I get that Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic. I get that Disney once again took an amazing story and turned it into animation, to share it with the worldwide community and expose children to magnificent stories to read later in life. While I usually agree with Disney’s alterations in the name of protecting innocence, I think they could have made a few more here. I would not want my child to see this movie. While they wouldn’t get the sexual undertones, I wouldn’t want them to even pick up on them. There isn’t a lot of character growth and there’s very little redemption.
I tried to give Hunchback a chance; I really did. It wasn’t one I saw in theatres as a kid, but I did own the VHS. I watched it once and hated it. Quasimodo isn’t especially likeable and those gargoyles are just obnoxious. We spend the whole movie watching the gargoyles get Quasimodo’s hopes up about Esmeralda and then see her and Phoebus falling for each other in every other scene. You know his hopes are going to get dashed and there’s not a thing you can do about it.
I’ll start with this: Quasimodo isn’t likeable. In the beginning of the movie, he is likeable. We know his story, we know how amazing it is that he isn’t a terrible person after being ‘raised’ by Frollo. We know how inherently evil Frollo is; maybe Quasimodo subconsciously detects that and that’s why he turns into a whimpering mouse around him. Watching oppression isn’t exactly enjoyable. Throughout the movie, we see him be realistic, and that’s great. Then the stupid gargoyles come in and convince him to go outside/pursue Esmeralda/ etc. And he listens to them! His mind is too easily swayed, which makes me like him less. He is selfless, and for that I like him. But that comes at the end, when I’ve already spent over an hour being irritated by him.
We see Phoebus meet Esmeralda and save the day (with a Greek mythology pun too; got to love that!). We see him continually try to help her and save helpless babies and farm families and so on and so forth. But he doesn’t do anything to protect Quasimodo from the angry crowd after the guards start throwing tomatoes at him. The crowd wasn’t an angry mob before the guards added their insult; the guards caused the problem. Phoebus’ unwillingness to rectify the situation against Frollo’s wishes at this point shows his courage against oppression is due only to Esmeralda and his infatuation with her. He knows people are being abused because Frollo is looking for her, and he’s willing to help anyone who would’ve helped her. He also doesn’t do anything to help Quasimodo until Esmeralda starts helping him. His courage seems to be only fueled by her, which isn’t very honorable.
There’s very little character growth in the film. Phoebus, Esmeralda and Frollo are all static characters; they are either good or evil, with no redemption and no changes occurring. Quasimodo becomes courageous in order to help the oppressed, but it’s also because of an infatuation with Esmeralda. He slowly learns his own worth and how his appearance doesn’t change the fact that he’s a good person. He’s finally accepted by society in the end, but he’s still insecure, which was one of his biggest problems. There’s also very little redemption. Phoebus redeems himself by saving the farm family and trying to help the gypsies. But other than that, no one else changes at all. Esmeralda learns to trust Phoebus, but only because he helped save her and fight for her cause.
And now for the big one: the sexual undertones in this movie are ridiculous. Apparently the whole dang cast is in love with Esmeralda, the dancing gypsy. When she’s just dancing in her regular clothes, it’s not overtly sexual. But her act during the feast of fools looks like something more fit for a stripper’s pole. Oh wait, she has one of those! She takes a spear from one of the soldiers and uses it as a pole, to seductively dance around and slide down. No, really. Skip ahead to 2:20 and watch to 3 minutes. You'll see.
In addition to Esmeralda’s stripper moves, Frollo further sexualizes her in his song, “Hellfire”, about how lustful he is towards her. She appears dancing in the flames, still taunting him. He sings about how she can choose him or death. The MPAA made Disney redo this scene, requiring her clothing to be more well-defined. Yeah, because the song lyrics weren’t terribly, horrifically disturbing. Oh wait, they were. Thanks, MPAA, for making the fire-girl have a well-defined clothing line. That was super helpful and didn’t at all distract from the fact that Frollo will make her choose to sleep with him or die. Thanks for that.
It’s a shame that Disney’s incredibly strong heroine of Esmeralda had to be lusted-up for that subplot. She’s strong, an independent thinker and, if not for the pole-dance, would be a great role-model for young girls. She can take care of herself, and she does so quite well. And she has an awesome pet goat named Djali, which is just so fun (though it’s pronounced ‘jolly’, which literally means fun! Yay goats!). On the plus side, I wasn’t ever concerned for Djali’s life, so that was a nice relief.
Obviously Disney had to water down the book to make it suitable for children. I don’t know that they really accomplished that task. Frollo is evil enough without being consumed by lust for a person that belong to a race he’s trying to dispel from Paris. Oh, and by the way? Remember the beginning of the movie, when Quasimodo’s parents were arrested? How they were both dark skinned gypsies, and Frollo killed the mother? Isn’t it odd, then, that Quasimodo would be a pale Caucasian instead of dark skinned, like BOTH his parents were? Huh. Funny.
I thought Frollo’s death was incredibly appropriate, as he said the fire of damnation would claim evil souls or something of that sort, and then he himself fell into a fiery river. How did that happen exactly? I wasn’t totally clear on how Quasimodo manufactured lava in his bell tower and then poured it towards both the good people trying to save the gypsies and the evil people trying to kill people for their differences. What a chemist, that Quasimodo.
Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I was disappointed that Frollo died instead of having to suffer the justice system for his crimes. Then again, it is the French justice system that Frollo was a part of, so perhaps fiery death is preferred.
The goat was awesome, but I could leave the rest of the film on the cutting room floor. Sorry, Hunchback. On the plus side, the musical composition was amazing. The lyrics were sometimes wonderful, sometimes eh. But I thought both “Bells of Notre Dame” and Esmeralda’s song in the church, “God Help the Outcasts” were wonderful and really the only high points of the film. The rest is just too dark. Disney is my escape from darkness; this film is like escaping to an even darker world.
It breaks my heart to dislike two Disney films so much (this and Pinocchio), but I can’t help it. I do hope they’ll stay away from such non-suitable material in the future. And I desperately hope I like the rest of the films!