Jab’s Reviews: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996):

Written by: Victor Hugo (original novel), Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, Jonathan Roberts

This one’s a bit funny, because it was kind of forgotten as a disappointment when it first came out, and Disney isn’t really crazy about it. Coming on the heels of the crappy Pocahontas didn’t help, as people were already “WELP THAT’S THE END OF THE RENAISSANCE”, as I’ve gone into before- people were expecting it to suck, and when it turned out to be not great, they gave up on it. I never liked it much as a kid (and as a teen, Esmeralda should have made this MY FAVORITE), and I wanted to see it as an adult to find if my tastes had changed and I’d short-changed it before.

It’s… still not as good as many other films. Revisionist History has had many fans claiming it to be the absolute best of its era, but I don’t see it at all. Quasimodo is well-designed and a truly pathetic figure, and France/Notre Dame itself are great set-pieces, but I just don’t feel this overall story compared to many other classics. The Gargoyles are REALLY awful Sidekick Characters (this was when Disney was getting extremely obvious & silly with it- Pocahontas’ Meeko & Flit being the worst), which taints the movie for a lot of people (Jason Alexander doing that stupid “pour the wine and CUT THE CHEESE!” joke in every preview made it look stupid- Lindsay Ellis, in her review, shows this clip something like ten times to make a point about the movie’s tone problems).

The music is mostly dull and generic and forgettable (Out There is as generic as an “I Want” Song gets, and has been completely forgotten), with one notable exception. As a kid, I was like “man, this isn’t any good” largely because of the Gargoyles and the fact that the hero didn’t get the girl in the end (well, ONE did, but I was trained to think that Main Characters always got rewarded with hot ladies at the finale).

One of the main issues is tone- it starts out with a racism-tinged murder, contains frequent mentions of “Hell”, the villain is a bigot, the hero deformed, and everyone’s very miserable and afraid… and now it’s time for some WACKY HIJINKS! Pour the wine and CUT THE CHEESE (*makes fart noises with underarm*). Another issue is that Phoebus & Esmeralda aren’t really as well-thought-out as supporting characters should be. Esmeralda notably had a TON of work put into her design (making her look like an Ethnic Fanservice Goddess), but is primarily there for faps and doesn’t have a very solid character. Phoebus is possibly the most Generic Handsome Hero character of all time, taking that role from even John Smith- they even have the same basic Character Arc- they work for the Disney Villain, but are turned to the side of good by Ethnic Boobies.

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It’s kind of a pity- the animation here is RIDICULOUSLY amazing- things had advanced so far beyond The Little Mermaid & Beauty and The Beast that it was terrifying. The background details and crowd scenes beat anything that’d ever come before (though once you recognize “CGI Dancing Man” the effect is a bit iffy). It’s just sad they were kind of wasted on a weaker story with more poor characters- it’s sort of like watching Casablanca on it’s black & white old scratchy film, then seeing a modern HD masterpiece of digital design… but it’s by Michael Bay. Just a waste. This movie is clearly more poorly directed, with less iconic scenes and imagery, despite all it’s luster.

Lindsay Ellis has a really good video essay about the movie, and the adaptations that have followed Victor Hugo’s work for years. His original story is very grim, and VERY inappropriate for Disney, which right away should have been a warning sign. In the original, Esmeralda isn’t actually a Gyspy- she’s a European child STOLEN by thieving Gypsies (this was a frequent fear back in the day), and a lot of the story is based around the lust the three men- Frollo, Phoebus & Quasimodo- have for her. Frollo in particular was a pious man brought low by this sin. Also, most of the characters die, and Quasimodo never speaks. So HERE’S YOUR WACKY, HOPEFUL PROTAGONIST, KIDS!! Nicer versions have existed (some of which written by Hugo himself, who, oddly enough, wrote the original novel largely to build up public interest in RENOVATING the decrepit old “Lady of France”, which had fallen into severe disrepair at the time), but primarily, it’s kind of a weirdly-done movie.

The movie’s clear highlight is Tony Jay as Judge Frollo- Megabyte rocks the house . His booming voice and nasty villainy, turning the “Disney Villain” role into a bigoted monster consumed by lust instead of power, really stands out from the lot, and he’s easily the most memorable part of the whole thing. His song Hellfire absolutely brings the house down (Stephen Schwartz, who wrote some of the songs for the movie, went on to write the score for Wicked), and easily holds up against the villain songs of any other Disney character (and keep in mind that includes classics like Be Prepared and Poor Unfortunate Souls).

Overall, it’s still a GOOD movie, but it’s just nowhere near as good as its contemporaries (it’s handily trumped by the Mermaid, Beauty, Lion & Aladdin movies, and Mulan is also better). Its humor isn’t as good, its heroines & heroes aren’t as good, and the songs (with one exception) don’t hold up. It’s just kind of a shame. It doesn’t help that it’s one of the Disney movies MUCH more well-known from its source material.

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QUASIMODO

Quasimodo, as the hero of the film, is a pretty basic dude- he’s ugly but wants to be part of the people, thus gets his “I Want” song almost immediately (“I want to BEEEEE… OUT… THERRRRRRRE!”). The animators did a heckuva job on his design, making him look ugly but cute at the same time so that the audience wouldn’t lose all sympathy for his character- James Baxter was also a head designer of attractive female characters like Jessica Rabbit, Ariel & Belle, so it’s surprising to see him do so well with an ugly male. Unfortunately, as I’ve gone into before, most of his songs are pretty generic- Out There is borrrrrrrrrrrrrring. There’s some good stuff when he finally loses it on the father figure who’d lectured him for so long- his final rant to Frollo is pretty epic and sadly forgotten.

-Another issue with Quasi is how… non-descript he can feel. The original character in the novel is a rather pathetic, mute figure, but this guy is what became a Disney Standard- “The Outsider”. My friend’s wife openly said that “Frozen is just Hunchback” because that was her first recognition of the concept, but it’s pretty common, especially by the more identity-focused ’90s. Quasimodo ends up having a lot of traits in common with characters like Rapunzel, Elsa, Stitch and more, but all of those people ended up being a lot more likeable and famous than he did. Like Hercules, who followed him, he’s decent enough, but is the third-most-popular character of the feature, behind The Villain and The Girl.

About the Performer: … I have absolutely no idea who Tom Hulce is. But he was apparently Mozart in Amadeus (a role that had SERIOUS competition aiming for it), and Pinto in Animal House, and he’s a pretty big name in Broadway as an actor and producer, so he’s a good pick for Quasi. He’s most notable as a producer for making Spring Awakening, which was a big hit and got Lea Michele her start.

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ESMERALDA

Esmeralda was clearly supposed to be a dramatic force of Fanservice in Hunchback, but honestly, she kind of fell flat for me (well, metaphorically speaking…). The problem was, she’s not as outrageous as the more flagrant attempts in Animaniacs (“HELLLOOOOOOOOOOOOO Nurse!”) or the Bruce Timm-designed women from the TV shows of the same era. So basically, the character was left hovering in this uncomfortable zone where she’s G-Rated and “Nice”, when she should have been BAAAAAAAAAAAAD, and she never surpasses anyone at anything.

Part of the problem too was Demi Moore as a voice actress- I mean, she was chosen for her sultry voice, which I get- it’s plain hot. But Demi’s talents never quite involved… ACTING. She just kind of isn’t as good as you’d expect for a high-end Disney production. Okay, that scene where her & Phoebus Fight/Flirt is pretty quality (the best foreplay involves combat, I always say… well I don’t, but I should), but the rest of her is “meh”. She has a generic “We Want” song about her gypsy brethren, etc., too, but I kinda found it forgettable.

About the Performer: Demi Moore is, of course, ultra-ultra-famous, having gotten her start in the 1980s as basically “The Hot Girl” and getting all sorts of roles in Sharon Stone-esque “Sex Movies” like Disclosure. Being cute and having a great body, in addition to a husky voice, was a big draw, and she was a REALLY big name for a while. A famous celebrity marriage to Bruce Willis only helped her out. However, the time right around Hunchback was disastrous for her- The Scarlet Letter was an ill-fated attempt at being a dramatic role for her, but contained a random nude scene (because she was still mainly known as a hottie and they wanted some more eyeballs on the picture) and some bad adaptational choices finished it.

And then… there was Striptease, which was hyped for MONTHS in magazines and on TV- Sex Sells, so everyone was expecting Sex to Sell… but it didn’t. It turns out that basing an ENTIRE MOVIE around boobs doesn’t actually work- it had to be a Romance/Thriller thing for it to sell. That Striptease also featured a really bad performance by her didn’t help. The movie was really the death-knell for her career- she was a new Bo Derek: a poorly-acting Miss Fanservice.

Movies like G.I. Jane didn’t help, and she pretty much vanished from the public picture until she suddenly popped up as Ashton Kutcher’s cougar-ish girlfriend, which gave her a NEW push… which lasted about a month, as A) she was too old for a major push by age-ist Hollywood, and B) she wasn’t actually a good actress anyways. So she did a bit more stuff, but then pretty much disappeared again, especially once her Hot New Relationship (which was EVERYWHERE at the time- constantly talked about because of the rarity of such a coupling in Hollywood) faded away.

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PHOEBUS

Phoebus is a pretty dull character aside from his sexy brawl with Esmeralda. Where in the original book he’s a lout and womanizer who quickly ignores the obsessed Esmeralda, here he’s more your Blond He-Man like John Smith, uber-capable and super-handsome and charming (and with a pretty plain design to complete the match), and he runs around doing heroic stuff a lot. Hardly objectionable stuff, but he doesn’t really appear in any Disney-related stuff anymore because of how plain he is. Overall, he’s a PL 7 bad-ass like Quasimodo & John Smith- just under the ranks of Super-Heroes but above that of most movie characters.

About the Performer: Kevin Kline is in that weird zone of being well-respected and having a very long career, but not being super-DUPER famous or anything. A Juilliard graduate, he made his rep in the theatre, and got a film career going in Sophie’s Choice. He’d landed a Tony Award before 1985, and an Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda in 1989. I really knew very little of his career beforehand (all I could think of off the top of my head was In and Out and the live-action Beauty and the Beast, where he did the film’s best acting as Belle’s father), so much of this came as a surprise to me- his Phoebus was a pretty forgettable performance. And holy shit- he’s been married to Phoebe Cates for like 30 years!

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Beata Maria
You know I am a righteous man;
Of my virtue I am justly proud

Beata Maria
You know I’m so much purer than
The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd…

Then tell me, Maria!
Why I see her dancing there!
Why her smold’ring eyes still scorch my SOUL!!!

I feel her, I see her!
The sun caught in raven hair!
Is blazing in me out of all control!

………Like FIRE!!
HELLFIRE!!
This fire in my skin!
This burning…

DESIRE
Is turning me to sin!

JUDGE CLAUDE FROLLO

If there’s anything that can turn a mediocre, forgettable movie into an awesome one, it’s a great villain. Frollo is above and beyond the greatest thing about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and is played to the HILT by Tony Jay, who uses his theatrical training to maximum effect. Like most Disney villains, Frollo is detestable, untrustworthy and violent. However, unlike many Disney Villains, who revel in their evil, he’s a hypocrite who thinks he’s doing the right thing- he believes that he is a pious, righteous man and “justly proud” of his virtue, forgetting that Pride is THE BIG SIN of the seven deadly ones. He’s also set apart by some of his primary motivations- bigotry and lust.

Frollo despises sinners (basically, everyone who isn’t him) and Gypsies, and once he falls for the sexy Esmeralda, he ends up obsessing to the point where he threatens to “Burn down all of Paris!” (and damn near accomplishes it), and sings an entire song about how much he wants to bone her despite himself. And he gets one of the most symbolic deaths in Disney- technically a “Disney Villain Death” since he’s just falling (one of TEN villains to die this way)- but this time he’s threatened by a “demon” and thrown into a giant pit of molten metal that looks pretty much identical to Hell.

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His Villain Song, Hellfire, is EPIC, and usually given as the movie’s biggest highlight. I would consider it the greatest Villain Song of all time, even better than Scar or Ursula’s. Tony Jay rocks the house to the point where I wish he’d have released more music before he died- ACTING while singing at the same time isn’t easy, and he pulls it off with great aplomb, acting horrified (at Esmeralda’s appearance in the flames of the fireplace), sinful, repentant, desperate, angry, lustful and dangerously obsessed all within three minutes’ time. Possibly the best song Disney ever put out, and it easily holds up with Alan Menken & Stephen Wicked Schwartz’s best stuff.

About the Performer: Known for his SPECTACULARLY deep, menacing, but still erudite and high-cultured voice, Tony Jay was a big name in the voice acting business, with Frollo being his biggest role. He was also Virgil the fowl in Mighty Max, the replacement for Shere Khan, and notably Megabyte in the fantastic ReBoot.

He acted mostly in England in the ’70s and ’80s (apparently he was up for the role of a certain Jedi Master in something called Galactic Warfare at the time), but took to voice acting in the 1990s, doing pretty much EVERYTHING offered, from young children’s TV (like Spideris in Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Kids), to narration, to the silly Mighty Ducks cartoon (about literal alien duck-people who disguised themselves as a hockey team) to The Savage Dragon (as Overlord). He died in 2006 due to complications from surgery at 73 years old.

 

Reception & Cultural Impact:

Money-wise, it actually did very well. I mean, equal to Pocahontas, and about a third of The Lion King– $325 million, thereabouts. But CRITICALLY? No, definitely not. As an adaptation of a very serious, literary work, Hunchback was derided from the beginning as a somewhat inappropriate tale, and the aforementioned tonal issues were brought up. Roger Ebert LOVED it, saying it was better than Aladdin and The Lion King (“The best Disney film since Beauty and the Beast“).

The general reception was more like “Well… it’s PRETTY decent.” Like I said, coming on the heels of Pocahontas did it no favors, as people were kind of waiting to see if the next film was gonna be Aladdin good, and when it didn’t turn out that way, people were disappointed. It was actually rather popular in France, considering it’s modifying one of their country’s most-beloved novels, though Victor Hugo’s biographers and descendants were pissy about it.

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The movie’s actual reception has oddly increased with time- somewhat vindicated by history, its darker themes and villainy have stood the test of time. Claude Frollo, a VICIOUS, nasty villain, has gone on to become one of Disney’s popular baddies, showing up in Disney Parks as a meetable character even today (he, like Jafar & Ratcliffe, is a Head Character, and wears a full body costume and a head mask, unlike most of the female villains, who just wear make-up and are Face Characters).

The song Hellfire, bolstered by YouTube and other sources, has gone on to become REALLY popular, though for obvious reasons doesn’t get a lot of airplay in Disney Stores or Disney Parks.

 

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