The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

credit: thehunchblog.comIf you live in Paris, you should know everything you say and do is being closely monitored by a bell ringer who enjoys singing in vibrato while crafting little wooden replicas of you. He’s like the NSA of Notre Dame.


A lot of people don’t appreciate this film, but it’s one of my favorites. Yes, for a Disney cartoon it’s slightly heavier than average, but then again so was my bus driver in junior high. Her name was Marge. (And since every kid in the neighborhood was a slave to sophisticated poetic dialogue with just the right blend of rhyme, rhythm, and meter, we had no choice but to affectionately refer to her as “Large Marge.”)

I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was a teenager, and I can honestly say this cartoon is not nearly as dark and depressing as Victor Hugo’s book. Honestly, I don’t know how ol’ Vic managed to keep such a cheery disposition.  (If only all great authors could master such vivacious, photogenic poses.)

credit: Speaking of ol’ Vic, you may notice two of the gargoyles are named Victor and Hugo. The third gargoyle is named Laverne. I have no idea why or how that name connects to the story, but I think it’s hilarious that they just threw in a Laverne. (I also love how they named Phoebus’ horse Achilles just so they could use the line, “Achilles, heel!”)

The actress who voiced Laverne was named Mary Wickes. She played lots of comedic characters in old movies (including the housekeeper in White Christmas) and kept right on acting through the ‘90s in movies like Sister Act. She actually died during this film, and since she hadn’t finished recording all her lines, Disney had to get somebody else to imitate Mary Wickes’ voice for the rest of it.

Other than the big names like Jason Alexander (Hugo), Demi Moore (Esmerelda), and Kevin Kline (Phoebus) the only other voice I’d mention would be Tony Jay, who plays Frollo. I mention him because I just barely realized he is the sinister old man in charge of the asylum in Beauty and the Beast.

OH, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW: As in all Disney family features, there is one song exclusively devoted to a perverted old man who is overcome with the desire to make love to an exotic gypsie woman whilst encircled about by the flames of hell. (Wait, is this the only Disney cartoon with that scene?)

Now if you listen closely to the songs at the very beginning and end of this movie, you’ll notice Clopin, the narrator, singing two very specific questions that serve as bookends to the whole film.

credit: thehunchblogThe first:

Now here is a riddle to guess if you can
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
Who is the monster and who is the man?

The second:

So here is a riddle to guess if you can
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
What makes a monster and what makes a man?

These “riddles” sung by the bells of Notre Dame are slightly different. While the first riddle, prior to hearing the whole story, invites us to guess whether Frollo or Quasimodo is the monster, the second or post-story riddle invites us to reconsider for ourselves “what makes a monster and what makes a man.”

The riddles are easily solved as we witness the cruelty of Frollo — who “saw corruption everywhere except within”— juxtaposed alongside the humility and selflessness of Quasimodo.

Do we have the spiritual sensitivity to discern the difference between men and monsters? And are we willing to sacrifice our public or private popularity or prominence in order to reach out to those who need help, even if it means being considered outcasts ourselves? As Esmerelda sings in her prayer:


I don’t know if You can hear me,
Or if You’re even there.
I don’t know if You would listen
To a gypsie’s prayer.
Yes, I know I’m just an outcast,
I shouldn’t speak to you,
Still I see Your face and wonder,
Were You once an outcast too?

“When we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”Isaiah 53:2-3 

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