I’m not sure if it comes as a surprise to anyone that this is my favorite Disney movie. I mean, generally speaking I prefer films that deal with complex issues (or have enough weirdness in their construction that I can rant endlessly about them), so usually I don’t get terribly excited about Disney films simply because they have a really broad audience, and making a story child-friendly somehow usually translates into making it lack depth. Don’t get me wrong; Disney has made some fantastic animated films from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but the stories are usually pretty straightforward (I’d guess that’s a side effect of adapting primarily folk tales). I mean, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are great movies, but their complexity kind of runs out at, “You need to look past surface appearances to find inner beauty, and once you do that then you get a shiny new appearance to match!”
It’s nice, but the rest of us live in the real world where you don’t get to have a magical makeover so your insides match your outsides (also, it seems only the men are ever allowed to have non-standard appearances, although their reward for good behavior typically remedies that).
Hunchback of Notre Dame looks at all the other Disney movies and just blows a big raspberry at their fairy tale trappings.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, this adaptation had to make a lot of changes to the story in order to fit the Disney brand. Quasimodo, who in the original is a barely verbal imbecile, is here an intelligent, if naive, young man. Claude Frollo, originally the corrupt archdeacon of Notre Dame, is now a judge (so as to avoid leveling any kind of criticism at the Church through the use of a Christian priest as a villain). Esmeralda has gone from dimwitted, trusting girl to street smart and resourceful woman. Oh, and there’s Phoebus, who’s not at all a cad in the Disney version, but otherwise has few qualities to recommend him in relation to our other major players.
In a very strange sort of way, Disney actually goes to great lengths to improve the characterizations of their cast beyond what Hugo did with his originals. I’d probably call Esmeralda the greatest improvement, because she’s, objectively, the best character. Still kind and compassionate like Hugo’s Esmeralda (and also not disgusted by Quasimodo’s appearance), but with a self-reliance that really leaves no doubt that she’d be fine if left on her own (I never really get that sense from any other Disney heroines, although Belle might be a distant second), Esmeralda is a wonderfully vibrant character who doesn’t have any sexist baggage the way many of the Disney princesses do. In fact, the overt objectification of Esmeralda is treated as a truly evil thing since it’s one of the major motivations behind Frollo’s descent into homicidal madness (insert joke here about Frollo saying he can’t help himself when confronted with a woman who’s sexy as hell).
That’s another thing about this adaptation that’s so incredible. The creative team that made Hunchback really pushed the limits of what themes could be explored in a Disney branded film (and personally, I don’t think Disney has ever made anything else that approached the same level of thematic ambition). You have themes of racism, abuse, religious corruption, social apathy towards the poor, sexuality, and others all packed into a 90 minute, animated, G-rated film. That’s some heavy material to tackle, but Hunchback is pretty unflinching in how it approaches this stuff. It’s one of the reasons I love this film so much.
Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. Like all Disney films, Hunchback suffers from the problem of trying to appeal to kids through cheap laughs and funny sidekicks.
I don’t think I can stress enough how irritating I find the gargoyles.
I mean, Laverne’s alright for the most part, and Victor has a certain stuffy charm, but Hugo’s just “the fat, stupid one with the big mouth.” If I could excise him from the film, I’d be pretty happy (also, “A Guy Like You” is just a bad song that only provides the last bit of comic relief before the climax and also sets Quasimodo up for some serious heartbreak). Also, it’d be nice if the siege scene were reworked so that the gargoyles never directly interact with anyone else, because I’ve always preferred the “all in Quasimodo’s imagination” reading, but that’s a difficult thing to hold on to when you have them dropping catapults on soldiers.
It’s a minor gripe though. This movie’s still amazing.