The Hunchback of Notre Dame

“Yeah another random “”lesser”” Disney film. The thing is, the point I’m at in the movie wall is a lot of the more recent aquisitions. Recent enough that I’ve been diligent in blogging theater movies, which I later buy. So I’m looking at each cubby and seeing a ton of sharpie slashes (indicating blogged) leaving me with just a few random acquisitions. A lot of those are old classic Disneys that I’ve recently upgraded from VHS as they’re released from the Vault with shiny new editions.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is kind of an anomaly. Does not quite fit at all with most of the Disney formula. However before I get into that, the first thing that must be said is that this has some of the most beautiful music ever in a Disney film. Or any film really. Unfortunately, there’s so many other flaws in the film that the pretty goes unheart and unappreciated.

Knowing this was my next movie, I did some quick Google research earlier today in preparation. I’ve held a very specific grudge against this film since I first saw it in fifth grade. Turns out, I was somewhat wrong on the details, but I was still kind of right in principle. The underlying problem with this adaptation is that the source material is way too dark, disturbing, and bleak for a children’s movie, especially of the Disney pedigree. Things had to be changed. I’m fine with that to a point. Sure, add in the gargoyle buddies Victor, Hugo (I see what you did there), and Laverne (um okay). Take out some of the death and the sexual undertones, fine. But in order to make this family friendly, you strip out the meat of the story and are left with such watered down formulaic mess.

Here’s where we get to my real beef. I read the book also around fifth grade. Okay, maybe not the full volume, but I read the Great Illustrated Classics version. I was obsessed with those. Abridged but thematically complete, and I did often go on to read the full versions. I didn’t remember most of the plot (Wikipedia had to remind me today), but the imagery of the final chapter stayed with me. Um 19th century spoiler alert….the last chapter, taking place some time after the main events, described an uncovered tomb. In it they found a twisted and deformed skeleton wrapped around a perfect female skeleton. Upon trying to separate the two, they disintegrated. I misremembered the signifiance of that, thinking that it meant that Quasimodo and Esmerelda ended up together. In Disney’s version, she (spoiler) ends up with Phoebus–the pretty boy. I’ve been livid over that.

Turns out, my memory wasn’t entirely accurate, but my fury was still merited. The relationships are actually more complicated in the book. Again, really old spoilers. She marries some dude that’s cut from Disney in order to save him, but is always into Phoebus. Phoebus is a womanizer d-bag, and could care less about her. She cares for Quasimodo on some level, but ultimately dies alone. Quasimodo kills himself to be with her. For this version, we get a much more straightfoward romance between Esmerelda and Phoebus. All the complexity is taken out and we really do get a simple “”pretty people end up together””. Now, there is still a message of acceptance around Quasimodo, and I do applaud the film for having such a non-conventional lead, but it still doesn’t sit right with me. He’s okay to just sit back and let the beautiful ones have their thing because he’s not meant to be part of it. I feel like the message they were aiming for could have been taken much further, been much more groundbreaking and important. Alas, they played it safe, angering me beyond all reason.

Yet I am still happy to watch on occassion. Again: beautiful tunes. Beautiful animation as well. Also, Kevin Kline does voice a wonderful Phoebus. You really can notice the difference when you have an actor of his caliber in the mix. I’ve made more peace with how this was put together, but I wish we could have forgone more of the warm fuzzies and drawn a bit more of the dark. It wouldn’t fly as a family film, but I’d rather show my older theoretical children a fully fleshed out and thoughtful film than let the little ones see a half baked and simplistic one.”

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