Many Disney animated classics have retained immense relevance in the years since their release. Films like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid have a timeless quality that has led to multiple generations growing up with them as though each movie had just come out. One production that Disney made in 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, hasn’t enjoyed this same level of mainstream permanence. It’s a shame, as it’s undoubtedly one of the bravest and best movies that Disney has ever made. So now, on January 6 — the day that the picture’s “Feast of Fools” takes place — I’d like to shine some light on one of my very favorite films and a truly underrated Disney classic.
Right from the get-go, Hunchback tells you that it’s something special, as “The Bells of Notre Dame” is one of Disney’s finest opening songs. Framed in the form of a tale told by street performer Clopin, the tragic backstory of the titular Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo, is given brilliantly. The most truly fearsome villain in Disney’s catalog, Judge Claude Frollo, is established as an unrepentant and bigoted religious sycophant in mere minutes. I mean, within the first five minutes of the film, we see him try to drop a baby into a well right after killing his mother, and the only reason he doesn’t is that the Archdeacon tells him he’ll go to Hell. You won’t get that in Frozen.
I could write entire paragraphs about each song, as the combination of acclaimed Disney legend Alan Menken and the similarly revered Stephen Schwartz is simply exceptional. The collaboration stands with Menken/Howard Ashman and Menken/Tim Rice as some of the best scores Disney has had, perfectly capturing the darker and more dramatic tone of the film.
The sequence that best encapsulates this is the “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire,” which contrasts Quasimodo’s heavenly view of the Demi Moore-voiced Esmerelda with Frollo’s dark lust for her. “Hellfire,” in particular, is a musical number that I don’t remotely hesitate to call a masterpiece. It’s literally a song about the villain being desperately attracted to Esmerelda and deciding that if she won’t choose to be with him (the significantly older guy who is relentlessly persecuting her and her people), he’ll have to kill her. It’s very dark stuff.
The Latin chanting of “mea culpa” that implies Frollo knows his actions are wrong mixed with the expressive animation (which was inspected frame-by-frame by the animators to make sure it never surpassed a G-rating) make for one of the most terrifying, bold, and memorable sequences in any of the House of Mouse’s productions.
The fact that Disney was willing to portray aspects of Catholicism in such a negative light was shockingly daring for the company, and likely plays a part in the movie being less referenced than other Disney Renaissance classics, alongside the generally darker tone than that of movies like Mulan or Tarzan.
At the same time, Hunchback wasn’t against showing the positive aspects of religion alongside its dark side. Characters like the Archdeacon represent those who don’t simply use religion as an excuse for bigotry, while the song “God Help the Outcasts” is a beautiful meditation on how different people view and interact with religion for different reasons.
I’m not even an especially religious person at this point in my life, but as someone who was raised in a Catholic household, the song strikes me as an incredible examination of the different types of beliefs I would witness in my childhood years. Some people pray for themselves while some pray for others, with Esmerelda being established as a selfless and compassionate character.
In a similar vein, the story never shies away from showing both the intense darkness and the inspiring light that permeate every corner of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is the brightest aspect of the film, as the downtrodden and constantly belittled protagonist still sees the best in people and tries to help everyone he can. His entire song, “Out There,” is entirely about simply wanting to live among and be accepted by the regular people of France who he almost idolizes. There’s a purity to him that doesn’t feel out of place or unrealistic, as it ensures the story has a bright pillar that can be returned to in its darkest moments.
The majority of the main cast of characters excels, really. Phoebus, the gallant guard voiced by Kevin Kline, is a complete subversion of the character that exists in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback novel, which better serves this adaptation. He’s the only main character that doesn’t see Esmerelda as a demon or an angel, but rather as a person who deserves the same kindness as any other. The spirited Clopin — voiced by Paul Kandel — brings dark humor to various parts, at one point making head puns while singing about hanging Quasimodo and Phoebus as spies. It’s a truly wild Disney movie.
Also, I’m not one to say that films need to have morals or lessons in them, but I do admire the message of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo doesn’t end up with Esmerelda just because he’s the hero, but he doesn’t need to in order to be happy. Quasi is pleased that Phoebus and Esmerelda found each other and that he has them as friends, subverting the usual happy ending for one that recognizes that platonic companionship is every bit as valuable as the romantic sort. He’s accepted as a hero by the town for his actions against Frollo, and he goes on to be in an awful direct-to-video sequel that I consider about as real as The Return of Jafar.
Of course, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not without its faults. Though I loved them as a kid, the comic relief gargoyles certainly create some rather severe tonal dissonance throughout the film. Their song, “A Guy Like You,” is definitely the weakest one of the soundtrack, though the “we just thought maybe you were made of something stronger” moment linked above is at least a high point for the trio. Some of the early CGI in the crowd scenes is also very noticeable now, but that’s just a result of time going by.
With all this in mind, I highly recommend taking some time on this Topsy Turvy Day to give The Hunchback of Notre Dame a watch. With a live-action remake (titled Hunchback) reportedly on the horizon and a Hunchback-focused event recently coming to a close in the popular mobile game Disney Magic Kingdoms, perhaps the misunderstood classic is finally beginning to get its due from Disney. Either way, take today to watch the film that “puts the top in Topsy Turvy,” as even now, there’s nothing quite like it.