Released in 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame marked a notable deviation from the rest of the Disney Renaissance films. Heavier, more dramatic, and considerably darker than its peers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the best Disney films of its era, and certainly the most underrated.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), who was born physically deformed. As a baby, his mother was murdered by Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral. The cold-hearted Frollow, repulsed by the baby’s appearance, was ready to drown the child, until the church’s archdeacon warned Frollo of the eternal punishment for his actions. Frollo, in a rare moment of fear, decides to raise the child within the cathedral, in order to save his soul from damnation.
But Frollo is a cruel “master” to Quasimodo, reminding him regularly of his “ugliness” and that he is a “monster” that society can never accept. Quasimodo is nonetheless hopeful that one day, he can leave the walls and bells of Notre Dame and join the outside world, if even just for a day.
Quasimodo eventually decides to sneak out into the city of Paris in disguise, to celebrate the festivities of the Festival of Fools. But, after a fleeting moment of happiness, he is exposed, humiliated and beaten by a mob (under orders from Frollo), until he is saved by the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda, who befriends Quasimodo and ignites the ire, and lust, of Frollo.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains one of the more unique entries in the Disney canon, noteworthy for the story’s darker elements and themes. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it’s also one of the few Disney films where the characters feel more fleshed out, instead of merely serving as a means to carry the plot from one point to the next.
The film’s core relationship – also unique for Disney – is that between its hero and villain, Quasimodo and Frollo. Quasimodo is a likable protagonist, kindhearted and sympathetic to the point that you kind of forget about his supposed ugliness. Meanwhile, Frollo is perhaps the darkest Disney villain, and certainly one of the more complex. He is a cruel, sadistic, bigoted man who believes his piety and religious standings absolve him of all wrongdoings.
There’s also the interesting dynamic between Esmerelda and how the other main characters interact with her: Quasimodo has an innocent affection for her, the heroic Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) loves her as an equal, while Frollo’s lust for her drives him to utter madness.
The characters and their relationships are a bit more fleshed out than in most Disney movies, though some comedic sidekicks, while effective in ways, can feel a tad cliche. Quasimodo’s three gargoyle friends (who may or may not simply be a part of Quasi’s imagination) Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander) and Laverne (Mary Wickes), provide some fun humor at times, but at others the comedy feels a little bit out of place. Thankfully, their humor never drags the film to the extents that Hakuna Matata did in The Lion King. But given the rest of the film’s tone they can come off as a bit inappropriate.
The soundtrack remains one of the most underrated in Disney’s library. The film’s opener “The Bells of Notre Dame” is extravagant, and starts things off on a powerful note. “Out There” serves to properly introduce audiences to Quasimodo, and his relationship with Frollo It’s not the catchiest character introduction, but it’s nonetheless effective. “God Help the Outcasts” is one of Disney’s more earnestly beautiful pieces. “A Guy Like You” is sung by the gargoyles, and like the characters who sing it, is the odd-duck of the bunch. It’s funny by its own merits, but misplaced not only in the film, but the otherwise dramatic segment it takes place in. Meanwhile, “Heaven’s Light” is a gentle melody that expresses Quasimodo’s love for Esmerelda.
Unique among Disney films, it’s the villain’s musical piece that serves as the film’s iconic song. “Hellfire” is one of Disney’s single greatest sequences, as it delves into Frollo’s psyche and madness as his lust for Esmerelda puts his “righteousness” into question. It’s unquestionably the darkest Disney song ever, and also one of their best.
The animation is also Grade A Disney, with the character designs and visuals being fittingly more realistic and grim than in the other Renaissance era Disney movies. The film looks more dramatic than its predecessors, but it’s still just as vividly animated.
To date, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains one of Disney’s most standout films for its ambitious story and its daring to go places that Disney would normally shy away from (a segment such as ‘Hellfire’ has not been attempted from the studio since). Some of the comedic aspects do clash a bit with the otherwise serious story, holding the film back ever slightly. But its uniqueness and thematics have ensured that The Hunchback of Notre Dame has only gotten better with age, making it one of the highlights, and the unsung hero, of the Disney Renaissance.