One of my top places to see in Paris last September was Notre Dame Cathedral–for the architecture and because I like big old churches and because it’s an icon. But also very much because of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve never actually read Victor Hugo’s novel (though I have put it on my list since visiting the cathedral) so when I say that Hunchback influenced my Parisian sight-seeing…I mostly mean the Disney movie.
I can’t remember being particularly attached to this one as a kid, but in recent years it’s been emerging as one of my favorite Disney cartoons. That makes sense, because this is not at all a typical Disney cartoon, and has a much more adult feel. I love typical Disney and I don’t mean to criticize it in the review that follows, but I do feel this one is on a different level.
I’d really like to know how the first person looked at the book and said, hey, let’s make a cartoon! Instead of a star-crossed princess and her prince, we have Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer of Notre Dame. His only friends are three gargoyles (two of whom are named Victor and Hugo–love that) and though he dreams of entering the world he’s watched, this has always been forbidden by his master, the stern magistrate Frollo. Quasi finds a little daring, the beautiful and bewitching gypsy Esmeralda comes on the scene, and everything changes.
I love Quasi and his growth as a character, as he overcomes his fears and realizes his own value. Sure, it’s not quite the complexity of Susan Kay’s Phantom, but there’s still a depth here that goes beyond perfect-princess-meets-perfect-prince. Likewise Esmeralda is a strong, intelligent character, very aware of larger societal issues of class and prejudice. I even like the prince figure, the handsome Phoebus, who I find more likable than, say, Raoul from Phantom. Phoebus has his own depth, as a soldier who struggles with a new position and orders he doesn’t like–and he has a sense of humor. Disney heroes who have funny scenes with horses to seem to work well with me… And how do you go wrong when he says to his horse, “Achilles–heel.”
Frollo is also a villain with fascinating depth, and he’s a very mature villain for a Disney movie. His interest in Esmeralda is on a totally different level than Jafar’s decision to marry Jasmine in Aladdin. I really don’t know how the scene “Hellfire” got into a Disney cartoon. Frollo is singing about lust and temptation and damnation, while there are flames and demons and hooded figures chanting “mea culpa.” It’s fantastic and wonderful, but–in a Disney movie? Really?
I love the songs, especially “Out There” which is one of my favorite songs ever. It’s just so beautiful and heartfelt, and is one of the main reasons I felt I had to spend time in Paris “strolling by the Seine.” The only time I got out my iPod while walking around was to listen to “Out There,” sitting on a wall next to the Seine. I also love “God Help the Outcasts”–again, there’s a depth to it, and to Esmeralda’s character. From the opening lines, “I don’t know if you can hear me, or if you’re even there–or if you would listen to a gypsy’s prayer,” she’s having a complex religious experience. It’s deep, it’s emotional, leading up to the end, “please help my people, the poor and downtrod–I thought we all were children of God.”
My only significant reservation on the movie is the last two minutes. After such a beautifully nuanced movie, it tied up with more of a simple Disney happy ending. Quasi gives his blessing to Esmeralda and Phoebus, and then is embraced by the crowd. And…I don’t buy either idea. He may accept how Esmeralda feels about Phoebus, but I’d find it much more believable if he was less pleased about it. A little wistfulness, maybe? And after all the times that crowd has made an about-face, I wouldn’t trust it to stay welcoming for the span of five minutes.
I’m not sure what ending I want. I don’t want Quasi to die, or even to retreat back into his belltowers (because then what was the point of the character growth?) But after all the rest of the movie, I feel like they could have managed a more subtle, less conventional ending. Maybe he retreats to the towers but it’s implied he’ll come out again in the future? A little wistfulness on the romance question but also make it clear that Esmeralda and Phoebus will be his friends into the future, opening up the possibility that he could venture out farther someday? There had to be some kind of bittersweet or lightly hopeful ending they could have managed.
I still love the movie–and I loved watching it shortly after visiting Notre Dame. Someone animating this really knew what Notre Dame looked like, and when I watched it again I kept reacting to things I recognized. If you go to Notre Dame, you can easily go into the church, which is very beautiful. I recommend also going around the corner to the left and getting in line to visit the belltowers. There are a lot of stairs (a LOT of stairs), but it’s worth it to see the gargoyles and the view. You don’t really get to see Quasi’s bells (just one) or the space where he lives in the cartoon, but it’s still neat–and you can see the whole of Paris below.