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Saturday, 3 March 2018

Reviewing 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'

My favourite Disney film is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think it is an incredible movie that takes my breath away every time I watch it. As a kid it used to scare me according to my parents (can't say I'm surprised), but as an adult I find it captivating. This long post shall explain why.


The key theme of this film is the 'monster' vs the 'man.' Seldom do you get Disney movies - or movies in general - where the hero is a deformed man. Usually he's handsome, bold, filled with wisecracks - and while Phoebus is great, the main hero/protagonist of this movie is Quasimodo. Although Frollo tells Quasi his whole life that he is the 'monster', the true monster is Frollo, and Quasi is the true 'man.'

Quasi is wonderful, kind, and naive, due to having been raised by 'such a cruel man' as Esmeralda describes Frollo. He has lived a sheltered life locked in a tower with no one to 'talk' to besides three stone gargoyles (which I will comment on after). His dream is to go outside and live a normal life like everyone else. The other key heroes - Esmeralda and Phoebus - are equally interesting and slightly unconventional. Esmeralda isn't a Disney princess, she is a peasant gypsy girl who has had to struggle and work her whole life to live. She is also pure of heart and brave; beautiful, smart, and kind-hearted.

Although Phoebus is a Captain of the Guard, he cares more about integrity than following orders. He sees that Frollo is an unjust man - his early comment on Frollo's obsession to purge the gypsies is 'I was summoned from the wars to capture fortune tellers and palm readers?' He follows the orders to a degree, becoming more and more dissatisfied with Frollo's psychotic cruelty, and risks his life to save an innocent family after Frollo orders him to burn them to death. Esmeralda and Phoebus fall in love because they are suited to each other; Esmeralda sees Quasi as a friend and he looks at her more as a mother-figure, not a lover. He is too innocent and naive to be with her; they aren't 'equals' in the same way Phoebus and she are. I don't think it's to do with Quasi's looks as she isn't a shallow person; Phoebus is handsome but she loves him for his good heart and courage.

Frollo himself makes a wonderful antagonist. He is probably one of the darkest, cruelest Disney villains there is, and one of the most 'rounded.' On the surface he believes himself to be a 'righteous man'; a God-fearing man of the church. Yet unlike the Pope, who is kind and good, Frollo is evil, dismissing the baby Quasi and ready to murder him if not for his fundamentalist beliefs. Frollo represents the dark repression of the church in the time the film is set in. He clearly has highly repressed sexual urges due to his religion, and channels his sexual frustration and desire to be with Esmeralda into insisting upon finding her and murdering her. Of course, he gives her the option to 'choose me or the fire', but she would rather burn than be with that cunt.

The way he treats Quasi is vile; he feeds him lies about his mother heartlessly abandoning him, he doesn't allow him to go outside or have any friends, and he makes Quasi recite that he is 'deformed' and 'ugly', claiming that Quasi shouldn't leave the bell tower for his 'own good.' (In a horrible way, Frollo is sort of right, considering how the people of Paris initially treat Quasi).

Religion, Race and Class

I think this movie is partially a metaphor for the French Revolution. The citizens of Paris rise up against their conservative religious oppressor to bring freedom and liberty to the people. France was one of the founding countries of the Enlightenment, which was against the dark corners of religious fundamentalism among other things. Frollo is a bit like a dictator; during the climatic uprising, Phoebus mentions that Frollo has controlled the people long enough and its time to take back what is there's. Frollo abuses the power of the church by using it to instigate fear into people. He detests the 'Feast of Fools' because it involves drinking, dancing, fun and games, being foolish and watching attractive women dance around.

The gypsies represent sex, passion, music and dance, and other things the church is against like palm reading, tarot cards, crystal balls and other new age practices. Fundamentalist Christians tend to view such as 'devil-like', shown by Frollo as he names Esmeralda guilty of witchcraft. The gypsies are also described as 'peasants'; Esmeralda clearly is not a wealthy girl. In fact, the majority of the townsfolk seem to be working class, with Frollo and the soldiers being of a wealthier stature. When Phoebus enters, one of the guards even says to him 'I'll teach you a lesson, peasant', before quickly realizing he's a Captain and war hero.

Class was a big thing during the French Revolution; the people sought to overthrow the aristocratic powers and replace it with freedom for the workers. (Note: I don't know a great deal about the FR and won't turn this post into a History lesson). Revolution in general comprises of the workers overthrowing a rich aristocracy and attempting to eliminate class distinction.

The gypsies themselves are black, bringing in more context of racial distinctions in France. The film 'La Haine' explores themes of race and class distinction, showing how tough life was with the rise of Le Pen's National Front. Again, I'm not terribly familiar with problems of race and class in France, but from what I know I presume there is quite a large gap and I'm aware the National Front has an unfortunately strong following. I'm aware there's an influx of North African and Arabic immigrants in France, most of whom form the lower class of the country. But please correct me/educate me if I'm wrong as I don't know the ins and outs.

Dark Themes

I mentioned at the beginning that this film used to scare me as a child. I think its incredible that this is a children's film; if it were a live action film it probably wouldn't be suitable for children due to the incredibly dark themes running through. Let's look at the gargoyles. There's speculation that they aren't actually alive, and Quasi just hears them speak in his head - after all, he is the only one that can actually speak to them. Yes, they did appear to be taking part in the film's climax, but again we don't know if that actually happened or if Quasi just imagined it. If the gargoyles are not really alive, it indicates Quasi is suffering from schizophrenia due to his extreme loneliness.

Frollo's sexual repression is also screwed up. The song 'Hellfire' represents his craving for Esmeralda, and shows how dangerous sexual repression can be. He insists he is righteous and doesn't have 'unholy' thoughts, rather than being able to accept his feelings as natural. Lust is a normal and natural feeling, and it's ok to find someone sexually attractive as long as you don't engage in cruel or perverse behaviour such as rape or masturbating in front of them. A normal guy in this day and age would see a hot girl, get aroused then go home and wank. But because of Frollo's deeply religious background and fear - also we don't know what his childhood was like - he attempts to push those feelings away and views them as negative, leading him to project negatively onto her. Pretty dark for a kid's film.

But what's one of the most unsettling things about this movie are the people of Paris. In the Feast of Fools scene, they all happily stand back and laugh at Quasi, throwing things at him and not bothering to go and help him despite his awful pain. That scene shows the worst elements of human nature; for years humans have taken part in enjoying the misery of other humans or animals. Saturnalia, bear bating, hunting animals for sport (not food), bull fighting, Roman animal fights - so many traditions have come and gone where we've let animals attack other humans or enjoyment, or sacrificed humans to some imaginary God, or simply hunted animals for sport. (Going off topic, modern day Americans still seem to be carrying on this fucked up part of being human by being more insistent upon keeping their guns as opposed to being horrified at the amount of mass shootings taking place because of poor gun control).

Yes, in the end the people of Paris rise up and join in the revolt. But they do it out of ignorance, not loyalty. They are 'sheep', and the only 'true' people that seem to have a real sense of justice are Esmeralda, Phoebus and Quasi. Because this is a kid's film it has to have a happy ending, but in reality, the same people that cheer Quasi on are the ones who not long before that were laughing and throwing things at him. They simply follow the status quo, going along with what they think should be done. In short, they are us. We may think we are civilized now because we no longer sacrifice each other to the rain god, but we still engage in merciless wars and will be quick to gang up or not defend the poor kid being picked on in the playground. In short, humans are arseholes, but I guess evolution made us this way.


So yes, this was a pretty long post, but I really wanted to dig right in to why I love this movie. Of course there are additional factors, like the 90s animation, the epic songs and the overall Disney fun of it all. But I do think this movie is wonderful with its messages about loving whats on the inside, not the outside. It's not a 'feel-good' film like Moana or Frozen despite the happy ending, I think it's more the type of film to make you think while being under the guise of a cheery kid's movie. And the fact that Disney managed to pull that off is amazing. The original novel is actually much darker than the Disney adapted film. If Hollywood make this into a live action movie maybe I can play Esmeralda...good to dream right?

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I'm Zarina Macha, an author, blogger, and musician from London. I write about stuff on the internet 'cos having opinions is fun -- if you want to join the games, please note your thoughts below. All thoughts welcome, even if they're mean (just no spam links please -- can't tell you what a liability those are to remove).
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