Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) - ★★★★½

Director: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Writers: Victor Hugo (Novel)
Voices: Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, Tony Jay, Kevin Kline, Jason Alexander, Paul Kandel, Charles Kimbrough, David Ogden Stiers

Of all the movies I've seen on my Disney Blogathon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the biggest surprise of all. It truly is one of the most beautiful animated features ever created. I was in complete awe of the meticulously detailed, gorgeous animation of the city of Paris, the characters that wandered the streets, the 3D bells and shots of Notre Dame, and the stunning angles and techniques that occur scene by scene. The music that encompass this film sends chills down my spine, for it has such a mature, haunting sound, which suits this tale of oppression and longing to perfection. I was surprised mostly because this film used to make me upset as a child, but as an adult, I noticed masterful aspects that I hadn't seen before. This is honestly one of the most underrated movies of all time.

A physically deformed 20-year-old man named Quasimodo lives in the bell towers of Notre Dame, where he spends every single day in recluse, hiding from the public who he was told would revile at his presence. The man who convinces him to stay up there is Judge Claude Frollo, who killed Quasimodo's gypsy mother, but kept him to save his own soul from damnation. All Quasimodo wants in the world is to stop watching life pass him by, and be out there with the people. This is one of the riskiest, most mature films Disney ever made.

One of the greatest things about The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the beautiful way in which they developed Quasimodo's character. His story is one of the most touching tales in the history of literature, which makes adapting it into a "family" movie an extremely difficult feat. Yet, Trousdale and Wise made it such a spectacular animated feature film. I credit a lot of this to the fact that they made the audience truly feel for Quasimodo, who was belittled and lied to his whole life. The hope, powerful emotion, and pure beauty within this poor man reminds me of David Lynch's 'The Elephant Man' (1980), which is what makes it so emotionally effective.  

Judge Claude Frollo is one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema. Once again, Disney took so many risks in adapting this character. There is so much depth within this horrible man. They don't just stop at evil, they delve into sexual desire too... which is something this movie does better than any other animated film. While other villains have a comical side to them, Frollo is purely contemptible. The intelligence and cunning schemes of Frollo, along with the horrific way  he inflicts punishments on gypsies and Quasimodo, makes him one of the most memorable, despicable villains I've ever seen. I said "what the fuck?" when he sniffed Esmerelda's hair... that was a shocking, yet amazing scene. It was then I realised I was watching a Disney film like no other. It's probably more suited for adults than children, and I love that. 

Esmerelda is one of my favourite women from Disney films. She's smart, talented, and a beautiful person on the inside. The moment she helped Quasimodo at the festival of fools, when no one else would, was truly beautiful. Then she stood up for him and all the outcasts, looking straight at Frollo with passionate and fearless eyes. She's such an empowering female character for young girls to look up to, (even if she dances seductively to put bread on the table). 

Hugo, Victor, and Laverne. The mentors/conscience of Quasimodo.
I realised something this time around. Quasimodo's statue friends are most likely just figments of his imagination. Being locked up in Notre Dame all his life, with no company other than Frollo, would make anyone lose their marbles a bit. It's like he injected his inner most thoughts into these three statues. Hugo was his sense of humour and pleasure, being funny and impulsive. Victor was his sense of calmness and caring. Laverne, most importantly, represented the wiseness and good nature within him. The three of them together make up the beauty which is Quasimodo, who always seems to make the right choices after consulting with the statues. This is one of the most clever things I've seen in a Disney film, one that I never noticed until now. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the second most visually beautiful animated film I've ever seen from Disney, behind Beauty and the Beast (1991). Now that is a huge feat to have accomplished! Like I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the style and attention to detail that went into animating this tale is awe-inspiring. 

Perhaps the greatest thing about this film is its music, which ranks up there with the greatest in the history of movie scores and musicals. Alan Menken is the genius composer behind many of the gorgeous scores from the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999). The Hunchback of Notre Dame's powerful score sends chills down my spine, for it contains such strong emotions that encapsulates the history in which it represents. It's up there with the greatest ever to come from Disney. 

As for the songs, this movie truly is one of the all time greats. For starters, the introduction of the film is a song from a gypsy man called "The Bells of Notre Dame." It's such an exquisite, perfectly executed sequence that one would only expect from a masterpiece of cinema. Then there is the hopeful, emotional "Out There," sung by Quasimodo, which is such a truly touching sequence. My favourite song was "God Help the Outcasts," sung by Esmerelda. When the praying people in the cathedral sang with pleading voices, I got serious chills. It has such a beautiful message too. Then of course, one of the greatest songs sung by a villain is "Hellfire," where Frollo felt inner-conflict and fear for his soul over his sexual desire for Esmerelda. All of these songs are outstanding, and raise this film to a level higher than most animated movies. 

Even after all my praise, I can't in good conscience give this film a perfect score. For such a mature story, there was no need for juvenile laughs and cheesy Disney cliches. If I could change a couple things about this film, it would be to take away all remnants of children's humour, and instead leave the film with the powerful tone in which it set at the start of the film. Also, I'd scrap the cheesy ending and leave it with the realism and emotion which I had come to expect from the film. With this being said, the childish moments were few and far between, which is why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a near-perfect movie.

I treasure this film as if it were my own child. It only scored a 6.8/10 on the IMDB (International Movie Data Base), which is an outrage. I'd give it a 9 to 9.5/10. The animation and music alone warrants it the title of one of the greatest animated movies of all time. The character development, beautiful messages, and emotional impact within is what sets it apart from all others. It may be one of the most underrated movies of all time, but it has made a huge fan out of me. Here's looking at you, Quasimodo.


  1. Very good review Ben! It is one of the best animations of Disney. It very much looks like the original stage musical, which is good, cause they are awesome.

    1. I'm glad you agree Nika. I'd kill to see the stage musical :(

    2. I've seen the musical in French, but I don't speak French, at all. It was really weird, but I enjoyed it emotionally.

    3. I'm sure the pure power in the emotions of the actors would convey anything that needed to be said. Watching their expressions and listening to the music would be enough for me :)