Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

Lately this movie seems to be featured in a lot of YouTube videos describing it as surprisingly dark, or as Disney’s darkest animated movie.  And it may well be those things.  But I’m watching it after seeing a series of Hunchback adaptations that have been dark, grim and glum; and next to those, Disney’s version seems full of light and joy.

So I don’t know if I felt what I was meant to feel, as an adult consuming this product.  As a parent, I know that it’s too dark for my kids.  For myself, I can appreciate the light and energy in the thing, but it doesn’t do much for me after the tragedies of the novel and the dark emotions of other movie adaptations.

The ending certainly is unrealistic, and that’s an obvious point so I won’t elaborate.  I do love the “Sanctuary” scene, though.  In that, the energy of animation, soundtrack and score have been harnessed well.  It’s an exciting sequence, certainly, but Quasimodo also comes off, for an instant, as majestic.  I didn’t expect that in a character who’s been drawn as cute and friendly (there’s little that’s ugly about him, and nothing horrific).

The best part of the film has to be Frollo.  (This version of Esmeralda is good, if a little one-note — but hey, Esmeralda is not a nuanced character to begin with).  Frollo is pure genocidal villain here, which I knew beforehand, so I didn’t expect him to stand out as the most memorable character in the movie.  But he did, not as a complex, nuanced or subtle character, but because, somehow, he doesn’t strike you as cartoonish.  In short, despite the broad stroke he’s painted with, he feels somewhat real. 

Why that is, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s in the lifelike movements seen in the face.  Or it could be some register in that menacing-but-not-hammy voice.  Or it could be that song, “Hellfire,” which sticks in your brain and does show Frollo in conflict with himself.  Come to think of it, apart from that song he’s always unhesitatingly in opposition to everyone else in the movie; but in that song he’s arguing or pleading with a higher power, and he’s doing a back-and-forth of some kind.  He’s not debating between good and evil; he’s considering only evil options (I’ll have her or she’ll die); but there’s some life to the character in this sequence that keeps him from being a cardboard villain. 

And as he sings, we see animated spirits all around him, chanting, “Mea culpa!  Mea culpa!”, which literally means “through my fault.”  It’s a prayer in which we’re meant to take responsibility.  These spectral faces chanting all around Frollo – either free spirits, or shadows from within himself – are telling him to take responsibility for his passion, for his conflict.  If he’s praying, he’s having his prayer answered directly and dramatically.  But he’s ignoring these voices, or telling them directly to go to hell. He declares that Esmeralda is the one responsible for his sin and evil, that she is driving him to it.  No “mea culpa” for this Frollo; he’s not going to take responsibility; he’s going to lay the blame on the victim.

It isn’t subtle, but it’s all-too-real.

(I wrote a little more about Frollo’s blame game in a previous post.)

The novel has a sequence in which Frollo is practically hallucinating a ring of ghosts around him as he paces feverishly inside of Notre Dame:

In the church he found the gloom and silence of a cavern. By the deep shadows which fell in broad sheets from all directions, he recognized the fact that the hangings for the ceremony of the morning had not yet been removed. The great silver cross shone from the depths of the gloom, powdered with some sparkling points, like the milky way of that sepulchral night. The long windows of the choir showed the upper extremities of their arches above the black draperies, and their painted panes, traversed by a ray of moonlight had no longer any hues but the doubtful colors of night, a sort of violet, white and blue, whose tint is found only on the faces of the dead. The archdeacon, on perceiving these wan spots all around the choir, thought he beheld the mitres of damned bishops. He shut his eyes, and when he opened them again, he thought they were a circle of pale visages gazing at him.

He started to flee across the church. Then it seemed to him that the church also was shaking, moving, becoming endued with animation, that it was alive; that each of the great columns was turning into an enormous paw, which was beating the earth with its big stone spatula, and that the gigantic cathedral was no longer anything but a sort of prodigious elephant, which was breathing and marching with its pillars for feet, its two towers for trunks and the immense black cloth for its housings.

This fever or madness had reached such a degree of intensity that the external world was no longer anything more for the unhappy man than a sort of Apocalypse,—visible, palpable, terrible.

Now that last paragraph sums up nicely what we mean today with the term “Gothic.”

A final note: in this movie, as in other adaptations, Notre Dame is not attacked by Esmeralda’s vagrant friends but by Frollo’s men, so there is no irony, no misunderstanding by Quasimodo about what the attackers want.  The movie plays the drama straight, and for me the story loses some of its power that way.  But it’s not just Disney that dispenses with the irony; other adaptations have done it too.

The video below by Lindsay Ellis is technically about the Disney film but it is one of the best videos I found about Victor Hugo’s novel in general. Seriously I learned more about Hugo and his novel in this video than I did in many videos dedicated to the subject.

She also covers a lot about the two famous classic films, starring Lon Chaney in 1923 and Charles Laughton in 1939.

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