SUPERVERSIVE: Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Tuesday , 10, January 2017 1 Comment

I think I’m going to do a series on the Disney Renaissance. The logical starting point would be its beginning – which is semi-officially “The Little Mermaid”, but has seeds being laid as early as the underappreciated “The Great Mouse Detective” – but I had a lot of this written already. So, we start with “Hunchback”. When I compile my list I’ll put this one in chronological order..

So as was made clear, I am referring here not to the original Victor Hugo novel, which I have not read, but the Disney adaptation. I am of the opinion that if not for a couple of forehead-beating flaws “Hunchback” would be remembered as one of the greatest animated movies ever made.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was made right in the heart of what animation has come to know as the Disney Renaissance. Generally agreed to have started in 1989 with “The Little Mermaid” and ending in either 1998 with “Mulan” or 1999 with “Tarzan”. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” came out in 1996; at that point Disney was still in the midst of a run that was at least a couple of movies away from losing steam. As such, it gets judged in comparison with those brilliant films – and don’t think for a second that they’re not brilliant. Even the very worst film of the renaissance, “Pocahontas” (which bastardizes history so shamelessly that it’s hard for even me to defend – remember, these are real people we’re talking about, and real events), features a setting more interesting than nearly every modern animated film, oozes its own unique atmosphere, and features two of the best songs in the entire Disney canon. Its two best films, “Beauty of the Beast” and “The Lion King”, can be ranked as numbers 1 and 2 in the best animated movies of all time list, and you wouldn’t laugh at the ranking.

So “Hunchback’s” reputation suffers somewhat because of bad timing; were it made today, when Pixar’s game has slipped somewhat (not that the company can’t still hit the occasional home run) and Miyazaki’s retired output has slowed, I’d imagine that reviews of the film would be much better.

That’s not to say it isn’t a very flawed film in a lot of ways. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is an incredibly frustrating movie. The score is just marvelous. “Out There”, “Hellfire” and “God Help the Outcasts” are all classics. “Out There” is the most typical of the songs, fitting neatly alongside crowd pleasers like “Part of your World” and “I Can Go the Distance”, but “Hellfire” is probably the darkest song Disney has ever produced, a chilling villain song by Frollo brilliantly expressing the conflict between his desire for redemption and his lust for Esmeralda. It’s the powerful counterpoint with the Confeitor yhat cements its classic status, contrasting Frollo’s attempts to rationalize his evil with the monks condemnation of his sins.

“God Help the Outcasts”, however ranks among my favorite songs in the Disney canon. The beautiful piece doesn’t fit into any other Disney movie; in fact, it is very nearly a hymn. Outside of a section taking unnecessary potshots at churchgoers (who in my experience tend to be more humble than otherwise) it’s almost flawless. Introducing the female love interest not with a crowd-pleaser like “Out There” or an upbeat tune like “Frozen’s” “For the First Time in Forever” but with a quiet, understated prayer is practically unique in animation generally, let alone in Disney.

Most of the soundtrack is quite good. “The Bells of Notre Dame” suffers from some rather on the nose lyrics and comparisons to the superior opening song “Belle” from “Beauty and the Beast”, but it is a fine piece that effectively establishes the required exposition, major themes, and general musical style of the film. “Topsy Turvy” is a fun tune with a real zinger of an ending, and “The Court of Miracles” is a darkly funny and moody piece of work. While it has its missteps (which will be mentioned), it really is a great score.

So what happened? Where did it go wrong?

Okay. Read the plot summary on Infogalactic. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Done?

Okay. If you have never seen the film before, it probably looks like a dark and exciting adventure tale with themes of redemption and sacrifice.

If you HAVE watched the film, you read that summary and thought “Man, I wish I saw THAT movie”.

Nothing is inaccurate. It just presents a false picture of how the film actually felt. The problem with the film can be summed up in three words: Those Damn Gargoyles.

The gargoyles – the film’s plucky comic relief – can only be described as a misstep at every level. Their song “A Guy Like You” is a trainwreck, tonally a world apart not just from the rest of the soundtrack but from the entire rest of the movie (it was such a misfire that the Broadway version just cut it out entirely, and good for them). From a narrative perspective they brutally undercut the themes of Quasimodo’s loneliness and isolation. After all, they talk to him, are nice to him, build up his confidence, and generally are just like real people. Is Quasi really that lonely?

Obviously you can make a logical case why he’d desire the love of an actual human. It’s just that the presence of the gargoyles cheapens that plotline.

This is actually, though, just a symptom of the even bigger issue: Disney saw Quasimodo as the main character.

Quasimodo was the main character of the movie, but he should not have been. Nor should Esmeralda, Frollo, Phoebus, or anybody else. The main character should have been the Cathedral.

Disney comes tantalizingly close to seeing the potential here, but never quite figure it out. Supposedly the writers were concerned that Quasimodo had nobody to talk to in his scenes. This is because they were too focused on Quasimodo; if they had focused on the Cathedral as a character, they would have come far closer to hitting the mark. Much more powerful than Quasi talking to what amounts to funny looking people would have been Quasi talking to the Cathedral itself, and in answer hearing only the echoes in the rafters and the distant ringing of the bells. It would have been poignant, powerful, and it would have established the Cathedral as an entity in and of itself capable of influencing the characters.

We see over and over again the influence the Cathedral – as Quasimodo famously says, the Sanctuary – has on everybody’s lives, but it is never properly focused on, mostly because the times we should be focusing on it we focus on Quasimodo. This robs the – mostly powerful – ending of the film of emotional heft: Instead of the Cathedral itself coming alive and casting an evildoer down into the fires of Hell, one of our silly talking gargoyles gets mad. The effect works, but it would work even better if we had never seen a gargoyle come to life before (an extremely rare case of a Deus Ex Machina actually improving the story).

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a movie at war with itself: IS it a cutesy but lackluster children’s comedy or dark and captivating adventure drama? The film never picks an answer, and the result is a failure to both sides; it is a testament to the strength of that gripping adventure tale and wonderful score that the movie works at all.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a good movie. But it could have been a masterpiece. And that’s a shame.

One Comment
  • PCBushi says:

    Man, I don’t think I’ve seen this one since it came out. I’ll have to revisit it and reevaluate.

    By the way, since you bring up dark Disney songs, here’s an obscure and rather grim one from the Brave Little Toaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UfsEj7AOGI

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