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Released into theaters June 21, 1996 by Walt Disney Studios as its 34th full length animated picture, critics, scholars and historians received The Hunchback of Notre Dame with mixed reviews. The largest obstacle that its multiple writers and directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale faced was its predecessor. The original novel written by Victor Hugo {Who you will discover is one of my all-time favorite authors} in 1831 is hardly the material for a family friendly Disney film. Its story centers on events that began 1482 in Paris, France during the the Gothic era. Its themes include the exploration of the cultural revolution during the Renaissance, the transmittance of ideas through the arts, architecture and literature, determinism (or fate and destiny), and the distinction between social classes. Its focus though, beneath the complicated meshes of French society’s rebirth, is the contrast between corruption and purity and love and lust.

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Completed in 1345, Notre Dame Cathedral, or Notre-Dame de Paris {Which is gorgeous by the way} is one of the most famous French Gothic cathedrals and the first in the world to feature arched exterior supports, aka flying buttresses. It has undergone many restorations, due to neglect and the detrimental effects of both World Wars and is one of the most influential structures in the world. Purposefully made to look formidable on the outside as a symbol of the world’s corruption, its interior is solely dedicated to the cleansing of the soul. It is easiest to picture it as one of the ultimate representations of mankind’s supreme goal to return to God’s presence: by journeying from its dismal exterior to its depths where one can find salvation. {This isn’t new actually. Old Hindu temples were crafted to represent Brahman (The Supreme Self, The Universe ect.), and the ascension towards purification. By traveling from its feet, where the most unclean dwell, to the head, which is closest to liberation from desire one can symbolically sever themselves from samsara, or the cycle of reincarnation.}

That aside, I can imagine the skepticism this film garnered before its release. The original story wasn’t meant to be happy. {Well, most of Victor Hugo’s stories aren’t happy} However, the message is deep and profound and that is probably what drew those working at Walt Disney Studios to attempt to make this rendition of the classic novel. I was only six years old during its release but it has remained one of my favorites even until now. I remember watching it once with my little brother at fourteen and how powerfully its messages affected me. Many movies I loved as a child {The Princess and the Goblin (1991) and Thumbelina (1994)} have become embarrassing childhood obsessions. The question is: “Should this be considered one of Disney’s greatest films or is it one of their forgettable summer blockbusters?” Though many would disagree with me, I believe that this is one of the most under appreciated of all of Disney’s films.

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Any rendition of Victor Hugo novels, whether it be the 2012 release of Les Miserables, the early silent version of this story made in 1923 or the silent film The Man Who Laughs (1928), had to adhere to Victor Hugo’s original themes that persisted in each of his novels, otherwise they would have fallen apart. Luckily this film doesn’t neglect the original intent of the novel, though it does stray in much of its character development and plot. Nonetheless, the changes that Disney animators and writers implemented gave added color and depth to Hugo’s original story. It opens with the gypsy Clopin entertaining a group of children. He proceeds to narrate the story “Of a man and a monster” and their connection to Notre Dame. In the song “Bells of Notre Dame”, we learn of Quasimodo’s origins, the imprisonment of his father, the murder of his mother and the archdeacon’s divine intervention that prevented the minister of justice Judge Claude Frollo from drowning him. These pivotal childhood moments inevitably tied him to Notre Dame and the events that would ensue twenty years later at the Festival of Fools. Throughout Quasimodo’s life, his surrogate father Frollo labeled him as a monster and he lived isolated from the world though he learned to love and cherish the many people he watched around the cathedral.

To be clear, the history of the Catholic church though founded on beautiful principles became twisted in time as secular and religious authority combined {Out of necessity of course} and corruption came to its height in the 15th and 16th century that persisted until the Reformation. To try and separate religion from Hugo’s works would be incredibly unwise and impossible. Consequently, Hunchback is also one of the few Disney movies that incorporates heavy Christian themes. The most notable of these is in the infamous scene where Esmeralda sings a prayer in Notre Dame, remembered as “God Help the Outcasts”.

Each of the characters are diverse and essential in understanding the various dimensions of Victor Hugo’s original work. Like all of us, deep in each of these characters, especially Quasimodo and Esmeralda, lay a hidden, powerful desire for acceptance and love. The entitlement that Frollo and others felt over them because of their wealth, political power or even their position in the church twisted the original intent of God’s church. In his short conversation with Esmeralda, the archdeacon offered a simple solution to the wrongs Esmeralda saw:

Esmeralda: You saw what he did out there. Letting the crowd torture that poor boy? I thought if just one person could stand up to him, then… [sighs] What do they have against people who are different, anyway?

Archdeacon: You can’t right all of the wrongs of this world by yourself.

Esmeralda: No one out there is going to help me. That’s for sure.

Archdeacon: Well, perhaps there’s someone in here who can.

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As Esmeralda poured out her heart in selfless prayer to God crying, “Yes I know I’m just an outcast I shouldn’t speak to you. Still I see your face and wonder were you once and outcast too.“, it seemed as though Notre Dame herself enveloped her in light to show her agreement and to comfort her.

Identity plays such a pivotal role in this film. Like Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs who had been surgically scarred in his childhood with a wide, demonic smile, Quasimodo had to discover for himself that his identity wasn’t determined solely by his appearance. A theme that persists in Victor Hugo’s stories is that what determines a man’s (or woman’s) worth isn’t class distinction, position, physical appearance or even power. Rather it is a person’s choices that makes them into who they are, especially before God. Gwynplaine discovered this midst the scornful laughter of the house of peers. In retaliation he cried, the first time as a man and not as a laughable character “A king made me a clown! A Queen made me a lord! But first God made me a man!”

As the story unfolded, Quasimodo portrayed initially as ugly and deformed on the outside was shown slowly through by the movie to be truly beautiful and caring on the inside. The gypsy Esmeralda, labeled as a liar, thief and heathen because of her ethnicity served also as a symbol of purity, justice and kindness. Whereas Frollo, a supposed representative of God, became corrupted by his lust for power over those he deemed inferior and also his developed licentious intentions for Esmeralda.

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Like in the original novel, Notre Dame herself served as the most complicated character. Through gorgeous animation, she towered over the city, encircled by the river Seine as a symbol of God and freedom. The bells, the voice of Notre Dame, sang in chimes as witness to the the events surrounding all the characters. She served as judge to Frollo’s cruelty, as Quasimodo’s life long companion, and as Esmeralda’s sanctuary. Her presence, enhanced by the archdeacon’s haunting words “You can lie to yourself and your minions, you can claim that you haven’t a qualm, but you never can run from nor hide what you’ve done from the eyes! The very eyes of Notre Dame!” stopped Frollo from killing Quasimodo, and Frollo for the first time “felt a twinge of fear for his immortal soul” under the gaze of the stone apostles and saints.  During Esmeralda’s execution, almost as God’s surrogate, she chimed and shook as Quasimodo tore apart his chains, her features heightened almost in anger by the fires and smoke below.  In the end, Chopin sang Notre Dame’s final words, almost as her representative, “Now here is a riddle to guess if you can, sing the bells of Notre Dame: What makes a monster and what makes a man?”. 

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The animation is astounding, especially in the way it showcased the many angles, moods and sides of Notre Dame. All the backgrounds and characters have depth, highlighted by its lighting and shadowing. For me, the quality of an animated film, especially one made from the 80’s till today is partly determined by how much detail animators put into its shadowing and lighting. Adversely, the movie Thumbelina, though it has some beautiful animation in scenes like “Let Me Be Your Wings”, fell short because of its lack detail, evidenced by the flat dimensions of the characters that didn’t match its more elaborate backgrounds.

The animation during “Heaven’s Light” and “Hellfire” is undoubtedly the highlight of the film for me. It showed the ultimate contrast between a man who fell in love and a monster born from lustful desires. During Quasimodo’s song, the animation matched its simplicity and purity with soft moonshine and subtle shades of night blue. Its shift down to where Frollo stood before his fire came through excerpts from the Confiteor prayer {Or the prayer of Confession}, sung by the archdeacon and his monks. Their powerful words translated “I confess to God Almighty, To blessed virgin Mary ever virgin, To the blessed archangel Michael, To the holy saints apostles, to all the saints” brought the audience down from Quasimodo’s hopeful prayer to Frollo’s confession to the Virgin Mary.

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What had started as a beautiful psalm born from love, turned into a wicked cry to appease lustful intentions. Overshadowed by darkness, Frollo stood before his newborn desire intervened by different excerpts from the same said Confiteor prayer. The whole song brilliantly portrayed his fall into temptation and his inability to truly recognize his folly and take the blame . As he cried “It’s not my fault! I’m not to blame! It is the gypsy girl the witch who set this flame! It’s not my fault! If in God’s plan, he mad the devil so much stronger than a man!” the priests answered each of his pleas without mercy, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault through my fault.” The colors dark, red, and burning captured his intense emotions of fear, lust and anger ending with Frollo overcome by his wickedness as if before the hosts of heaven.

The rest of the music, written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz nicely blended classic styles from 15th century France with more contemporary sounds without overbearingly adhering to popular modern styles. Hearing the music, it is easy to picture being transported to France during the height of the Renaissance. All the music, especially the background, is beautiful and elegant and is possibly one of the greatest soundtracks ever done.

Why has this film fallen into obscurity? Is it because Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl? There are no princesses? Or was it is because its story and characters weren’t marketable? Whatever the case, this remains one of the Disney’s greatest films, with its brilliant animation, story and character development. To me, what makes a film great isn’t how well it can entertain me. I always look for the deeper meanings behind the films. Remember the striking words sang by Clopin at the beginning of the movie, “It is a tale, a tale of a man and a monster.” and ponder how a deformed character like Quasimodo was more beautiful than an appointed man of God.

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FAVORITE QUOTE: The lyrics to “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire”

Quasimodo:
So many times out here
I’ve watched a happy pair
Of lovers walking in the night
They had a kind of glow around them
It almost looked like heaven’s light

I knew I’d never know
That warm and loving glow
Though I might wish with all my might
No face as hideous as my face
Was ever meant for heaven’s light

But suddenly an angel has smiled at me
And kissed my cheek without a trace of fright

I dare to dream that she
Might even care for me
And as I ring these bells tonight
My cold dark tower seems so bright
I swear it must be heaven’s light

Priests:
Confiteor Deo Omnipotenti (I confess to God almighty)
Beatae Mariae semper Virgini (To blessed Mary ever Virgin)
Beato Michaeli archangelo (To the blessed archangel Michael)
Sanctis apostolis omnibus sanctis (To the holy apostles, to all the saints)

Frollo:
Beata Maria
You know I am a righteous man
Of my virtue I am justly proud

Priests:
Et tibit Pater (And to you, Father)

Frollo:
Beata Maria
You know I’m so much purer than
The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd

Priests:
Quia peccavi nimis (That I have sinned)

Frollo:
Then tell me, Maria
Why I see her dancing there
Why her smold’ring eyes still scorch my soul

Priests:
Cogitatione (In thought)

Frollo:
I feel her, I see her
The sun caught in raven hair
Is blazing in me out of all control

Priests:
Verbo et opere (In word and deed)

Frollo:
Like fire
Hellfire
This fire in my skin
This burning
Desire
Is turning me to sin

It’s not my fault

Priests:
Mea culpa (Through my fault)

Frollo:
I’m not to blame

Priests:
Mea culpa (Through my fault)

Frollo:
It is the gypsy girl
The witch who sent this flame

Priests:
Mea maxima culpa (Through my most griveous fault)

Frollo:
It’s not my fault

Priests:
Mea culpa (Through my fault)

Frollo:
If in God’s plan

Priests:
Mea culpa (Through my fault)

Frollo:
He made the devil so much
Stronger than a man

Priests:
Mea maxima culpa (Through my most griveous fault)

Frollo:
Protect me, Maria
Don’t let this siren cast her spell
Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone
Destroy Esmeralda
And let her taste the fires of hell
Or else let her be mine and mine alone

Guard:
Minister Frollo, the gypsy has escaped

Frollo:
What?

Guard:
No longer in the cathedral. She’s gone

Frollo:
But how? Never mind. Get out, you idiot
I’ll find her. I’ll find her if I have to burn down all of Paris

Hellfire
Dark fire
Now gypsy, it’s your turn
Choose me or
Your pyre
Be mine or you will burn

Priests:
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Frollo:
God have mercy on her

Priests:
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Frollo:
God have mercy on me

Priests:
Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy)

Frollo:
But she will be mine
Or she will burn!

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