Recommendation: Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

Probably the most religious irreligious movie I’ve ever seen.

The rose window at Notre-Dame de Paris.
As far as I can tell, that is, in fact, Notre-Dame.
Photo by Huy Phan on Pexels.com

It’s probably not for nothing that the period between the late 80s and the Turn of the Millennium is called the Disney Renaissance.

Raphael's "The School of Athens".
Not to be confused with the Actual Renaissance
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Disney closed out the 80s with The Little Mermaid. The early 90s gave us Beauty and the Beast (indisputably the best Disney movie and the first animated movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar) and The Lion King.

Meanwhile on TV, Disney gave us beloved cartoons like DuckTales, TaleSpin (clearly, they also had a thing against proper spacing and capitalisation…), Darkwing Duck, and, of course, Gargoyles.

So, basically, these are the Disney movies and shows my generation grew up with.

A reel of film.
That’s a film reel, kids. That’s what movies used to be made of.
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

It wasn’t necessarily a unequivocal golden age fulled of unqualified successes. The Rescuers Down Under didn’t live up to studio expectations, and Pocahontas garnered a mixed reaction and proved controversial even at the time — something I imagine has only gotten worse in the intervening years given present-day discussions going on about racism and colonialism.

Still, there was probably more good than bad during the period. That’s neither surprising nor difficult given that the worst movies of this period are still generally considered at least decent and that the best are viewed as some of the best animated movies ever.

Of course, that means that the ones that didn’t become instant classics tend to get overshadowed by the ones that did.

Which brings me to my next recommendation.

The title card of Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".
As you can see from that title card, I am referring, of course, to 1999’s Tarzan.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Disney.

Let me get this out of the real quick: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a good representation of the original novel.

Now, that Disney is playing fast and loose with the source material for the sake of making a movie palatable to modern tastes and appropriate for an all-ages audience isn’t exactly unprecedented.

Granted, most of these stories have multiple versions, but off the top of my head: Mulan dies in one version, the Little Mermaid dies (sort of; she ends up becoming, like, an air spirit that has a chance to become a real human), the Snow Queen is the antagonist, Cinderella‘s stepsisters get blinded and throw out onto the street, and I’m sure I’ve read about at least one version of the story where the Beast eats the evil sisters.

All that aside, Hunchback of Notre Dame plays especially fast and loose with the source material, to the point that the movie isn’t an adaptation, so much as a completely new story that happens to have the same name as a famous French novel.

Not, I suppose, unlike fellow 90s Disney adaptation of fellow 19th century French novel The Three Musketeers.

In brief: the only sympathetic character is the funny goat (yes, the goat is in the original book) and then everybody dies.

Basically this, but with an attitude.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a real bummer.

Frankly, it’s a bizarre choice to adapted into an animated kid’s movie. But, yeah, Disney pulled it off.

Not necessarily as an adaptation, but at least as a movie in its own right.

The movie starts off strong. The Bells of Notre Dame sequence is probably one of the most powerful, evocative opening sequences I’ve seen in a movie, and not just in a cartoon or a Disney movie.

None of the characters really resemble their counterparts in the original novel. Quasimodo is a misunderstood nice guy who’s ugly in the cutest way possible, rather being basically a feral child. Esmeralda is a strong, capable adult woman, rather than a teenage ingenue. Phoebus is a gallant, chivalrous true knight, rather than a self-centred jerk.

Frollo is kind of the opposite; he’s straightforwardly (if still realistically) evil secular judge who’s obsessed with Esmeralda, rather than a nuanced priest gradually losing his sympathetic qualities… who’s obsessed with Esmeralda.

However, the funny goat is basically still the same character.

A scene from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Djali the goat eating a wooden figurine.
Figure 1: Not an original Disney character.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Disney.

Again, not a great adaptation, but it works. At the very least, it fixes the novel’s biggest problem: that there really are no sympathetic characters.

Now, as a Disney movie, Hunchback is trying to be as bland, broadly- appealing and inoffensive as possible. Which means it’s trying really, really hard not to be a religious movie.

But, it’s a movie about a church – worth noting: in the original French, the title of the novel is Notre-Dame de Paris, emphasising how central the church itself is to the story.

So, in the end, it can’t not be a religious movie.

It’s probably the most religious irreligious movie I’ve ever seen.

A scene from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus, flanked by angels at the top of the church.
It is, for example, the only Disney movie I can think of where “The Man comes around” is a recurring thematic statement.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Disney.

If you’ve spent any time in or around a Catholic church, you’re going to recognise some of the movie’s musical cues: the Kyrie, the Confiteor and lot of bombastic, overawing Latin chant feature into the soundtrack.

And it’s not for nothing the Dies Irae is probably the most frequently-recurring musical cue in the movie.

Notably, the translation of the Latin of the Dies Irae mentions “the Judge” at length. Given how the movie plays out, it’s basically referring to Frollo — Judge Frollo, as you’ll recall.

At least until it isn’t

As is the case with a lot of the 90s-era animation I’ve been recommending, it’s clear that animation techniques have come a long way since then. It’s not necessarily that the animation hasn’t held up — for the most part, it has; I’ve noticed the odd issue with the character designs and movements, but nothing hugely distracting. It’s just that the past three decades have brought advancements that allow animators to do more work more efficiently.

The backgrounds have consistently blown me away. There’s something about the art style and the colour saturation that makes most of the backgrounds feel like paintings. In particular, the amount of detail on Notre-Dame itself is amazing.

Granted, I don’t know enough about Notre-Dame architecture to know if it’s accurate, but even if it isn’t, it still looks cool.

A scene from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", an interior shot of the church.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Disney.

Like I said at the top of this post, Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t go down as an instant classic. It still isn’t quite as popular as the best-beloved films of the Disney Renaissance era, but it has earned a lot of praise with the the benefit of the intervening three decades.

Frollo’s a corrupt authority figure hiding behind religion to oppress the minorities and lower classes of Paris. Esmeralda basically spends the entire movie being objectified as a woman, in addition to facing prejudice as a minority. Quasimodo just wants a friend. Phoebus is trying to do the right thing, even though his superiors (i.e. Frollo) are corrupt authority figures hiding behind religion.

Yeah, that’s not relatable at all…

There’s a lot of pretty mature subject matter going on here. Given the movie’s religious bent and recurring symbolism, there are fairly frank discussions about salvation and damnation — insofar as such a heavy, inevitably controversial topic is possible in a Disney movie.

It’s dark, it’s grim. It’s resonant. And that’s probably why The Hunchback of Notre Dame has earned the reputation it has.

Also, Hellfire (starts at about 2:10 in that video) is an awesome song. Both musically and theologically.

On the one hand, it does kind of have an identity crisis. It’s a dark Disney movie, but it’s still a Disney movie, so it’s still trying to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible and include kid-friendly humour, perhaps to its own detriment.

There’s a good deal of humour, plenty of it legitimately funny and well-executed — Phoebus giving his horse the command “Achilles, heel!” is a brilliant joke. But also, Quasimodo has a trio of funny gargoyle sidekicks to provide levity and juvenile humour. That works less well.

It’s a dark movie, but then everything works out in the end.

Sure, there’s maybe a certain unfortunate implication of “ugly guys can’t get the girl.” But, probably more significantly, Quasimodo himself is the one who ultimately sets up Esmeralda and Phoebus, because he does what’s best for his friends.

And, obviously, that platonic friendships are also important is not a terrible message to deliver.

A scene from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", the three main characters holding hands.
100% heartwarming. 12 000% inaccurate to the source material…
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Disney.

Plus, he gets a girlfriend in the sequel.

Yeah. There was a sequel.

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