Frollo: And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit.
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
Hunchback of Notre Dame would seem like the last story for a family-friendly company like Disney to adapt. Victor Hugo’s original novel involved the corruption of the church and its overreach of power. While the movie has its fair share of flaws, even with the attempts to Disney-fy it the movie does not talk down to its audience with themes like religion and lust and is easily one of Disney’s darkest.
The story involves the deformed hunchback named Quasimodo who is confined in a bell tower in Notre Dame and is looked after Judge Claude Frollo. Unknown to Quasimodo, Frollo killed Quasimodo’s mother when he was only a baby and was forced to look after him as punishment for doing so. Quasimodo yearns to go out in the real world and be accepted like any other person. He gets his chance during the Festival of Fools but a riot caused by Frollo’s guards results in him getting humiliated. However a gypsy woman named Esmeralda stands up for him. Quasimodo and Captain Phoebus of Frollo’s guard develop feelings for her and eventually even Frollo develops feelings of lust for her.
The story envelops various themes but the main one is Quasimodo’s desire to go out in the world without being shamed for his appearance. Both Esmeralda and Phoebus both help him in seeing the good in the world whereas Frollo paints a dark picture of it for Quasimodo. In telling the rest of the story the movie often goes to uncharted territory. It has a prominent presence of Christianity in the faith-ruled city of Paris. Death in this movie is particularly widespread in attempt to mount the stakes for Esmeralda’s life when she escapes the cathedral. It also delves into the themes of love and lust. The story goes well beyond the usual fairy tale tropes from previous movies and goes to a more realistic depiction by not having Quasimodo and Esmeralda fall in love and Frollo’s ignited sexual urges. The movie goes the extra mile in touching on such adult subjects. The movie uses these themes in developing the theme of being a part of a society. While the humor is less on par compared to the rest of the movie, it knows how to use the humor carefully.
The animation does an excellent job of making the movie as awe-inspiring as possible through its lighting, colors, and angles. In regards to the character animation they look more realistic in comparison to earlier films of the Disney Renaissance but have more stylized designs than the film that preceded this. The only set of characters that do not fit this are the gargoyles, which look and move cartoonier in comparison to the rest. However the animation has some incredible moments such as when Quasimodo is swinging around Notre Dame. The backgrounds make Paris out to be a big city and they are very detailed in giving some breathtaking views whether it be the view of the city from the bell tower or in the cathedral. The animation hits its greatest points in the musical numbers. This is where the animators utilized all their techniques to give the movie such a large scale. This is exemplified through the shadows, lighting, and angles in God Help the Outcast, the angles signifying God’s power in Bells of Notre Dame, the colors and movements of Hellfire, etc.
The characters do a good job of supporting the heavy theme such as religion and lust within the movie. Quasimodo’s desire to experience the outside world rather than just see it is portrayed in a very heartfelt manner. And as he meets Esmeralda and Phoebus he would learn the values of friendship and to an extent love. This would lead to him being more independent of Frollo even outright defying him in the process. Esmeralda is seen as the first character to show Quasimodo some humanity as she understands the struggle he goes through as with her being a gypsy as the movie is set in the time where her kind were regarded as thieves and sinners. Phoebus despite answering to Frollo does see a human side to the gypsies and this is something that grows to the point where he like Quasimodo defies Frollo and eventually falls in love with Esmeralda.
Frollo is one of Disney’s strongest villains to date. He shows no mercy towards those who oppose him. His passionate hate for gypsies fuels him and goes to horrifying lengths to rid Paris of them to the extent that he almost lets the whole place burn. Frollo knows that he is a sinner and has unquenched desires but is clouded by the belief that he is doing God’s work.
The only real bad characters are the gargoyles. These characters comic relief do not at all match up with the rest of the movie’s deep tone and they do at times get somewhat annoying. It would have been a better idea if they were imaginary. In fact for the first two-thirds of the movie it seems that way as when someone other than Quasimodo is in the tower they seem lifeless. However in the climax it’s clear that they are real as they are helping take on the guards.
Each song represents the movie’s themes and it does so in a powerful way. Bells of Notre Dame sets off the movie’s grand scale and powerful messages. Out there emphasizes Quasimodo’s desire for acceptance. Topsy-turvy was a nice light-hearted song to show that the movie could still have a familiar sense of Disney energy we know and love. God Help the Outcasts helps emphasize its message through its lighting and lyrics. Heaven’s Light and Hellfire brilliantly portray love and lust through its colors and angles and the imagery in both these songs are what most associate with this movie.
Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t stick that close to the book but it hits some major notes that make it well worth watching for Disney fans. With a stunning soundtrack and brilliant animation. It truly serves as the pinnacle for adult Disney storytelling.