Becca takes a peak at an almost forgotten Disney animation, from the distant 1990s…
So we all know the 90s were a pretty big year for Disney: there was Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, and – how could we forget? – The Lion King and they were all incredibly successful.
But…then there was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What happened? Had we all been so blown-away by Pixar’s mighty debut from the year before that, suddenly, we didn’t care about hand-drawn Disney films as much anymore? I can’t say for certain, as I was only about three when The Hunchback… came out, but I can tell you it is one of my all-time favourites.
It is based on the 19th century book by Victor Hugo of the same name (with a much happier, child-orientated ending, thank goodness), and was also directed by the same men behind Beauty and the Beast (Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale). The hunchback in question is Quasimodo (Jason Alexander), a young, disfigured man who lives in a bell tower under the watchful eye of his cruel master, Frollo (Tony Jay), who considers anything ‘different’ a sin. In comparison, Quasimodo is sweet and kind (with a wonderful singing voice), and though he secretly wishes to live amongst the people living below him, he knows he cannot, because he has grown up believing they will scorn and hate him, due to his ‘ugliness’. But, that is not all: Frollo also has Quasimodo believing his mother – a gypsy – abandoned him as a baby because of it, offering him false evidence that gypsies are evil heathens, incapable ‘of real love’.
Nonetheless, Quasimodo – with the help of his gargoyle friends – finds the courage to leave his bell tower to celebrate his favourite festival, the Feast of Fools. There, he meets the beautiful gypsy, Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who is compassionate enough to come to his aid, after he is humiliated by the villagers. Frollo sees this, and is enraged, demanding that Esmeralda should be arrested, but she escapes using a magic trick. In the middle of this is Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline), whose heart is stolen by her, as is Quasimodo’s… and maybe even Frollo’s too.
Like Beauty and the Beast, the message “who is the monster and who is the man?” rings loud and clear throughout. You assume the monster is Quasimodo at first, but that soon changes, as Frollo falls further and further into madness over his suppressed desire for Esmeralda. In addition, Frollo is probably one of the best Disney villains out there, purely because he is so incredibly easy to hate. He is narrow-minded, blinded by his religious ‘duty’ to purge the world of sin, and…well; he looks and sounds evil too. There is a particular song in the film, called ‘Hellfire’, which truly expresses Frollo’s feelings for Esmeralda, and it has always been considered one of the darker Disney moments. In song, he vows that, if Esmeralda does not give herself to him, he will have her burnt at the stake for being a witch. Now, that is dark.
All in all, the songs are brilliant, catchy, and packed with a surprising amount of emotion; none more so than Esmeralda’s song, ‘God Help the Outcasts’. Having been trapped in the church by Frollo and his men, she prays for help – not for her, but her gypsy kin who are targeted as ‘thieves’ by the rest of society.
I ask for wealth, sing the other church-goers.
I ask for fame
I ask for glory to shine on my name
I ask for love I can possess
I ask for God and His Angels to bless me
To which Esmeralda replies:
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
God help the outcasts
The poor and down trod
I thought we all were
Children of God.
It is achingly beautiful, and actually one of the few Disney songs that will leave you with a trembling lip, if not tears.
But with all the trouble and strife, like any Disney film, there is plenty of comic relief to be had. Esmeralda’s pet goat, Dahjli keeps the kids amused, while Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends, Hugo, Victor and Laverne play the important (often very funny) role of his conscience, guiding him along the right path – even if it means disobeying Frollo – and supplying the audience with plenty of laughs along the road, like finding a new, innovative (but surprisingly effective), way of using a catapult.
In conclusion, this has to be one of the (many) quietly wonderful Disney films that definitely needs more recognition.