Disney's The Hunchback of Notredame (1996)
Updated: May 5
Loosely based on Victor Hugos’ 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Disney’s adaptation of his pot-boiler is a brave one as it remains loyal to its themes of prejudice, sexual obsession, ethnic cleansing, religious hypocrisy, with a heavy dose of the ever popular good versus evil and yet manages to create a family friendly film for all.
Frollo, a mean and cruel Judge, is forced to ‘adopt’ a misshapen child who he names Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) and banishes to the bell-tower of Notredame Cathedral. Quasimodo grows up sheltered and alone, except for the three mischievous gargoyles, Laverne, Victor and Hugo who come to life when he is alone and encourage him to the leave the Cathedral and venture out into the Parisian streets.
Quasimodo’s longed-for trip down below ends in his humiliation in front of the entire city as well as incurring the wroth of his step-dad, Frollo. Luckily he manages to escape with his life with the aid of the vivacious gypsy Esmerelda and the handsome soldier Phoebus. This action sparks off a campaign by Frollo to capture Esmerelda and rid the city of the gypsies.
This is a dark film. The film’s characters and plot err towards the pessimistic side of life, and these are subtly matched by the darkness of the film’s central setting, Notredame Cathedral, a huge, shadowy Gothic pile which dominates the film as it does Paris. As a consequence, this is one of Disney’s most mature films, its success stands on the strong characterisation of its human characters and they have resisted the temptation to trivialise Hugo’s novel too greatly by relying on cutesy animals. The comic relief comes in the shape of three gargoyles, but these are clearly shown to be only figments of Quasimodo’s imagination.
The film’s theme of What Makes a Man and What Makes a Monster? is played out with Quasimodo and his step-dad Frollo. Quasimodo, although ridiculed by those around him, is no monster. He is ‘cute’ ugly and loveable rather than a figure of horror. The film’s real monster is the evil judge, Frollo. He is not just evil but is also cruel, which makes for a more multi-dimensional villain. This complexity of character is shown most clearly in his confused feelings for Esmerelda, especially in the sinister eroticised fantasy he has about her, with a vision of her provocative dancing appearing in his fireside flames.
Esmerelda is a sexy and audacious gypsy with a curvy figure, magnificent cleavage and emerald green eyes - in other words, a real babe. Bearing a strong resemblance to the actress providing the voice, Demi Moore, her sassy, boisterous approach to life and her liberty is made all the more compelling. Her sexuality attracts all those around her, but for some reason she is attracted to the least compelling character, the blonde haired blue eyed handsome solider, Phoebus, voiced by Kevin Kline.
There is no obvious big show-stopping number. The tunes are pleasant enough, but some of the lyrics seem a little bizarre “It matters not he’s no Adonis/Because he’s shaped like a croissant is.” It is an imposing score, rather than catchy, which is in keeping with the majesty of the film.
Although there is a lot going on here for the adults, there is enough dazzling action sequences and gags to the keep the kids happy. Quasimodo’s acrobatics around the turrets and statues, transforming the Cathedral into a most thrilling adventure ride.
For anyone who has worked their way through the original novel, the ending has been cheered up somewhat and given that good old Disney political correctness. Esmerelda no longer ends her days swinging from the gallows but in the arms of goofy but good-looking Phoebus. Quasimodo learns that you don’t need to be handsome to be the hero.
The Hunchback of Notredame
Prd. Don Hahn Dir. Greg Trousdale and Kirk Wise Based on Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris. Music. Alan Menken Lyrics. Stephen Schwartz
St. Tom Hulce (Quasimodo), Kevin Kline (Phoebus), Tony Jay (Frollo), Demi Moore (Esmerelda), Jason Alexander (Hugo), Mary Wickes (Laverne), Charles Kimbrough (Victor)
Rel. 1996. Run. 87 m.