Personal Overview: I only really had a nodding acquaintance with Victor Hugo’s classic, having never read the whole thing or even seen some of the films based on it. I never got around to seeing this on release as the subject matter didn’t really thrill me, so this was my first watch.
I suspect Disney saw the potential for a stage musical on this one, a little like Phantom of the Opera, and decided to test the waters with this presentation.
The voice cast is absolutely top notch including Tom Hulce as Quasimodo, Kevin Kline as Captain Phoebus and Demi Moore as Esmeralda. Seinfeld star Jason Alexander also appeared as one of the talking gargoyles.
A quick check of a précis of the original work shows that Disney took plenty of liberties with it to fit it into their format.
Even then it’s one of the darkest works I can ever remember seeing them present. That very darkness is a little hard to take in an animated work and it’s probably the darkest thing they did since The Black Cauldron. They also had to tread carefully as the original mentions religion a lot and the bulk of the action does take place in a cathedral.
I found the ending a little odd, too. All film Quasimodo has a huge crush on the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda and yet at the end he happily steps aside for Phoebus. Phoebus is a good guy too and Esmeralda genuinely likes him, but if you’d already changed the original so much (Esmeralda was executed and Quasimodo died of starvation because he wouldn’t leave Esmeralda’s corpse) maybe you could make one more small alteration and give Quasimodo the unlikely, but narratively sensible, happy ending. He is still happy, or at least he’s drawn that way, but it still left me a little unsatisfied.
Hero/es: the 3 principals all get their turn at being heroes. Quasimodo of course, and just like in the book he’s the one who cause Frollo’s death after the man murdered his mother and made his life a misery. Phoebus being the captain of the guard and man of honour is the text book hero. Esmeralda is both love interest and hero. There was a bit of a push to make her an official Princess, arguing that she was a gypsy princess. She’s certainly an important figure in that community, but I don’t think she’s ever referred to as a princess.
Villain/s: that’s Frollo. Like with Ratcliffe it was very obvious from the way he was drawn and of course we do see that he kills Quasimodo’s mother at the start. In the book he’s the archdeacon, he was portrayed as a puritianical, hypocritical, gypsy hating judge in this. There was an interesting song in which it became clear part of his problem with Esmeralda was caused by him lusting after her. British Shakespearean actor Tony Jay did a great job with the voice here.
Cuteness Factor: not a lot to look at here. It’s a dark film. The closest I could come would be Esmeralda’s goat Djali. The three gargoyles that Quasimodo counts as friends are also comedy relief, but it’s debatable as to whether or not they’re really alive. They only talk to Quasimodo and the hunchback has probably been forced by loneliness to think that they’re alive.
Animation: the humans in this were largely unremarkable, except for Quasimodo, and even he’s been toned down a little. The star animation wise is the cathedral. The artists must have studied this place inside and out until they were seeing it in their sleep because they did a great job on it. It’s so well done that it becomes an extra character.
Final Words: both uneven and dark. It did good business at the box office, but at this stage Disney was a juggernaut and could do no wrong with a big animated release. Audiences were prepared to cut them a fair bit of slack. It did become a successful musical, although this was a German production and as yet has not eventuated in English.