” So, here is a riddle to guess if you can, sing the bells of Notre Dame: What makes a monster and what makes a man? Whatever their pitch, you feel them bewitch you, the rich and the ritual knells of the bells of Notre Dame.” – Clopin
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another film that is part of that famous Disney Renaissance era, as most of you readers probably already know. Hunchback, hot of the heels of Pocahontas’s release in 1995, was the second film in the short subsection of the era where Disney attempted to make more serious and dramatic films in their animation department. And just like Pocahontas, Hunchback comes from a source material that one could possibly argue is questionable material for a Disney adaptation. Hunchback is actually remembered as one of the most adult and “dark” Disney films ever put into the canon.
Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, The Hunchback of Notre Dame follows the story of Quasimodo, the bell ringer of the famous church. He is taken care of by Frollo, who accidentally killed Quasimodo’s father as a child, and was ordered by the Archdeacon to raise Quasimodo as his own in order to repent for his sins. While Frollo dreams of ridding Paris of corruption, Quasimodo dreams of spending one day in the outside world. He gets this opportunity during the annual Festival of Fools. After he is embarrassed by the crowd, he is protected by the beautiful Gypsy Esmerelda. Esmerelda soon finds herself the subject of Frollo’s wrath, and is only able to escape it by finding sanctuary in the Church. She and Quasimodo bond, as Frollo obsesses over Esmerelda. As Frollo rampages through Paris attempting to find an escaped Esmerelda, Quasimodo and friendly soldier Phoebus must protect her and save the outcasts of Paris.
There are a certain number of Disney Animated films that I can say I appreciated more as I’ve grown older. Hunchback is one of those film. You hear a ton about how dark the tone of the film is, especially compared to other Disney works, and I certainly agree that the film may have some moments inappropriate for Children. However, as I said in the first post, I am looking at the films as I see them today. And as I see it today? Hunchback is a film that would only work with this tone, and work with this tone it does. Hunchback as a ton of strong and memorable moments that come through its ability to play off of its tone.
One aspect that works with the tone is the film’s villain, Frollo. Frollo ranks up there among the most purely evil Disney characters, and yet his lust for Esmerelda makes him a complex Disney villain. Frollo is a great villain, capturing your attention from the moment he appears, He is engaging, scary, memorable, and well acted. Frollo is the perfect example of this film’s strength, and to the end, is a charismatic, engaging character. Tony Jay gives the performance of a lifetime in the role, culminating in the song, “Hellfire.”
“Hellfire” is one of the most infamous songs in Disney history, and with a subject matter of Frollo’s burning desire for Esmerelda, it can’t be anything else. Thanks to Tony Jay’s stunning performance, fantastic imagery, and clever lyrics that truly show the emotion of Frollo, Hellfire works on a number of levels. Sure, it may not be the most family friendly song in Disney history, but it is an extremely powerful number.
In fact, Hunchback is full of extremely strong numbers. I would estimate that Hunchback is one of the most underrated soundtracks in Disney history. The music is a little bit more stage-like and Broadwayesque than other Disney films, and there is a higher number of slower songs, and that’s why it may be a bit forgotten, but it is full of strong, powerful songs. Alongside “Hellfire”, highlights include “Topsy Turvey,” “Out There,” and “God Help the Outcasts.” Another aspect of the soundtrack I really like is the use of contrast through song. Right before “Hellfire,” for example, Quasimodo sings a song about Esmerelda called “Heaven’s Light.” Right before “Out There,” Frollo sings to Quasimodo about his faults. Alan Menken is really able to do a ton with the tone.
And all of this is before mentioning the score. This is a really good score. The use of Religious Latin Chants throughout the film are brilliant, and it uses the inspiration from the songs to create some great tracks. This is especially true during the film’s more intense sequences, where the intensity of “Hellfire” is matched and the music adds a ton to the emotion of the scene.
A final note on the strengths will return to the character front. Quasimodo and Esmerelda are great characters that are simple enough to understand, yet have some complexities around them. I really like how the two stories and their desire to fit in connect and play off of each other. They are extremely likable, which is great for a film of this tone.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s mature tone can work against it in some spots, but it may not be in the way you initially think. I think you can sense a bit of fear in the film that it is too mature, and so there are scattered bits throughout the film of more lighthearted bits. For every “Hellfire,” there is a sequence where George Costanza makes a fart joke. There are some Disney films that use this method effectively (The Lion King comes to mind). It doesn’t work as well with Hunchback because the tone is so starkly different. That isn’t to say that it didn’t need humor, because it does. The humor just needed to be a bit more subtle.
This humor causes the occasional pacing glitch, especially when concerning the Gargoyles, the weakest link of the film. This glitch can be either a one line moment or an entire song. Right in the middle of Frollo’s stunning rampage through Paris, the Gargoyles sing a extremely comedic song for Quasimodo, and right afterwards, Frollo returns to his rampage. It’s not necessarily a bad song, but it just doesn’t fit in the moment. Later, the gargoyles little moments in the climatic final battle are a constant annoyance rather than a funny moment. Again, I’m not saying that they should be removed from the film completely, but they needed to have a different style of humor in order to fit.
And for as strong Frollo, Esmerelda, and Quasimodo are, there are some other characters that could be stronger. Clopin, in my opinion, is sorely underused. He is the perfect mix of subtlety and over the top that the film could have used more of, and some of the best parts of the film involve him. Phoebus is not a terrible character, but compared to the rest of the cast, he seems to be just a witty pretty boy. I do appreciate the fact that he is good from the beginning even though he is on the “wrong” side, unlike John Smith, but I just wanted more from him.
Finally, a minor note on a major part of the film. I like the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and Phoebus, and the Quasimodo-Esmerelda relationship is strong. The Phoebus-Esmerelda relationship is good, but it could be much stronger. I like how their contrast makes them the perfect match, but I wanted to see it built more. It could have been a classic Disney romance, but instead it is just a good Disney romance.
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
To be perfectly honest, I could easily just say that “Hellfire” is my favorite scene and favorite song, partly because it is. But because I just gushed about it in the Strengths section, I’ll share a few more moments instead.
“Topsy Turvey” is arguable the film’s next strongest song, and is one of the few moments to fully utilize Clopin. I like the build throughout the song for both Quasimodo and Esmerelda, and it has some fun visuals as well.
I think the strongest non musical sequence in the film is Esmerelda’s first real meeting with Quasimodo, and her subsequent escape. It’s really the scene that hammers home the film’s message most, and is a great character relationship builder.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the first true indicator that The Disney Canon was extremely strong. This is one of the films that has continued to rise from its initial ranking because of its strengths in numerous aspects. As it kept rising, I thought it would be able to creep into the Top 25, among the best of the absolute best. Once we got to this point, however, and I looked at my list and I saw the caliber of films that we have upcoming, even in the very next ranking, I realized that this is where the journey would have to stop. Hunchback is very strong, but it has just enough glitches to put it behind films that are stronger. This is still a “Wow” factor in my head. If this is where Hunchback falls, the Top 25 is going to be a lot of fun.