The plot of a Disney animated feature is easier to understand than some live action movies but it has many details. It isn't too childish for adults and isn't to advanced for children. It is a great family movie. The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of the disfigured bell ringer of Notre Dame Quasimodo (Hulce), who was taken from his gypsy mother after she was murdered by Frollo (Jay) and he was going to kill the baby until the Archdeacon (Stiers) of Notre Dame told Frollo, that as penance for the cruel deed of killing the gypsy mother, Frollo must raise the infant as his own son. Frollo agrees but has Quasimodo grow up inside of the Notre Dame cathedral where he becomes the "mysterious bell ringer." All of this is told in the prologue song "The Bells of Notre Dame" sung by the Gypsy Clopin (Kandel). It really is an amazing musical masterpiece. It has latin chanting and singing monastic choirs and huge orchestrations along with the tolling sounds of the bells of Notre Dame and with a wonderful tenor voice singing it. If you listen to the track you will hear how extremely high Clopin's last note in that song is. I could never sing that high. You can listen to it in the video above. [Note: the songs i have put in that actually have the action that goes with the song have some delayed mouth movements. This is just in these videos. The actual movie does not do that.]
The real story starts 20 years after the prologue takes place, (not the singing of the prologue song but the actual happenings) on January 6th the day of the "Feast of Fools." Quasimodo always watches the festival from atop the cathedral every year but he tells his gargoyle friends, Victor, Laverne and Hugo, (Yes, that is the name of the author of the book: Victor Laverne Hugo), that he doesn't want to watch this year.
He is tired of watching and never getting to go to the festival. They suggest that he should go to the festival in disguise but Quasimodo reminds them of one big problem. Frollo has forbidden Quasimodo from ever leaving Notre Dame cathedral and he must obey his master. [Side Note: The gargoyle, Victor, (voiced by Charles Kimbrough), does a misquote of a quote said by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Victor says, "Yet, if you chip us, will we not flake? If you moisten us, do we not grow moss?" The actual line that Shakespeare wrote and what Shylock said was, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?" That's a written in joke for the adults watching the film.] But back to the story, Quasimodo says Frollo would be furious if he asked to go because Frollo hates the Feast of Fools then the gargoyle, Hugo, (voiced by Jason Alexander), replies "Who says you gotta ask?" They start planning Quasimodo's escape to go see the festival and right as he goes to walk out the door Frollo walks in. Frollo brought food up to eat with him and during the meal he discovers that Quasimodo has been thinking about going to the festival and he is very angry. This leads into the song "Out There" in which Frollo starts to describe what a bad idea going out would be but after Frollo leaves Quasimodo sings of getting to spend just one day "out there."
He ends the song standing on top of the cathedral and as the camera zooms way way out we end up in the middle of a lot of buildings where we meet his co-star Phoebus (Kline) looking for the Palace of Justice. He has been summoned back from the wars to come be the captain of the guard for Frollo's men. He has his horse, Achilles, with him and he sees the gypsy Esmeralda dancing on the street side for money. He is struck by her beauty and presence and flips her a coin. Then some guardsmen of Frollo come hunting gypsies and they try to arrest Esmerelda but Captain Phoebus helps her escape by moving Achilles to block the way. One of the guardsmen falls down right behind the horse and Phoebus tells Achilles to sit and he does so. After getting their attention, he has them lead him to the Palace of Justice and as he walks behind them he turns to his horse and says, "Achilles, heel!" That's another inside joke for adults. Then we have Phoebus meet Frollo and Frollo takes him to observe and provide protection at the Feast of Fools. This is where the song "Topsy-Turvy" starts.
All three men fall for her, Frollo in a more lustful way than in a loving way. The other two are in love. Then when the time comes to crown the king of fools, somehow Quasimodo is revealed and Frollo and the whole crowd see him for what he is. However, Clopin helps everyone calm down by saying they asked for the ugliest face in Paris and they got it. Quasimodo is crowned while Frollo seethes and flowers and kisses and confetti are showered upon him. Everything is going wonderfully until a guard throws a tomato at him and laughs, this starts the whole crowd laughing and throwing things at Quasimodo including ropes. He is eventually tied down on the revolving wheel of the stage and he begs Frollo for help and to release him. Phoebus asks to go stop the cruelty but Frollo stops him and while those two men are talking Esmeralda comes up to Quasimodo and apologizes for what the people have done and then she frees him despite Frollo forbidding it. Then Frollo sends his men to catch Esmeralda but she escapes them and the scene ends as Quasimodo does his walk of humiliation back to the cathedral and slams the door shut. We return to the streets where it is now raining and Phoebus sees Esmeralda and her goat, Djali, in disguise, enter the cathedral. Phoebus follows her and gets attacked by her. They have a sparring of both body and wits between them because Esmeralda thinks he's there to arrest her but he tells her he can't since she's in the church. At that moment Frollo bursts in and immediately orders Phoebus to arrest Esmeralda. So Phoebus hurriedly whispers to her that she should claim "sanctuary" but Esmeralda thinks he tricked her and won't say anything. So Phoebus tells Frollo that she has already claimed sanctuary and the Frollo tells him to drag her outside and arrest her but the Archdeacon stops him. Frollo leaves after having a little chat with Esmeralda secretly and has a guard posted at every door and tells Esmeralda that she has chosen a magnificent prison. She is trapped within Notre Dame. She is very angry but the archdeacon tells her not to act rashly and says that there may be Someone inside the cathedral who could help her save her people from evil people like Frollo. This starts Esmeralda's beautiful song, "God Help the Outcasts," (sung by Heidi Mollenhauer) which is a plea to God to help her people.
This leads into a sequence starting in the morning of the next day where Frollo starts burning down Paris in an attempt to find the escaped Esmeralda. He offers money to the innocent gypsies he captures if they will give him Esmeralda but no one does and so he sends them to the dungeons. We move to a mill outside of town where Frollo has sentenced the miller's family to house arrest. He shuts the door, bars it and then orders Phoebus to burn it down. Phoebus refuses and douses the torch that Frollo handed him and this move sacrifices his career as a soldier. Frollo takes another torch from a guard and lights the mill on fire himself. Phoebus hears the people inside scream, he breaks through a window and helps the miller's family escape before getting captured by Frollo and sentenced to death on the spot but right before the sword swings Esmeralda slingshots a rock into the butt of Frollo's horse who then throws his rider off. Phoebus seizes this moment to escape and hops onto the horse and tries to ride away on Frollo's horse. We hear Frollo say to his guards, "Get him! And don't hit my horse!" Phoebus is hit with a guard's arrow and falls off the horse and into the Seine where he sinks to the bottom like a rock since he is wearing his armor. Before he leaves he tells his guards to find the girl even if they have to burn all of Paris. Esmeralda hears this right before she jumps into the river and saves Phoebus by pulling off his armor and pulling him to shore. The next shot is one of the city as it burns and smokes everywhere. We go back to the cathedral where Quasimodo is worrying about Esmeralda getting caught by Frollo. His gargoyle friends try to cheer him up by convincing Quasimodo that Esmeralda is in love with him. This is enforced with the song "A Guy Like You" sung by the gargoyles and by the end of it they have him convinced right up to the moment where Esmeralda comes back with the wounded Phoebus and asks Quasimodo to hide him for her. He agrees but as he watches Esmeralda doctor Phoebus he hears Phoebus say something implying that he is in love with Esmeralda and this leads to them kissing as Quasimodo's hear breaks in two.
We here a sad version of "Heaven's Light" as we watch him cry and struggle to stay together. Comic relief is brought in by the goat, Djali, alerting everyone that Frollo is coming up to see him. Quasimodo helps the gypsies escape and hides Phoebus under the table where he and Frollo eat. Frollo shows up, and finally causes to Quasimodo to break down and admit that he helped Esmeralda escape from the cathedral the first time. After he burns the little figurine of Esmeralda that Quasimodo carved he leaves and as he does so he sets up a trap to capture the gypsies and their "Court of Miracles" by telling the boy that he already knows where it is and he is going to attack at dawn with a thousand men. After Frollo is gone Phoebus gets up and says that they have to find the "Court of Miracles" before Frollo gets there at dawn. Quasimodo is not very happy that Phoebus has "stolen" his girl and doesn't want to go but by the time Phoebus gets to the ground floor, Quasimodo has decided to help and together they find it and try to warn them but are caught and accused of being spies before they can warn the gypsies. They are immediately sentenced to hanging by Clopin and this is told during the song "The Court of Miracles."
Dawn comes and we hear the drums pounding. Then we are in front of Notre Dame watching Frollo sentence Esmeralda to death.
The camera pans up to the cathedral and zooms in on Quasimodo who has been chained with tons of chains to the pillars of the cathedral. This is sort of a combination of King Kong being tied up and Sampson in the Bible chained to the pillars. We see that Quasimodo has given up hope and strength. He is resigned and won't listen to his gargoyle friends and he finally tells them to leave him alone. Hugo: "Okay. Okay, Quasi. We'll leave ya alone." Victor: "After all, we're only made out of stone." Laverne: "We just thought maybe you were made of somethin' stronger." With those last words they all freeze into their stone postures as Quasimodo is left pondering those words. He hears the execution speech by Frollo and we see in his face the determination to save Esmeralda come back. He starts to break off the chains holding him to the pillars in King Kong fashion and we see parts of the stone pillars fall as he does so. Now Frollo has set fire to the stake. Once Quasimodo frees himself he swings down from the top of Notre Dame on a rope in an awesome animation sequence and saves Esmeralda from the fire. He brings her back up to the cathedral using the rope and holds her high over his head and screams "Sanctuary! Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" down to the crowd who cheer him on.
Frollo then orders his men to seize the cathedral and we go back and see Quasimodo set Esmeralda down on a bed. Although he doesn't notice it, she doesn't appear to be breathing but Quasimodo has to leave and save the cathedral from Frollo. Down below Phoebus finally escapes his prison and then rallies the crowd with a stirring speech; "Citizens of Paris! Frollo has persecuted our people, ransacked our city! Now he has declared war on Notre Dame herself! Will we allow it?" and with that the crowd breaks all of the gypsies out of their prison carts and start attacking Frollo's men who are trying to break down the doors and get into Notre Dame. A large number of comic relief gags ensue as the battle for Notre Dame goes on.
My personal favorite gag is the one where Laverne is telling her pigeons "Fly, my pretties! Fly, Fly!" and cackling like the wicked witch of the west. We also can hear the witch's theme playing somewhere in the orchestration beneath this sequence.
Finally, as the guards actually break through the doors a little bit, Quasimodo pours molten rock off of Notre Dame in an awe inspiring scene. The music throughout this battle is amazing! You have to listen to it!
Quasimodo domes over to her to find out that she's not breathing and the water he tries to give her to drink just rolls off one side of her face and doesn't go in her mouth. All hope is gone and he sobs while holding her body. Frollo comes in the door behind him with a knife hidden behind his back. Frollo sets a hand on Quasimodo's back and Quasimodo says to Frollo, "You killed her." "It was my duty, horrible as it was. I hope you will forgive me. There, there, Quasimodo. I know it hurts. But now the time has come...to end your suffering... forever." Frollo raises the knife and plunges it down towards Quasimodo but Quasimodo grabs hold of that hand and finally wrestles it away from Frollo who is thrown onto the floor and scrambles to calm Quasimodo down by saying, "Now, now, listen to me, Quasimodo." Now finally Quasimodo has come to realize a truth that had been missing from his life. "No, you listen! All my life, you have told me the world is a dark, cruel place. But now I see that the only thing dark and cruel about it is people like you." He throws the knife off to he side and we hear Esmeralda's voice as she wakes up from what seemed like death. Frollo sees this and tries to kill her but Quasimodo protects her and a fight on the battlements starts and it reminds me of the battle between Gaston and Beast in Beauty and the Beast. In the end right after it looks like Frollo has won and he is about to die by falling from the roof of Notre Dame, the gargoyle that Frollo is resting his weight on breaks off and he is plunged down off the cathedral and into the lava surrounding the cathedral.
Esmeralda grabs Quasimodo's hand put she is not strong enough and he falls down, down and down until he is caught by Phoebus on Notre Dame's lower levels. The three are reunited and Quasimodo places Esmeralda's and Phoebus's hand together in a sort of "I give you my blessing" gesture. Then we are down at the base of the cathedral in front of a cheering crowd for Esmeralda and Phoebus in the bright sunlight of the morning. We see behind them that one of the doors is still open and Esmeralda goes back and brings Quasimodo out for the crowd to see. He comes out slowly and very timidly. No one says anything but a young peasant girl comes up to Quasimodo, places her hands all over is disfigured face, and gives him a hug. She then leads him down into the crowd who cheer for him as they celebrate their victory over evil and their saving of their beloved cathedral, Notre Dame. The is a brief reprise of "The Bells of Notre Dame" sung by Clopin and the movie ends on his last high note as we pull back slowly away from the crowds and Notre Dame.
Now, in an animated film, the voice actors don't portray their characters like they would in a live action film because whatever you see the animated character doing is done by the animators. But I believe that the voice actors portrayed what they were able to portray very well and therefore the animators also portrayed thier characters very well. The tones, pitches and accents of the actors' lines help make what is happening in the movie make sense. You probably wouldn't understand much of the show if there was no dialogue. It was a joy to listen to the characters and see what the animators did to help the actors out. They exceeded my expectations.
There were a lot of neat camera shots that helped put the scenes together in a way that both expresses the mood of the characters as well as what they want the audience to think and what they imply. For example near the beginning of the movie there is the section where Quasimodo decides to sneak out and go to the festival and right as he is about to leave Frollo appears in the doorway and when he does it is as if his black clothing has sucked all of the light and happiness out of the room. This is obvious to imply to the audience that Frollo is evil. We also see the differences between the charaters as Quasimodo sets the dishes down for thier meal. Frollo has a tall ornate silver goblet and plate whereas Quasimodo has a round slice of wood and a squat wooden cup. This is a good indication of the different social status of the 2 characters.
Another thing that was really a great "camera shot" was when, during the song "Out There," Quasimodo slides down a rain trench on the roof and stops at the end of it as water continues to flow out of a gargoyle's mouth. There is a "lens flare" during that part when, in actuality there is not a way to put a lens flare in an animated movie without animating it. So this obviously took a lot of work to make the audience believe that they were actually filming this happening. Another cool camera shot is one of Esmeralda down on the floor of the cathedral standing in the middle of the Rose window's light on the floor. It is a beautiful shot.
There is a cool special effect sort of shot during the song "God Help the Outcasts." They show Esmeralda walking between rows of lit candles and the lighting changes over her face to make it look realistic.
When Esmeralda visits Quasimodo's room there are different colors of shards of glass that cast lots of colored light floating around like a stained glass window almost. The scene where they show the burning of Paris is a huge accomplishment and the music playing during it is just amazing.
There's also a really nice bit of music done as Quasimodo does his walk of humiliation back to the cathedral. Remember, before this he had sung his song about how much he wanted to spend one day "out there" and now as he's leaving after being tortured and made a fool of you hear the same tune in the background but it's being played slowly in a minor key showing that Quasimodo's dreams were not filled the way he hoped.
There's also a nice shot of Quasimodo during the time right before Esmeralda is to be executed chained up like King Kong but he soon starts to break the chains to go and save Esmeralda and we see how powerfully strong he is.
There is also one of my favorite Disney surprises is that in most of their movies they have some characters from other movies make appearances in other movies in a way that would make sense for the character to be there. There are 3 characters that do that in this movie and they all do it at the same time. Since this is in France, you can see Belle walking through the streets holding a book and also two men are carrying the body of a dead hog home and that hog is Pumbaa. A guy standing near these two is holding the Magic Carpet from Aladdin. Look at the picture and you'll see what I mean.
One last Camera shot that I love is during the song "Topsy Turvy" where Clopin is holding onto a pole and we see his reflection in a puddle. He's literally "turning Paris upside down" because it's topsy turvy day.
You should definitely go see this film. It has amazing animation, wonderful music, great voice actors, and it has happy ending, as all Disney animated feature films do. I know that isn't part of the book but the rest of the movie actually stays pretty close to what Victor Hugo wrote. It is a joy to watch it multiple times. So, look at the pictures of the animation I've posted in this blog and listen to the music and then you'll want to go watch the movie and see for yourself why it is so amazing.