The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
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This is probably one of the Disney movies that I'd recommend a second viewing as an adult. There's a lot of subtext and mature themes that I didn't pick up on my first time watching and instead did the second time around. The ideas of acceptance, evil, racial prejudice and even undertones of religious salvation are packed succinctly into this movie. The music is atmospheric and well adapted to each changing scene. And plus, Esmeralda is such a bewitching heroine.
Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame stands shoulder to shoulder with the Mouse's other great animation achievements of the 90s, but like its lead, it is strange and a little misshapen. The strangeness comes from how ADULT it is. The villain, Frollo, is motivated by lust for the gypsy Esmeralda, and his misogynistic hatred of the woman who forced him into sin. Religion is tackled head on (it takes place in a cathedral, after all), highlighting the "faithful"'s hypocrisies. And it's violent, Victor Hugo's Paris a real powder keg and nest on inequity. And I love it for all those things. But it's misshapen thanks to a trio of tonally deaf comedy gargoyles. A little of them goes a long way, and we get altogether too much of them. The comedy goat and slapstick action worked well enough without this addition, and their featured song, in an otherwise gorgeous musical production, has the audience reaching for the fast-forward button. On the question of whether it is faithful to Victor Hugo's book, I was encouraged to tell this story: There's a tedious and much-mocked (at least, in my household) chapter in the novel called "Paris à vol d'oiseau" ("A Bird's Eye View of Paris") which stops the action to bring you the 18th-Century equivalent of a long Wikipedia article about the history and architecture of Paris. We mock it for its clumsiness and for Hugo possibly fobbing off an old non-fiction essay to a literary magazine that week in lieu of prose, while also appreciating the readers of the time didn't really have access to this richness of context any other way. Now, how could an adaptation of Hunchback be any good unless it actually did the Bird's Eye View? Believe it or not, Disney's keeps returning to it visually, in jokes, and by stressing the right plot points. I was amused and impressed! Now somebody edit me a version where the Gargoyles aren't so omnipresent.
Although it has numerous flaws, it's among my favorite Disney movies. As a fan of the book as well, it barely even follows the plot; but then again, it would be rather challenging to make such a story into a kid's movie.
I first saw this when I was very young, and watched it again after five years or so. I didn't like it either time. I watched it again just recently, and I must say I appreciate so much more than I would have ever expected. Disney has made dozens of better movies, but this one is notable merely for its maturity. The book's plot is one about lust and appearances vs personality, so while Disney tried to maintain it's kid-friendly image the movie has definitely an adult element added to it.
One such example where this adult element is shown is anytime Frollo on screen. Mesmerized and taunted by the beauty of the gypsy Esmeralda, he is torn between the sin of lust and remaining pure to God. This boils down to a serious decision for him: to have Esmeralda or to kill her. The song "Hellfire" (my favorite Disney song of all time) is really the mature theme of this movie at its peak. I highly recommend even just watching this song if you don't want to take the time to watch the movie.
As for characters, even though they as well follow the book only a little, I still managed to like them. Frollo, although missing the tragic back story as he had in the novel, still has that inner conflict that causes the viewer to feel slightly bad for him. But then again, perhaps it's because I knew his story in the first place.
Although Esmeralda is missing a lot of her elements too, she is still one of the best Disney heroines to date. Accepting and independent, I thoroughly enjoyed her if not the other characters (read: the gargoyles).
One thing I do regret about this movie is the fact Disney tried to make this a family movie. If they would have targeted towards older audiences and really emphasized Frollo's inner conflict of love and lust and the whole flaws of the Christian church dilemma, I think it would have been the pinnacle of Disney movies.
And if you still don't want to watch the movie, at least take time to listen to the soundtrack. It surpasses any other Disney soundtrack to this date.
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In 3 official lists
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This movie ranks #35 in 100 Animated Feature Films (BFI Screen Guides)
This movie ranks #45 in Top 100 Animated Features of All Time
This movie ranks #418 in All-Time Worldwide Box office