The Mouse House Movie Club #1: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: Canine Casanova, in which Pluto attempts to get his rocks off with a saucy lady dog.
Feature Presentation: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Disney tackles classic French literature with maturity, heart, and really bloody good songs.

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Canine Casanova
I’m a huge fan of Pluto, so when the random generator I use to select each short film plucked out Canine Casanova, I was delighted (doubly so because I watched it on National Dog Day and that made my shambolic approach to life seem carefully considered and beautifully planned). Sadly, Canine Casanova is only mid-level Pluto.

The best Pluto films are those where he gets to run through the whole gamut of emotion. He’s one of the great silent movie stars, and silent stars work best when they’re being plunged from one extreme emotion to the next. Look, for example, at A Gentleman’s Gentleman, Mickey and the Seal, or Pluto’s Christmas Tree. In all three, our canine chum goes through the emotional wringer, and that allows animators and writers to bring genuine comedy gold out of him.

Canine Casanova begins as a silly love story and segues fairly awkwardly into an action story involving a local dog pound. It’s not bad by any means, but the scenario simply doesn’t play to Pluto’s strengths. Shame. Happy National Dog Day anyway, boy.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
It took me a little while to fall in love with Hunchback. I’d always sorta respected the film more than loved it, but re-watching it for the first time in a long time last year awakened me to its virtues. Giving it another look for this project only enhanced that admiration.

Topsy turvy, upsy daysy
The first thing to note about Hunchback is how unusual it is in comparison with its fellow Renaissance films. There are no princesses here and no cute animals. We get some sidekicks in the shape of Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends, but they’re pretty marginal in comparison to Sebastian, Abu, or Timon and Pumba. This is a respectful, mature, and often very dark take on a classic of French literature.

Where it does trade of Disney tropes, it actually subverts them. Gender roles are flipped here, with Quasimodo playing the lost and longing Princess striving to get out into the world (he even has the ‘I Want’ song, the stirring ‘Out There’) and Esmeralda possessing most of the agency (until, sadly, the end where she becomes a bit of a damsel in distress).

It’s a clever reversal, and one that adds to the film’s sense of maturity and the characters’ richness. In the same way that Frozen would impress audiences by flipping our expectations on their heads, Hunchback throws convention out the window, delivering a refreshing angle and characters who feel much more than mere cliches. The Renaissance was seven years old by the time Hunchback came out, so that feat is not only pretty impressive but vital in keeping the momentum going.

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You know I am a righteous man
This convention-flipping doesn’t just apply to the heroes; it is perhaps more apt for our villain, the thoroughly nasty (but unsettlingly human) Frollo. Whereas most other Disney villains are driven by vanity, power, or simple brutality, Frollo’s evil is driven by a war within himself.

He speaks of being free of sin and spreading purity by ridding the Parisian streets of sinners, yet he himself is riddled with evil, killing Quasimodo’s mother and enslaving Quasimodo himself. He refuses to acknowledge either of these actions as morally wrong, and later in the film, refuses to accept both that Esmeralda will not love him and that he has any lustful feelings for her at all.

Hellfire, one of the most striking and complex musical numbers in Disney history, outlines the torment in Frollo’s heart perfectly. He demands answers, wanting to know why he lusts after Esmeralda so. None of course are forthcoming, and unable to reconcile his feelings, he vilifies Esmeralda, telling us he’ll either own her (in the way he owns Quasimodo) or destroy her.

It’s a chilling sequence for a number of reasons. Firstly, while other Disney villains outline their evil with like a theatrical soliloquy that we can distance ourselves from or by boasting to their minions, Hellfire plays out like a deeply personal confession. We shouldn’t be hearing this. It’s a person of public repute alone and spilling his secrets and lustful, murderous desires. We can do nothing to prevent ourselves from being party to them and nothing to stop him enacting them. There’s a voyeurism at play here that’s very unique territory for Disney to play in.

Secondly, and even worse, the sequence generates sympathy for this monster. It’s very difficult to relate to The Evil Queen, the Wicked Stepmother, Ursula and Scar’s motivations. They’re bad people seeking power – perfect fantasy villains. But who hasn’t felt conflicted like Frollo? Who hasn’t been confronted by their own baser instincts and wanted to run away from them, or shift the responsibility for them on to someone else?

He may be an extreme example, but Frollo is one of us and his actions, no matter how vile, are things we’re all capable of. Who is the monster and who is the man, the film asks. The line between them isn’t quite as clear as we’d hope.

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I dare to dream that she might even care for me
By 1996, audiences had become accustomed to the Renaissance formula. There’s a boy, there’s a girl, they meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Hunchback doesn’t necessarily buck that trend (Esmerelda does, of course, end up in a relationship), but it does twist it, giving us a new take on the meaning of love, just as Frozen would several years later.

In ‘Heaven’s Light’, Quasimodo sings of being in love in the way we’ve come to expect – the honeyed words of cold towers seeming bright and being bathed in warm and loving glows. But just as Frollo’s battle is one against himself, so too is Quasimodo’s. Certainly he needs to escape Frollo’s clutches, but to venture “out there” he must believe that he can be accepted, that he is worthy of the love he sings of.

That’s a process that involves shedding the wooden world he crafts within his tower, taking a risk, and going outside. When he does that, he sees that the crowd accepts him (even if they do later turn on him at Frollo’s behest) and that Esmeralda looks beyond his appearance and cares for him. Not – critically – as a romantic partner, but as a human being.

By rejecting a romance between the two, The Hunchback of Notre Dame emerges as a true love story that – even though I love these films – feels so much more real, so much more impactful than The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Love, the film says, isn’t just about singing birds and soft light; it’s about putting another person ahead of yourself and doing anything to make them happy.

Yes, I know I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to you
The lack of a romance with Quasimodo also allows Esmeralda a chance to breath and become so much more than the questing romantic (nothing wrong with that of course, but that’s Quasimodo’s role). Instead, she’s a warrior, a fighter who sees injustice and can’t do anything about it, no matter how much she tries.

Her treatment at the hands of Frollo is, sadly, even more relevant now than it was back in 1996, and her big moment (‘God Help the Outcasts’) allows her to escape a connection with any of the male characters, and stand on her own two feet. The song is a surprisingly damning tale of abandonment both by God and by those who are supposed to stand up for justice, and it’s direction furthers the sense of outrage.

When Esmeralda pleads with the almighty to help her and her people, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise fill the screen with the vast empty halls of Notre Dame. It turns the song into something of a duet between Esmeralda and God, but God’s too busy doing a jig at the Festival of Fools to perform his bits. She sings into nothing, asking for justice for all but being heard by no-one.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film of epic scale and grand songs, but it’s in such silences that it truly excels.

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The Bells of Notre Dame
The box office was kind of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but history hasn’t been. It lacks of iconography of The Lion King, the timelessness of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and the groundbreaking representation of Mulan and Pocahontas. Like Tarzan a few years later, it’s generally regarded as a solid but unspectacular Renaissance offering: that we’re now 20 years on from its release and no talk of an anniversary has emerged sadly confirms that. Hopefully its reputation will pick up though and come 2026, we’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of this glorious and quietly groundbreaking film with all the enthusiasm of the Festival of Fools.

Next up in The Disney Review, direct to DVD shenanigans with Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue. This will be preceded by 1951 Donald Duck short Corn Chips.

What do you think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Let me know in the comments and let’s get a Disney conversation flowing!