What the hell am I watching?
When the bells are ringing, the choir is belting, and the title finally makes its grand entrance, aren’t you thinking this is going to be the best movie ever? I don’t know; I thought the animation at times paralleled The Lion King’s epic opening set, but it really does go to waste in this one. You go from that annoying puppeteer narrator dressed in bright purple and yellow tights to… a chilling winter night chase in which a deformed baby nearly plummets down a well after the murder of his mother. And it would be okay if this sort of tone is revisited like once or twice later, but this movie is just all over the place trying to pass as a kid’s movie—it is a scary story.
In case you aren’t quite convinced… a priest talks the villain who killed the deformed baby’s mother into raising Quasimodo (“half-formed”…) as his own son in order to repent for his sin… Quasimodo is raised to believe he is a monster and slave… Quasimodo’s first interaction with the town ends with him being tied down and spun around while being hammered with tomatoes and eggs… Frollo does some ethnic cleansing in the same manner as Hitler… Frollo through a song called Hellfire expresses his lust for a gypsy whose entire race he is trying to extinguish WHAT!?! This is all in a singular family film? Oh, wait, I’m not done?
Esmeralda, the gypsy Frollo finds sexually attractive, kisses Quasimodo only to fall in love with a knight in shining armor (talk about a love triangle, err, square)… Phoebus, the knight in shining armor, gets pierced with an arrow and almost bleeds to death… Frollo doesn’t get his way with Esmeralda and starts burning down all of Paris… Frollo uses Quasimodo to find the gypsy’s hiding spot only to later try to stab him to death… Frollo falls into bed of lava and… yeah, do you get my point?
It’s a mess. It jumps around so erratically trying to be a kid’s movie in one scene and then a serious adult movie in the next. I enjoyed the serious adult stuff (at times) but the kid stuff was so out of place and annoying. Like, imagine if The Matrix had a random musical number in the middle of it where all the characters sing and dance… what in the world? This movie had to make up its mind, was it going to be a kid’s movie or was it going to be an adult’s? Based on all indications, it seems to me that Disney had a family film in mind and so I will critique according: this is not a kid’s movie!!! And even with a movie-for-the-parents mentality, it’s still not that good because of those darn annoying gargoyles.
Quasimodo is a serviceable character. Plus, he’s designed very well. Sure he’s deformed, but I would totally buy a stuffed version of him at the store for someone’s Christmas present. I will have to complain that just because Quasimodo is physically deformed does not mean he needs to have a sub-par voice, but it’s pretty minor compared to other complaints I have for this film. Quasimodo works because at his roots, he is like an Ariel or a Belle who wants something more than what has been offered to them. And quite frankly, Quasimodo makes those princesses seem spoiled because all Quasimodo wants to have is the freedom to join the people, the town of Notre Dame, instead of being trapped inside a bell tower. He’s a really down-to-earth kind of guy who wants nothing but what’s fair and right, but you can’t help to be more sympathetic rather than admired by Quasimodo.
Bringing it all together
There’s a part of me that wants to appreciate the film for pushing the definition of a kid’s movie, but it pushes too far in the process of doing so. After the critical failure of Pocahontas, the gloomy and depressing story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo wasn’t probably where Disney should have gone to rebound. Instead, it just falls flat on its face getting confused by what sort of a movie it wanted to be in the first place.
The message is pretty deep. It covers a lot of mature topics such as praying, genocide, hell, minority groups, sin, gypsies, physical deformities, outcasts, mob mentality, and the church. Before re-watching this film, I was excited because I honestly forgot almost everything about the film. Now I know why… I probably didn’t understand any of it, was terrified by it, and pushed it aside for the better Disney classics. In other words, the message is just too deep for kids under thirteen to get, and I don’t know how this managed to sneak away with a G rating.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame has its moments when you open your mouth in awe and when your heart shakes in turmoil. The choir in this movie is just superb and it sets the tone of its scenes perfectly. However, this daunting tone is revisited much too frequently for it to be considered a kid’s movie and even when treating this as an adult movie, it has kid moments in it which are really distracting. This is Disney’s last high-end animation of the Disney renaissance and unfortunately, it puts the animation in front of everything else.