During olden times in the city of Paris, Judge Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay) ruled over the citizens with an iron fist, with one particular obsession: to drive out the gypsies. He caused the death of one young gypsy mother while pursuing her to the steps of Notre Dame cathedral, and was about to drown her misshapen baby in the well when he was persuaded not to, and give the child over to the church. The child was named Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), meaning "half-formed" due to its hunch back and deformed face, and he grew up only knowing the safety of the cathedral, with the cruel Frollo as his teacher and mentor. Now the bellringer, Quasimodo looks down from the towers at the preparations for the Feast of Fools below, wishing he could join in, but knowing his master has forbidden it. However, if covered himself with his cloak and went down there, who would know?
Written by Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Disney's version of the classic Victor Hugo novel, and was seen as an unusual choice for the studio when it was first released. It still seems a little strange now, as it marries Allan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's sweeping songs and humour aimed at the kids with brooding drama, all in the form of colourful animation. Quasimodo is presented as a typical movie outsider, never leaving his home or interacting with anyone other than Frollo, and has serious self-esteem issues - but at least he's not deaf in this version. He does have friends however, in a distinctively Disney development the stone gargoyles who share his hideaway, appropriately named Victor (Charles Kimbrough), Hugo (Jason Alexander) and, er, Laverne (Mary Wickes) - was Laverne Victor Hugo's middle name, perhaps?
Anyway, Quasimodo goes against Frollo's wishes and ventures down to ground level to check out the celebrations. In a clever scene, his attempts to go unnoticed ironically lead to him getting caught up in the event, and eventually he blunders into the tent of Esmeralda (Demi Moore), a gypsy dancer who picks him up and compliments him on his mask. Unfortunately, things go downhill from then on for the smitten hunchback, as he is found out, named King of the Fools, tied up and has stuff thrown at him for the delight of the crowd - and the attending Frollo, who believes a lesson should be taught. Only Esmeralda takes pity on the poor soul, and frees him from his bonds, earning the wrath of Frollo who fights his desire for her by demanding she be hunted down by his guards.
Most Disney cartoons need a good villain, whether it's the wicked queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cruella De Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmations or Jafar from Aladdin, and Notre Dame capitalises on its hissable baddie here. He's given depth by being tormented by his passion for the gypsy girl and his drive to kill her for his twisted principles, and a religious angle is introduced where Frollo's hypocrisy is contrasted with Esmeralda's praying in the cathedral (having been given sanctuary) for God to look after the outcasts, of which she is one - although not as much as Quasimodo is. We don't see the hunchback indulging in much bellringing, in fact he appears to spend his hours fashioning models from wood (although no recreation of the cathedral from matchsticks), but he does have plenty of time for soul searching as his imaginary friends try to cheer him up.
The other main character is Phoebus (Kevin Kline), the Captain of the Guard who has also taken a liking to Esmeralda and becomes Quasimodo's rival in love - as if there were any competition. The hunchback's love is doomed from the start, and the best he can hope for is winning some affection for saving the gypsy girl's life. With all this tragedy going on, the film's bids to jolly the story up bring an uncertain tone, and the humour seems out of place. It's as if they wanted to make a serious, adult cartoon but felt bound to bring in the family audiences - such lightening of dark subject matter worked for Oliver!, but not so well here, and its odd hearing Quasimodo belting out a love song or two across the rooftops. Maybe they should have ditched the jokes, because the animation is very fine, but it's worth pointing out that the happy ending they add to the story doesn't jar too much here - it's about time Quasimodo had some contentment after all these years, even if he doesn't get the girl.