Jim on Film
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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
As the date of release for The Hunchback of Notre Dame drew near, it was being hyped as a mature step for Disney. Articles in newspapers and entertainment magazines referenced an alteration made to earn a G-rating, the facial hair of the leading man, and a scene of lust and longing centered around a song called Hellfire.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame did, indeed, push Walt Disney Feature Animation into new directions. As a result of this brave move, Disney attempted to lure families to a film not necessarily meant for their young children and one that was, as one mother I heard in a theater lobby say, "over their heads.â€? Of course, as another mother indicated, their parents were probably happy for that. Because of this, or perhaps for other reasons, The Hunchback of Notre Dame earned just over $100 million at the box office. Because this was considerably less than the $141 million for Pocahontas and significantly below the $300+ million of The Lion King, it was dubbed a failure by many Hollywood analysts. It earned a highly respectable gross, and whereas other films with lesser or comparable grosses were dubbed hits, in the shadow of The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was not.
This is really too bad. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while very different from other Disney favorites, is a wonderful film and proudly stands with the others in the canon, equaling or surpassing them on all artistic levels.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, first of all, is probably one of the Disney films with the most developed theme, taking what Pocahontas did even a step farther. The dominant theme is one seen in several Disney films--value comes from the inside, not from the outside. But beneath that theme is the more subtle, but no less important theme of what constitutes a Godly person, as defined through Old and New Testament teachings.
The un-Godly is seen in the form of Claude Frollo, who thinks himself holy but, in truth, rejects the teachings of the Faith he uses to condemn others. Once upon a time, there were probably some redeeming features to Frollo. He holds high moral standards, which is not something to condemn; however, it is his deep belief in these standards that drives him to create a morally corrupt world. Wanting to "rid the world of vice and sinâ€? is what our own legal system attempts to do; however, it is Frollo's hate that becomes the vice and sin. Because he looks at the gypsies as those who house these traits, he finds an easy vent for his own vices, injecting into the world that from which he wants to free it. This racism is against the very Force that he is attempting to aid through his "calling.â€? So whereas the religion he lays claim to calls for love, forgiveness, repentance, and conversion, Frollo uses it to give voice to the animalistic violence and hate within his own being. He ends up battling what he is himself.
It is ingenious that much of this is established in the visually stunning and musically astonishing song The Bells of Notre Dame. It tells much of this necessary exposition with haunting beauty. In addition to Alan Menken's beautiful music, Stephen Schwartz's masterful lyrics and, even more significantly, his use of adapted Latin lyrics help create spine-tingling chills when matched with the amazing on-screen visuals.