At this stage in the Disney Renaissance, people really knew what to expect – feisty heroines, dashing heroes, cute animal sidekicks, jolly musical numbers and camp villains. So imagine the absolute shock that this film caused to older viewers. Pocahontas touched on racism before this but here you have a film that deals with prejudice, religious bigotry, lust, murder and even friggin genocide. Need I remind you that this is a Disney film, marketed with plush toys and other such child-directed gimmicks? Yep, the parents were shocked and the kids were frightened half to death, me included. But now I’m older I can appreciate that this truly is one of the best Disney films ever made.
It’s Paris in the 15th Century and the city is run under the icy grip of Judge Claude Frollo, a religious bigot who seeks to rid the city of the gypsies for whom he has an intense hatred. Frollo has a secret though – he once killed a gypsy woman on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral and also nearly drowned her physically deformed baby son. Frollo was persuaded to let the baby live and raised him inside the cathedral as the bell ringer. The boy, named Quasimodo (which means “half-formed”) has stayed in the bell tower his whole life and watches the streets of Paris from above, longing to join them. He decides to sneak out the one day he won’t be recognised – the Festival of Fools where the townspeople will be wearing masks. Quasimodo ends up being crowned the King of Fools as the ugliest person in Paris. This soon turns into a public humiliation until a gypsy girl Esmerelda publicly stands up for him and becomes a fugitive in the process. She takes refuge in the cathedral and strikes up a friendship with Quasimodo, while Frollo lusts after her.
For those who don’t know, Disney’s artists spent months in Paris making sketches of the statues and designs of Notre Dame Cathedral in order to get it just right on film. And believe me, it definitely shows. This is one of Disney’s most artistic films, probably only rivalled by Sleeping Beauty in that department. The amount of effort put into the animation is amazing with all the statues, stained glass windows and architectural detail standing out beautifully. The opening shot of the cathedral zooming in from the clouds is perfectly done as well as another shot where Quasimodo shows Esmerelda the sunset from the roof of the cathedral. This was also another of the Disney films to have prominent use of CGI notably in the crowd scenes. If I’m being honest, it’s not that impressive and it does look very basic.
And let’s talk about our heroine; she is most notably not hourglass thin, drawn a little more voluptuously than the likes of Belle and Ariel and more in line with Pocahontas. And that makes her pole dancing scene all the nicer – yes she does pole dance. While not as hot as Ariel, Esmerelda is indeed one of the sexier Disney heroines. And so I won’t piss off the feminists, I feel that Esmerelda is definitely one of the most kickass Disney feminists. She publicly defies Frollo and outwits his entire squad of guards with her gypsy tricks. She’s a pretty fun action girl and nicely voiced by Demi Moore. Our villain Frollo is definitely one of the most menacing villains in the Disney Animated Canon and he’s a bit of a throwback to the traditional villains from the old films. There’s nothing camp or witty about him – he’s genuinely creepy and unnerving. There’s one scene where rape is actually referenced – subtly but it’s there. What makes Frollo so scary is that he’s a real person. He’s not a witch or an evil sorcerer, he’s a human being who is genuinely prejudiced against the gypsies and hides behind his morals and religion. The late Tony Jay does a marvellous job voicing him. Phoebus is our love interest for Esmerelda. People do tend to hate on him because he gets the girl instead of Quasimodo but you have to admit he does get some of the best lines in the movie.
This being a Disney movie, there are songs of course. These ones however are a lot different from the previous Renaissance films in that they’re not too showy and a lot more mature. Frollo’s song “Hellfire” is one of the most powerful and disturbing songs Disney have ever created; he’s basically singing a song about how he’s lusting after Esmerelda but he hates himself for that because she’s a gypsy. He pretty much says he will make her his or else execute her. The song “God Help The Outcasts” is one of the most beautifully written songs I’ve ever heard. Esmerelda is in the cathedral and she says that she doesn’t want God to help her but others who are in bigger need of his help. The way it’s animated and written just makes it stunning to watch and listen to. Quasimodo’s two songs “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light” are also nice to listen to, as well as the sad reprise of the latter when he realises Esmerelda is in love with Phoebus.
Now there is a big thing to criticise about this film – the gargoyles. To me it just seemed like the producers chickened out and felt they had to add them in to make the film more appealing to kids. Sadly it doesn’t really work and it’s a big case of mood whiplash whenever the gargoyles are on screen. Such as Hugo making a joke about Paris burning to the ground and some bad attempts at comedy ruining some good dramatic scenes. I absolutely despise the song “A Guy Like You” that they sing and it just really brings the film down. There is a fan-edited version out there that removes the gargoyles so I’m guessing the film would be a lot darker without them. I would say I’m in the group of people that believe the gargoyles are actually figments of Quasimodo’s imagination, since it’s only him that sees them and talks to them. It’s natural considering he’s been up in the bell tower his whole life so he creates imaginary friends for himself. Though that does make the gargoyles actually participating in the final battle a bit curious.
The above-mentioned final battle is one of the most epic film scenes ever and it’s Disney too. The sequence of Quasimodo swinging down from the bell tower, grabbing Esmerelda off the burning pyre, holding her body up high and shouting “sanctuary!” is just one big epic win. The following battle is pretty cool as well, even if the gargoyles do participate in it. And Frollo’s death scene – let me just say wow. I thought Ursula’s death was family unfriendly but Frollo’s just takes the cake.
The opening number “The Bells Of Notre Dame” is hands down the best opening to a Disney film ever. It’s so eerie and powerful with the gypsy woman running through the city to Notre Dame and pleading for sanctuary. She does this while holding a baby and outrunning Frollo on his horse. These days I still get chills when I see the statues all turned to face Frollo accusingly.
So entry number 34 in the Disney Animated Canon of course wasn’t really that well received when it was released. It was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Film if you believe that. Just goes to show how ridiculous and pointless those “awards” are. I was scared of this movie when I was a kid but I love it now and hold it up as one of Disney’s masterpieces. I think along with The Black Cauldron, Sleeping Beauty and Pocahontas it’s one of the darkest Disney films ever. So take care and I hope none of you have trouble with your fireplaces. Follow me on Twitter.