Magic or Mental Illness? The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite films, and for good reason: it’s a dark, beautiful film on love, lust, heartbreak, justice and faith. But the use of Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends Victor, Hugo, and Laverne have drawn some criticisms for being contrived and out of place.

To an extent, I agree. There are a few instances where they just appear out of nowhere for no reason. When Esmeralda tells Quasimodo that he isn’t a monster we suddenly and jarringly cut to the gargoyles trying to listen in on them and crack a joke. But while some of their comedic scenes don’t work, they do serve a purpose. They represent the happy family Quasimodo never had. While I’m sure the archdeacon helped take care of Quasimodo at times, Frollo raised him under his controlling thumb. Ultimately, Laverne would represent motherly affection, Victor would represent fatherly advice and morals, and Hugo would be the supportive big brother. And they do play an active role in the third act in motivating Quasimodo and helping him fight.

The question I have, though, is this: are they meant to be real, or just a figment of Quasimodo’s imagination?

Under the trivia section of Victor, Hugo, and Laverne’s page on the Disney Wiki, it says:

  • In the DVD audio commentary Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale and Don Hahn suggest that it’s possible that the three gargoyles exist purely in Quasimodo’s mind and are in fact split off portions of his own personality created to deal with his loneliness. While this is only a possibility, it should be noted that the only other character in the first film to actually see a statue come to life is Frollo in the midst of his insanity. However, the true nature of these statues is open to interpretation, given Hugo’s endless flirtations with Djali. (X)

That brings up another point: Frollo seems to see things that aren’t there, either, at the end when he’s about to die (the aforementioned gargoyle coming to life) and during the “Hellfire” sequence.

Could Notre Dame be a living soul in this story? Or are Quasimodo and Frollo both suffering from mental illness?

On one hand, the gargoyles being magical creatures that only reveal themselves to Quasimodo seems the most likely. (It is a Disney film, after all). They are able to witness and react to things from a distance, always manage to show up wherever Quasimodo is, and are able to partake in the final battle. Perhaps they are the reason Quasimodo didn’t become as cruel as Frollo; they actually raised him with their love. But on the other hand, why only Quasimodo? Why not turn to life in front of Frollo and chase him out of the bell tower? Why not reveal themselves to Esmeralda, Quasimodo’s trusted friend?

And there’s also this crucial moment at the end of the “A Guy Like You” sequence. This is Quasimodo’s worldview right at the end of the song:

And this is what happens once he’s snapped back to reality:

So are the decorations also magical? Do the gargoyles have awesome powers (that they never seem to use outside this scene)? Or…was the whole scene in Quasimodo’s head? Does he, with his immense strength, carry the gargoyles around with him as his comfort objects? Is he actually doing all these things by himself but doesn’t realize it?

If the gargoyles are indeed all in Quasimodo’s head, it lends a very tragic, dark part of the story. Poor Quasimodo has been kept isolated for so long under the control of his domineering master, constantly reinforced with the message that he is hideous…and these gargoyles appear to tell him to follow his forbidden urges, that he will be loved.  Ultimately, this is how his mind would create a way to cope.

And then there’s Frollo, who also seems to have powerful visions. But he’s also a God-fearing man who spends at least twenty years thinking Romani people are evil, that he is righteous, that he has a ‘duty’, and his worldview is shattered when he becomes attracted to Esmeralda. It is common for people under strict Christian doctrine with mental health problems to suffer from blasphemous religious thoughts or inappropriate sexual thoughts, both of which Frollo have.

Let’s also remember that this movie is set in medieval times, rife with disease and danger and where many people suffered from ‘madness’, ‘insanity’, and ‘lunacy’. Without modern medicine, it is easy for these visions to go untreated and blame it on the work of the Devil.

Ultimately, both the “the gargoyles are real and Notre Dame is alive” and “the gargoyles are just very vivid figments of Quasimodo’s immersive imagination” both offer compelling cases. What do you think is the most likely?

I’m just glad that Quasimodo now has a proper support system in place and that his friends will slowly fill the gap left by his loneliness. You can read more about mental health in the middle ages HERE.

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A Tribute to Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

I have quite a few fave Disney directors (mainly Rich Moore, John Musker and Ron Clements, Don Hall and Chris Williams), but I think Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise are my ultimate faves. Why? Because I absolutely adore all three of the films they directed at Disney, and they all resonate with me very strongly. Those films are Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

All films are absolutely gorgeous spectacles to behold. Each one of them has a compelling, awe-inspiring climax, a compelling and complex male lead, a beautiful and strong female lead, and a realistic but threatening villain. Here are brief words of love to their three films.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

A masterpiece. The main reason why I love this film so much (besides the striking visuals and the wonderful music and songs) is because of Belle, the Beast, and their relationship. I resemble Belle in so many ways: we look alike, we both love reading and stories, we don’t entirely fit in socially but love our families, we refuse to handle any crap, and we have an affinity for monsters. Belle is great because she’s kind and inquisitive but is not afraid to stand up for herself, but is also willing to admit she’s wrong. I love how she is also beautiful without being either overly sexualized or overly infantilized. The Beast is, in my opinion, the first official Disney Prince that people started caring about; he was well-defined, sympathetic, layered, went through a lot of character growth throughout the movie, and his love for Belle is so pure. So of course, seeing these two misfits get together and find true love in one another despite all odds was really rewarding.

The film is not just a simple fairy tale; it’s a story about social exclusion and self image and how to overcome it. Gaston is a truly terrifying villain because he’s so real: he starts out as a standard misogynist with ego issues but develops into a cold-blooded killer when he doesn’t get what he wants. A true and well-deserved classic and one of my ultimate faves.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

Another masterpiece that is slowly getting the recognition it deserves. The film is truly revolutionary by how it’s so different and radical for Disney and a lot of other animated family films. It’s not afraid to touch serious, dark, complicated issues with bigotry, racism, abuse, isolation, religion, and corruption of power in a powerful, intense, but ultimately uplifting way. Quasimodo is one of my fave leads because he’s disabled and has gone through a lot of hardships but ultimately won’t let it define him, is well-developed and likable, and finds true friendship and is recognized for the hero he is. Esmeralda is beautiful and cares about social justice, and Frollo is one of Disney’s most terrifying, evil, and realistic villains. While the gargoyles probably needed less screen time and they should have brought in actual Romani people to be involved with the film, for what it is, it’s a really important movie about standing up against injustice and prejudice. It’s dramatic, it’s gorgeous, it has some of the greatest soundtracks in Disney history, and is simply wonderful.

ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE

An underrated gem. The animation is stunning, the characters are a lot of fun (with a truly badass and beautiful female lead with Kida and a nerdy but likable male lead in the form of Milo), and it is an action film that pulls no punches. It also has set up a truly unique and creative culture and world of Atlantis. The villain isn’t just a mustache-twirling sociopath; he’s just greedy and morally bankrupt. It’s an adventure story of a young man finding his place in the world and a woman who saves her people and becomes a queen. They both share a mutual love of the culture and for each other, but without the relationship being shoved down the audience’s throat. It’s a fun, creative film, and it deserves more credit.

Gary Trousdale is now working for DreamWorks, and Kirk Wise has been keeping a lower profile but apparently he has a new film in the works. I hope one day these two can make another movie together. I’m sure it will be great and I’d love to see it (and hopefully, lots of people will too).