Steve’s Wonderful Reviews of Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Release Date: June 21st, 1996

Inspiration: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo

Budget: $100 million

Domestic Gross: $100.1 million

Worldwide Gross: $325.3 million

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%

IMDB Score: 6.9/10

Storyline (per IMDB): In 15th-century Paris, Clopin the puppeteer tells the story of Quasimodo, the misshapen but gentle-souled bell ringer of Notre Dame, who was nearly killed as a baby by Claude Frollo, the Minister of Justice. But Frollo was forced by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame to raise Quasimodo as his own. Now a young man, Quasimodo is hidden from the world by Frollo in the belltower of the cathedral. But during the Festival of Fools, Quasimodo, cheered on by his gargoyle friends Victor, Hugo, and Laverne, decides to take part in the festivities, where he meets the lovely gypsy girl Esmeralda and the handsome soldier Phoebus. The three of them find themselves ranged against Frollo’s cruelty and his attempts to destroy the home of the gypsies, the Court of Miracles. And Quasimodo must desperately defend both Esmeralda and the very cathedral of Notre Dame.

Pre-Watching Thoughts: We now come to an interesting stretch here in the Disney canon as from now until the Princess and the Frog, I have not seen any of these films aside from one which we will get to eventually. This is another film that has gained a bit of a cult following as it wasn’t majorly successful when it first came out, but the years have seemed to be more kind to it and some consider it one of the best. Once again, I have never seen this film so hopefully it will end up being a good film though it does seem like the peak of the Disney Renaissance has passed and we will go downhill from here.

Voice Cast: After the last few films of having mostly a new cast and only maybe one or two returning actors, this one sees quite a number of returning actors though the cast is also quite larger than the last couple of films. We start off the returning actors with Tony Jay who voices Judge Claude Frollo in arguably one of the biggest roles of his career, and then we have David Ogden Stiers who voices the Archdeacon as he was becoming a constant figure in the Disney films. We then have Frank Welker who voices Djali the goat as well as a baby bird and then we have Corey Burton who voices one of the guards as well as the miller whose house is burned by Frollo, and then we have Mary Kay Bergman who voices Quasimodo’s mother and we have Jim Cummings who voices one of Frollo’s soldiers as well as one of the gypsies. We then have Bob Bergen who voices Achilles the horse and finally we have Patrick Pinney and Phillip Proctor who voices Frollo’s guards as well as the gypsies. Moving onto the newcomers, we start off with Tom Hulce who voices Quasimodo in perhaps his second biggest role behind playing Mozart in the film “Amadeus”, and then we have Demi Moore who voices Esmerelda as she was in the prime of her career at this point and we have Heidi Mollenhauer who provides her singing voice. Next, we have Kevin Kline who voices Capt. Phoebus as he was also hitting the prime of his career at this point, and then we have Paul Kandel who voices Clopin Trouillefou in what would be one of his only film roles in his career. We then have the trio of Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Mary Wickes as the gargoyles Victor, Hugo, and Laverne as this would be Wickes’ final film role and she passed away a year before the film was released, and then we have Bill Fagerbakke who voices one of the guards though he would voice a more known character in a few years and finally we have Gary Trousdale who voices the Old Heretic in a minor role. It is weird to see the cast back to being balanced between newcomers and returning actors, and again we will see how that plays out going forward.

Hero/Prince: We have another pair of heroes to talk about here and that is both the hunchback known as Quasimodo as well as Phoebus who is the captain of the guard. We first meet Quasimodo when he is a baby and his mother tries to sneak into Paris along with other gypsies, and they are caught by Frollo who kills Quasimodo’s mother and attempts to kill him only for the Archdeacon to guilt him into raising him as his own. He grows up in the Notre Dame cathedral where he rings the bells everyday while Frollo continues to raise him, but he continuously calls him ugly and that society would shun him though Quasimodo longs to spend a day outside the cathedral. During the Festival of Fools, he sneaks out to attend where he meets Esmerelda and is crowned the King of Fools, but he is then ridiculed by Frollo’s guards until Esmerelda protects him. It is here we meet Phoebus who meets Esmerelda in the cathedral and protects her from Frollo, and Quasimodo helps Esmerelda escape the cathedral and Frollo has Phoebus lead a search for her though he defies Frollo’s orders to burn down a home. Frollo does it himself and Phoebus saves the family which leads Frollo’s soldiers to attempt to kill him though Esmerelda saves him, and she brings him to the tower where Quasimodo realizes Phoebus loves Esmerelda much to his dismay. He protects Phoebus from Frollo and they become friends as they find the Court of Miracles, but Frollo follows them and has Quasimodo imprisoned in the cathedral while keeping Phoebus locked up. Quasimodo escapes and saves Esmerelda as he brings her back to the cathedral and Phoebus leads the city in an uprising against Frollo, and Frollo attempts to kill Quasimodo only for Quasimodo to finally fight back against Frollo. Frollo chases them onto the balcony and nearly kills them only to fall to his death, and Quasimodo is saved by Phoebus and he is accepted by the city while Phoebus and Esmerelda fall in love. Quasimodo is a classic example of someone who you can’t judge based on his appearance as he does have a kind soul, but years of being put down by Frollo has taken a toll on him until he finally has had enough and rebels. Phoebus is also someone who looks like a tough solider, but he is also kind and has mercy for the downtrodden as he openly defies Frollo and he sides with the gypsies and Quasimodo. Quasimodo does a slight moment of hopelessness when Esmerelda and the gypsies are captured, but he overcomes it and is lauded as a hero by the people of Paris. It will be interesting to see where these two rank amongst the other heroes, but they are still good heroes for the film and Quasimodo is someone that everyone can identify with at some point.

Princess: After a solid run of well-known princesses in the Disney canon, we come to a character that is not technically a princess and is a gypsy though she does deserve some recognition and that is Esmerelda. She is first seen on the streets performing for money and she performs in the Festival of Fools, and she meets Quasimodo and assists him when he is being ridiculed despite Frollo’s objections and she defies him. She avoids his guards and takes sanctuary in the cathedral where she meets Phoebus who is entranced by her, but Frollo sends him away and warns her that he will kill her if she leaves the cathedral. She reunites with Quasimodo and he shows her around the cathedral before helping her escape, and she remains undercover before saving Phoebus when he is nearly killed by Frollo and his men. She takes him to the cathedral where Quasimodo looks after him and she heads to the Court of Miracles, and Quasimodo and Phoebus go there as well only for Frollo to have followed them and he has all the gypsies arrested along with Esmerelda and Phoebus. He has Esmerelda set to be burned at the stake though he offers her to be his wife to save her though she refuses, and he sets the stake on fire only for Quasimodo to save her and bring her into the cathedral. Frollo chases them onto the balcony and attempts to kill them only to fall to his death, and Esmerelda is reunited with Phoebus and Quasimodo gives them his blessing. Esmerelda is a kind woman who sympathizes with Quasimodo and she is initially cold towards Phoebus, but her opinion of him changes when he saves a family from being killed by Frollo and she in turn saves him as well. As mentioned, she is not a princess in the sense of the term but I felt it necessary to mention her, however she will more than likely not rank amongst the other princesses simply because she is not a princess.

Villain: When it comes to the Disney villains, there are some that are somewhat likeable and for a brief moment you can even sympathize with them to a certain extent, but there is perhaps no villain that is the personification of evil and that is Judge Claude Frollo. He is the Minister of Justice in Paris and has a personal mission to rid the city of gypsies, and he chases one of them who he believes is stealing goods and he kicks her to her death on the steps of Notre Dame. He realizes she was carrying a baby and is appalled by its deformities to the point that he tries to throw the baby into a well, but the Archdeacon stops him and guilts him into raising the child as his own. Frollo agrees and names the child Quasimodo who is kept in the cathedral and serves as the bell ringer, and Frollo makes Quasimodo believe that he is a monster and would be shunned by society as he claims his mother abandoned him. During the Festival of Fools, Quasimodo sneaks out and is crowned King of Fools though he is quickly ridiculed by the crowd, and Frollo refuses to help him until Esmerelda does and he calls for her arrest though she takes sanctuary in the cathedral. He tells Esmerelda that he will kill her if she escapes and she does end up escaping thanks to Quasimodo, and Frollo literally leaves Paris in flames looking for her which causes Phoebus to defy him when he saves a family that Frollo attempted to kill. He eventually tricks Quasimodo into leading him to the Court of Miracles where he has all the gypsies arrested, and he sentences Esmerelda to be burned at the stake unless she agrees to be his wife which she refuses. After Quasimodo saves Esmerelda and brings her to the cathedral, Frollo breaks into the cathedral while Phoebus raises the townspeople into rebellion, and Frollo attempts to kill Quasimodo who fights back and finally stands up to Frollo. Frollo chases Quasimodo and Esmerelda onto the balcony where he admits that he killed Quasimodo’s mother, and he is ready to kill both of them only for the gargoyle he is standing on to break and he falls to his death. Frollo is an interesting character in that everything he does is evil and he cares nothing about the people of Paris, but in his heart he truly believes that he is doing the work of God and the world is full of corruption in his twisted mind. He claims no responsibility in killing Quasimodo’s mother in cold blood and only agrees to raise Quasimodo to save his own soul, and he has a personal vendetta against gypsies and looks to eradicate the entire gypsy race. He harbors lustful feelings towards Esmerelda though she would clearly rather die than side with him, and Frollo has no sympathy towards anyone as he tries to kill a family he believes has harbored gypsies before and only Phoebus defying him leads to their survival. There is no question that Frollo is one of the most memorable villains in Disney history and by far one of the worst, and it will be interesting to see where he ranks against the more well-publicized villains because his villainy ranks up there as one of the worst in Disney history.

Other Characters: Once again, on the surface it would seem like that there are a lot of other characters to talk about, but much like other films the majority of the characters we see are mainly used to fill in the background. We do have some important characters to talk about and we start with the gargoyles Victor, Hugo, and Laverne who are Quasimodo’s friends, and they encourage him to go out to the Festival of Fools and then they are behind him when they think he and Esmerelda are an item. After Quasimodo is chained up by Frollo’s men and he appears to have given up, they go back to stone though he eventually breaks free and brings Esmerelda to the cathedral, and they help him keep the guards out of the cathedral and they celebrate when he is accepted by the people. We then have the Archdeacon of the cathedral who is far more kind and caring than Frollo, and after Frollo kills Quasimodo’s mother and tries to kill him the Archdeacon tells him he must raise the child to atone for his sins. He welcomes any of the gypsies including Esmerelda who look for sanctuary much to Frollo’s chagrin, and things come to a head when Frollo shoves him away when he goes to confront Quasimodo and Esmerelda. We then have Clopin Trouillefou who is the puppeteer at the beginning of the film and he tells the story of Quasimodo, and we also see him at the Festival of Fools where he crowns Quasimodo the King of Fools and we finally see him as the leader of the gypsies in the Court of Miracles. We then have Djali, Esmerelda’s pet goat who is fiercely loyal to her and he distrusts Phoebus at first when he tries to become friendly with Esmerelda, and he stays by Esmerelda’s side through the end and he finally accepts Phoebus at the end. Finally, we have the various citizens of Paris including the gypsies who are constantly being prosecuted by Frollo and his soldiers, and the citizens finally rise up against Frollo and they accept Quasimodo as one of their own. It has become more of a pattern that there are some minor characters and then there are just crowds to fill out the scenes, and we will see how that continues to play out over the years.

Songs: I’m sure that when Victor Hugo wrote this novel, I don’t think he ever expected it not only to be made into an animated film, but also as a musical film as well and this film actually has more songs in it than a lot of the other films from the Disney Renaissance. The first song in the film is “The Bells of Notre Dame” which is sung by Clopin as he begins it as a story, and it serves to act as the prologue of the film as well and sets the scene for what is to come in the film. Next, we have the song “Out There” which is first sung by Frollo before being taken over by Quasimodo, and it is an interesting song as Frollo tells Quasimodo to stay inside where he belongs and Quasimodo dreams about being out of the cathedral in what ends up being a powerful song. We then have the song “Topsy-Turvy” which is sung during the Festival of Fools and it is a fun song fitting of the festival, and then we have the ballad “God Help the Outcasts” sung by Esmerelda as she prays for God to help her and the other gypsies in another powerful song. We then have a dual song as Quasimodo sings “Heaven’s Light” to reflect his love for Esmerelda while Frollo sings “Hellfire” as he laments over his lust for Esmerelda and it is a reflection of how the two men view Esmerelda. Next, we have “A Guy Like You” sung by the gargoyles as they do their best to assure Quasimodo that Esmerelda loves him in a fun song, and finally we have “The Court of Miracles” sung by the gypsies when Quasimodo and Phoebus enters it though it does feel a bit tagged on at the end here. I also want to call out the song “Someday” sung by the group All-4-You for the album as well as the pop version of “God Help the Outcasts” sung by Bette Midler, and these songs were complimented by a chorus who made everything feel much bigger.

Plot: After a brief hiatus with the last film being based on a historical figure as opposed to a novel, we return to that here as this film is based off a classic novel. I’m sure when most people think of Victor Hugo, they first think of Les Misérables which is probably his more famous work though Hunchback was just as popular and one you wouldn’t think would merit an animated film if you read it. The film begins with a group of gypsies trying to sneak into Paris though Frollo stops them and chases after one he thinks has stolen goods, and she tries to get into Notre Dame cathedral for sanctuary only for Frollo to kick her down onto the steps which kills her. He finds a deformed baby and attempts to throw it into a well only for the Archdeacon to stop him and he tells Frollo he must raise the child to atone for his sins, and Frollo names the child Quasimodo and has him live in the cathedral by serving as the bell ringer. Quasimodo longs to spend a day with the townspeople and he sneaks out to take part in the Festival of Fools, but he is ridiculed by the people until the gypsy Esmerelda saves him and takes sanctuary in the cathedral when Frollo tries to have her arrested. Quasimodo helps Esmerelda escape the cathedral and Frollo issues a search for her which includes arresting numerous gypsies, and he even tries to kill a family he feels is housing gypsies only for Captain Phoebus to save them and he is nearly killed by Frollo. Esmerelda saves him and brings him to the cathedral where Quasimodo looks after him, and then they meet Esmerelda in the Court of Miracles only for Frollo to follow them and he has all of them arrested. He attempts to burn Esmerelda at the stake only for Quasimodo to save her while Phoebus raises a rebellion against Frollo, and Frollo chases Quasimodo and Esmerelda onto the balcony and attempts to kill them only to fall to his death. Quasimodo gives his blessing to Phoebus and Esmerelda while also being accepted by the people who hail him a hero. Obviously, anyone who has read the novel knows that the film adaptation is far different from the dark tones that the novel had, and it is funny that the film is still considered one of the more darker films in the Disney canon mainly due to the mature themes it looks at. In a way, it is always good to have a film that does tackle these issues and appeal to more than just children, but obviously the main audience was going to be kids and they kept it light enough to appeal to them.

Random Watching Thoughts: A bit of an ominous beginning here with the chanting and the ringing of the bells; Instead of a storybook beginning, we get a puppeteer telling the story to some kids; A key note is the line that Frollo saw corruption from everywhere expect within yet he was the most corrupt of all; Probably the most senseless killing of all with Frollo mercilessly kicking the gypsy onto the ground, and then he tries to drown the baby thinking it is a monster; These first few minutes do a good job in establishing Frollo as a cold, heartless, and ruthless man who sees himself as divine, and he relieves himself of guilt for killing an innocent woman and claims his conscience is clear; The statues looking like they are staring deep into Frollo’s soul, if he even has one; Quasimodo means “half-formed”; Who is the monster and who is the man?; Of all the places to build a nest, the bird would do it in a gargoyle’s mouth; It is never really explained how Victor, Hugo, and Laverne came to be able to come to life; I wonder how many people realized that the gargoyles were named Victor and Hugo as a tribute to Victor Hugo; Those pigeons just won’t leave Laverne alone; The Festival of Fools has quite the array of activities to do; So according to Hugo, all humans have flesh, hair, and navel lint; Is it really better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission?; He’s all ready to go and of course it would be when Frollo showed up; So the gargoyles only come to life when Quasimodo is alone; I’m surprised they were allowed to say “damnation” in a Disney film; Frollo has told Quasimodo that his mother abandoned him and anyone else would’ve drowned him, talk about cruel; Frollo says he is trying to protect him yet he constantly puts him down by calling him ugly and a monster; I never realized how tall the cathedral really is; Quasimodo says he’ll be content with just one day amongst the normal people, but you know he would want more if he did; Phoebus says it’s been decades since he was last in Paris, but he doesn’t look that old; Considering all the wars and conflicts going on during the time this film is set, it is hard to pinpoint which wars Phoebus was returning from; It would be interesting to note what led Frollo to have this unbridled hatred to the gypsies; In a personal anecdote, when I was a senior in high school my choir went to Disney World for our bi-yearly trip and we did a special workshop which included singing some songs, and two of the songs we sang were “Topsy-Turvy” and “God Help the Outcasts”; There was a bit of controversy with the casting of Demi Moore as Esmerelda since she had last appeared as a stripper in the infamous film “Striptease”, especially seeing Esmerelda dance during the Festival; I wonder if Djali’s head gets sore from knocking all those guys off the stage; If there’s one thing Disney usually gets right, it’s these big musical numbers; It’s one thing to crown him because they think he’s ugly, but tying him down and spinning him around is going too far as they are now treating him like an animal; The guards must’ve been dumb to think the crowd would catch them like they did Esmerelda; That poor old man goes from being locked in a cage to falling into the stocks; It’s doesn’t speak too good of these soldiers if they are being easily defeated by a gypsy; I looked it up and while Apollo was technically the god of the sun in Greek mythology, he was also known as Phoebus; Frollo doesn’t seem like the kind of person that would respect the sanctity of the church; It is interesting during “God, Help the Outcasts” that others are praying for wealth, fame, and love while Esmerelda prays for the protection of the gypsies; The gargoyles think Esmerelda is chasing Quasimodo out of love while he is trying to avoid being seen; Quasimodo is pretty good at building stuff; Quasimodo has gotten so used to being by himself that he actually named all the bells in the tower; It’s so sad that Quasimodo looks to Frollo as a father figure despite how cruel and careless Frollo is towards him; What are the gargoyles doing with money?; Well, that’s certainly one way to climb down the cathedral; Quasimodo rattles off all the things he has to do yet completely casts them aside after Esmerelda kisses him; I believe this is the first time we’ve had two songs contradict each other like “Heaven’s Light” and “Hellfire” as Quasimodo has a genuine love for Esmerelda while Frollo develops lust for her; I love having the choir in the back during some of the songs as it makes it feel more intense; Frollo must really believe the gypsies would sell Esmerelda out for some silver; Phoebus shows his true character by saving the family from the fire and he has no reservations of being killed because he stuck to his morals; That arrow hit him in the shoulder and didn’t look like it went it too deep, yet somehow it nearly hit his heart; Wouldn’t King Louis XII take some issue with his Minister of Justice in essence burning Paris to the ground just to find one gypsy?; Victor and Laverne are lamenting the burning of Paris while Hugo complains about losing to a bird in poker; Victor tells them to remain stone-faced yet he is the one to crack; Hugo uses the fires burning Paris to cook a hotdog; These gargoyles could be great motivational speakers with how they pump up Quasimodo like they do; He thinks she’s going to give him a drink only for her to use the wine to clean the wound; He guesses it’s a 1470 Burgundy just by her pouring it onto his wound; What year would he have preferred, a 1485?; Not the best place to hide a wounded Phoebus; He brought a whole basket with him just to pull out a thing of grapes; It would be like Frollo to put the burning of Paris on Quasimodo’s shoulders; I’m sure Quasimodo was trying to be friendly when he slapped Phoebus on the back, but he didn’t have to hit him so hard especially since that’s where the wound is; It is a bit creepy that the Court of Miracles’ entrance would be in a graveyard; You wanted an ambush Phoebus, well you got one; They are really making the Court of Miracles seem like a sinister place; Again, Frollo making Quasimodo like he was helping him all along and calling back to when he said that Quasimodo would be of some use to him at some point; Considering that Frollo had the city in flames at one point, you would think the citizens would finally rally against him instead of just watch on as Esmerelda is burned; Clearly Esmerelda would rather burn than be by Frollo’s side; These climatic scenes with the imagery and the music is honestly one of the best that Disney has done to this point; Even after dropping a brick on a soldier’s head, Victor has to apologize for it; The old man is freed from the stocks only to fall into a sewer; I think one of the soldiers made the Goofy laugh as he fell into the river; They make a makeshift catapult only to drop it onto the ground though it somehow still works; We get a “Wizard of Oz” reference as Laverne sends the birds out to get the soldiers; That’s a lot of molten lead that came out of the cauldron onto the streets; Quasimodo was so happy that he protected the cathedral only to fall into despair when he believed Esmerelda was dead; That would’ve been bad if Quasimodo wasn’t able to see Frollo’s shadow and realize he was ready to kill him; Now Frollo is destroying a house of worship which is completely illegal; “And He shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit”, a fitting final line for Frollo as the gargoyle he’s standing on breaks and turns into a demon before breaking off and sending Frollo straight to Hell where he belongs; That was some good luck that Phoebus happened to make it into the cathedral and be somewhere to catch Quasimodo and save him; Nice touch having a young child come up to Quasimodo and embrace him; Quasimodo mentioned about being called a hero like it would never happen, and sure enough he is hailed a hero and accepted by the citizens; We go back to the question asked earlier of “Who is the monster and who is the man”, and everyone now knows the true answer; Had to get one more gag with Laverne and the birds as we fade out.

Overall Thoughts: Overall, this was a surprisingly fun film and was a lot better than I had ever thought it would be. There was a general feeling that the Disney Renaissance had reached its peak with the Lion King and was on a downward trend, but honestly between Pocahontas and this film they were still on a good roll with some good films. While these last two films haven’t been perfect like the three that came before them, they are still pretty good films and hold up pretty well even against some of the classic films of the past. The 1990s have been a good decade for Disney to this point and we will see how the last few films of the decade manage to hold up. As for this film, it is a really good film and still holds up today as it may be one of the more underrated films in the Disney canon.

Final Grade: 8/10

Author: Steve Riddle

I have been a wrestling fan since 1993 and that is probably my biggest love, with movies being a close second due in part to being employed at a movie theater for over 9 years.