It’s probably easiest to say right at the beginning of the article that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is nothing like its source novel. They’re different mediums, this is Disney; they won’t kill the lead character. Disney themselves make the admission on the Blu-Ray blurb when they describe the film as ‘inspired by’ Victor Hugo’s novel as opposed to ‘based on.’ They’ve taken the very basic premise of Hugo’s tome – a gypsy women shakes up the lives of religious judge and the deformed human he keeps in the tower of the titular church – and turned it into a story about an unexpected hero and not judging people on their looks. What’s surprising about the film is how thematically rich it is as a Disney film. There is the aforementioned message of ‘ugly people can be good, too,’ but there is a lot more to it than that. There is a lot that is frustrating about Hunchback: the gargoyles are among the most annoying things Disney have ever done, and simply aren’t funny; the songs are largely rubbish, clearly inspired by Les Miserables but without any of that musical’s ability to stir or uplift. However, it’s one of the most interesting films that the studio have made, dealing with themes of religion and class and daring to go to some darker places than most films from the House of Mouse would dream of. This breakdown of three of the main characters highlights why this is so.
Frollo is introduced to the film chasing down a fleeing gypsy, who he promptly kills on the steps of a church. He then picks up her baby and, upon seeing that it is deformed, tries to drown it in a well. Within the very first scene he has been established as one of the meanest baddies Walts’ studio ever animated, but he isn’t just evil for evil’s sake: he’s motivated by the law, representing authority within the city of Paris. His journey, however, reveals him as being even crueller than this first scene suggests. Upon seeing the gypsy Esmerelda dancing at the feast of fools, his desire, previously suppressed out of self righteous conviction, is enflamed, and his subsequent actions in the film are driven by his internal conflict between his lust for the gypsy and his warped dedication to the law. His villain song isn’t a grand plan to get money or power, it’s about this battle between his hatred of gypsies and his sexuality aroused by one of them. ‘Hellfire’ is a terrifying song, as the chorus of the damned join with Frollo as he declares to the fire, in religious language, his manic desire to dominate her either through death or sex. That’s pretty messed up.
Frollo is more interesting than just being a dark villain; it’s the motivation behind his evil, and the themes that he represents that really makes him stand out. Take the opening song that introduces the character, which says that Frollo ‘saw corruption everywhere except within…’ He’s a figure like Javert from Les Mis, unable to understand forgiveness or grace and with a spirit of legalism that leads to his downfall; he represents the kind of religion that Victor Hugo hates. Legalism is when you think that your own personal righteousness can attain you salvation – the Christianity that Jesus taught (and that Hugo endorsed) fought against this as it led to hypocrisy and double standards, where people followed the letter of the law yet missed out love and compassion. Hellfire opens with Frollo singing ‘Beata Maria / You know I am a righteous man / Of my virtue I am justly proud,’ yet we have already seen that he is a violent, cruel man who kills innocent people and ignores the plight of the poor. One suspects God disagrees with the Judge’s claim.
The gyspy and ostensible romantic lead of the film is an unexpected Disney character in many ways. For one, she is an inherently sexual character that has a kind of carnal hold over the three main males in the film. She essentially pole dances at the feast of fools; clearly, she is one of the older, more mature heroines that Disney have had. She represents everything that conservative religious types hate – openly sensuous, part of the gypsy underclass and possibly a witch given her brief displays of magic – yet she is the character who, in one song, has a long communication with God and at the end, is held aloft in a cruciform pose, taking on an almost Christ like significance. This mish-mash of imagery surrounding her feels sometimes a little contrived, but she is nonetheless a fascinating figure, creating a fascinating religious discussion at the core of the film.
When she claims sanctuary in the church of Notre Dame – the action rarely leaves this grand, beautiful building – she sings ‘God Help The Outcasts,’ a long prayer right at the centre of the film. She is asking God to help her out in her time of need when the religious figures of the city want to harm her and her people, while stuffy Church types in the background ask for slightly more trite blessings. In this song, she asks of Jesus: ‘still I see your face and wonder, were you once an outcast, too?’ Jesus hung out with the rejects of his society, those that the Pharisees (the Frollos of his day) despised and excluded; lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. By making the ending a happy one, Disney remove the aggressively satirical bite that Hugo aimed for with his deeply depressing ending, but it does suggest that God is looking out for the outcasts. Either way, a plot revolving around the conflict between religion and faith makes for a fascinating film from a studio who are perhaps better known for slightly shallow but magical fairy tales.
Victor Hugo’s original novel was just called Notre Dame de Paris. By changing the name from the church to the hunchback, Disney have shifted the focus to one character, Quasimodo. This is a little disingenuous, as it’s as much about Esmerelda and, arguably, Frollo as it is the geometrically challenged Quasi’s. Thankfully, the team behind the film have made him an interesting character, more psychologically trapped in his tower than physically so. Frollo has him mentally bound to the place, afraid of the world outside his four walls and mistrustful of people. Most tragically, however, this fear of other people is entirely justified when he does venture outside and is subjected to the derision and scorn of the masses. (Side note: Disney had clearly developed their crowd animation recently, as the frame is constantly swarming with people in this film). His conversation with Esmerelda is a telling one, as he says hesitantly to her, ‘you’re not like other gypies… they’re evil.’ Here you realise the power that Frollo has over his ward, as his ideology has infected someone who is inherently good. The worst thing is that Quasi still sees Frollo as a benevolent figure, informing Esmerelda that ‘he took me in when no one else would. I’m a monster, you know.’ A subject of ridicule and psychological abuse, Quasimodo is an upsetting hero for children to get their heads around; even at the end, he doesn’t get the girl even if he does receive the adulation of the town.
Then there is Phoebus, someone who jokes and flirts but still serves Frollo almost unquestioningly until the final act, and Clopin, a clown who tells the story and seems friendly but is ready to execute two men without a trial. The Hunchback of Notre Dame does not shy away from difficult themes, or from posing interesting theological and political questions. As such, it feels tonally different from almost every other Disney film, an oddity amongst singing the singing Princesses and witty scripts of the other films from the 90s. But as Hunchback teaches us, being an oddity is not always a bad thing.