For those of you who missed it, I reviewed Aladdin last week because I wanted to discuss what may be the biggest driving force behind Western animation: Disney. The movies and production methods of Walt Disney Pictures are so massively influential that I’ve decided I shouldn’t contain my discussion of them to one article. So join me for the second part of my series on Disney, this time focusing on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
My Aladdin article was a bit critical of the Disney method. I think it’s important for me to establish that I don’t actually think poorly of Disney. For all the bad influences the studio has had on the field of animation in general (mostly as a result of formulaic storytelling and insidious distribution methods), Disney has produced many classic animated films and have generally been pioneers of animation techniques and trends since their inception.
That said, I’m going to complain just a little bit more before getting to the good stuff in my next two articles.
One of my biggest problems with Disney is their tendency to stick to a formula. I understand that their primary goal is to make money, and as a result they don’t want to take many leaps of faith; however, their most groundbreaking work has been produced at huge risks. When Disney released its first animated feature film Snow White in 1937, no other animation company was producing animation of such depth and realism. Disney’s next big leap (after the company enjoyed a slump for most of the 1970s and 80s) was The Little Mermaid in 1989, an animated musical that established the Disney formula with which most of us are familiar today. It also launched a string of popular and acclaimed animated features that comprised the so-called Disney Renaissance. Disney’s final leap to date was its work with Pixar on Toy Story, which launched the computer animation trend that’s still going strong today.
I’m not saying that Disney should try to be innovative with every film they release. That’s neither realistic nor possible, especially given their huge library of films. When they have something that has the potential to be truly groundbreaking, though, they shouldn’t stifle it.
This is where The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes in. Released in 1996, it came and went without much incident. It did well at the box office and received mostly favorable reviews, but isn’t particularly well-remembered. Today, nobody talks about it the way they do The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. Why is that?
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of Quasimodo, a severely deformed man hidden away from society since birth by the corrupt Minister of Justice, Judge Claude Frollo. Quasimodo lives in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, looking down on the outside world and wishing he could be a part of society. On the day of the Festival of Fools in Paris, Quasimodo decides to finally sneak out into the crowd. Once there, he meets a beautiful and kind gypsy woman named Esmeralda, who he becomes infatuated with. Unfortunately, Frollo also meets and becomes taken with Esmeralda’s charms; however, instead of simply admitting to himself that he is committing the “sin” of being attracted to her, Frollo becomes obsessed with finding and burning Esmeralda at the stake under the erroneous accusation of witchcraft. It is up to Quasimodo to save her from Frollo’s plan.
For the most part, this is a gorgeous, sophisticated movie with remarkably adult themes for a Disney feature. Hunchback is somewhat infamous for making parents of young children uncomfortable (my own mother escorted a confused 5-year-old me out of the theater halfway through the movie back in 1996 because she felt it was inappropriate.) The film handles its material extremely well, though, so it never feels exploitative. I think the reasoning of the creators, particularly for the portrayal of Frollo, was that most of the more adult aspects of the movie would go right over kids’ heads, and I believe they’re right. Did I understand why my mom was taking me out of the theater at age 5? Not at all. I was way too young to even hope to understand the religious-zeal-leading-to-extreme-sexual-frustration aspect of his character.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame also has a fantastic score, including several music numbers that rival those of its more well-known contemporaries The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. In fact, the musical number Hellfire is often hailed as one of the greatest animated sequences ever made, even outside the Disney canon. Rather than describing it, I think I just should let the sequence speak for itself:
With all of these things going for it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame seems like it should be one of Disney’s most acclaimed and beloved films. Indeed, it could have been. There’s just one problem…
I complained about Disney sidekicks at length in my Aladdin article, so I won’t spend more time on them here. The problem isn’t exactly the sidekicks (that appear here in the form of talking gargoyles), anyway. Sure, they’re obnoxious and completely unnecessary, but the real issue is Disney’s attempt to inject a serious piece with light-hearted, family-friendly comic relief. In Aladdin, that was written throughout the fabric of the film, so it was more tedious than disappointing. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gargoyles appear suddenly and without precedent. It’s very jarring. Just compare the above scene with this one from later in the film, and you’ll see what I’m talking about:
They might as well be scenes from two different movies. Hunchback does some groundbreaking things with its plot and characters, but they are consistently held back by Disney’s insistence on sticking to its own formula. Instead of getting a beautifully-made film that pushes the boundaries of animation, we ended up with an uneven film that has an involving plot, interesting characters, and great score which get completely derailed several times by Disney’s forced comic relief bullshit (the above song is the worst offender.)
All right, I’ve complained about Disney enough. They ruined what could have been a great animated classic, and that’s unfortunate. They tend to force their films into a certain formula and prey on consumers’ nostalgia to make money. That’s the Bad and the Ugly. Next week, I’ll focus on the Good for Part 3 of my Disney spotlight. So stay tuned!