The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)


Coming up to being 20 years old, this Disney classic features some heavy adult ideas mixed with some uneven story choices but at the end of it all, the key theme of acceptance is well animated and a likable hero in the unlikely appearance of the bell ringer emerges.

After chasing down a gypsy mother, Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) goes to rid her hideous baby but thankfully the Notre Dame Archdeacon makes him rectify his sin by keeping the boy alive. Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is banished to the church belfry where he spends his days looking down at the Parisian courtyards wishing to be with the people and the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Demi Moore).

Clearly the story is all about acceptance and having a message about acting with people the same no matter how they look. Here they have a perfect tool for that idea by Quasimodo being a deformed and hunchbacked individual. His soul and thoughts may be kind but sadly the people of Paris don’t look past the bulging eyes and stooped spine. It’s a great family film to have children learning early about the importance of treating others how you’d wish to be treated. Along the way, side stories of unrequited romance and comedy almost unravel the strong message but by the end, Quasimodo has become the symbol of good we’d expected he would.

The animation itself is rather good, the sweeping pass through the city in the opening gives good details to the stony buildings and the busy civilians. The grey and Gothic atmosphere is truly felt with the many scenes set around and in Notre Dame and there’s a lovely amount of colour to combat the tiredness of slates of grey, especially in the Festival of Fools sequence. There is a common feel of darkness amongst most of the story, the church, the fires and the secluded environment Quasi has to grow up in, it’s an almost Cinderella like slave space that helps us root for him and really dislike the equally spiteful villain.

Musically, the 34th animated Disney movie triumphs in including grand adult ideals of fate, religion and tolerance/intolerance to difference. Alan Menken conducts a deep score that emanates like the bells themselves. The music swells and really dramatically adds to the seriousness of some of these songs, no more can that be found than in Frollo’s passionate ‘Hellfire’ track. With Menken is Stephen Schwartz who pens some amazingly rich lyrics that resonate about sin and the belief of good in the eyes of God. ‘Hellfire’ once again is a perfect example of power in what Frollo as a character believes. Also this review wouldn’t be worthwhile without commenting that the opening jester story, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ which is sung to us and some kiddies is engaging and brilliant.

I hadn’t seen this film for a very long time but always remembered most of the visuals and story points and that sticks as a great lasting impression a film can have on me. It’s broody with Frollo yet mischievous with Esmeralda, it’s beautiful in drawing and important for themes, so even though there’s talking gargoyles I’m sure Victor Hugo would have liked what this animation did to his novel. Tony Jay is a great vocal star as Frollo who is the great opposite to Hulce’s tortured admiration of a world that doesn’t see him as equal.

There’s joy at the end but Disney were brave in picking to transform such a religiously rooted story with a dark hopeless thread of love and acceptance. The bells and I ring out in admiration and enjoyment for this film.



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