Movie Review: The Hunchback of Nortre Dame (1996)

Title: The Hunchback of Nortre Dame
Release Date: June 21, 1996
Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

Perhaps inspired by the successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as a Broadway/West End musical, Disney adapted Hugo’s other great classic novel for this Disney Renaissance movie.  While I wouldn’t say that kids can’t watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this movie is considerably darker than any other Disney animated feature before or since.  The movie deals with infanticide, physical and emotional abuse, racial prejudice, discrimination against the disabled, Christian ideas of lust, sin, and damnation, religious hypocrisy, capital punishment, and murder.  Yes, it’s heavy. It also has three comic relief gargoyles, and as ridiculous as that sounds, they’re really needed.

Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is a young man confined to the tower of the Cathedral of Notre Dame where he works as the bell ringer.  His cruel caretaker,  Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), will not allow him to go out due to facial deformities and a hunchback that Frollo claims make him monstrous.  Encouraged by his gargoyle friends (Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Mary Wickes) encourage to venture out for the Festival of Fools, Quasimodo finds himself humiliated and abused by the mob until rescued by a Romani dancer, Esmerelda (who is not only voiced by Demi Moore, but is drawn to look like her).

Frollo, perhaps Disney’s cruelest and most chilling villain (and clearly a representation of modern-day religious hypocrites and bigots), declares an all-out war on Esmerelda and the “gypsies” within Paris, while simultaneously lusting for Esmerelda.  It’s up to Quasimodo to break away from his fear and self-loathing to save Esmerelda, with the help of Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline), Frollo’s conscientious captain of the guard.

I’ve never read Hugo’s novel, so I don’t know how faithful this movie is to the book, but I have to say it is a strange story for an animated film.  The animation, though, is absolutely gorgeous and brings medieval Paris to life as well as Quasimodo soaring through the spires of the cathedral (I do wonder how much of Quasimodo climbing the tower carrying Esmerelda was inspired by King Kong). The music, while not of the catchy sing-a-long variety, is good too and incorporates period religious music to good effect.

All in all, I’m not sure what to make of this movie.It has a good heart, but seems a bit uneven.  I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Oh, and did I mention that it also has a comic relief goat, too?  Because the goat is really awesome.

Rating: ***1/2