We Debate: The Surprising Bleakness of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Every now and again, pop-culture moments should be examined, discussed, and debated. For this important purpose, We Minored in Film presents this semi-regular (aka whenever we find the time to pull ourselves away from crazy busy schedules) segment known as We Debate. Below this point – there be spoilers. Caution to all who enter.
Released in 1996, Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame was a film that, while financially successful, was one of the least successful Disney films since the Disney renaissance that began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the film recounts the story of Quasimodo, the titular hunchback, forced to live in the bell tower of Notre Dame. At 11 years of age, I found the film upsetting and dark. Watching it now as an adult, I think it is one of Disney’s best, up there with Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Little Mermaid. With the movie due to be released on Blu-ray next month and a Broadway musical adaptation in the works, this seemed like the perfect time to go back to the film again and bring a friend with me. So, last night, after much nagging and prodding, I showed the film to Kelly.
Kelly: My first thought is the phrase “much nagging and prodding” is slightly underselling it. Unless by nagging and prodding, you mean, asking me all this week why I haven’t watched it. “What do you mean, you had an emergency appendectomy? That’s not excuse. They didn’t have a tv there?!”
Julianne: First of all, we all know your appendix is resting comfortably in your abdomen. [Kelly hangs his head in shame] That nagging doesn’t sound like my dangerously, obsessive pop-culture mind at all. It’s true, I was wondering why you weren’t just watching the film, but I am in fact glad that you waited, because this way I got to see your reaction to it.
Kelly: Oh, by reaction, do you mean me rocking in the fetal position, begging you to make it go away, ‘cause that’s what I did.
Julianne: (pause) So,watching it again, seventeen years removed, the first thing that struck me is the film’s almost unbearably dark tone, established with the opening prologue song, “The Bells of Notre Dame”, which feels airlifted in, to the film’s ultimate benefit, from some incredibly somber Broadway musical.
Kelly: On the bright side, the song is bizarrely catchy, seeing as how its main melody recurs multiple times throughout the remainder of the film, most notably during the chorus of “Hellfire” (more on that later). It’s catchy in the same way the main theme of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is catchy – you’ll hum it to yourself for a while before you stop and remember what the song is actually about and find yourself suddenly sad.
Julianne: That’s what strikes me about this film, in general—trying to imagine children wanting to play the soundtrack in their parent’s van on the way home from school, the way they would have with Aladdin (1992) or The Lion King (1994). It’s not just the prologue—all of the songs have this major underlying sadness to them—even the “up-beat” songs (of which there are all of. . .two out of eight). It’s funny, watching other Disney films that you always thought of as dark (like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast) really aren’t that dark by comparison.
Kelly: In Hunchback’s prologue alone, the villain, Judge Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay), bashes Quasimodo’s mother’s brain out on stone steps and nearly throws the baby version of Quasimodo down a well. Lion King-to-be Simba’s Shakespearean daddy issues are looking pretty good comparatively.
Julianne: This movie is rated G, a rating which implies every kid will be able to see this and not be traumatized. Yeah, I don’t think that’s true. I think Hunchback works better for an older, probably even adult viewer. Stop me before I start gushing, but the Alan Menken-composed score and Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs are uniformly gorgeous. The animation, as directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is flawless, particularly any of the many sequences featuring the Notre Dame Cathedral, exterior or interior.
I think it looks incredibly impressive, even 17 years removed from the film’s original release. However, this is still a deeply depressing film.
Kelly: Thematically, it should be applicable to a young audience- themes of acceptance of others, regardless of flaws, etc. Determining just how young, though? Not even Siskel and Ebert in their At the Movies review had a firm handle on that one.
Julianne: So, let’s talk about the scene where Quasimodo escapes from Notre Dame to partake in the Festival of Fools.
Kelly: Oh, you mean the “public humiliation” scene.
Julianne: That’s the one. Quasimodo has his “bump-into-and-she-didn’t-run-away-so-now-I-love-her” meet-cute with Esmeralda who then aids him in being crowned the King of the Festival, meaning everyone agrees he’s the ugliest person there. He receives a crown and scepter and is paraded in the town square as all in attendance cheer him on and throw confetti in the air because what the hell else do you do with confetti.
Then the people realize he is not wearing a mask to make him appear ugly. Nope, that’s 100%, premium blend Quasimodo. So, as you do, the townspeople proceed to tie him down, spin him around on a wheel, and pelt him with fruit and vegetables as a horrified Esmeralda watches and Frollo receives his merit badge for devilry, with a special long inscription reading “Watched as adopted son was publicly humiliated and not only did nothing but openly enjoyed watching it happen.”
Kelly: Just to emphasize the point: this is a public humiliation scene in a Disney movie. Oh, Good Lord. What new hell is this? Can’t he just sing with some anthropomorphized animals already?
Julianne: It’s an incredibly upsetting scene—one that I am amazed the Disney animators would create and seem to have no concept of how horrifying it would be to their target audience. Quasimodo is an incredibly likable, sympathetic protagonist. Tom Hulce, the actor who voices Quasimodo, is fantastic. His voice is both light and playful, while maintaining a melancholic and despairing undertone. He has a delicate balance to maintain it, and he does it very well. He has our sympathies almost instantly, and having this happen to him is horrifying.
Kelly: The scene, while astonishingly brutal, does exactly what it is meant to by establishing a connection between Quasimodo and Esmeralda as she is the one who puts a stop to his torment, and further sympathizing Quasimodo to us by showing us his worst nightmare realized. He probably looks back at the earlier song “Out There” when Frollo warned him of the near-certain mass rejection awaiting him should he ever venture outside and thinks, “Sonofabitch, I really, really thought Frollo was exaggerating about all that. I … was wrong.”
Julianne: I am glad you mentioned the song “Out There” because I wanted to talk about that.
You brought up a good point in conversation yesterday that almost every Disney movie has this kind of song—this aspirational, “I want something more” song (e.g.,“Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, and “Just Around the Riverbend” from Pocahontas. It’s like they weren’t even trying anymore with obviously titled “When Will My Life Begin?” from 2010’s Tangled). However, I think this one stands out for being perhaps the saddest of them all.
Kelly: Yes, not many Disney songs have a somber call-and-response section with such lines as “Frollo: You are deformed”/”Quasimodo: I am deformed” and “Frollo: You are a monster”/”Quasimodo: “I am a monster.”
Julianne: Again, it’s hard to imagine little kids wanting to sing along with this. This is not Little Mermaid’s Ariel wanting to be human or Aladdin’s Jasmine wanting to pick the person she marries. I think Quasimodo’s song is especially melancholic because his aspirational desire is to simply go outside, maybe go for a walk and meet people, and not be chased by an angry mob.
Kelly: Which he kind of does, until, you know, the angry mob and the aforementioned public humiliation.
Julianne: Moving on, I also want to mention the portrayal of Esmeralda. She is by far the most erotic Disney character that has ever been drawn. Her voice is not a high-pitched Disney princess squeak, but is the low, raspy, Willis-Kutcher-seducing voice of Demi Moore. She also has a dance scene that, even though she is completely clothed, is not too far removed from the dance sequences of Showgirls (somewhere, and God knows where, Elizabeth Berkley’s bosoms began to tingle as she senses someone is talking about her, her epic performance in Showgirls, and her “dancing .”)
Kelly: One must imagine Demi Moore was only too happy to impart the pearls of wisdom she was learning for her future role in Striptease (1996), as they really seem to nail the pole dancing segment in the film.
We’ve now been reminded of Demi Moore’s infamously well-sculpted, circa 1996 body. Take a moment to re-adjust. Okay. Again, not to belabor the point, but there is a pole dancing scene in a Disney movie! Granted, it is an incredibly brief part of Esmeralda’s overall dance scene, but she grasps a soldier’s spear from the crowd, plants it on her stage, and robs the poor pole of its innocence.
Disney princesses are sometimes well-proportioned and busty, but I don’t often notice it. Her sensuality as a character left me assuming that many a young boy who sees this comes out of it a deeper-voiced, cigar-smoking, ass-slapping man.
Julianne: Actually, Esmeralda’s sensuality is the perfect springboard to talk about the song “Hellfire.” See, I said there’d be more on this later.
I now want to point out that this Disney movie has a song in which the villain sings that he will either rape the main female character or burn her at the stake, because his lust for her is driving him insane. As he sings the song, he sees a vision of her dancing in his fire, and although it is obvious that usually this fiery image is clothed, there are moments when that doesn’t so much seem to be the case.
Kelly: The difficult thing when it comes to talking about this movie is to avoid falling into the trap of only discussing the “not fit for G-rated” content of the film. For example, in response to the “Hellfire” scene the thing you want to talk about is the fiery apparition, whose clothing status is ill-defined at best. Or perhaps you want to focus on the Hellish, hooded figures who function as Frollo’s own judges. Either way, these are extremes for a Disney film. However, if we think of it as a film, and not just a Disney film, it is easier to realizes how astoundingly awesome that sequence is—both the music and the animation.
Julianne: I agree. It is one my favorite sequences in the movie, if not my favorite. It’s a toss-up between that and the prologue for my favorite scene. But, you’re right- the animation in that sequence is phenomenal, and it makes Frollo’s decsent into madness and his ultimate motivation to deal with Esmeralda readily apparent. He thinks if he either “has” her or kills her she will no longer be a threat to his moral well-being. Yet, I’m still wondering how that song got into a Disney film, but I’m being absolutely thrilled that it did. I especially like the pairing of this song with Quasimodo’s more chaste, innocent love song to Esmeralda called “Heaven’s Light.” It’s a fascinating contrast between Quasimodo’s love for her and Frollo’s crazed, violent lusting.
Kelly: How is a young child supposed to even understand what the villain is even singing about, when what he is singing about his maddening lust for a woman and his pledge to either rape or kill her? I’m sure many of the questions this song led kids to ask their parents led these parents to declare, fist raised to the sky and shaking in frustrated indignation, “Damn you, Disney.”
Julianne: I also want to talk about the romance that develops between Phoebus and Esmeralda.
That is a very delicate balance that I think Disney pulls off well, because it feels both lovely and tragic. Phoebus is a more difficult character to portray that you would think. Kevin Kline is great in this role, because if it is played as a more traditional, Disney leading man character, then the sting of Esmeralda choosing him over Quasimodo-and it does sting-would feel more like a deal breaker and point at which many decided they did not like the movie. But Kline portrays him as likable, self-effacing, principled, and willing to risk his life for the gypsies that are inspiring Frollo’s ire.
Kelly: However, since she is choosing him over our beleaguered protagonist, Quasimodo, he damn well better sound like Kevn Kline or someone similarly likable. And as it turns out, he does.
Julianne: This movie also has, for a Disney film, a fair amount of black humor—such as the scene in which an elderly man is freed from a cage only to trip and fall into a stockade, a development to which he responds with a comedically exasperated “Dang-it!” Also, while Frollo burns down (Wait! Let me finish.) the city of Paris (Actually, the waiting didn’t make it any better, did it?) one of the gargoyles (voiced by the young people’s favorite George Costanza aka Jason Alexander) sings a song called “A Guy Like You” in an attempt to convince Quasimodo that Esmeralda is in love with him. In the song, he references that the city of lovers is aglow, because it’s on fire. These are pretty dark jokes for a Disney film.
Kelly: Yeah, somewhat Emperor Nero style, they sing as the city burns.
Julianne: Beyond the joking reference to the burning city around them in “A Guy Like You”, the song is mostly bright and cheery, but, again, that is on the surface. The song is ultimately poignant and tragic because the audiences knows Quasimodo’s love is unrequited, and are quickly proven correct as Quasimodo has to watch Esmeralda and Phoebus make out like there is no tomorrow.
Kelly: Of course, this occurs after Frollo has straight up attempted to burn an entire family inside their house as punishment for having given refuge to the filthy gypsies. Moreover, Frollo would have gotten away with it too, were it not for that meddling Phoebues, who takes it upon himself to rescue them. Even then, though, Frollo does succeed in burning down and destroying this poor family’s house. You know, it’s kind of, “Yay! We’re alive! (pause) Where do we sleep tonight?”
Julianne: A lot of the criticism of this movie relates to the uneasy blending of the child humor (mostly supplied by the gargolyes, and to a lesser extent Esmeralda’s pet goat) and the real darkness and tragedy at the heart of the story. However, I think if you just read about this criticism and then watch the film, you’ll be surprised by how little screen time they actually have. The gargoyles are a very small part of this movie.
Kelly: I agree. And, there is a strong argument to be made that they are in fact simply stone gargoyles Quasimodo imagines conversing with him. Thus, we are presented with a Disney protagonist whose mental well-being is maintained by escaping into a Disney type fantasy world in which typical Disney sidekicks sing and crack wise with him, meaning even the childish content ultimately has a tragic subtext.
Julianne: Did Disney really expect families to watch Hunchback over and over again the way they had with previous Disney films? “On the seventh viewing, little Timmy finally understood what ‘Hellfire’ was about, and boy did he cry for a long time after that. Good times.”
Kelly: Failure to completely reach their target audience aside, I am altogether thrilled that Disney did make this film because for all of the jokes we have made here Hunchback of Notre Dame makes for a surprisingly moving viewing experience.
Julianne: Definitely. However, considering that Disney’s next animated film was the almost unbearably bright and chipper Hercules (1997), which plays almost as though Disney had an autoimmune disorder response to the public’s reaction to Hunchback, I’m not so sure Disney saw it that way.
Kelly: Case in point, Hercules‘ villain is Hades, the freakin’ Greek god of the underworld, and he seems positively tame in comparison to Frollo in Hunchback.
Julianne: I totally see why this film horrified me as a kid, but watching it now (at the hopefully more mature age of 28), this movie seems to be one of Disney’s unsung masterpieces. Kelly, since it took me singing this movie’s praises until you were bleeding from both ears (for which I gave you a tissue, by the way), do you now understand why I was so insistent you watch it?
Kelly: I fear that if I answer truthfully I’ll only embolden you and your oddly insistent, albeit well-meaning efforts to dictate my viewing habits, but you have earned this one: I loved this movie. I genuinely do not know what the cut-off age is for “too young to see it” and “old enough to see it,” but I was mature enough to see it at 30, as well I should be by this point. So, should we watch the direct-to-DVD sequel now?
Julianne: Don’t even joke about that. But let us go out on a positive note with Esmerelda’s gorgeous, showcase song, “God Help the Outcasts”
Kelly: In an alternate universe, this song is as much of a Broadway standard as Into the Woods‘ “No One is Alone” is in our universe.
What do you think? Are we overreacting to the not-fit-for-G-rating content of the film? Do you have a funny story about maybe seeing and being horrified of the film as a child? Does Esmerelda give you the same odd “…but she’s a cartoon, and what a cartoon!” feeling as Jessica Rabbit (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit) once did? Can you not believe how much we failed to cover? Let us have it in the comments section.
If you are curious for more information about the Hunchback of the Notre Dame, and not necessarily just the Disney film, please visit: http://www.thehunchblog.com/
- Rialto Chatter: Bob Crowley Joining ALADDIN Team & Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Moving Forward (broadwayworld.com)
- The Saddest Moments From Kids Movies (mix941fm.cbslocal.com)