Ranking Disney: #29 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I have an interesting history with this film. I’d never seen it until junior year of college, when some friends decided they really wanted to watch it. So, I sat with them, in my room, on Halloween night, 2008, watching this (before I went out and got shitfaced, but you know).
I remember watching it and thinking that it was okay, but was definitely not the classic Disney I remembered from when I was a kid. And in the three years between that night and when I saw it for these articles, my opinion of it went down considerably. I just didn’t remember it as a good film, and I was perfectly ready to put this very low on this list. Very low. I think I originally shortlisted it high-30s, and then at one point it was as low as like, 41. But the time came for me to actually watch it and find a specific place for it, and, I have to say — I was very surprised at how good this actually is.
I’m not sure why I didn’t think this was very good, but, after watching it again, I realize that my idea of the Disney Renaissance ending in 1995 wasn’t the case at all. (It ended in 2000.) This is a very solid film all-around, the the worst thing I can say about it is — why the hell isn’t it on Blu-ray yet?
The film begins with the ringing of the bells of Notre Dame and the song “The Bells of Notre Dame.” It’s a very powerful opening. Very operatic.
We pan down from the Notre Dame cathedral to Clopin, a puppeteer, narrating the story of “the mysterious bell ringer.”
We flash back to a bunch of gypsies trying to sneak into Paris and being caught by Judge Frollo. One of the gypsies makes a run for it, and Frollo chases her to the cathedral. She ends up hitting her head on the steps and dying and Frollo realizes she was carrying an infant child (one that is hideously deformed at that).
He considers throwing the child down a well, but the cathedral’s archdeacon tells him he cannot hide his actions from God. Frollo then agrees to raise the child as his own but tells the archdeacon to keep him in the church, locked up in the bell tower where no one can see him.
We then cut to twenty years later, as Quasiomodo is still locked up in the bell tower. His only friends are stone gargoyles that are magically living somehow. It is the day of the Festival of Fools, and Quasimodo so desperately wants to be down there but doesn’t want to upset Frollo, who has forbidden him to leave, telling him the world is cruel and will reject him (basically making Quasimodo dependent on him).
Meanwhile, down on the streets, Phoebus, new captain of Frollo’s guard, sees and falls in love with a gypsy, Esmerelda. He is then given orders by Frollo to capture the gypsies, whom Frollo considers bad influences on the pious citizens of Paris. He thinks the gypsies have a safe haven inside the walls of Paris, called the Court of Miracles. He wants Phoebus to find the court and destroy the gypsies.
Quasimodo then sneaks down from the tower to attend the festival. In disguise, naturally. He watches Esmerelda dance, and falls in love with her, just as Phoebus has.
He is then crowned the King of Fools, since the idea of the Festival of Fools is that everything is topsy-turvy. So the ugliest person is crowned King. Everyone recognizes him as the bell ringer and celebrates his crowning.
Only Frollo’s men act like assholes and throw tomatoes at Quasimodo. And then the crowd joins in, leading to that famous moment of Quasimodo tied by ropes, trying to become free.
Frollo allows it to happen, wanting Quasimodo to learn that he shouldn’t have left. Esmerelda, meanwhile, climbs atop the platform and comforts Quasimodo. Frollo tells her not to free Quasimodo, but she does anyway. He orders her arrest, and she escapes into the church, where she cannot be arrested. She even manages to get the best of Phoebus (temporarily), which only makes him even more attracted to her.
Frollo posts guards outside every door of the church, saying that if she steps one foot outside, she’ll be arrested. Inside, she meets Quasimodo, who came back into the cathedral, humiliated.
She sees all the things he does up in the bell tower and sees his humanity. She can’t understand how someone like Frollo managed to raise someone like Quasimodo.
Quasimodo helps Esmerelda escape the cathedral without being seen by Frollo’s guards. She tells him to come with her to the Court of Miracles and leave the cathedral. He says he can’t, thinking he doesn’t belong in the world. She says she’ll come see him, then, and says she’ll come at sundown.
Meanwhile Frollo sings a creepy song about how he’s attracted to Esmerelda, and begs the Virgin Mary to get rid of his feelings of wanting to get his dick wet. I’m paraphrasing, of course. (But seriously…)
He then sends the guards to tear apart the city looking for Esmerelda, even going so far as to personally set a house on fire that contains a family who has harbored gypsies.
Phoebus, who had refused to set the house on fire, is sentenced to death for insubordination by Frollo, but Esmerelda frees him. Though he ends up being stabbed by an arrow.
Frollo, meanwhile, has the guards pretty much set Paris on fire looking for Esmerelda. He also figures out that Quasimodo is the one who helped her escape. He arrives and tells Quasimodo (who is secretly hiding a wounded Phoebus) that he knows where the Court of Miracles is and is going to burn it down, hoping it will get Quasimodo to rush to tell her and lead him right to it.
Quasimodo and Phoebus set out to do just that – warn Esmerelda and the gypsies and inadvertently leading Frollo and his men right to them. Frollo prepares to burn Esmerelda alive, Joan of Arc style, right in front of the cathedral. Quasimodo (who was chained up and forced to watch), breaks free and rescues her. He brings her up to the church and claims sanctuary.
But Frollo don’t care. Frollo don’t play that shit no mo. He orders his men to storm the church. But Phoebus breaks free and gets the people to riot. They fuck up Frollo’s guards something real good.
Then Frollo climbs to the top of the cathedral (naturally) to find Quasimodo crying over Esmerelda’s presumably dead body. He tries to stab Quasi, and we find out Esmerelda’s still alive, so Quasi takes her and rushes to get her away from Frollo, which leads to the two of them hanging perilously over the side of the cathedral with Frollo swinging a giant fucking sword at them.
Naturally this ends with Frollo falling to his death, because it’s a Disney movie. That’s how the male villain goes.
Then it ends with Quasi realizing Esmerelda loves Phoebus, and them getting together, and then he getting him to come out of the cathedral, whereupon he is warmly greeted by society. A marked difference from the novel.
I really fucking liked this movie the second time. I think it was because the subject matter wasn’t particularly interesting to me when I thought about it. But honestly, this is a great movie. The songs aren’t Alan Menken classics, but they work well, and the movie is dark. I like that it’s dark. I really like that it’s dark. There’s not enough proper darkness in Disney. Not Black Cauldron dark, I mean this dark. This is proper dark. It raises solid issues, doesn’t have stupid comic relief, doesn’t waste any part of the story — I’m a big fan of this. (Though I’m not gonna pretend like I wouldn’t choose a lot of other films above this. Though, this was like 12 spots below this in the original list draft. So as far as I’m concerned, this is a terrific placement for it. That’s what counts here, not the actual number.)
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Official Disney Number: #34
Run Time: 91 minutes
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Budget: $100 million
Box Office: $100.1 million domestically, $325.3 million worldwide
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- “The Bells of Notre Dame,” performed by Paul Kandel, David Ogden Stiers and Tony Jay
- “Out There,” performed by Tony Jay and Tom Hulce
- “Topsy Turvy,” performed by Paul Kandel
- “God Help the Outcasts,” performed by Heidi Mollenauer, Brian Cummings, Debi Mae West and Lisa Russo
- “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire,” performed by Tom Hulce, David Ogden Stiers, and Tony Jay
- “A Guy Like You,” performed by Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and Mary Wickes
- “The Court of Miracles,” performed by Paul Kandel
- “Someday,” performed by Heidi Mollenhauer
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- This film was nominated for Best Original Score, Musical or Comedy (it lost to Emma).
- Apparently this is considered one of Disney’s “darkest” films. Both Wikipedia and IMDB have this on this film’s respective page on both of their sites. While I wouldn’t put it in the same category as The Black Cauldron — I’d buy that. The story is pretty serious. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like it the first time I saw it and why I really liked it this time. It’s different. And while it’s not completely dark (imagine if it actually followed the novel), it definitely has a very serious tone compared to most Disney movies. Compare it to pretty much anything they did in the past decade. There’s not really any comic relief here. And people fucking die. And that’s pretty awesome. They treat children with respect. (Kind of like they did before Walt died.)
- I’m just gonna quote Wikipedia on this one. This is awesome: “Despite the changes from the original literary source material in order to ensure a G rating, the film does manage to address mature issues such as lust, infanticide, sin,profanity, religious hypocrisy, the concept of Hell, prejudice, and social injustice, as well as acceptance that Quasi yearns for. Songs also contain rather mature lyrical content such as the words “licentious” or “strumpet” which introduce the concept of sexual indulgence, as well as frequent verbal mentions of Hell. Also notably, it is the first Disney animated film to use the word ‘damnation.'”
- Apparently during “Out There,” you can see Belle walking around, Pumba being carried away on a pole, and you can see them shaking out Aladdin’s carpet.
- During “A Guy Like You,” as the gargoyles put wigs on Quasimodo, one of them is the same as the wig Tom Hulce wears in Amadeus (that’s awesome).
- The old heretic is apparently Jafar in disguise from Aladdin.
- There’s a Goofy scream as Quasimodo pulls a rope some soldiers are climbing and they fall.
- Apparently this was Michael Eisner’s favorite Disney movie.
- “The Bells of Notre Dame” was originally dialogue and not a song. Jeez, talk about a decision made for the better. That’s some grandiose shit, that song.
- I’ll thank IMDB for this one: “The song “Hellfire” from this film, and “Worthless” from The Brave Little Toaster, are considered to be the darkest songs ever produced by Disney.” (Isn’t “Worthless” awesome, though? That scared the shit out of me when I was a kid… that fucking magnet.)
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1. Well there’s a fucking obvious reference:
2. Either it’s reminiscent of other castle scenes, like Sleeping Beauty, or I just really like it. Either way — there you go.
3. Character reflection in the water.
4. Love this shot:
5. How many shots have you seen this shot in Disney? A character walking up a spiral stone staircase?
6. Gorgeous shot. Similar colors to an exterior morning shot in Sleeping Beauty.
7. Character on a horse going over a bridge. Classic Disney.
8. Basically the “Whole New World” sequence in this film.
9. Aladdin, much?
10. Very Scar/Simba end fight. Lots of cool/warm coloring.