Alphabetical Movie – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney)
This film is a problem.
I applaud Disney for having made an attempt to grapple with some very adult themes (lust, racism, fanaticism) in a movie for kids. If they’d actually gone further, I wouldn’t find the film quite so maddening. The combination of some stunningly brilliant stuff coupled with scenes that are puzzlingly inept is what makes the movie so fascinating to think about.
Frolo may be one of the most complex villains Disney has ever produced. Cruella De Ville just wants a fur coat. Maleficent wants to get revenge for an imagined insult.
Really – why would she have been invited? She’s pissed over nothing. Girl can hold a grudge, though. I’ll give her that.
Frolo is motivated by racism but also by a fanatical religious ideology and lust. He has reasons for what he does. They are misguided and wicked, yes, but he isn’t simply evil. In fact, he believes that he is the good guy, even up to the point he meets his death.
Yes, this comes from the source material but it would not have been the first time Disney bowdlerized a character. That they decided to leave Frolo relatively unchanged is remarkable given how dark a character he is.
I remember watching the film for the first time and being stunned by the song Frolo sings about Esmerelda. Lust is pretty heavy stuff for kids to understand but I thought they handled it beautifully. It was subtle enough that kids who were too young really didn’t understand what it was about. Anyone who was paying attention, though, was probably pretty shocked to see something like that in a Disney film.
Impressive as that portion of the film may be, you have to consider the portions of the film that are – in my view – godawful.
Let’s talk about the Gargoyles , shall we? If Frolo is Disney stretching to explore more mature themes in an animated feature, the gargoyles are characters that do the opposite.
They took the dark but still kid appropriate world of – well – Gargoyles - and crossed it with the Animaniacs. We are not talking about getting chocolate in someone’s peanut butter here. It’s more like you are wrapping a filet mignon in pickles. I like ‘em both but they don’t belong in the same mouthful.
That’s the big problem with the film. It isn’t one movie, it’s two movies. And one of them shouldn’t have been made.
Disney does cute kid movies. That’s their thing. What makes Hunchback exciting is that it seemed like they were trying something new. They were trying to go a little darker. They managed to get halfway but it feels like they chickened out and added elements that don’t quite ruin the film but do make it frustrating to watch.
What makes it worse is the fact the Gargoyles add nothing beyond giving Quasimodo someone sympathetic to talk to when he’s alone. They could have used the priest from Notre Dame or possibly just had him talking to himself. Instead, he talks to characters that detract from the atmosphere of the film every time you see them.
When they sing their “be our guest” style production number, it is one of the most ill-conceived moments in any Disney film. The music is good but the whole thing doesn’t belong. It belongs in a different movie.
Hunchback is, I think, a prime example of what happens when you have competing goals for your film. They could have made a good, dark movie that was still accessible to kids or they could have made a campier version of the original story. Unfortunately, they tried to do both.