Article first published as Movie Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) on Blogcritics.
The film begins in darkness and silence. A faint Latin chorus becomes audible as the title cards roll. Joining the ambient chanting voices is the deep, resonant knell of a church bell, followed by the rising clamor of more and more bells, rising into a crescendo. Then, with the slam of a bass drum, we see the first shot of the movie: Notre Dame Cathedral shrouded in misty clouds. The choir’s voices swell in intensity as the camera swoops down through the clouds and into the cobbled streets of Paris.
The opening sequence of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale) is goosebump-inducing and gives the audience a taste of the overall feel of this movie. To employ an overused word, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is epic. It boldly utilizes heartfelt ballads, dizzying camera angles, and grand, imposing visuals to great effect.
The serious themes that this film addresses make for some of the most powerful, sophisticated scenes, songs, and characters in a Disney film. Our protagonist, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), is a victim of prejudice who spends his days in the bell tower of Notre Dame, cloistered away for his deformed appearance. His burning desire to live among “normal” people inspires the moving song “Out There,” a heart-wrenching musical portrait of hopeful longing, figuratively painted on the gorgeous canvas that is the soaring cathedral.
Quasimodo’s thirst for a world beyond the bell tower leads to an encounter with the kind, beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who soon captures the heart of not only Quasimodo, but the heart of a more sinister character as well. A good deal of the film’s drama stems from how two characters – one pure and lowly, one twisted and haughty – respond to and act on the same emotional stimulus.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame sports one of the most evil Disney villains to date: Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay). What makes Frollo truly terrifying as an antagonist is that he pursues evil not for the sake of being evil, but because he fervently believes he is acting under God’s authority. It is when sinful thoughts enter his mind that he panics and seeks to rid himself of the source of his sin, the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda. It is this internal struggle that prompts one of the best Disney villain songs of all time: “Hellfire.”
This film, like any good Disney musical, sports a range of fantastic songs that compliment the fluid visuals. The songs and music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz are stupendous, with the lamentable exception of one. The goofy song “A Guy Like You,” sung by the movie’s comic relief characters, the gargoyles, was surely added for the benefit of the young audience members, and it shows. Instead of providing a respite from the film’s heavy, increasingly bleak series of events, the song is mood whiplash incarnate and comes across as annoying, juvenile, and insensitive to the gravity of the events up until this point in the film.
Like countless other Disney films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is inspired by a piece of classic literature. However, just because this film deviates wildly from Victor Hugo’s timeless tale doesn’t mean it isn’t surprisingly deep and dark for a Disney movie. Hunchback touches on many topics that very well may fly over a child’s head: religion, racism, and lust. That being said, it may be wise to hold off on showing this one to younger kids so that they’ll be able to better understand and appreciate it at an older age.
With the notable exception of the aforementioned song, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a moving, beautiful movie. With its deft blend of humor, artistry, and serious themes, Hunchback firmly ranks among the best Disney films to date.