The Hunchback of Notre Dame ★★★★½

Disney doesn't have an amazing track record with difficult stories. In fact, read nearly any critique of their canon and you'll find a lot of talk about dead parents and villains falling from tall places and women with little in the way of agency, nevermind the whole copyright thing. The company has a formula and it works for them. The Hunchback of Notre Dame could fit easily in to most of those critiques, including plundering an out of copyright story and changing it so much that Hugo himself might not recognize it if it weren't for the two gargoyle characters named after him. Yes, it serve as a centerpiece in one of those easy anti-Disney polemics if it weren't so damn good.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame indulges in all the things that reinvigorated Disney's brand during the 90's renaissance. There are sidekicks who shouldn't be able to talk but do anyways, a bunch of singing about things that aren't often sung about, and a villain who, yes, falls to his death. This is for sure a Disney movie, but it's also one of the most intense and complex stories they've ever told. Frollo isn't just evil, he's a man fighting with his humanity. He's sworn to uphold decency and justice while he is tempted by the beguiling Esmerelda (is this Disney's first pole dance?). Heaven's Light/Hellfire is a one-two punch that forms the dramatic and emotional core of the film. While Quasimodo sings about the woman he met who gives him feelings like those people that walk below him on romantic evening jaunts, Frollo confronts his lust-fueled desires by the light of a possessed fireplace. The visual distinction between the two scenes is especially indicative of their different moods, Quasi's scene is calm and blue while Frollo's recalls Disney's earlier forays into psychedelic nighmares from Fantasia and Dumbo. When the hooded, blank-faced figures come pouring out of the hearth you know things are getting a little hot under the collar. I've remembered this scene for the 18 years since I first saw it in theaters and seeing it again just solidifies how perfectly it combines character, mood, theme, and visuals with one of the best Disney songs of all time.

The rest of the movie is really good, too. Most of the songs aren't only great, they're also usually relevant to the story being told, either as mood pieces ("The Bells of Notre Dame" sets the table nicely for an epic film) or embodiments of chaos ("Topsy-Turvy" is both fun and scary at the same time). Oh, and "Out There" deserves a spot alongside other great Disney hero songs, as does "God Bless the Outcasts" as a plea for considering those with worse lots in life. In fact, only the gargoyle's song is really out of place here. I didn't like them too much in general during this rewatch, though I recall loving them when I was 8 or so. That's the way these things go sometimes. If this is the end of Disney's Renaissance - and it probably is, despite how much 9 year old me loves Hercules - it went out with a bang. A gloriously beautiful film which blends hand drawn animation and computer generated images artfully with a story that is powerful thematically and emotionally thanks to wonderful characters and outstanding songs. It's great.