The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, it too has a star-studded cast and amazing music. Tom Hulce (Amadeus from the movie Amadeus, never saw the movie until I was in college) leads as Quasimodo, Demi Moore voices Esmeralda the gypsy, David Ogden Stiers returns as the Archdeacon, Tony Jay (previously the man from the asylum in Beauty and the Beast) voices Frollo (no wonder he’s creepy), and Kevin Kline (who later is Maurice in the live action Beauty and the Beast, among a bunch of movies I’ve never seen) rounds out as Phoebus.
We open on the gypsy leader Clopin telling the children of Paris a story, accompanied by a phenomenal choir interjecting Latin with The Bells of Notre Dame echoing in the background. A few gypsies are attempting to sneak into Paris under the regime of Judge Claude Frollo. He “longed to purge the world of vice and sin/and saw corruption everywhere/except, within.” A guard questions a bundle in the gypsy woman’s arms and Frollo instructs his man to take it. In terror, the woman bolts. Frollo pursues her to the steps of Notre Dame, ignoring her pleads of “Sanctuary!” and rips the bundle from her, kicking her onto the steps and killing her. Instead of the “stolen goods” he assumed, the bundle was a baby, regrettably deformed. “A monster,” he hisses and the judge plans to drop the baby into a well. The Archdeacon of Notre Dame has come out and halts the judge; he already has one person’s innocent blood on his hands, don’t add another, the eyes of Notre Dame see all. With a bit of fear, Frollo agrees to take the child as his ward, naming him “Quasimodo,” meaning half-formed, and the boy will stay locked away high in the bell tower, where no one can see him, until he is of use to Frollo.
The next scene dawns on the annual Feast of Fools. Quasimodo has three friends (Lavern, Victor, and Hugo [the last two are a nod to the author]), gargoyles who come to life for him alone; they urge their human friend to sneak to the festival and enjoy life for once. “No one wants to be cooped up here forever.” Quasi has himself talked into it, until his master, Frollo arrives and disparages the festival. “I am your only friend,” he tells Quasimodo saying that the people outside the cathedral will view am a monster. “The world is cruel…and wicked/it is I alone whom you can trust.” Quasi is only safe in the tower of Notre Dame. Quasimodo begs forgiveness. But once Frollo has gone, he continues to dream of “living in the sun/give me one day out there.” He’s spent his whole life watching the people of Paris, they’re “heedless of the gift it is to be them.” He’d take just one day, “to hold forever” Out There. So, he goes. [In the crowd, you can just see Belle meandering with a book]
In the meantime, a soldier has just returned (probably from the Crusades) and is to report to Frollo. While Phoebus is looking for the Palace of Justice, turned about because the city has changed in a few decades, he comes across a dancing gypsy, Esmeralda. When guards attempt to arrest her, Phoebus artfully gets in the way (and makes his horse, Achilles, “sit”). He “persuades” the guards to help him and on their way, tosses loose gold coins into disguised Esmeralda’s hat. At the Palace, Frollo informs him that his job is to help eradicate the gypsy vermin of Paris (those are the words he uses, in a film meant for kids).
The Festival of Fools is the one day everything is Topsy Turvy in Paris; “it’s the day for breaking rules.” They have a contest where they crown “the King of Fools;” men wear masks, then make an ugly face, the ugliest wins. Quasimodo is amazed by everything and at one point, stumbles into Esmeralda’s dressing room. She’s kind to him. A few moments later, she’s featured in a dance (very provocative for a kids’ movie) and she takes the opportunity to mock Frollo. The contest follows, which Quasi wins. The crowd is a bit shocked at first; it’s not a mask, it’s his face. Clopin urges them to not be frightened, they asked for the ugliest man in all of Paris (watching it as an adult…not the nicest thing to say). Frollo is appalled. The crowd is on Quasimodo’s side, at first. Then a guard makes a snide remark and throws a tomato. The crowd joins in. They’re no longer laughing with Quasi, now they’re laughing at him. Esmeralda once again shows kindness and frees Quasimodo, despite Frollo’s protests. She speaks out against Frollo; the ones who need justice the most are the ones who are persecuted. Frollo orders his men, led by Phoebus to capture her. Phoebus wanted to stop the mocking earlier, but was ordered to stand down. Phoebus does not actively chase Esmeralda, sending the goons; he’s actually impressed by her evasion skills. The gypsy “disappears” and Frollo is steaming.
Esmeralda sneaks into Notre Dame, followed by Phoebus. Interesting introductions: candlelight, combat, banter; essentially, the pair are already flirting. Frollo sneaks in, but Phoebus says that Esmeralda has claimed “sanctuary,” acting the opposite from other soldiers. He’s still kicked out for his troubles. The gypsy is safe, as long as she stays in the church. She uses the time to reflect, adding her prayer with the rest. “I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to you/still I see your face and wonder/were you once an outcast too?” While the rest of the parishioners ask for wealth, fame, and glory, Esmeralda asks “God Help the Outcasts/or nobody will.” [This is one Disney song I have had the opportunity to sing; I know another song, Someday from the movie through the Celtic Woman arrangement and have sung that as well.] Quasimodo has snuck downstairs to watch the gypsy, but runs off when he’s spotted. Esmeralda follows and their friendship blossoms. Esmeralda is the first person outside of Frollo who has shown any emotion other than fear to the young man. Both young people yearn to be free; sanctuary is not freedom for a gypsy. Esmeralda (and the audience) wonders how a man as cruel as Frollo managed to raise a kind man like Quasi; she disagrees that the hunchback is a monster, reading his hand to prove her point. In return for her kindness, and saving him at the festival, Quasimodo helps Esmeralda escape Notre Dame, not using a door. No, they swing down the architecture [not quite adventurous enough as a child to want to do that]. As Quasi heads back up the stairs, he briefly meets Phoebus and they jockey over the gypsy’s affection.
The gargoyles call Quasi a “lover boy,” but Quasi still feels unworthy of affection from someone as kind and compassionate as Esmeralda. Heaven’s Light is a sweet song, but I tend to forget about it in comparison to Hellfire. The song terrified me a bit as a child (and luckily a good portion of the subtext went over my head.) Frollo continues to be a hypocrite, claiming to be a “righteous man,” and proud of his virtue, but blames everyone and everything else for his troubles. Esmeralda haunts him; he desires her and knows he shouldn’t. Well, he claims, he shouldn’t, but by the end of the song, he will gladly take her if she chooses him over the fire. At the end, Frollo falls to the floor in the shape of a crucifix. (I will leave analyzing the religious undertones to someone better educated. And I have no desire to open that can of worms. I’ll simply leave with the note that the song was overall…ominous, made even more so backed by a choir chanting a Confiteor and Kyrie Eleison.)
The judge keeps his word that he is willing to burn down all of Paris to find Esmeralda after her miraculous escape from Notre Dame. The track in the score encapsulates the drama of the events, once again incorporating . He interrogates peasants and chains countless gypsies, offering silver in exchange for information. He eventually comes to a family on the outskirts, who compassionately harbor any weary traveler. In exchange for their benevolence, Frollo orders Phoebus to burn down their house. The captain refuses. Frollo takes a torch himself and sets the thatch roof alight. Phoebus jumps into the house to save the family. Right after he hands the baby off to its mother, another soldier knocks him out and they prepare to behead him. Esmeralda, who has been watching to proceedings, causes a distraction, allowing Phoebus to take Frollo’s horse and makes a getaway. Out of the rain of arrows, one gets lucky and hits him in the back of the shoulder (must be a really lucky shot, considering he’s wearing armor. And how did he manage to get out of the armor while he’s underwater?) He falls into the river and is rescued by Esmeralda again. The gypsy takes him to Quasimodo to hide. He allows Phoebus to hide and regrettably witnesses Esmeralda and the captain kiss. Frollo stops by, suspicious that Quasimodo is hiding something again. He catches sight of Quasi’s carved figure of Esmeralda and blames him for the state of Paris. Gypsies aren’t capable of real love, the proof is that Quasimodo’s mother abandoned him as an infant (lie), Esmeralda now has him under a spell. But no matter, he knows where she’s hiding and will attack at dawn.
Phoebus and Quasimodo have to warn the gypsies and have to work together. They manage to find the Court of Miracles, which is not as pleasant as it sounds. Disney, after spending most of the movie portraying gypsies as misunderstood and innocent, revealing them as cutthroats and liars does not help your argument. Not giving the two men a chance to explain, the gypsies jump to the conclusion that they are spies for Frollo. Esmeralda sets them straight, preventing a double hanging. With a cringe, we find out Frollo followed Quasimodo and Phoebus. His soldiers round up the gypsies.
The next morning, Quasimodo is chained in the tower, depressed over failing his friends; Phoebus is locked up; and Esmeralda is tied to a stake. Frollo offers her one last chance, be his or burn. She knows exactly what Frollo wants (little kids don’t) and spits her refusal. The gargoyles talk sense into Quasi in time for him to break the chains and swing to Esmeralda’s rescue. He shouts “Sanctuary!” from the top of the cathedral, and after making sure Esmeralda is safe, prepares for battle. Frollo declares war. The crowd is incensed (remember, he’s attacking a church), and rallied by Phoebus, they fight back. Frollo makes his way to Quasi and for a moment, we all believe Esmeralda’s dead. Quasimodo won’t have too long to mourn her, for Frollo intends to stab him in the back. Quasi catches the shadow and dodges, managing to get the dagger.
It’s Frollo’s turn to listen. “All my life you’ve taught me that the world is a dark and cruel place, but the only thing dark and cruel about it are people like you.” He tosses the dagger aside and they hear Esmeralda get up. Quasi flees with her, Frollo pursues, punctuated by a score that heightens our anxiety. The crowd looks up in horror as Frollo tries to chop the hunchback and gypsy’s heads off. Frollo growls, “I should have known you’d risk your life to save that gypsy witch; just as your own mother died trying to save you.” He and Quasimodo tumble over the edge and Quasi has the chance to simply let the evil man fall, but doesn’t. Frollo swings to a stylized spout and Esmeralda desperately holds onto Quasimodo. Frollo raises his sword, eyes a demonic yellow, and pronounces “And He shall smite the wicked and cast them into the fiery pits!” (no, not an exact quote of the Bible, but pretty close to Isaiah Chapter 11). The gargoyle comes to life, cracks, and drops Frollo into the raging fire below (Quasi had poured something molten out of the spouts earlier). Esmeralda can’t hold Quasimodo and he drops as well, to be caught by Phoebus.
Esmeralda gives Quasimodo a happy hug, then he places her hand with Phoebus, giving his blessing I assume, and the couple share a kiss. The trio makes their way outside (everything got cleaned up fast), though Quasi pauses at the door. Esmeralda silently encourages him, and a little girl comes up to him, touching his face, then giving the hunchback a hug. Clopin finishes his tale of “what makes a monster/and what makes a man” as the Bells of Notre Dame ring out again.
While it’s not necessarily a favorite of mine, I do enjoy parts of Hunchback. The music is fantastic (there was a short run musical), the action is engaging. The scores for Paris Burning and Sanctuary are helpful when writing fight scenes, or imagining danger that I put my characters in. It has a good lesson about not judging people. I never really connected to any of the characters; Esmeralda was fun, Phoebus seemed stuffy (though more believable as an adult), I certainly felt sorry for Quasimodo and rooted for him, but still, no connection like the lions from Lion King. But it is certainly one of Disney’s darkest films; though what should we expect when it’s based off of a novel written by the man who wrote Les Miserablés (translates to “the miserable people”). And it’s also supposed to be lighter than the original book. There was an absolutely horrible sequel to the movie that I have seen exactly once, because it was so bad.
As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Next Time: Hercules