Directed by: Gary Trousdale/Kirk Wise
Written by: Tab Murphy/Irene Mecchi/Bob Tzudiker/Noni White/Jonathan Roberts
Based on book by: Victor Hugo
This is absolutely the darkest film Disney has ever made. It’s a movie that, if it hadn’t been made in 1996, would fit perfectly well in our current times (2018). The themes of perverting religion, demonizing an entire ethnicity, and using your office to get your way ring truer now than they did then.
Disney’s writers changed a LOT from the source material. They had to in order to make this into even marginally a kid’s movie. First off, everyone dies at the end of the novel. We can’t have that!
But the movie is still dark and the hellfire that Frollo deserves to burn in.
Frollo (Tony Jay), of course, is the Minister Of Justice in Paris. He rules with an iron Bible and has no qualms with murdering hundreds of innocent people to make his point. He also isn’t above a little infanticide when he feels like it. Luckily, though, he’s stopped from killing Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) by the Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers). He’s forced to raise the child whose Gypsy mother he’d just murdered. Quaisimodo is locked away in the towers of Notre Dame and grows up to be the bell ringer.
Frollo becomes more and more monstrous as the years go by while Quasi (raised more by the Archdeacon than Frollo) becomes more and more gentle and kind.
Enter Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a beautiful Gypsy dancer who saves Quasi from his humiliation at the Festival Of Fools. This raises Frollo’s ire…among other things, because Frollo’s a sinful jackass. Meanwhile, Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline), Frollo’s army captain, learns just what a piece of work his boss truly is. He rebels, falls for Esmeralda, helps Quasi be the hero that he always was in his heart. Frollo dies a firey, awful death.
There’s just so much going on here that it’s hard to get it all down in one short(ish) review. There’s lust, genocide, the sexiest Disney princess ever, fire & brimstone, more God than any other Disney film, religious persecution, political corruption, religious corruption…the list goes on and on. And, somehow, it all works pretty damn well. For me, this is the last truly classic Disney film of the Renaissance. (I haven’t seen Mulan in a really long time, so maybe that one beats it. But I don’t see Tarzan doing it.)
The animation is absolutely stunning. The mix of CGI and traditional animation is really coming together, especially in the crowd scenes. In fact, I don’t know if they did better until they went full CGI years later. Even then, it might be only Pixar that’s gotten better than this.
The music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz is great, if not particularly hummable. I don’t come out of it singing “God Help The Outcasts” or “Topsy Turvy” the way I do any song from Aladdin, but in the moment they work really well.
Parents, of course, hated it. Esmeralda is too sexy. The themes are too dark. Frollo is too evil. They say “damn” and “hell” too much. There’s an entire song called “Hellfire”! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!
Kids love it. There’s an entire generation of kids who grew up with this film and look back on it fondly as something that didn’t talk down to them. For that, it deserves some recognition. Go back and revisit it. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.