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At 25, The Hunchback of Notre Dame Remains Disney’s Most Radical Film

image if Quasimodo a top Notre Dame

It is hard to imagine Disney adapting a Gothic novel in which every single major character is morally grey and almost all of them die at the end. Yet, in 1996, Disney released The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a retelling of the very dark Victor Hugo novel.

What’s different?

Oh gods, it would almost be easier to say what is similar: names, location, and the fact that Quasimodo has physical disabilities. This book is very bleak, guys.

Alright, so the first different thing in the book is that Frollo is not the religious zealot we have in the movie. He does end up becoming the antagonist of the novel due to his overwhelming lust for Esmeralda (#incellife), but before that is a relatively pious and kind adoptive father to Quasimodo, who adopts him after finding him abandoned by a well—removing all that messy “I killed your mother” drama that the film added.

Quasimodo himself also can not hear because being a bellringer destroyed his eardrums, and he therefore knows sign language. He isn’t hidden away in the bell tower, but because of the ableist reactions to his appearance, it is what he prefers. (Also, his name does not mean half-formed; he is named after a religious holiday.)

Esmeralda is … wow, where do we even start? So almost everything cool and dynamic about her in the movie was crafted wholesale. In the book, the most dynamic thing she does is rescue a poet from death. What is most distressing about her is that the origin of her character is … racist. Esmeralda was born Agnès, but was taken and switched out with Quasimodo by the French Romani because of his disabilities, a very messy stereotype. She is raised among the Roma and then towards the end of the book, it is revealed that hey, she was white all along, yay!

Frollo does fall madly in “love” with her, to the point where he asks Quasimodo to kidnap her. During this abduction attempt, she is rescued by Phoebus, and Esmeralda gets hit by her own love obsession—except he is a complete asshole and is engaged to a fancy woman and only wants to sleep with Esmeralda. This makes his fiancée very jelly, and she accuses Esmeralda of being a witch. Later on, when Frollo spots Phoebus kissing on Esmeralda, he stabs the man and runs off, leaving Esmeralda accused of murder. (But Phoebus is fine, unfortunately. The police are just bad.) When she is about to be killed, Quasimodo, who has fallen in love with Esmeralda because she was kind to him after that whole kidnapping attempt, rescues her and yells, “Sanctuary,” allowing her to stay in Notre Dame unharmed.

They hang out for a couple of months, and eventually, Esmeralda gets over her initial discomfort at Quasimodo’s appearance. Frollo attempts to rape Esmeralda one night, and she manages to signal Quasimodo for help, and he almost kills his adoptive father before realizing who he is. Frollo, pulling an “if I can’t have you, etc. etc.” manipulates the Roma into thinking that Esmeralda is going to be forcibly taken from the cathedral, which ends up causing a riot. The King sends soldiers to end it and hang Esmeralda.

After a bunch of violence, Frollo once more gives Esmeralda a choice: stay with him or be handed over to the soldiers. She does pull a badass move and tells him to send her to the soldiers. They arrive and hang her. Quasimodo sees his friend hanging, and Frollo laughing about it, and pushes him off the tower, killing his former father figure.

The book ends implying that Quasimodo found her body in the mass grave and starved himself to death holding her body:

About eighteen months or two years after the events which terminate this story, when search was made in that cavern for the body of Olivier le Daim, who had been hanged two days previously, and to whom Charles VIII. had granted the favor of being buried in Saint Laurent, in better company, they found among all those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of a garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrézarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover, there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence, the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.

And they turned this into a G-rated Disney movie!

Disney Makes G Look Very PG

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the project was very much a labor of love and a change of the traditional Disney formula of what worked.

As was explained in the Entertainment Weekly article about the film back in 1996:

From the moment in 1993 when story executive David Stainton, inspired by the Classics Illustrated comic book of Victor Hugo’s weighty 1831 sociopolitical melodrama, persuaded Disney to retell the story of the Notre Dame bell ringer, Wise and Trousdale recognized the difficulty in turning the tale into a musical light enough to resonate with kids. ”We knew it would be a challenge to stay true to the material,” says Wise, ”while still giving it the requisite amount of fantasy and fun most people would expect from a Disney animated feature. We were not going to end it the way the book ended, with everybody dead.”

I know that Classics Illustrated and the text buries the lede quite a bit.

Everything about this movie broke the mold. Even Phoebus, who was turned into a good guy voiced by Kevil Kline, was designed in a way that there were concerns he was not “handsome” enough because he broke the no-facial-hair rule.

“We were sick of the Ken doll with the vacu-form hair and the Mike Douglas singing voice,” says Wise. The changes didn’t go unnoticed by Disney execs, who wanted Phoebus literally sent back to the drawing board. ”There was some discussion,” admits Trousdale, ”that he was not handsome enough.”

The gargoyles, the literal worst part of the film, were added to give humanity and levity to the film. In the iconic “Hellfire” sequence, in order to ensure it got a “G” rating, they had to make sure that it was clear in Frollo’s fire fantasy Esmeralda was wearing clothes.

People thought this would be a film that would alienate kids and reduce the genre.

”These movies used to be ghettoized as cartoons,” says an ex-Disney staffer now at DreamWorks. ”Over time they evolved into ‘everybody films’ like The Lion King. But you can’t make them for adults and exclude kids. Then you risk alienating the audience you began with.”

Yet, it has been in my personal experience that people my age see a good chunk of Hunchback as very valuable.

I have vivid memories of seeing Hunchback in theaters and being in love with the music, the images, and of course, Esmeralda. Growing up, it was one of my father’s favorite movies, and I probably know every song, but especially “Hellfire,” front and back. Whenever I go back to the film, it makes sense that it wasn’t an overwhelming success. The villain, Frollo is a racist, xenophobic, genocidal fascist who also wants to murder a woman for not being his sexual servant. He is unafraid of killing women and children.

Esmeralda is overtly sexual, while also shown as being spiritual, caring, brave, and every bit the social justice warrior. In many ways, she lives outside of the Disney Princess model of female characters. Her “I Want” song is about salvation for other people than herself, she is empathic and kind to our protagonist, Quasimodo, and is willing to die rather than be in a submissive position.

But I loved her—especially since, with her dark skin and voluminous fair, she became a proxy for a lot of darker-skinned women who hadn’t really existed in Disney as of yet. I love that the film went to dark places and crafted such a fantastic score that remains iconic.

Despite concerns, it went on to outperform Pocahontas and set the foundation for more “out there” (lol) stories like Hercules and Tarzan. It remains one of Disney’s most ambitious and interesting projects and something I can’t imagine the industry would do today.

(image: Disney)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.