The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

I’m writing this because the Notre Dame cathedral burned from the inside last night: the spire that Quasimodo swings from in admiration of his beautiful city is now a dramatic carnage photo on the evening news. I’m reminded that Victor Hugo’s original purpose in writing Notre Dame de Paris was to preserve the cathedral and the history it contained, of which he said that “[of] the various marks of destruction graven upon the ancient church, the work of Time would be the lesser, the worse that of Men.” His book inspired the world to preserve its art in the buildings that it had let slip into disuse and disrepair. The word “preservation” as it pertains to architecture is a term pioneered in the modern age by Hugo: the cathedral that burned last night was not the one that, Hugo reminds us, Charlemagne set the first stone and Augustus the last. It was the one built from our history, urged on by our greatest poet. We recalled Paris as an artist interprets his subject: we rebuilt this place from the memory of it, as Hugo did.

And now, I think of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for which artists studied every line of that fantastic structure, as an extension of Hugo: it is a preservation in art of the memory of a great work, for which animation is uniquely suited. It allows the same radical characterization that Hugo used to create people, that they may represent his idea of their era. The city sweeps with dreamy confidence; though the real building is gone, gone as it has always been, the drawings are deep enough to live in.

When Phoebus (Kevin Kline) enters Paris and remarks that, “You leave for a couple decades and they change the whole place,” he’s not far off from the state of preservation in Hugo’s time. The book is not actually much about the devastation of outcasts at the mercy of religion’s interpretation of the law. Disney’s contemporary version of it in the only language they know how to speak (which I’m going to describe as something like a combination of Phantom of the Opera, La Boehme, and Cats) has been criticized for its inaccuracies to the material and its mistimed humor. The second one, we’ll talk about later. As for adhering to the source, it is an evolution of Hugo’s conflict: Disney turned a story about the pitiable people that live and die around these eternal structures into something that more closely evokes the structures as we see them today. Perhaps in Hugo’s time, Quasimodo stood in for the cathedral’s desecration: here was someone made purely and defiled by his own life, warped into deafness and monstrosity. Disney took him and recomposed him for a time when a building falling is a great tragedy; these characters are redeemed by their city instead of brutalized by it. Paris is truly the main character of this movie.

The animation that depicts it is as limber as Quasimodo, dangling defiantly beneath rooftops and over the expanses of the river Seine. The drawings of the sunlight in this film, set against the layers in the frame of the cathedral façade and its parapets, behind them the columns and towers, Quasimodo between them in the dusk, is the kind of work that people used to put in cathedrals to honor their god. His view from the tower is a confection of imagination, a city that was never real perhaps but in the minds of those who believe in it. It’s fitting that Disney would turn the Hunchback into the film’s representative (even all the way back at the book’s initial publication, he was more to us than to Hugo: as soon as the book hit America, its name was changed to include the “Hunchback” to accommodate our curious pity). This character who can be as fearful as he is strong, and as beautiful as he is pitiable, is a perfect corollary to the aging stone around him.

And what do people mean when they say that this story has been “Disneyfied?” If it was, it happened already, by the Disney that’s been implicit in us all along. While Tom Hulce’s sweet-toned bachelor swinging from the parapets is a superhuman leap from Lon Chaney’s version, I recall Charles Laughton playing the part about as sympathetically as Hulce – his lip spluttered even more, perhaps. Laughton’s version is where this is coming from: that is the preservationist’s epic prose being converted into heartache. Disney took it further by adding music, but they are not vandals of this art.

Hulce (he played Mozart in Amadeus) leads the film through its beautiful songs, though the very best are not his. The opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame” is as devastatingly complete an opening as I’ve ever seen to a film like this. It opens not only this movie but the time and people around which it’s set – all of its prostration and exaltation, compressed into a puppet show. It has the same magic effect as Wonka’s three-course dinner gum: it’s like tasting an entire age.

You may realize immediately that this isn’t a children’s film. The puppet/prophet Clopin (Paul Kandel) sings about the wrath of the pre-Reformation Catholics, and also of the film’s moral dilemma: that men of faith convinced people to let them kill as a stand-in for god. The villain of this movie is a predator to the unfortunate, cleansing himself of the guilt of letting them live by burning them at the stake. In this opening song, he realizes that he may not be destined for heaven because of it. And that’s why he raises Quasimodo, whose mother he kills, as a symbol of his own piety. This is the Disney father and evil stepmother and every spiritual villain they’ve ever made compressed into one slithery grin: Judge Claude Frollo’s eyes glitter in this movie with the most passionate evil Disney has ever made. He isn’t lazy like Scar or materialistic like Ursula or vengeful like Maleficent. He is self-denying (he doesn’t allow himself to be attracted to anyone) because his version of the Almighty is a lover that will only punish him if he’s impure. He is spiritual, in that he knows precisely why he is killing those he has deemed unworthy. Perhaps he is vengeful: but notice that Maleficent, often considered the best of Disney’s villains, seeks vengeance for being left out of a party. Frollo seeks vengeance against beautiful people for the sin of disrupting his faith by making him attracted to them. This man is not evil on the level of a children’s film.

All of the characters reflect some aspect of each other, as the ensembles in Disney films sometimes struggle to do (Wise and Trousdale’s own Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for instance). Consider Phoebus, a soldier christened by war and newly appointed to commit genocide on the gypsy population of Paris. His defiance of his superiors is positively un-cartoonish, when he rallies disenfranchised people to oppose the evil minister’s use of the church as a liberty workaround. Would he be in such a position if not for his attraction to the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda (Demi Moore)? When others pray for glory, love, fortune, and fame, Esmeralda asks that god notice some of the unnoticeable people and give them a chance to live well. Her empathy awakens a human being in a soldier. The characters in Hunchback affect each other on this spiritual level.

So Quasimodo sings “Heaven’s Light,” a sweet nighttime song to himself about how loving Esmeralda has allowed him to believe that he’s worthy of love. And the film transitions over the space of the city to how this love – which is very Hugo-esque in that it is the currency of all the film’s spiritual transactions – has affected Frollo (Tony Jay). Hulce’s voice fades off into Latin murmuring, as Frollo, wielding a voice that is as deep as it can get while still seeming sweet, begins singing the best song Disney has ever made. In “Hellfire,” Frollo confesses his lust for Esmeralda and his terrible guilt for having it, which has driven him to murder her people in order to cleanse himself (“Be mine or you will burn,” he snarls). A court of cloaked judges (angels or devils?) arraigns him in an interlude as complex in music and in animation as in theme. As he begs to be absolved for his actions, as though it’s Esmeralda’s fault for being beautiful, the cloaks swirl up from the ground and switch to a secondary melody that I’ve heard attending mass with relatives: the Confiteor, or confession. The light on the stone, the chanting figures, the greatest villain of any Disney cartoon panting as he assures himself that his evil desires are someone else’s fault, is a masterpiece of composition. In all of Disney’s history, I would rank this animation second only to “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria” in Fantasia, which is quite possibly the greatest work in animation ever produced. Hunchback is not the place I expected to see its equal.

In light of that, I assure you, if it was less offensive, I would have left the next thing I have to talk about out of this review. I won’t end on it either because the movie deserves so much better. But I have to talk about that humor now. Let’s talk about those gargoyles.

Just where do directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise get off inflicting such a curse to their own art? They walked the tonal tightrope as agilely as a gypsy when they directed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. With Hunchback, Quasimodo’s intimate scenes with himself can hardly breathe before being coordinated with a crotch-shot. Charles Kimbrough, Mary Wickes, and Jason Alexander galumph around the bell tower, spouting isms too irksome to even be adlibbed. They steal Quasimodo’s privacy and interrupt the enormity of the movie’s climax with slapstick and Wizard of Oz references and continuity errors (only at the very end, when the gargoyles interact with the invaders of the cathedral, did the screenwriters forget that they’re in Quasimodo’s imagination, which almost justified them up until then). They even steal the last line of the film. Even as I compiled my thoughts during the film’s end credits, fully intending to give it a pass on the arm-farts, Trousdale and Wise made me feel like the real King of Fools, by splicing in one last shriek from Alexander (“Goodnight everybody!”) after the final note of the symphony had died away and the Disney logo had faded into peaceful black. Could anyone be more out of place in 15th century Paris, than Jason Alexander? I was going to let this review suffice without mentioning that in the cringy cabaret number “A Guy Like You,” they rhymed “Adonis” with “Your shape like a croissant is,” but I dislike being made a fool in the court of my own opinions. And that’s what I feel like. Alexander’s burping big-mouth begins singing that song by roasting a hotdog over the flames of burning Paris; what he eats as part of a bit contains the ash of human flesh. I often wonder if the jokes were added in later: some are so quick they almost seem subliminal, like Tyler Durden slipped in some extra fart frames that I can’t remember but definitely felt. To see these parts in this movie is to watch a beautiful building being vandalized. At times, it’s hard to see the structure beneath.

Let me pull it back around to the wonderful things this movie does that are much subtler even than animation. This script by Murphy et al. is a marvel. Consider the use of Esmeralda’s love, not only as it applies to Frollo but to the hero of this story. They must have been tempted to give Quasimodo the win: I can imagine interpreting the film’s belief that he’s worthy of love as being worthy of Esmeralda. But she goes with Phoebus and he’s happy about it. He realizes that he didn’t love her that way: her kindness made him believe that he’s worthy of not feeling guilty for being alive. If they had walked off into the sunset together, he would have learned so much less. And additionally, we would've been confused if the script had succumbed to a predictable musical number between Esmeralda and Phoebus: since the love songs are restricted to Quasimodo, we always know whose feelings are most important, and since he doesn't get the girl but gets an ability to fight for life and beauty and to be loved, we know that's more important than the magic carpet ride that the romantic couple never has.

If people are as flawed as Hugo believed them to be, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been surprised that Notre Dame cathedral burned, not 200 years after he succeeded in urging us to preserve it. But he also believed in love: that it can cure the best of us of our insecurities and guilt the worst of us into fearing the terrible flaws that they see in the world, precisely because they see them most of all in their own souls. This use of love makes Disney’s version of the story enduring, and it lifts up the testament to the architecture as more than a backdrop. The film fashions its people into the image of how they see their own spirit, and puts them in a city that has always been that way to us. Films like this and the book on which it’s based preserve Notre Dame better than the structure itself. This is art saving us from ourselves.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Gary Trousdale

Kirk Wise

Tab Murphy

Irene Mecchi

Bob Tzudiker

Noni White

Jonathan Roberts

Victor Hugo (book)

Quasimodo Tom Hulce
Esmeralda Demi Moore/Heidi Mollenhauer (singing)
Judge Claude Frollo Tony Jay
Captain Phoebus Kevin Kline
Clopin Trouillefou Paul Kandel
The Archdeacon David Ogden Stiers
Charles Kimbrough, Mary Wickes, and Jason Alexander Gargoyles


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