Disney As Adults: An Adult Retrospective Review Of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

For the third installment of Disney As Adults, we're headed to 15th century Paris to catch up with Quasimodo and Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Read on to see our adult retrospective!

Thinking back to my childhood, Hunchback of Notre Dame didn't make a big impression. I remember playing a board game based on the film, but other than that, I don't remember anything from the movie outisde of the obvious - and that would be the main character.

This story is about a mangled man named Quasimodo, the hunchback himself. It explores his struggle of wanting to leave his confines to help the woman he falls in love with. On the surface, it seems like a normal description, but the plot of this film is unabashedly dark for the Disney brand, especially in 1996 when it was released.

Throughout this piece I will be using the term Romani - which is the proper term for the "Gypsy" people that are very poorly depicted in this film. Disney was allowed to depict the Romani as thieves at the time because they have faced those negative accusations for centuries, but something tells me the term Gypsy wouldn't fly around in a film today as much as it does in Hunchback.

Our main character's name is given to him because it literally means half-formed. His Romani family is run down as a baby, and he is reluctantly adopted by the villain of our story, Frollo, who quickly tucks the deformed child away in a Bell Tower so that he is never to be seen.

Frollo boasts the typical God complex generally seen in villains from tales such as these, but he doesn't hold back. Singlehandedly the reason for Quasimodo's mother's death, he only take the baby on because he is continually guilted by the Archdeacon. 

Odd as it is to see religion portrayed in a Disney film, this one really hammers it home and it is a central point to the film's plot. The film even circles around themes like sin, lust, and eternal damnation. More on that later.

Luckily, poor Quasi isn't completely alone. When we meet the lonely hunchback, he is encouraging a small bird to finally take flight and leave its safe home, both showing the soft inside beyond his deformities, while simultaneously foreshadowing his own fate.

Shortly after we are introduced to our titular character's roommates - three living stone gargoyles. If you can manage to not picture Jason Alexander the entire time he talks, they aren't too annoying, but its also unlikely that they'll be very memorable, especially compared to the colorful characters in many of Disney's other animated films.

Named Victor, Hugo, and Laverne - this immediately introdues a fun point that I missed as a child, because I wouldn't have understood it. 

Victor Hugo is the name of a French writer, considered to be one of the greatest, and is celebrated for his works which include Les Miserables, and - you guessed it - The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney made sure to pay respects to the man who's novel they adapted for this work in the form of a fun easter egg. The Poet, Artist, and Activist is pictured below.

The gargoyles do their best to try to push Quasi over the edge - that is - get him to go to the upcoming festival, which he knows he is forbidden from doing, and we soon learn upon Frollo's arrival that the villain sees them as regular stone gargoyles and not living creatures.

Initially upon watching this scene, I thought this might be suggesting that the hunchback's loneliness had lead to a psychotic break and hallucinatory conversations with the stone creatures, but I reserved my judgement until I would see them interact with others.

It's when Quasimodo reviews his alphabet with Frollo that we get a look at their relationship - and exactly how dark this movie plans on getting. Remember that mention of eternal damnation?

The songs in this movie are lyrically impressive and definitely excellently composed, but it's hard to see young kids being excited to sing along or remembering the words to any of them.

It's Quasimado's performance of Out There that finaly brings a little bit of light to this despair-filled film. Tony Hulce's brilliant performance might leave you chilled and almost hopeful for the tone of the film.

Shortly after we meet a more upbeat cast of characters, but not without dealing with a cringy amount of negative Romani stereotypes. Esmerelda's introduction itself is a bit harsh.

Pictured above: "All right, Gypsy! Where'd you get the money? Gypsies don't earn money, they steal it. Get back here Gypsy!" It's a lot.

Phoebus, Captain of the Guards, steps in to protect the Romani woman and her pet, and it's fairly obvious that his character contains a single dimension. His horse is more interesting, with a joke name that I definitely missed as a child.

Esmerelda's true character reveal comes at the cost of Quasi's pain at the festival, as she is the one to step up and help him, finally coming out of the shadows and showing how much of a formidable force she can be.

She stands up not only for the hunchback but also for her Romani people in general and calls out the frightening Frollo in front of the entire fair for his unfair treatment. Despite her wits and near-escape, it only goes well for her for so long.

The scenes between Frollo and Esmerelda really are a bit much for kids and a G rating seems questionable. "I know what you're imagining," Esmerelda says in an attempt to fight off her sex criminal.

About halfway through the film we learn that the gargoyles have the ability to reveal themselves to other living creatures, as evidenced by Djali, Esmerelda's goat's reaction to the living creature pranking him. However, Quasi's loneliness is measured by soon revealing that he has named all of the bells in his tower. Yikes.

The religious themes continue to dominate the film, with Esmerelda singing about God, Quasi singing about Heaven's light, and Frollo singing about how his lust is burning him with Hellfire - hammering home the Catholicism.

It's accurate for the time period and place, but as Disney often takes many liberties in their adaptations, this film could have benefited from a few changes to make this audience friendly for those of all backgrounds. The musical contains enough songs that the potential for children to remain captivated would be high if the topics weren't themed for adults.

Frollo's villainy knows no bounds while he quests to find Esmerelda - at one point even pushing an entire cart of gypsies into a lake. What are you to expect from a man who started the movie with attempted infanticide? After that the dark tone wasn't much of a surprise to me, but still felt off for a Disney movie.

A Guy Like You is a fun song by Alexander and the other Gargoyles, picking up the tone of the film and cheering Quasi up just long enough to - well, I'll let you see that for yourself.

It's not to say that I didn't like the movie - I was moved at times and the music was as excellent as you would expect from a film released during the Disney Renaissance. However, it falls short of many of the other titles released at the time.

Disney can't seem to figure out which tale it wants to tell with The Hunchback of Notre Dame as dissenting themes and tones clash with what is supposed to be a children's movie fighting a 15th Century Catholic tragedy, and it doesn't always work out. This is something that should be viewed as an adult - I don't see any reason to involve kids in it for more than one or two viewings.

Image result for 2 stars


A deformed bell-ringer must assert his independence from a vicious government minister in order to help his friend, a gypsy dancer.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is currently streaming on Disney+.

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