Originally published on Creators.co on June 16th, 2017
With the release of Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 this upcoming weekend it got me thinking about Disney’s animated films in general (and not just Pixar). The Cars franchise is the most divisive in Pixar’s library of films. The first Cars had the lowest critical reception among Pixar’s staggering number of masterpieces. But, more than enough people liked Cars to call the movie a success. Cars 2 however, was not that lucky. Cars2 remains the only Pixar film to have a rotten score on Rottentomatoes (with only 39% of critics giving the movie a positive review). Still, I have had a few people try to defend the Cars movies to me (which I don’t think the majority of people would do). I admire the passion for sure.
But this got me thinking, what Disney or Pixar animated movies would I defend and what movies do I find severely underrated? Whenever I start to think about this question, my mind always goes to one movie, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1996 as the Disney Renascence Era was fading out. While true this movie doesn’t have Cars 2 numbers critically (the movie currently sits at a 73 percent on Rottentomatoes) it’s still not mentioned as a great Disney classic. Some might say, well, of course, it’s not! Hunchback of Notre Dame is no Lion King or Aladdin, right? Well, I actually think it is. That may be a bold claim to some but it’s one I feel I can confidently make. I think The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Disney’s most underrated film for five reasons!
1. The Animation
This reason will come as no surprise, the animation in this movie is amazing. This is Disney, you know you’re going to get great animation. Especially Disney animation of the 1990s. Around this time there was nobody in North America that could match them. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no different. This movie follows Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, so this had a lot to live up too.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s animation is gorgeous. The character animation, the facial expressions, the look, and the art style are all stunning; easily some of the best Disney has ever done. You can watch the movie right now and the animation completely holds up with modern films today. There is early CG in the movie that is subtle and really adds some depth to the look of the movie.
The other thing about this movie’s animation is just how massive the movie feels. Watch this on the biggest screen you can because “Hunchback” makes use of every inch of the screen. There are these amazing wide shots of Notre Dame, the city, and of the action; it’s impossible not get swept up in the awe of it all. This movie is directed by the same team as Beauty and the Beast and it certainly shows.
While Beauty and the Beast the directing team of Gary Trousdales and Kirk Wise really showcased the wide open countryside of France and the Gothic castle of the Beast, this movie really showcases the city of Paris and makes it feel alive with character and personality. You could watch the movie on silent and just get caught up in the animation and still be able to tell what is going on. When animation is able to do that you know you have something special on your hands.
A lot of the 1990s Disney movies were musicals. Outside of two movies, from 1989-1999 they were all musicals and a lot of people remember Disney fondly for their musicals. A movie like Hunchback cannot be elevated unless the music and its songs live up to the Disney movies around it. And that’s where Hunchback shines once again. There are three in particular that are outstanding, The Bells of Notre Dame, Out There, and Hellfire. The Bells of Notre Dame is super catchy with the song’s cadence and church choir. It plays a few times in the movie and it really opens the story on an epic but also tragic note. Out There is one of my personal favorite Disney “hero” songs. Out There starts off slow with the chief villain, Frollo, manipulating our hero, Quasimodo, before building into this wonderful, hopeful and happy crescendo that really develops Quasimodo as a character.
Then the show stealer is Hellfire (or as it’s listed on the soundtrack Heaven’s Light/Hellfire). I have a feeling that Hellfire didn’t pop with the public the same way that something like a Be Our Guest or Friend Like Me is because Hellfire is a dark song. Disney has done plenty of villain songs before (Be Prepared from The Lion King is another one I love) but most of those songs still have a bit of a lightheartedness to it. Hellfire is a heavy song for a Disney film. There is innuendo in it, a lot of visceral power, and metaphor. But above all of that, it is sung perfectly. It’s dark but extremely impactful. This song alone really helps build the villain of Frollo on a much higher plane and gives him depth and complexity (but more on that later).
The rest of the songs are good too. You got songs like Topsy Turvy (which is absolutely delightful), Court of Miracles is good and hey I don’t mind A Guy Like You. Composer Alan Menken really outdid himself with this one.
3. The Quality Of Its Drama
I think one of the things that held this movie back from the general public is this isn’t as lighthearted as the other Disney animated movies. Not to say other Disney movies don’t have their dark moments because they certainly do (the death of Mufasa will never leave me no matter how old I get). But even Lion King has more lighter hearted moments than Hunchback does. Not that I’m trying to sell Hunchback as some dark dramatic art house piece but it is arguably Disney’s darkest entry in their animation canon. With that, the filmmakers make sure to bring a fair amount of dramatic heft and poignancy. They do break Disney clichés; they go for the dramatic moments. As I mention in the last previous section, Hellfire is not just a good villain song but it’s also very heavy and dramatic because it’s about Frollo in conflict with himself. The song isn’t there just to sell CD soundtracks, it’s there for character and drama.
The filmmakers smartly use the more light-hearted moments and bright colors to juxtapose the darkness of the film. There are many moments that are both quiet and big that carry a dramatic weight that isn’t seen in a lot of Disney films like the finale of the movie or the Paris Burning scene.
Apparently, there were many clashes between the studio execs and the filmmakers over some of these scenes. This conflict was over not just the content of these scenes but also the treatment of religion. Some execs found some of the material in this movie “too controversial”. Having controversial themes or material doesn’t make something good but it’s the treatment of those themes and execution of the drama that makes something compelling and masterful. The Hunchback of Notre Dame balances all of its tones and themes which make for an affecting animation piece. More so than a Disney movie like Robin Hood or Cinderella (both of which I enjoy) I remember The Hunchback of Notre Dame for more than it’s Disney stylings. I remember this movie more for what it is trying to say and the power its drama.
4. The Characters
I’ve alluded to this throughout my other reasons but now it’s time to say it, the characters are not only well drawn, but they are also deep, and complex. There is a richness to each one of the main players. Quasimodo is a great lead because of the development he goes through and the dark past that he has yet to discover. But yet he is still hopeful. He fails, he succeeds, he learns, he goes through a lot throughout the course of the movie and while he doesn’t get the traditional happily ever after (with marrying a princess and all) he gets one that is suited perfectly for him. Phoebus is a character that plays against type and goes through his own journey as a soldier at the villain’s side (at least to start). Esmeralda compliments Quasimodo and is given much more to do than most Disney female leads. The Gypsies aren’t wholly good but they are not the evil that Frollo paints them as either, which adds more depth to their struggle and to the villain’s conquest.
But the show stealer is the character of Frollo. Frollo is without a doubt one of the best villains Disney has ever done. The voice by Tony Joy is deep and threatening. His motivations are not just because he wants power or fame. His motivations rest deep beneath righteousness and sin. He exists in an area where he wants to do good and every time he commits sin he does penance (at least when he sees the sin as sin). He is in conflict with his God. More often than not , the best villains see themselves as the good guys. Frollo is that type of villain. You understand his perspective even if it disgusts you as a viewer. The actions of Frollo are quite despicable. He will go as far as attempting to burn a family alive in their home. He might not be as colorful as a Jafar (whom I love as well) but he no doubt deserves to be amongst the best Disney villains
This might be a controversial reason but hear me (book readers) before you turn away. I think part of the reason why this movie was not looked at with the fondest eyes is because this movie is no doubt very different than the book. Hunchback can be pretty dark at times but the book is far darker and more tragic (not to mention a very disturbing ending). It’s understandable why many avid fans of the book would be turned off to the idea that Disney would be doing a rendition of it (the original book doesn’t scream Disney). But then again if you look at the original stories of Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid (that fairy was also pretty dark at times; not like the Disney movie) they don’t resemble the adaptations either (or Jungle Book for that matter). Yet all of these films are praised and remembered fondly.
I say this as my number five reason because I believe Disney did an amazing job adapting the bare bones of the story and really turning it into their own; carrying over a few of the darker themes without betraying their tone. This movie works and completely functions as a separate entity. I really love seeing filmmakers take something and really make it their own. Steven Spielberg did it with #JurassicParkand Stanly Kubrick did it with #TheShining. I believe Disney did that with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It resembles the original book in parts but it unique onto itself.
There are also so many different versions and adaptations of the original novel to choose from that ignoring this one feels foolish and stubborn. Especially, when there are so many great things about this movie. Since this is a Disney movie that’ll be an entry point for many younger viewers to grow up with. Perhaps after their experience with this movie, they will want to read the novel when they got older (as I did). Again with so many different versions of the story in film there is room for different interpretations I really like the 1923 Lon Chaney silent classic and I love this version as well.
I’ve noticed recently that this movie is getting more and more recognition (at the very least it feels like it is). Is it perfect? Not quite, the gargoyles can get a little annoying from time to time. It is also a little confusing as to the nature of their reality. Are they real or are they not? It’s never made clear. It’s not ambiguous either, it’s just confusing and at times contradictory. But that’s really my only problem with the movie. I do think it deserves a much higher ranking in the Disney pantheon than it has gotten.
Why didn’t it get that credit? It could be a combination of factors. The movie is so vastly different than the book didn’t help it and this was also following the disappointing Pocahontas. Perhaps, people were looking for a film more like Beauty and the Beast for the animation studio to bounce back with. Maybe it didn’t connect with people until later, or it came out at the wrong time, or perhaps we all saw something different in this movie
Whenever I talk about this movie with someone that hasn’t seen it I almost always direct them to Roger Ebert’s review. In the review, his concluding paragraph really sums up how I feel about the movie and what animation can achieve in general. Ebert would write,
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is a high point in the renaissance of Disney animation that began in 1989 with “The Little Mermaid.” It blends Menken’s songs, glorious animation, boundless energy and the real substance of the story into a movie of heart and joy…it is as good for its story and message as for its animation. It reminds us, as all good animation does, that somehow these cartoons of lines and colors and movements can create a kind of life that is more archetypal, more liberating, than images that are weighed down by human bodies and the gravity that traps them.
I think those words perfectly sum up what makes this a great film. Go ahead and give it a re-watch you might like it more than you remember.