Quasimodo hugs his two gargoyle friends in Disney’s animated musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame. CNS photo from Walt Disney Pictures

Disney’s Hunchback ages well

  • July 2, 2021

The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 25: ‘The Most R-Rated G You Will Ever See.’ ”

This headline gracing The New York Times 25-year retrospective of the Disney-animated translation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel effectively encapsulates why the movie did not hit the target with the coveted family audience as other films from the house of mouse’s Renaissance period (1989-99).

A high level of gore and non-subtle expressions of lust and ethnic cleansing permeate this 91-minute production that debuted on June 21, 1996. And perhaps it cannot be overlooked that Quasimodo is a harder protagonist to instantaneously connect with compared to Aladdin or Belle from Beauty and The Beast.

Older viewers did not enthusiastically embrace The Hunchback of Notre Dame immediately, even though it garnered generally positive critical reviews. Sr. Marie Paul Curley of the Daughters of St. Paul fits into this camp.

“I remember liking pieces of it very much, but I wasn’t super impressed by it even though I was already interested in film in a deeper way back then,” said Curley.

Curley certainly can be characterized as a true film aficionado. She has penned screenplays and produced multiple Catholic cable television and home video productions, she’s appeared as a film commentator for Salt + Light Radio and has juried for film festivals and screenwriting contests.

She recently sat down to watch arguably Disney’s most overtly Catholic-Christian film for the first time in many years. Her appraisal is much more enthusiastic this time around.

“This time I really appreciated certain aspects of it while really enjoying the overall film,” said Curley. “In many ways, I enjoyed it because of the religious and moral themes, as well as the strong development of its characters.”

Curley’s trajectory with The Hunchback of Notre Dame appears to be quite common. There are a plethora of articles and discussion boards featuring testimonials of film fans who confess overlooking and underappreciating the film upon initial release, but who rediscover it years later and develop an admiration for its nuanced characters, thematic complexity, rich soundtrack and vibrant visuals. Some call it a “masterpiece,” “most criminally underrated” and even “best animated Disney film.”

In some respects, the growing audience esteem for The Hunchback of Notre Dame mirrors how supporting and background characters in the film change their perception of Quasimodo. Consider Parisians’ reaction when they gaze upon the legendary reclusive bell-ringer when he dares to step outside the confines of Notre Dame to experience the Feast of Fools. They are aghast at the facial deformities when they realize he’s not wearing a carnival mask in addition to zeroing in on his hump back. The crowd further debases Quasimodo by tearing off his clothes, strapping him to a spinning wheel and hurling tomatoes and jeering.

Ultimately, his gentle nature and selfless gallantry completely wins over everyone by film’s end as the film closes with him being celebrated as the city’s hero.

These messages of not judging a book by its cover and showing love for all of God’s creatures were spotlighted by many critics at the time.

Curley appreciated these values while enjoying the symbolism and biblical parallels layered throughout the narrative. Esmeralda’s meditative hymn “God Help the Outcasts” within the walls of Notre Dame struck a powerful chord.

“It reminded me of Esther’s prayer in Scripture, except Esther has a lot of faith,” said Curley. “Esmeralda is coming at it with what she says is no faith, but she actually has a great deal of faith in her prayer. She has so much belief that she trusts God will take care of her and she is praying for others.

“You can say it’s really selfless. She is entrusting God to take care of the littlest people as Pope Francis would say, the people on the periphery through the intercession of the Blessed Mother. It’s really Catholic, which I love.”

Curley says the film’s antagonist, Judge Claude Frollo, is reminiscent of the Pharisees who sought to execute Jesus. In the same vein as these powerful leaders and judges, Frollo presents himself as the most honourable and virtuous follower of Christ to mask his true lustful and corrupt morality.

Adult fans cite Frollo’s realistic, grounded wickedness as a primary reason why they gravitate to this film. It’s fair to say young children are likely not as dazzled by an old man as they would be with overtly flashy villains like Ursula the sea witch or Scar the lion.

The prologue song “The Bells of Notre Dame” features a favourite moment for Curley where the eyes of the statues “practically come alive and that stirs up Frollo’s conscience” just as he was about to send baby Quasimodo plummeting down a water well moments after killing the infant’s mother in cold blood. The lyrics note that moment was the “one time in his life of power and control Frollo felt a twinge of fear for his immortal soul.”

In “Hellfire” — Frollo’s musical entreaty where he essentially told God he would destroy Esmeralda if she did not succumb to his sexual advances — Curley is reminded of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer.

While some may interpret the Notre Dame medieval cathedral as a prison as Frollo verbally bullied Quasimodo to stay in the building with only gargoyles as friends, Curley appreciates that the grand house of worship is depicted as a sanctuary. After all, the archdeacon intervened to keep Quasimodo alive and the building’s walls kept Frollo away from Esmeralda.

Curley hopes Disney considers visiting another religious story down the road if it can be tackled authentically and respectfully. 

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