The Best Movie Critic + review

Favorite Movie Series: Andrew Kemp on The Hunchback of Notre Dame

We're back with another round of entries in The Movie Advocate Favorite Movie Series. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Andrew Kemp’s website, The Hollywood Projects, I would recommend you remedy that immediately. Andrew’s mix of humor, history, and genuine insight into the movies he sets his sights on always makes for a stimulating read. His entry into Favorite Movie Series is no exception. I almost choked on my drink when I looked in my inbox and saw that Andrew had written his favorite movie post about The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yes, the Disney one. Regardless of my initial surprise, I guarantee you will not read anything better today. Enjoy.

My favorite movie is The Exorcist, but everyone talks about that film. With six minutes and Google, you’ll find every theory you need: it’s the best film ever made about faith, the struggle between science and religion, the alienation of puberty, and so on, blah blah, the power of Christ compels you. I could write about it, but the name of this site is The Movie Advocate, and so I feel compelled to advocate.

There was a time in my life when I openly called Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame my favorite movie, like, of all the movies. That claim had more to do with who I was at the time—a burgeoning film and animation nerd looking for a stick to stir shit with—than it had to do with the movie itself, but I can’t overstate the film’s impact on me. I was about to be a first-time father (my daughter would be born a month after the film’s release), and thoughts about how I would talk to or relate to this oncoming person were heavy on my mind. I wasn’t sure that I spoke “child,” but as I sat in the theatre, and as I had my mind popped like a zit by Disney’s brass balls, I suddenly realized that the line between the languages was fuzzier than I’d thought.

For fans of the novel who dismiss the film automatically: feel free to pick up the book and start reading. I promise I’ll be done before you are and, actually, I even sympathize with your position. Seriously, what the hell was Disney mainlining when they chose to adapt Hunchback? The Mouse House was built on the fairy tale classics, and it’s actually kind of unbelievable that a gothic French novel about lust and religion, featuring a deformed lead character, made it to a Disney screen 14 years before frikkin’ Rapunzel. It’s not just an odd choice; it’s a balls-out, ludicrous choice. What’s next? Peyton Place? Gone with the Wind?

To make the movie work, Disney carpet bombed the book’s plot and characters. Quasimodo became an awkward teenager with a booming, Tom Hulce voice. Pheobus softened into a handsome, witty, and less rapey hero-type. Clopin is a prancy dandy. And what about the fucking singing gargoyles named, of course, Victor and Hugo (and Laverne). The gargoyles symbolize everything bizarre and inscrutable about the decision to adapt this novel. They make fart noises under their armpits. They sing songs comparing the shape of Quasi’s back to a croissant (oh, did I mention he’s called Quasi?). They hock spit on mimes. One of them even has an unnatural inter-species infatuation with Esmeralda’s goat. How did these abominations make it past anyone, anywhere in the development process? Disney, so desperate for kid-friendly characters, approved shenanigan-fueled stone yuksters, seemingly charged with a single goal: find Victor Hugo’s dignity and piss gravel on it. If this is the compromise Disney had to accept to adapt the novel, then why adapt the novel at all?

So, you see, I sympathize. But give me a second.

Those gargoyles? Those blights on all that is sacred about French literature? They don’t exist. They are fabricated inventions of Quasimodo’s tortured, fractured mind. Like the novel, he thinks they’re real because he’s been driven near-insane with loneliness. There are a few hints sprinkled throughout the film, with the most obvious coming at the end of that croissant musical number. The bit ends in a typical Disney uproar: big, belting final note, ribbons flying around, oodles of chaos and good cheer. And then Esmeralda opens the door and we get a fleeting glimpse of the scene around Quasimodo before he can recover. Rags. Trash. Refuse. Quasimodo was singing to himself (about how Esmeralda loves him, when she totally doesn’t), a pathetic audience of one. The gargoyles aren’t happy little cuddle-nubbins. They’re the mental support system Quasi invented to survive a life imprisoned with his thoughts.

The novel’s fans hate the movie for dumbing down the book, but I propose they should praise the film for keeping as much of the book as it did. Despite targeting a demographic still suckling Happy Meals, Disney allowed directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise to retain much of the novel’s way-adult content. OK, the villain, Frollo, is now a judge instead of an Archdeacon, but he’s still a cruel religious figure who twists scripture into a murder weapon. He’s still conflicted when he experiences raw lust for the “witch”, Esmeralda, who he sees dancing, near-naked, in his fire (in a musical bit, no less, where he faces heaven’s judgment before passing out from his insanity.) And, yes, this is still the company that scrubbed Pocahontas clean.

Frollo’s breakdown was only seen by parents who made it past the opening, which featured a bit of cold-blooded murder and contemplated infanticide. That scene, in particular, doomed the film. I recall Kathie Lee Gifford, one-time oracle for the soccer mom set, crucifying Disney on her morning show for frightening her children. Well-reviewed, Hunchback still flopped once word of mouth hit the mommysphere.

And that’s a damn shame, because Hunchback was indeed softened, but it was done so that kids could still swallow the novel’s bitter pill. Compare that to a Hunchback contemporary, the abysmal Quest for Camelot, that shits all over its source material in a mad dash to pander. It’s a different mindset altogether from Hunchback which, for all its faults, treats its child audience with respect and tries to serve them a truly engaging, adult story because… well, because why the hell not? Why must children’s entertainment be inane? Why must we “protect” our children by refusing, actively and angrily, to challenge them in any way?

Since my children were born, I’ve learned a fundamental lesson: they absorb, process, and return whatever they take in. That gives parents the heebies, and they baby-proof their child’s entertainment to prevent the creation of an axe murderer or whatever else, which I think is missing the entire point. If you feed your child garbage as entertainment because it’s safe, then you’ll wind up raising a very safe child. Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but safe children don’t reach, they don’t grow, and they don’t inspire. God save the world from safe children.

I challenge my children. I showed them Hunchback when they were small, and that was just the beginning. They both loved it, and I encourage them to keep looking for tougher material. I want to be shocked by what they’re reading, rather than simply being shocked that they are reading.

In 1996, Disney took a beating for doing what we’ve always asked the company to do: it tried to grow up. The company hasn’t made the same mistake again (Pixar notwithstanding). Quasimodo isn’t welcome at the Main Street Parade. You can’t find Hunchback snow globes at the Disney Store. Like its protagonist, the film has become Disney’s unfortunate orphan, sent to the bell tower where it can’t harm their reputation as a company that provides nothing to and demands nothing of its audience. All I’m asking is that we give Hunchback another chance. For our children’s sake, it’s time to let the film out into the light.

RUSHMORE by Luke Hunter James-Erickson
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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA by Justin Couch

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Favorite Movie Series: Andrew Kemp on The Hunchback of Notre Dame + review