"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) Is the Most Forgotten Disney Film
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1996 animated Disney film based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. It's actually one of my favorite Disney films and yet remains the most forgotten Disney film of all time (aside from, maybe, Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
When people reference the Disney Renaissance, they're usually referring to the Disney films that were released between 1989 and 1999, such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.
Having been released in 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a part of the Disney Renaissance, and yet very few people seem to appreciate or even remember it. It's possible that this happened because "Hunchback" does not follow the typical Disney formula -- despite the fact that it ultimately had a great story and a great couple of songs, "God Help the Outcasts" being one of its best.
Let's examine why "Hunchback" probably isn't a Disney fav.
Quasimodo Wasn't the Typical Hero
Most male Disney leads -- aka "Disney Princes" -- are a standard cookie cutout: young, handsome, and relatable in some way.
Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is young, but he isn't handsome. That's the entire point of his story, though it doesn't seem to be a story that many people could relate to. We've all felt like outcasts at one time or another (most of us anyway), but few people can say they were born with the sort of deformities that would cause others to recoil or question their humanity.
I'm not saying it's impossible to empathize with Quasimodo. In fact, I love Quasimodo so much because I was born with scoliosis. I was also very isolated growing up and spent a lot of time longing to fit in. Quasi's song "Out There" is one of my favorite Disney songs because of this. (How many times did I dramatically sing that song while longing to be among the normals? Yes, go ahead and laugh.)
No. What I'm saying is that most people can't relate to Quasimodo. Very few people can put themselves in his shoes, which is what makes the story less popular: the most popular stories are the ones where the audience can safely self-insert.
I think Disney anticipated this, so they made sure to depict Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) as a hero, rather than as the antagonist he was in the book.
Phoebus is pretty much a standard Disney Prince: he's handsome, he's young, he's brave and daring, and in the end, he gets the girl. Who wouldn't want to be him? Safe self-insert all around.
Not Much Romance
That's another thing about this film: there wasn't much romance.
In Disney films, it's sort of tradition that the main character falls in love with someone. In fact, it's usually the center of the freaking plot: Aladdin's main goal was to win Jasmine's heart, Ariel wants to kiss Prince Eric and live happily ever after, etc.
Romance is -- thankfully -- a tradition that Disney is pulling away from a bit. But during the Disney Renaissance, it was standard. The fact that Quasimodo's story is about unconditional love -- rather than romantic love -- put a lot of people off.
People don't understand unconditional love. We live in a society where conditional love is emphasized. People will love you on the condition that you're beautiful, smart, rich, brave, the owner of a brewery.
Unconditional love means you love someone, flaws and all.
If they get in a car accident and lose an arm, you don't bail because they aren't "normal" anymore.
If they gain weight from having your child, you wouldn't suddenly stop loving them for not maintaining an impossible beauty standard their entire life.
If they make a mistake, you forgive them. It doesn't mean you stick around to be abused more -- but you forgive. You let go of the anger. You don't attack them or berate them. You love them and embrace them.
When you love unconditionally, you are willing to accept people just as they are, and you don't take it personally when they hurt you -- because hurting people hurt others.
Quasimodo lives in a world where people can't love him because he doesn't meet the condition of a normal, standard appearance. The world rejects him and treats him cruelly. Amazingly enough, he goes on being optimistic; he goes on loving people regardless of how they treat him and does not become bitter.
Even when Esmeralda fails to return his affections and falls in love with Captain Phoebus instead, Quasimodo continues loving her. He doesn't wait around pining for her -- he moves on -- but he also doesn't neglect her when she is in danger just because she wouldn't date him. He doesn't treat Esmeralda cruelly, turn his back on her, or act like a passive aggressive asshole. He accepts her choice to love the captain with the understanding that rejection is not the end of the world.
Yes, there is a moment when Quasimodo is sad that Esmeralda doesn't feel the same. There's nothing wrong with being hurt or disappointed by rejection. But trying to punish someone for exercising freewill? That's messed up.
Because Quasimodo embodies unconditional love, he doesn't try to punish Esmeralda. By the end of the film, he saves Esmeralda's life, has gotten over his heartache, and is now happy for her and Captain Phoebus.
Quasimodo's love was pure and unconditional. He was a good person and a good friend. This sort of lesson is an amazing one to teach children, but -- as I mentioned above -- it wasn't enough for the audience, who expected a traditional Disney romance.
And so, in an attempt to please the masses, Quasimodo falls in love with a new character named Madellaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt) in a 2002 sequel that I never bothered to see.
Too Many Adult Themes
Is it just me, or is The Hunchback of Notre Dame a little too dark?
This film was so grim and sexual, I sometimes marveled that it was targeted at children. Take Frollo's obsession with Esmeralda, for example.
After seeing Esmeralda (Demi Moore) do a strip tease at the fair, Frollo (Tony Jay) becomes obsessed with her. He sings about how sinful it is to find a woman attractive (lol) while Esmeralda's likeness does an erotic dance in the flames.
As a young lesbian of ten years old, I looked at this film with my eyes popping out. It was like I was being deliberately exposed to p*rn.
I remember being shocked by this when I was a child because it felt too provocative to be in a children's film. When I got a little older, the fact that one of the few brown women to appear in a Disney film was coded as a stripper had me quite depressed for a while.
You have to remember that at the time when this came out, Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog did not yet exist. The only remotely brown Disney female leads were Princess Jasmine and Pochaontas -- both women who were scantily clad and also highly sexualized.
It sends the message that brown women are always to be viewed in a highly sexualized manner. And indeed, as a young black girl I would go on to be sexualized just for existing in my brown skin.
That isn't to say that white Disney princesses are never sexualized.
My other favorite was The Little Mermaid and that, too, was like soft core p*rn.
Quasimodo's mother is also murdered in a pretty grim and brutal scene right at the beginning of the film.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that darkness in a kid's film is inherently bad or harmful to children. I couldn't have been too bothered because I've seen this film a thousand times.
No, I'm saying that the darkness is the reason why The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn't nearly as popular as the other films from the Disney Renaissance. When people go to see a Disney film, they expect some sadness and that at least one of the characters will die. What people don't expect is the blatant depiction of violence against women and the objectification of women as strippers with jiggling cleavage.
Because "Hunchback" is a Disney film, I think people were unsettled by that. But it was unavoidable given the fact that this film is based on a book that's so dark. It's not like Victor Hugo wrote about sunflower fields or something.
Why was anyone surprised by The Hunchback of Notre Dame?
Own this Disney classic today!
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Ash