection against Frollo’s powers; on her steps and behind her walls, refugees are untouchable. On the other hand, Frollo’s religious zeal ends up blurring with his duties as a judge, to the point where he believes its his calling to hunt down Esmeralda as a “witch.”
There’s probably a lot more that I haven’t touched on, but would require even more viewings for me to get across comprehensively.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is one of Disney’s most underrated films, blending seamless, beautiful animation and music with darker topics that are rarely touched on in animation today. Disney took a huge risk, especially with all the religious aspects of this film and less-than-ideal-looking main character. But in the end, it’s a stew that tastes and smells wonderful, a diamond in the rough, and deserves so much more credit than most folks care to give it. Even if you dislike Disney films or think they are childish, I implore you to watch “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” You may be surprised at what you’ll find.
For a quicker summary of some of the above topics, check out Siskel & Ebert’s report on the film when it was released in 1996.