Okay, actually, Quasimodo is 185 years old seeing as how Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831.
I, however, am alluding to Disney’s animated adaptation of Hugo’s brilliant novel, which turned twenty years old two days ago. It was released into theaters on June 21, 1996. This movie is a part of the Disney Renaissance era, but of the films from that time period of 1989-1999, it is quite possibly the most underrated. It certainly is not as celebrated or well-remembered as other Disney Renaissance films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.
And yet, while my favorite animated Disney film of all time is The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes in as a very close second. The plot, though deviating some from the novel here and there, is still just as solid as TLK and the characters just as memorable and relatable. In fact, this is one of the few movies where the villain is not my favorite. Hunchback’s villain, Claude Frollo, is my second favorite, because I absolutely love Clopin.
And the music: wow! Think about the music of The Lion King—incredible, right?
In my opinion, however, as much as I love The Lion King and its music, it is rivaled by the music of Hunchback. “Circle of Life” is not only a great song, but ranked among one of Disney’s best opening songs. But take a listen to Hunchback’s opening song, “The Bells of Notre Dame”, and chances are that you will either think that it is just as good as “Circle of Life”, or even better.
So if the music, the story, and the characters are all so great, then why is the movie itself not remembered as one of Disney’s greatest films? It’s hard to say, really.
Perhaps because of its dark undertones that had never before, nor ever since, been explored in Disney animation. Hunchback has the classic love story and happily ever after ending, but it also has themes of death, oppression, and lust. The last pertaining to Judge Claude Frollo, a man of the cloth, who lusts after the gypsy, Esmeralda. And he does not hide, nor attempt to hide his feelings about her either.
Then there is the villain song, performed by Frollo, called “Hellfire”, which sparked controversy when the film was initially released, based on these lyrics:
And let her taste the fires of Hell
Or else let her be mine and mine alone
Now gypsy, it’s your turn
Choose me or your pyre
Be mine or you will burn
The entire song is about his desire for her and is proceeded and adjoined by a more light-hearted song called “Heaven’s Light”. This is sung by Quasimodo and talks about his love for her. This song then delves directly into the darker villain song. But I must say that it, as with all the other songs in the movie, is incredible and powerful. The lyrics, whether you find them offensive or not, fit in with the song, the music is dynamic, and the late Tony Jay, who voiced Frollo, was an excellent singer. And, to my mind, “Hellfire” is one of the best songs in this movie. Watching the song adds another level to the experience, the animation and the imagery, which is very creepy and even a little scary at some points, is wonderful.
Frollo also differs from other Disney villains in a couple of key aspects.
Most, though not all, of Disney’s villains, especially in the Renaissance era, had sidekicks. Frollo works solo. He is devious in his way of convincing Quasimodo that, were it not for Frollo himself, Quasi would have been drowned. He conveniently leaves out the part where he killed Quasi’s mother and almost drowned Quasi when he was an infant, only to be stopped by Notre Dame’s Archdeacon. He convinces Phoebus to work for him. And when Phoebus has finally had enough and refuses to burn a family alive in their home, Frollo nearly kills him. And he uses Quasimodo to discover the Court of Miracles, which is the secret hideout of Clopin, Esmeralda, and the other gypsies. Despite his lust for Esmeralda, he hates the gypsies, and wants nothing more than to rid Paris of the entire gypsy population. And he does all of his evil deeds on his own.
Also, Frollo’s motives for evil differ from other Disney villains. Other villains are ruthlessly evil as well, but they either don’t seem to know that they’re evil, or they know but either don’t care, or are insufferably proud of it.
Frollo does not think he is evil either, and he sees nothing wrong with his actions, because he believes that he is doing God’s bidding in every act that he commits. His motive throughout is his desire for Esmeralda fueled on by her refusal of him. Even as Frollo has Esmeralda tied to a stake with a torch in his hand, ready to burn her, he gives her one last chance, saying that if she agrees to be with him, he will spare her. Esmeralda spits in his face and proceeds to set fire to the stake, nearly killing her.
As I mentioned above, the movie deviates from the novel in some respects.
First off, Quasimodo is deaf in Hugo’s novel.
Next, Pierre Gringoire, a major character in the novel is completely absent in the film. In the book, Esmeralda agrees to marry Gringoire for four years to spare him from being killed by the gypsies. She cannot, however, marry a non-existent character in the movie, and at the end of the film, it is implied that she marries Phoebus. If you watch the sequel, they are married and have a son. Meanwhile, in the book, Phoebus marries Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier, who is also absent from the movie.
Also, the novel introduces us to Sister Gudule, Esmeralda’s long-lost mother, who is not in the movie.
Clopin Trouillefou acts as a sort of narrator to the Disney film, but does not play this role in the book.
Claude Frollo has a younger brother named Jehan Frollo, who—surprise!—is not in the movie. Also, as Claude Frollo plays the villain in the movie, so does he in the novel. The variation here is that in the book, Frollo may play a villain, but he has a much bigger heart. He loves his brother Jehan, and he genuinely cares for Quasimodo, taking him in after Quasi’s mother abandons him. His descent into black magic is brought upon due to three reasons: his inability to properly raise Jehan, who joins the gypsies and is eventually killed by Quasimodo, his inability to properly educate Quasimodo due to Quasi’s deafness, and his lust for Esmeralda who constantly rejects him.
Speaking of Frollo, he dies in the movie, and his is the only death. In the novel, Frollo dies as well, but so do, Jehan, Esmeralda, Clopin, and Quasimodo.
And the Notre Dame Cathedral is sort of a character itself in Hugo’s version.
Oh yeah, and the novel makes no mention of talking gargoyles.
If you’ve never read the novel, I highly recommend it. If you’ve never seen the Disney film, I highly recommend it. I suggest doing both, despite the differences between the two. If nothing else, at least listen to the songs. Buy or download the soundtrack, or watch the videos of the songs on YouTube. Below are a list of the songs, in order, followed by which character sings each one.
“The Bells of Notre Dame” (Clopin)
“Out There” (Frollo and Quasimodo)
“God Help the Outcasts” (Esmeralda)
“Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” (Quasimodo/Frollo)
“A Guy Like You” (Victor, Hugo, and Laverne, the gargoyles)
“The Court of Miracles” (Clopin)
“The Bells of Notre Dame reprise” (Clopin)
As is often done with Disney films, reference to other Disney movies are found in one scene of Hunchback. During Quasimodo’s song, “Out There”, one scene shows an aerial view of the street below. In this one scene, Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” can be spotted reading a book as she walks by, Carpet from “Aladdin” is being shook out by one of the men in the scene, and Pumbaa from “The Lion King” is tied upside down on a stick and being carried by two men.
There were of course, live action film versions of Hunchback before Disney’s animated movie. There was also a direct-to-video animated sequel, and a musical based on Disney’s film, which will finally be debuting near me in September.
If you haven’t already seen it, I strongly urge you to give this movie a try. Don’t be dissuaded by how underrated and unmentioned this film has been. The songs are powerful and the animation is beautiful. And today, it’s still just as great as it was twenty years ago.