The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name. Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) is a deformed man of Gypsy descent who lives in the cathedral’s bell tower and serves as the bell-ringer. He has been reluctantly raised (and hidden from public view) by the evil Judge Frollo (Tony Jay) in repentance for killing Quasimodo’s mother when he was an infant. In the midst of the annual Festival of Fools celebration, Quasimodo falls in love with a headstrong young Gypsy woman named Esmeralda (Demi Moore). But he soon finds he must compete for her affections with the captain of the guard, Phoebus (Kevin Kline) while also contending with Frollo’s insane lust for the girl. Quasimodo, with the help of his hilarious gargoyle friends, must help save Esmeralda and the gypsies from Frollo’s reign of terror.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. The Disney animation team reportedly spent months in Paris at the actual cathedral, sketching and photographing minute details so as to best capture them on film. In the end, this respect for authenticity definitely shows. The animation, particularly of the architecture of Notre Dame itself, is simply stunning, with a deft use of shadow and light to depict the stunning stained-glass work and the cavernous interior of the cathedral. And though this film’s soundtrack did not produce any chart-topping pop hits or Oscars (unlike its Renaissance predecessors), the music (composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) is nonetheless haunting and beautiful, incorporating the sounds of bells and Gregorian chanting within several of the tunes.
The characters are, for the most part, just as well-sculpted as the setting. Quasimodo, as the central character of the film, is appropriately deformed in his character design, but not to the extremes of Hugo’s original descriptions (for example, unlike Hugo’s creation, Disney’s Quasi is not deaf). The depiction of Quasimodo in this film is in sharp contrast to the portrayals of the characters by Lon Chaney (1923 silent version) and Charles Laughton (1939) in past film adaptations (though his appearance does seem to be modeled after, or least inspired by, the latter in some respects). There is a lovable quality to the rounded edges and welcoming smile with which Disney’s animators gifted their Quasimodo. He’s not frightening so much as “different,” not grotesque but misshapen, and the innate kindness of the character shines through the rough-hewn exterior. And the filmmakers could not have chosen a better voice for the part: Hulce, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role as the title character in 1984’s Amadeus. The actor’s voice work as Quasi is, by turns, joyful and heartbreaking, hopeful and despairing … a perfect fit.
Esmeralda is one of Disney’s stronger women. She takes care of herself and stands up to Frollo’s injustice, even defying his soldiers. Other than the gargoyles, she is the first to see Quasi for who he actually is. The film continues Disney’s 90s love affair with casting high-profile actors as leading characters: Moore, an undeniable superstar by 1996, is instantly recognizable in the role, but she carries it off rather well, imbibing Esmeralda with just the right amount of independent spirit.
Captain Phoebus, on the other hand, is a bit self-absorbed and clueless, but he has a sense of right and wrong that helps him awaken to the real problems in Paris; in this way, he has some very significant similarities to John Smith in Pocahontas. I always forget that the character is voiced by Kline, though it oddly suits him. It amuses me that Kline, whose Phoebus has many comic interactions with his horse, Achilles, plays such a similar character (Tulio) dealing with horsey hi-jinks in 2000’s animated feature The Road to El Dorado.
As for the gargoyles, you have to love them. Laverne, a truly great character, is voiced by the wonderful Mary Wickes, who is no stranger to the True Classics crew, having played a part in some of our favorite films (White Christmas, The Man Who Came to Dinner, 101 Dalmatians…). This was actually Wickes’ last film role before she passed away in 1995. As Laverne, she plays a dry-humored character who is definitely the brains of the operation (so, a perfect role, essentially). Interestingly, there actually is a Notre Dame gargoyle that looks like Laverne; we may assume the others depicted in the film are up there, too, but I cannot know for sure. If I had the picture accessible on a computer, I would post it, but I do not. Perhaps someday I will get it scanned and filed. The other two gargoyles, aptly named “Victor” (Charles Kimbrough) and “Hugo” (Jason Alexander), play foil to one another and provide much-needed comedy relief from the rather dark story line.
Disney chose Tony Jay to play Frollo, which was a rather wise move. His voice suits his character, and his experience in voicing characters is extensive, having played a villain in radio drama and portrayed numerous animated characters (including the crooked asylum director in Beauty and the Beast). He already knew how to play evil, morally and ethically questionable, and—let’s just say it—a bit creepy.
The major theme in the film is how “morality” is used for immoral purposes (personified by Frollo). It questions the nature of good and evil, which was one of Hugo’s favorite questions. Frollo has risen to power and managed to break the justice system into shambles. He shows this himself when explaining to Phoebus about his moral war against the gypsies. He uses a metaphor with bugs under a tile in the walls in the Palace of Justice to show how the gypsies are an infestation, but his removal of the tile (and putting it back incorrectly) shows how he has broken justice. It also reveals that there really are bugs infesting the justice system—just not the bugs he names. Later, he begins to destroy Notre Dame, this time with a battering ram. In a scene oddly reminiscent of, and yet opposing Beauty and the Beast (apparently all “monsters” require battering rams), the citizens finally take back their city from Frollo’s corrupt leadership.
Making Hugo’s novel into a Disney-fied film appropriate for family audiences necessitated some serious changes to the original book. The intensity of Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda is severely dampened, though it’s still pretty evident he has an unhealthily amorous yen for this woman (“she will be mine or she will burn,” huh? Yeah). And Hugo’s ending—in which Esmeralda, Frollo, and Quasimodo all wind up dead—was pretty much scrapped. Frollo still meets his comeuppance, falling from the heights of Notre Dame to his death below, but the Gypsy girl and the bell-ringer survive, and Esmeralda and Phoebus renew their love connection with Quasi’s blessing. The film ends on a bright, hopeful note, as Quasimodo ventures out, undisguised, and is greeted warmly and welcomed by the people of Paris for the first time. With their acceptance, Quasi realizes his longed-for happy ending. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But it’s only a fitting ending for any product of the venerable House of Mouse.
Overall, choosing to adapt The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a bold move on the parts of directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Despite making quite a few changes and lightening Hugo’s story by several dozen shades, it is still a pretty dark story for Disney. The adaptation manages to retain some of the complicated social themes from Hugo’s novel while still incorporating more child-friendly elements, and one must admit that such a balancing act is pretty impressive.