A Study in Disney: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1996)

| January 18, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

A Decade of Disney: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) - Geeks + Gamers

The opening credits of Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame state clearly that it is based on the book by Victor Hugo.  Given the texture of the film, however, that may not be entirely true – “inspired by” may be more accurate.  Even “Loosely based” would do.  No movie version of Hugo’s magnum opus has ever completely run down the book’s entire scale probably because the story is too broad and its outcomes far too bleak.  Disney’s version of Hugo’s story has the basic vapor of the book but draws most heavily in pieces and parts from the 1923 version starring Lon Chaney and from the 1939 film version starring Charles Laughton.  Watching these films back to back you’d almost assume that the writers of the Disney film didn’t read the book but simply watched the earlier films for inspiration.  For their purposes, that may not be such a bad thing.

If you are at all familiar with the work of Victor Hugo then you know that it was not exactly prime territory for the works of Walt Disney.  His books and his plays largely dealt with brutal inhumanity wrought from the dark caverns of the human heart and most often arrived at a bitter conclusion.  As is the case with most writers of a bygone century, Hunchback has been reworked and reinterpreted until the original intent has been washed out.  Our common perception of the story is very different from what originally appeared on the page.

Obviously some changes were necessary, but the Disney version goes far and away to make this a much less pungent series of unfortunate events.  The slight attraction between Phoebus and Esmerelda in the book ends here with a look and a kiss that can only lead to wedding bells (for that is the Disney way).  Esmerelda, instead of being railroaded to the gallows, uses a magic trick to save Quasimodo and is branded a witch by the evil Frollo and then escapes the sanctuary of Notre Dame inciting – literally – a witch hunt.  The story ends with Frollo falling to his death and Quasimodo being accepted by the townsfolk who inexplicably carry him away on their shoulders.

These unsettling changes to the story, particularly the happy ending, have drawn a mass of criticism then and now.  Even with the mixed reaction to the film, those on both sides at least agreed that this was possibly the oddest choice for a Disney animated feature.  How could Walt Disney Pictures create a filmed version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and still maintain the parameters of the Disney brand while remaining true to Hugo’s work?  Historically the results remain in the realm of debate.  Is it a maligned masterwork?  Should it have ever been attempted in the first place?  Was it just an all-around dumb idea?

As silly as this may sound, it worked.  While reactions were mixed, The Hunchback of Notre Dame did well domestically, becoming one of the best-selling movies of the year (possibly because it was one of the only major animated features released that year).  Critics either loved or hated it.  Today, the reaction is still mixed with most Disney fans lauding the glorious animation but vilifying some of the more destructive choices such as the wise-cracking gargoyles and the aforementioned happy ending.  The clash of these elements makes for a movie that seems to be fighting with itself.

Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a movie with a serious identity crisis, Victor Hugo on one side and Disney on the other.  Both are pulling at the material to make it work.  The two artistic styles are diametrically opposed – Hugo’s side demands a dark and serious screed about injustice and inhumanity while the Disney side demands an easily digestible musical adventure that won’t alienate the family movie market.  There is literally a scene in which you can see the Victor Hugo side fighting with the Disney formula – the scene in which Frollo (the Hugo side) orders Phoebus to burn down the home of a local miller with the family still inside.  But Phoebus (the Disney side) disobeys the order and refuses to commit such an atrocity.  The scene strains to push the movie one way or the other.

This happens all through the movie and is apparent in the opening scenes which are amazingly tilted toward Hugo’s darker demands.  A gypsy woman runs through the streets of Paris with a bundle under her arm, pursued by Judge Claude Frollo.  In the scuffle, Frollo kills the woman and threatens to toss her deformed baby down a well – he assumes that the child bears a curse by Satan.  But the archdeacon informs him that the eyes of God have seen his misdeeds and that his punishment for murder is to care for the child.  Frollo, meeting his penance halfway, decides to stow the baby away in the bell towers of Notre Dame.

This scene works beautifully, but it is marred by a jarring tone shift in the very next scene in which we meet Quasimodo as a teenager living in the rafters of the cathedral accompanied by a trio of wise-cracking gargoyles who toss insult humor and modern references at one another.  The seriousness of the earlier scene is baffling because a dark and serious scene in which Frollo commits manslaughter and is warned off killing the baby by “the eyes of Notre Dame” are followed by one of the Gargoyles spouting “Pour the wine and cut the cheese!”  This is a persistent problem all through the movie.

That’s not to throw the movie away as worthless, some of the movie does work.  For one thing, it looks gorgeous.  The full bloom of computer animation is here and you can see that it has grown by leaps and bounds creating an environment that is as impressive as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King.  The animators do a beautiful job of making Notre Dame cathedral into a character, with its towers sticking out of the clouds (that’s the image that opens the film), crumbling stone walkways, statuaries that peer into your soul and stained glass windows that form a dance of light.  This cathedral is depicted as a fortress of God, a space made of stone and glass where the weary and the downtrodden ultimately find solace – a safe space whose gothic beauty suggests a picture of the heavenly realm that awaits.  What the animators created within Notre Dame is great movie space, a place of visual language that speaks more effectively without words to what is happening within its walls than any screenwriter could concoct.

The problematic side of the film arrives when it tries to create drama, which seems to split off into ideas that work and ideas that do not.  One element that does work is something that is not as prevalent in earlier film adaptations, the monster-versus-man element.  There is an upfront contrast here between Frollo and Quasimodo – one is a monster internally and the other externally, but who is the real monster here?  Each knows the real truth (despite Quasimodo’s claim that “I’m a monster, you know.”  He sings about “Heaven’s Light” while a moment later Frollo sings about “Hellfire”.  There is a bold contrast there especially in the two conflicting approaches to the Esmerelda character.  Quasimodo has fallen in love with her and sings, “I dare to dream that she might even care for me.”  Contrast that with “Hellfire” in which Frollo fears that his lust for Esmerelda will damn him to Hell – “This fire in my skin, this burning desire is turning me to sin.”  Frollo may be one of the most effective of Disney villains.  He isn’t evil because he loves being evil, but genuinely feels that ridding the world of sin and vice will save him from eternal damnation.  This song is so effective because it illustrates his fears of damning himself.  That’s a powerful statement and one not often made by a character in a Disney movie.

As flawed as Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be, one cannot discount that these are bold themes for a family movie.  The thematic element of the contrast between Frollo and Quasimodo – “Who is the monster and who is the man?” – is present here and almost absent from the other film adaptations.

Those are the elements of the film that work, but they wade in a sea of problems and inconsistencies.  One of the biggest is Quasimodo himself.  In previous film versions the character is seen as a lonely recluse, rendered deaf by the ringing of the bells and held off from communication with the outside world.  In the book, Quasimodo was Frollo’s foul-tempered errand boy.  Lon Chaney’s performance in the 1923 silent film portrayed him as an angry monster who hates humanity at large, and for good reason.  Charles Laughton’s performance in the 1939 version was as a frightened recluse who is more afraid of the outside world than scornful of it.  In the Disney version, Quasimodo is more expressive, more sensitive, more like an emo-teen who has problems at school – plus he is not deaf.  His relationship to Frollo is less as his errand boy and more like a victim of verbal and psychological abuse.

Even still, the movie versions lighten the load on his loneliness so we never feel the crush of his solitude.  His lonely life should be imparted by the fact that he is stuck in that bell tower with nothing to do and no one to talk to.  The Disney version relieves him of these burdens.  He has a hobby, in that he makes tiny sculptures and he has friends to talk to – three gargoyles who talk and dance and sing and encourage him.  He’s sad by the predicament of being under Frollo’s thumb, but it doesn’t seem to be all loss, and for the audience it doesn’t challenge them or grab them emotionally as it should.

Also, and this may not be a popular opinion, Quasimodo’s condition doesn’t seem to be all that crippling.  His misshapen head and teeth should alter his speech and, given his life-long solitude, should give him a limited vocabulary.  Certainly, the character would not be able to speak or to sing or to move as fluidly has he does.  He speaks openly with a fluid vocabulary, so why is Frollo taking the time to teach him his alphabet?  The character is supposed to be someone who has only viewed the world from high above the city, looking down upon it from the balconies of Notre Dame.  His only real human contact has been Frollo who imparts that the outside world is wicked and sinful.  His insights about his loneliness are undercut by the fact that he does have someone to talk to – the gargoyles.

And let’s talk about those gargoyles, shall we?

The trio of Victor, Hugo and Laverne have always been the film’s chief point of aggravation and for good reason.  They stand apart from the world in which they exist – they speak in modern slang, they sing a song to Quasimodo that is wildly out of place and, again, they wise-crack with insults and modernisms (“Come on, Quasi, snap out of it!”)  Plus, they stand outside of the film in general.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes place in the real world, in a real place, with realistic characters.  There’s no magical element to this world, no fantasy.  Yet, the gargoyles are able to walk and talk and then return to stone form when Frollo comes calling.  How?  Nothing else in this world acts like this.  The only way that this might work is if they were part of Quasimodo’s imagination like the ghost of Gusteau in Ratatouille, but no, they are able to move around and even interact as part of the film’s climactic battle scenes.  The presence of the gargoyles might be defended as comic relief if they didn’t stand so far apart from the rest of the film.

Then there’s the ending, which is the other bone of contention with audiences, particularly in the way in which it lightens the dramatic burden for the audience.  Phoebus and Esmerelda rather inexplicably fall in love and are given Quasimodo’s blessing and then Quasimodo is taken into the streets of Paris where he is welcomed with open arms and then carried off on the shoulders of joyful Parisians.  What!?  No!  No no no no no!  This makes no sense.  This idea comes out of nowhere so the movie can wrap up and avoid any sort of challenge to the audience.  Why would the people of Paris carry Quasimodo off like a hero?  This not only overturns Hugo’s ending but the ending of every single adaptation that has come before.  Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo gets stabbed.  Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo returns to his loneliness.  So how does this one get a pass?  Let us look into that.

The encroachment of adaptation often necessarily takes the darker edge off of Victor Hugo’s original book.  Disney gets flack for tossing in the gargoyles and for changing the ending (see above) but it was probably the most drastic and critically panned largely because it was made by America’s perennial family entertainment factory.  The movie is made to play to that audience, and it is far and away from the reasons that Hugo wrote the book in the first place – all film adaptations are guilty of this.

If we rewind the clock back to 1831, we can see that Hugo’s intent was to bring about some interest and attention to the cathedral of Notre Dame itself, to shed light on a piece of historic architecture that he saw as a pinnacle of France’s cultural identity.  But in order to adapt the story, it had to be made more palatable to a wider audience, and with the advent of the motion picture, certain circumstances would alter the story for the realm of visual mass media.  Film adaptations would come along almost before the ink was dry on the patent of the motion picture camera.  The first was a 10-minute, two-character short film made in 1905 by Alice Guy, followed by at least 9 adaptations since, each one with its unique intentions to change the story to suit its needs until we get the version of the story that we are all familiar with.

Universal’s 1923 version starred Lon Chaney who saw the film as his passion project.  Irving Thalberg pitched the idea to studio CEO Carl Laemmle as a love story – this is where we get the love story.  Sixteen years later, the 1939 version of the film starring Charles Laughton came at a moment when the Nazis were goose-stepping all over Europe and so this version ended up being the only film screened at the first ever Cannes Film Festival before the proceedings were cancelled due to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1st.  There is an appetizing and very poignant irony in this: a film that features fascism and genocide is the only film screened at a festival that was set up to oppose Hitler’s propogandist takeover of the Venice Film Festival.  Hence, the social justice element enters the public’s consciousness with regards to Hugo’s story even though it had little to nothing to do with what was on the page.  Out of these two extremely popular film adaptations came the public perception of what The Hunchback of Notre Dame is all about – which in Hugo’s book it is not.  Those elements would feed heavily into Disney’s version, which has very little to do with the source material – remember, David Stainton culled the idea from the Classics Illustrated comic, not Hugo’s book.

So, we can see that the public perception of each version is propped up and retooled to fit the needs of the times and circumstances in which it is made.  The earlier film versions needed to be rough on Quasimodo because the texture of each film demanded it.  So, knowing that, how did Disney’s version get a pass?  To ask that question is to answer it.  Film, particularly in the late 20th century and into the 21st century, is a battle between art and commerce.  Art and commerce are squabbling siblings always fighting for control and that’s what we have here.  Hugo’s art and Disney’s art were at odds with the market that it was trying to appeal to.  This version was aimed at a completely different market, a market of children for whom it was important to sell a story that was as positive as it could be.  Simplifying Quasimodo’s motivations makes him a more palatable hero.  Walt Disney created a brand of wholesome entertainment and when saddled with a brooding story like The Hunchback of Notre Dame it is hard to find a middle ground without upsetting supporters of either side.  Some might see this as Disney’s attempt to try something challenging, others might question whether it should have been done at all.  Certainly, the gargoyles are lauded as an unspeakable intrusion and certainly the ending aggravates those who are loyal to Hugo’s work.  Did Disney have to tack on an upbeat ending?  No, not really.  There is a way around this to make the ending less upbeat and slightly more bittersweet.  Perhaps Quasimodo is now the custodian of the sanctity of Notre Dame’s façade as penance for allowing a human being, evil or not, to die by his own hand (he didn’t, but Frollo’s death could have been reorganized to make it seem so).  The ending, in large part, takes the edge off of Hunchback’s darker scenes and restructuring it to make it slightly melancholier may have been a brilliant bookend in light of the darkness of the scene that opens it.

So, are we right in casting the film down for changing Hugo’s original intent.  Possibly but let us remember that it wasn’t the only film to do so.  There are problems obviously, and changes could have been made that ebbed the story closer to the grim tone of the novel of which this story is inspired by but not inherently based.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame is virtually resistant to the Disney formula and it is likely that Disney managed to get as close to the darkness of Hugo’s book as they could without stepping too far outside the Disney brand.  Its problematic, it’s flawed, and you can argue the film from both perspectives.  Should Disney have even tried to adapt Victor Hugo in the first place?  The debate will continue.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.