Two years ago my dad was watching Versailles (2015-2018), a dramatic Netflix series about the famous palace of the same name built by King Louis XIV of France. It was my dad who introduced me to history, and many of the films we have watched together over the years have been of the historical variety. After viewing them, our discussion inevitably turns to the production’s historical accuracy. While my dad does not possess the same academic pedigree as myself, he still knows his stuff, the result of a lifelong interest in the past that he passed along to me. While he did not necessarily vouch for Versailles’ authenticity, he raved about how much it put the grounds on display. My dad is a pretty even keeled guy about most things, so hearing him have this level of excitement over something is significant, particularly when he said he would want to see the palace one day. Given that this year is his seventieth birthday, and the fact that he has sacrificed so much for his family over the years, the wheels in my head began turning at that time. In light of all the epochal events that have occurred in the intervening two years, who knows if this will become a reality. While I hold out hope, in the meantime I can satisfy myself with movies about France, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), even if it is of the animated variety.
The setting for The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set by Clopin (voiced by Paul Kandel), a gypsy puppeteer, who is telling a group of children in the shadows of the nearby title cathedral the story of Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce). Decades previously, gypsies were not welcome in Paris, the result of a decree by Judge Claude Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay), the Minister of Justice. One of the gypsy women is fleeing with a baby, and she seeks sanctuary within the walls of Notre Dame. Before the doors can be opened to her, she is seized by Frollo and thrown to the ground, dying with her baby in her arms. When he takes a hold of the infant, he intends to drown it, particularly when he sees the newborn’s hideous visage. This is when the church’s archdeacon finally intervenes, pointing out Frollo’s crime and begging mercy for the child. In atonement, though reluctantly, Frollo agrees to provide for the child while it remains hidden in the bell tower. Twenty years later, and Quasimodo (which means “half-formed”) is in charge of ringing the church bells, while never venturing outside. This last part is the result of Frollo’s cruel tutelage, who has taught the young man that the world is a dangerous place for a deformed fellow such as himself. Still, he longs to get a closer look, especially during the upcoming Festival of Fools, which takes place in the courtyard just outside the walls of the church. Frollo predictably forbids Quasimodo from attending. Yet, our hero receives some encouragement from a few of the animated gargoyles with which apparently only he can communicate. Thus, taking the precaution of a cloak for some semblance of concealment, he enters into the crowd of revelers. It is not long before he is noticed, and a wave of popular sentiment takes him onto the main stage where the enchanting gypsy magician Esmerelda (voiced by Demi Moore) judges the costumes and masks of some of the attendees. When they come to Quasimodo and she attempts to remove what she believes is hiding his face, everyone is stunned to discover that this is actually his face. This leads to a backlash of ridicule that is witnessed by Frollo, who does nothing to prevent it, and instead sees it as an opportunity to teach his charge a lesson. Who does step forward to put an end to the bullying is Esmerelda. While she is able to get Quasimodo back to his sanctuary, Frollo orders that she stay there forever. He also decides that he will eradicate all gypsies in the city, but take Esmerelda for himself out of lustful desire. Meanwhile, in Notre Dame, Esmerelda and Quasimodo form a bond, and she gives her new friend a necklace that will lead him to where her people congregate should he ever need another safe place. He is then able to help her to sneak out of the church and get away unseen. We then shift to Frollo instituting his orders to get rid of gypsies and find Esmerelda. At one point, he attempts to get his captain of the guard, Pheobus (voiced by Kevin Kline), to burn down an innocent family’s home. When the soldier refuses, he runs away, but is shot with an arrow and falls into the Seine. This is witnessed by Esmerelda, who saves him and takes him to Quasimodo. After coming to, the three of them travel to the Court of Miracles, the gypsy hideout, to warn them of Frollo’s plans. Unfortunately, they are followed by Frollo’s men and captured, and Quasimodo is forced to return to Notre Dame. However, he is able to break free, and saves Esmerelda from being burned at the stake. There is also a popular uprising sparked by these actions that Frollo blames on Quasimodo. The former charge confronts his former master atop the cathedral, from which the Minister of Justice falls to his death. With the threat averted, Quasimodo gives his blessing to Esmerelda and Phoebus, and the one-time monster is hailed as a hero.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame has all the hallmarks that a Catholic film reviewer would appreciate. It has themes of sacrifice, courage, humility, and kindness. In other words, nothing that I have not already covered a number of times in other reviews. Instead, what I would like to focus on today is the Cathedral of Notre Dame itself. There is some imagery in the film that suggests what it is in real life, a Catholic church. What I wonder is how many people realize this fact? It is one of the most well-known buildings in the entire world, and much of this has to do with the famous novel by Victor Hugo of the same name. The edifice is quite impressive, too, and has been the focal point of some incredible events in the history of the Catholic Church. It should be noted that this is its function, first and foremost, as a place of worship for members of the Catholic Faith. For this reason, I have heard many of my fellow adherents who have been to it as tourists that have noted that the ecclesiastical side of things often gets brushed to the side by the number tourists it attracts every year. I am sure that once it is rebuilt from the 2019 fire, this problem will rear its ugly head once more. Though I have never been myself, my impression is that people go there without realizing its main purpose. I also suspect that they do not realize some of the incredible artifacts that are stored in its walls. Perhaps the most famous of all is the actual Crown of Thorns affixed to Our Savior’s head on the day of His Passion. There are those that dismiss such things as mere legend. Of course, I am not among them. When the fire raged in 2019, the container housing this Holy Relic survived the blaze. One can dismiss such events as coincidence all one wants, but that, my friend, is a miracle, particularly if you watched footage of the conflagration. Understand that little of this has to do with the movie. On the other hand, I feel that knowing such little tidbits can enhance your viewing.
Despite The Hunchback of Notre Dame being about one of the most famous Catholic churches in the world, it is still a musical. If you are like me and do not enjoy such productions, that might take away from your enjoyment of an otherwise solidly made Disney production. As I understand it, there are several alterations made from Hugo’s source material, but that is the Mouse for you. They made this version for children, and it is doubtful you could keep their attention with a few hours of French ecclesiastical history. In its present form, it is fine for the whole family.