The familiar formula of the Disney Renaissance was pushed past its breaking point with 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Source material incompatible with the current Disney morality was in any case far beyond their capacity to adapt--they bit off much more than they could chew. The result is an unfocused film heavy with the fatigue of trying to reinvent and move beyond The Little Mermaid.
Certainly the film doesn't seem to be fondly remembered. When I ask people about it here in Japan, no-one seems to have heard of it. The central concept is a hard sell for a typical Disney audience--normally Disney animated films invite the viewer to join a beautiful or cute character on an adventure. In this case, the film's protagonist isn't only deliberately ugly, the story implies that you should feel guilty for not being attracted to him. That's a bold step outside the box for Disney and, like the preachiness in Pocahontas, an obnoxious one. It's also unlike previous versions of the story. In the original novel, published in 1831, even the sweet and innocent Esmeralda has to fight against instinctive disgust when she talks to Quasimodo. In Disney's film, despite initially mistaking his bare face for a mask, she exhibits no discomfort in close physical proximity to him.
She's altogether a less interesting character--a bit of a firebrand, like Maureen O'Hara's take in the 1939 film, she's a lofty paragon of virtue who would never think of having desires for anything beyond justice. She's not looking for her parents or desperately pursuing Phoebus, as she is in the book. Disney's film is definitely centred on Quasimodo, even though some have called Esmeralda the protagonist of the original book. She's an important character, important enough that the opera adaptation of the book, with a libretto by Hugo, was called La Esmeralda. But the original book, called in French simply Notre-Dame de Paris, doesn't really centre on any one character. Hugo's project was to dramatise the cathedral itself, as a means to encourage its preservation. There are long passages in the book, like Tolstoy's essay tangents about war in War and Peace or Melville's tangents on whales and seagoing in Moby Dick, that are just Hugo going on about architecture and its place in civilisation. The story is a kind of illustration of the building's impact on people, in ways both literal (Notre Dame as sanctuary and gathering place) and poetic (the home of a strange hunchback and a strange power over the minds and souls of Paris). Hugo talks about people from all walks of life and isn't kind to most but portrays the disenfranchised in a more favourable light. The reason for this, in early 19th century France, would be clear if you consider how spectacularly the rabble had done violence to the upperclasses in the preceding decades. If Notre-Dame was going to be preserved, it would be from the perennially revolutionary forces who'd shown a penchant for tearing things down.
A few years ago, Lindsay Ellis recorded a video on Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame in which she asserts the endeavour to preserve Notre-Dame is no longer relevant. Less than two years after she released the video, Notre-Dame caught fire and, afterwards, proposals to replace it with something ugly and modern, or tear it down, began to gain serious traction (fortunately a bill was passed into law requiring that its reconstruction honour its original aesthetic). These forces didn't emerge out of nowhere so it's more likely ignorance of French politics than a failure to predict the future that have caused Ellis' video to age so badly. Of course, violent incidents involving a conflict for the cultural future of France have become increasingly visible in global media. So once again, those political forces who like to tear down the past are at work, and the time to defend the glories of the past is at hand.
Victor Hugo sought to make Notre Dame relevant to Parisian inhabitants of all kinds, from the beggars to the merchants, from the artists to the immigrants. "Churches were guarded by their sanctity" he wrote in a section about the lack of proper police forces in medieval Europe. Notre-Dame could once have counted on some protection on account of being sacred--it's hard to imagine such protection to-day.
The story Hugo wrote around the cathedral is hardly one that flatters the city's inhabitants, in fact it's been described as misanthropic. I wouldn't say that myself. Although it portrays people behaving in consistently, and sometimes egregiously, selfish ways--rendering the few incidents of selflessness the more potent--it's more of a story about tragic misunderstanding. Esmeralda mistakes Phoebus for the love of her life, Gringoire mistakes himself for a great playwright (or audiences mistake him for a bad one), Quasimodo mistakes the beggars for Esmeralda's enemies, and Claude Frollo suffers in an institution that's mistaken about human nature.
If any one character could be called the novel's protagonist, it would be Claude Frollo. It's through Frollo's point of view that most of the story is told. Since his actions harm characters who are innocent or defenceless, he would best be described as an anti-hero. Originally created as the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, Hugo was forced to remove references to Frollo as a clergyman when writing the opera and most film adaptations have been obliged to remove Frollo's connexion to the church or shift all his villainous actions to his brother. This was always done to avoid the disapproval of the Catholic Church and Disney's film followed suit. Some might be surprised that Hugo would have originally vilified a member of the church in a book designed to encourage preservation of a cathedral. Perhaps his idea was to show that the cathedral had an importance to the people of France that was apart from or beyond the institution.
Changing Frollo from an archdeacon to a judge changes the nature of his obsession with Esmeralda. He's taken no vow of celibacy, so there's no consideration of how his institution may have played a part in shaping his sexually repressed personality. A significant part of Frollo's ruminations that we're privy to are his thoughts on how the church has caused his natural passions to fester.
Frollo's impressive, sepulchral voice is provided by Tony Jay in the film and he at least cuts an impressively villainous figure. But his internal conflict is barely broached in the film, even if it is with the best musical number (the bar is low, mind you).
Phoebus is another character drastically changed from the source material. He's not the scoundrel he is in the book which means Esmeralda's faith in him isn't tragic. Kevin Kline is very charming in the role, though, and one can see how a film centred on him and Esmeralda might have been a nice romantic adventure. At least, if Disney's take on Esmeralda weren't a mess.
Here's another tragedy. With Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid, Disney learned that audiences responded to sexy characters. Esmeralda is clearly intended to be sexy--even in Hugo's original novel--but her animation, supervised by Tony Fucile, is strangely clunky and the film's directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, have too short attention spans. Rapid editing undercuts the drama in many scenes and robs Esmeralda's dance sequence of all enchantment. There are also none of the creative lighting and camera angles Jessica Rabbit had--Esmeralda is shown head to toe, centre frame with the horizon behind her, in even daylight.
An attempt to give a silky shimmer to her gown makes it look like a 3D effect viewed without 3D glasses, potentially headache-inducing.
Demi Moore's performance isn't bad but it's part of a general effort to make the character more mature than she is in the source material. It's times like this I think of the original lyrics to "Sweet Jane";
And there's even some evil mothers
Well, they're gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
You know that women never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes, ooh
And that, ya know, children are the only ones who blush
And that life is just to die
Not every girl is a smartass or a guerilla. Innocent, credulous girls exist and our fiction should reflect it occasionally.
It contributes to a strong scene in the novel. Frollo, hidden in a corner, watches as Phoebus seduces Esmeralda. She's willing to give the scoundrel anything he wants because she believes he loves her. Meanwhile, he just wants to fuck her and toss her aside. This would be a good time for a priest to intervene but not in the way Frollo does. The scene effectively demonstrates the need for responsible, empowered authorities but shows how the wrong people in the roles can lead to terrible consequences.
Obviously, there's no such scene in Disney's film. Instead, we have a comparatively muddled tale, one predominately meant to be about Quasimodo's liberation but with so many vestigial features from the book, and pointless additions by Disney, the central idea fails to take root. In the book, Quasimodo begins as Frollo's henchman but then turns against him on the matter of Esmeralda. The film gives Quasimodo a yearning to participate in normal Parisian life that isn't present in the book, leading to the traditional "I Want" song.
And you can sense just how sick of writing these songs Alan Menken was at this point. The melody lurches along under lifeless lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Compare Quasimodo's "Out There" with the original "I Want" song, Ariel's "Part of Your World". It's not just Ariel's looks that make "Part of Your World" superior. The concept of someone wanting liberation from the sea is more interesting, and leads to more pleasing lyrical innovation, than someone wanting to go outside of Notre Dame. Belle's "I Want" song from Beauty and the Beast was already less interesting than Ariel's, Quasimodo's suffers from being fifth on the assembly line.
And then, of course, there are the annoying gargoyles, who, if they're supposed to be manifestations of Quasimodo's psyche, do nothing to endear him to the audience. The movie lacks the great scene from the book, the one where suddenly Quasimodo becomes the only person in a crowd who does the obviously decent thing and so takes on a genuinely impressive grace. Disney's film instead endlessly exhorts us to pity him. That's not your job, Disney. Even the beautiful princesses have more to them than beauty--or if they don't (like Snow White) they're not even the true main characters of their own films (it's the dwarfs in Snow White). The Hunchback of Notre Dame shows the limits of the Disney studio's ability to tell stories. Maybe if they'd had a better writer or director, or if Disney's notoriously intrusive management had kept their hands to themselves, it could have been the start of a new era for the studio. As it is, it's basically The Black Cauldron 2, an attempt to go darker and weirder that completely collapses.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is available on Disney+.
This is part of a series of posts I'm writing on the Disney animated canon.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Alice in Wonderland
Lady and the Tramp
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Fox and the Hound
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under
Beauty and the Beast
The Lion King