Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those half-forgotten Disney movies. The film is about a hunchback (obviously) named Quasimodo who must rescue the city of Paris from a genocide and predictably finds his own sense of self-worth in the process. Along the way he meets Esmeralda, a gypsy dancer whose sense of justice propels her to seek equality for her people, and Phoebus, a captain with integrity. The villain is a priest named Frollo, a vain, pious man who seeks to exterminate the gypsies and uses religion to justify everything he does. The movie came out in 1996 to generally positive reviews.

Many Disney movies face the task of turning dark stories into children's entertainment, but the end results are not quite as dark as Hunchback. The movie manages to get a G rating and still heavily features genocide, racism, lust as sin, religious hypocrisy, and the shallowness of society; it also includes infanticide and mob mentality on the side. Many scenes could be too much for young people: public humiliation of the protagonist, off-screen torture, an entire song about racism and slut-shaming (which will probably go over most kids' heads), and a baby nearly thrown down a well. These elements are not pure shock factor since they color the story, but they may affect the movie's ability to entertain young children.

With regards to characters, it is easy to sympathize with Quasimodo's curiosity and self-loathing and Phoebus's struggle between following orders and his heart, to loathe the repugnant Frollo and laugh at Quasimodo's gnome friends. But most of the people feel two-dimensional: Quasimodo is the sympathetic do-gooder, Phoebus has a heart of gold but doesn't act on it, Frollo is pure evil in a very modern way. The only memorable character is Esmeralda. She has darker skin, sexier curves, more ambition, and more choices to make than most Disney women, although she does play the damsel in distress during the movie's climax. She finds a man to love, but does so out of her own volition, and she has ambition outside of romance. Esmeralda develops enough to break free from her stereotype. She is however a static character.

The guards represent Disney's fear of creating dynamic female characters who don't conform to stereotypes. Right after this shot Esmeralda runs away, symbolizing her success as a character but also Disney's failure to celebrate her.
What Hunchback also lacks is memorable songs. The opening piece (Bells of Notre Dame) and God Help the Outcasts are decent, but nothing close to Under the Sea or Let It Go or Friend Like Me. The song sung by Quasimodo's gnome friends, A Guy Like You, was boring. Hellfire, Frollo's villain number, is memorable only because of its unusually violent lyrics that punish Esmeralda for being attractive to Frollo--otherwise known as misogynistic victim-blaming.

Overall however the story compels despite the cliches it depends on. The narrative questions successfully drive the story--Will Quasimodo be accepted by the people? Why are people so judgmental? Will Esmeralda get equality for the gypsies?--and the characters generate sympathy and anger when Disney wants them to.

With regards to lessons learned, Hunchback teaches that appearances can be overcome, not that they are meaningless, because Quasimodo had to do something beautiful in order for people to see him as worthy. Some say that it teaches that only attractive guys "get the girl." While it is true that the true attractive people paired up and the ugly one is single, Esmeralda chose who she wanted to be with and saw the hunchback as a brother. Quasimodo is not more entitled to Esmeralda than Phoebus is simply because he is the protagonist. Lastly, the movie taught that immoral people are bad because--spoiler alert--a demon kills Frollo for his sins.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is unusually heavy fare, but it keeps moving with decent characters and compelling problems to tackle. Just don't expect memorable music.


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