The Hunchback Of Notre Dame – The Cynic’s Survival Guide To Disney Animated Classics

Posted: 5 April, 2013 in Animation, The Cynic's Survival Guide To Disney Animated Classics
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HunchbackRelease date
21st June 1996

Running Time
1 hour and 29 minutes

Saccharine Factor

Funny Factor

Reclusive schizophrenic hunchback Quasimodo is kept in the belltower of Notre Dame cathedral by his master, Frollo, the puritanical judge of Paris, with only three talking grotesques for company. But when he catches sight of the gypsy Esmerelda at the Feast of Fools, he strays beyond his captivity and his master’s rule.

In and around Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, 1482.

Sourced Material
This is a very, very loose adaptation of Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. A huge amount of liberties are taken, perhaps due every one of the huge credited story and writing staff getting some input.

Don’t Confuse With
Nicholas Sarkozy. American football players from Notre Dame university.

Musical Numbers
Hunchback has nine songs, though a few of them are paired very closely together and so it’s easy to lose count. Many of them suffer from very awkward transitions between spoken and sung dialogue, which gives a horrible pseudo-operatic feel. That so many of the songs are dreary dirges with no life to them doesn’t help.
Two particularly bad songs are God Help The Outcasts and A Guy Like You. The former is Esmeralda’s big emotional number, completely shot out at the knees by Demi Moore’s awful singing voice. The latter is sung by the grotesques, mainly Jason Alexander’s Hugo and is a horribly misjudged broad comedy number that feels like it was cut from Aladdin. It doesn’t match with anything else in the film, musically or visually, but the biggest problem is that it’s a essentially a song about romantic advice sung by George Costanza from Seinfeld, which is just too weird.

Ear Worm
After The Bells of Notre Dame, you’re likely to end up bellowing “of NOTRE DAME” at the end of all your sentences.

Stunt Casting
Kevin Kline appears as Captain Phoebus, the conflicted, heroic captain of the Parisian guard/police/militia. Quasimodo is voiced by Tom Hulce (Pinto in National Lampoon’s Animal House). Mary Wickes (Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act) is Laverne. The big star turn though is Demi Moore, who appears as Esmeralda. More on that later.

Repeat Offenders
Tony Jay (Monsieur D’Arque in Beauty and the Beast) is the film’s main villain Frollo. Jason Alexander (Abys Mal in Return of Jafar but also, as mentioned above, George from Seinfeld) has another failed stabbed at getting a suitably good Disney role with Hugo, one of the three hilariously named grotesques. Dave Ogden Stiers pops up as the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and our old favourite Jim Cummings provides minor voices, two of whom even get in a fight with each other.

Look, it moves!
Hunchback of Notre Dame is often somewhat impressive visually, but never really endearing or enchanting. The backgrounds are lovely, there are some great computer assisted crowd shots and swooping long shots of Paris etc but the characters often never quite feel at home in them. Even during the Feast of Fools, the big colourful set-piece, it’s a bit soulless for the most part.
My biggest problem with the animation is Esmeralda though. Clearly, she’s been designed to look a lot like her voice actress, Demi Moore. And she does, a bit. But it pushes her off into the Uncanny Valley, making her look a bit creepy. I think it’s the oddly over-sized eyes. She rarely feels like part of the same film as the rest of the characters. I also find it ethically questionable the way her skin’s been darkened to fit the stereotypical dusky gypsy image. If they wanted to go with that, fair enough, but it sort of precludes you from then still basing her looks on Moore. This is the animation equivalent of blacking up.

Too Annoying To Live
Quasimodo lives with three grotesques (small statues from the roof of Notre Dame) – Victor, Hugo (see what they did there!) and Laverne. They’re all pretty annoying, especially Hugo. The gregarious comedy sidekick cliché doesn’t really fit in with the tale of morality, hypocrisy and lust that’s being told.
The only interesting element to them is that they can be read as lifeless statues that Quasimodo is moving around and projecting voices and personality onto, because of an unmentioned/unnoticed schizophrenia.

Animal Sidekicks
Esmeralda has a goat, Jolly, who likes ramming into guards. She also uses it as a disguise to hide from the police, several times, with unquestionable success somehow (she shoves the goat on her shoulders, covers them both with a cloak and puts a pipe in its mouth).
Phoebus has a horse called Achilles, which appears to have been included only for the obvious joke.

Fleeting Appearance
Three very quick (and tiny) cameos are piled into the same shot of the streets during Quasimodo’s first song, Out There. Belle from Beauty & The Beast can be seen walking off the bottom right of the screen, reading a book, two men walk off the bottom left of the screen carrying what could be Pumbaa from The Lion King on a stick, while another man stands shaking out the flying carpet from Aladdin.
The old man freed from the cage during Esmeralda’s slapstick escape from the Feast of Fools (and later freed from the stocks) looks largely similar to Jafar’s old man disguise in Aladdin.

Stay Conscious For…
Quasimodo and Phoebus’s entrance into the Court of Miracles and the ensuing, darkly comic, lyrically sharp, musical number, is quite cool. Worth watching the whole film for though? Probably not.

Slip Out Of The Room For…
Esmeralda’s ballad God Help The Outcasts is very much worth skipping through.

Logic For Dummies
Clopin, the gypsy fool, opens the film by telling a load of children the origin of Quasimodo (how he knows all this isn’t explained, as although people know of Quasimodo, especially in the church, the connection with Frollo doesn’t seem public knowledge) and once he finishes, it pretty much feels like the end of the film, rather than the start.
There are many changes from Hugo’s novel, many of which serve to simplify and/or sanitise the story at the expense of it making much sense. For instance, how does Frollo being guilted into caring for Quasimodo really gel with him then dumping the kid on the Cathedral and its Archdeacon? That’s not caring for him! (In the book, Frollo is the Archdeacon).
Furthermore, how is Quasimodo not deaf from living in the belltower (as he is in the book)?
You can probably put this one on Victor Hugo rather than Disney, but does being a hunchback necessarily come with being otherwise physically disfigured like Quasimodo is? His design here is rather… on the nose!
The grotesques are routinely referred to as gargoyles, but technically they’re not. Gargoyles are the flatter, longer sculptures (such as Quasimodo swings from and the kind of thing Batman is often shown standing on) that have a spout sculpted into them to work as guttering. Victor, Hugo and Laverne are all decorative statues with no plumbing element, so are just grotesques.
Paris has some pretty shoddy masonry is Frollo is able to just casually pick up a stone from the top of a wall like that. Plus all those ants were living under it, even though it’s flat and flush to the stones underneath! Either Paris doesn’t go for mortar or Frollo is secretly Superman.
They had balloons in the 15th century! Who knew? Certainly not the guy who invented them several centuries later.
Why is the only criteria for being crowned King of Fools that you’re ugly? Shouldn’t foolishness be an element?
Parisian mob culture is almost as bad as Springfield’s. The crowd goes from loving Quasimodo to pelting him with rotten fruit at the drop of a hat. He then gets chained up for absolutely no reason.
Given that he and the grotesques have watched it all before from the cathedral, surely Quasimodo knows how the Feast of Fools works and that he might have been pulled up to be the King of Fools.
Day turns to night almost instantly at the end of the Feast of Fools.
The clumsy moral point of the film is that you shouldn’t judge people by appearances, obviously. But beyond a cardboard dislike of the ugly, why would all the people in Paris instinctively hate Quasimodo? He works in the cathedral, where they all worship, and is generally helpful, cleaning and bell ringing etc. Their natural disdain for them paints them as hypocrites, especially the ones in the church, which again feeds into the film’s clumsy moralisation, but it just feels false and preachy.
Phoebus doesn’t know Esmeralda’s name when he meets her in the cathedral, even though he was present through her big song and dance number at the Feast, where she got a pretty big introduction.
“When you hold this woven band, you hold the city in your hand.” Whatever could Esmeralda’s cryptic clue mean?! Hang on, why does a Gypsy have a map of Paris made into a necklace anyway?
Hugo’s repeated sexual attraction to Jolly, the goat, is just plain weird.
Some monks wander through Notre Dame, praying and chanting, at one point. Why are monks in the cathedral? Who knows.
The plot of this film basically boils down to “everyone’s hot for Esmeralda”.
Shot in the back of the shoulder with an arrow, Phoebus falls off a horse, clutching his chest.
Phoebus’s armour disappears between his fall into the river and Esmeralda dragging his unconscious body out.
Hugo plays poker with a pigeon. He’s so wacky!
Not only is A Guy Like You a pretty bad song that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film, it also massively sets Quasimodo up for a fail. The grotesques convince him that Esmeralda’s in love with him, which she’s not. There’s building up self-confidence and then there’s just being cruel. (Although if you read the grotesques as voices in Quasimodo’s head, he’s deluding himself, which isn’t so horrible).
Esmeralda and Phoebus show lots of tact by pashing in front of the awkward shut-in that’s blatantly in love with one of them.
That Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl is very much an anti-Disney message. From the studio that built itself upon the ‘happily ever after’ and the uplifting message of finding love whoever you are, we have a story where the sympathetic ugly guy loses the girl to the charming, dashing, handsome hero. Which is at least more realistic, I suppose.
Quasimodo must paint his little wooden models with lighter fluid, because they sure as hell catch fire quickly.
Frequently throughout the film we’re told that gypsies don’t like living in stone walls (ie houses). Esmeralda even says it when she claims sanctuary in Notre Dame. And yet they all live in the Court of Miracles, which turns out to be deep in the catacombs of Paris. You know, massive underground stone built caverns and tombs. Have some consistency people!
By the film’s climactic scenes. Frollo really doesn’t have any reason not to have Quasimodo killed. He doesn’t like the guy, feels he’s a burden and has been betrayed several times by him. Frollo’s quick enough to have anyone else in the city killed, why not Quasi? It surely can’t be because the Archdeacon might guilt him a bit, because he’s already shown he doesn’t particularly care for the Archdeacon’s opinion.
Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda and then holds her up over his head shouting ‘sanctuary’ like a madman (it’s certainly not the heroic, dramatic moment the film’s aiming for). It looks like he’s about to gorilla press slam her off the cathedral.
Surely all the molten metal poured off the roof of Notre Dame would cool long before it hit the ground? Certainly the cathedral and surrounding areas would be an absolute mess, with dried bits of metal everywhere afterwards, but there’s no sign of any.
Also, given all the metal poured off the roof through the gargoyles, it’d be even more unlikely that the one Frollo is clinging to would break off, as there would be a shaft of metal now set through its spout (there’s no sign of its inner plumbing when it breaks off).
Let’s be honest, if Quasimodo went out into a real crowd like he does at the end of the film, it wouldn’t be a young child that showed kindness to him, it would be an adult paralysed into politeness by the situation. It’d be a kid breaking the mood by shouting out that he’s ugly.
Where is everybody carrying him off to at the end of the film?

Amoral Lessons
Don’t judge people by appearances! Well, ok, you can do it a few times, but when you’re in a life and death situation (like say a massive riot in Paris) and the only person who can really save everyone is a disfigured guy you’ve been mean to because of his appearance, that’s when you shouldn’t judge people by appearances.

Age (In)Appropriate
Esmeralda’s raunchy dance has similarities with Demi Moore’s character’s dancing in Striptease (also released in 1996). Or so I’m told.
The whole film is pretty dark, even after Disney bowdlerisation, as the book’s not really particularly suitable for kids.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After (For A While)
Phoebus and Esmeralda, heroes of Paris, get together at the quiet insistence of Quasimodo, who is left to a life of loneliness. Still, at least he’s a hero, carrying aloft by the hordes of Paris, though judging by their fickle nature, they could very well end up dumping him in the river.

Followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame II: Dame Harder

Overall Rating
An utter mess of a film. Disney’s often worked with some pretty dark and mature source material, but Hugo’s Hunchback is a step beyond those and the attempts to turn it into a feel-good family film fail utterly. The tone is all over the place, the only consistency being the frequent objectification of Esmeralda. Quasimodo is actually not that likeable while Frollo doesn’t feel authentic enough to work as a decent villain. The comic relief provided by the grotesques never feels appropriate, let alone funny, and the songs are generally awful (though the background music is frequently nice). And then there’s Demi Moore as Esmeralda, who looks like she’s wandered in from another film, can’t sing and is frequently more wooden than Quasimodo’s little model of her.

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