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Reading Odd Film: Golden Film’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Photo courtesy of Pexels/Huy Phan

Hello, and welcome to the first column of Reading Odd Films, where I look at odd film adaptations of books. Today we’re looking at Golden Film’s animated “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Victor Hugo’s controversial novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dameis admittedly a bizarre source material for a children’s animated film, but Disney did it, so it must be fine. 

I’d be remiss not to mention, Golden Film’s and many other “The Hunchback of Notre Dameadaptations’ (animated or live-action) inappropriate use of the G-slur and lack of involvement or casting of any Roma people. The use of the G-slur is controversial within the Roma community, but, since I am not Roma, I will not write it here. The film, however, puts that word in almost every sentence, despite white-washing one of the central characters, Esmerelda (who is renamed Melody). Anti-Roma racism is a sticky subject in the original novel and adaptations, and should be addressed and subverted.  

The second biggest issue with adaptation is its use of what I like to call “key-dangling characters.” These are characters that do nothing but fill time and make loud, annoying noises. Key-dangling characters come in the form of talking bats and musical instruments. It’s never really explained how or why they can talk; however, it’s implied that “Melody” has magic, but that’s never confirmed, and I guess bats just talk in this universe. However, this lack of elaboration is unjustified, since these interchangeable characters contributed nothing to the ill-convinced plot. 

The biggest issue with this adaptation is the title character himself, the hunchback Quasimodo. What is this issue, you might ask? Well, he’s not even a “hunchback” in this version. Oh, the other characters call him a “hunchback” all right. But this is “fixed” by him just standing up straight at the movie’s end. Quasimodo is also conventionally attractive, with boy band hair and a strong, round face. This is because he and Melody actually get together by the end of the movie. After one conversation and Quasimodo giving her a necklace, they get married. 

The infamous villain Frollo, instead of a man who uses his power and influence to abuse an ethnic minority, is now just Gaston with a mustache. In this version, instead of being Quasimodo’s adoptive father, they’re brothers, and their father was the one who put Quasimodo in a tower. The drama of this is much less interesting than it should be. Additionally, Frollo’s predatory pursuit comes off as more cartoonishly comedic than realistically terrifying. The only upside to his character is that he reminds us that “doing anything against the law is illegal” (a real quote from the movie). 

The conversation around systemic racism and corruption is lackluster, even for a mediocre ‘90s bargain-bin rip-off. The only nod to these themes is a quick conversation between white-washed Melody and her mother about how it’s a bummer to be actively persecuted. Talking musical instruments cut this conversation short.

Of course, as with all tellings of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Melody (a.k.a. White-washed Esmeralda) is falsely accused of witchcraft and is sentenced to death. How is she saved? By Quasimodo deciding not to ring the church bells. Why does Frollo need Quasimodo to ring the bells in order to execute Melody? Beats me. He just does. 

After Melody is saved, Quasimodo decides to stand up straight, push back his hair and therefore be declared handsome by Melody. He then tells his brother to stop being evil and that works. No accountability for the father that put his son in a church tower because he was “too ugly.” Now racism is no more, and the two bland leads can get married after knowing each other for about two hours.  

The “kidification” of stories such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dameis a fascinating phenomenon to watch. Golden Film’s “Hunchback” is the animated equivalent of dangling keys in front of a baby’s face, but the material to make the keys were melted down knives. This movie changes and neuters the original source material to the point where there’s no point in using it other than to cash-in on the Disney one. Relevant and timeless themes and four-dimensional characters are tossed away for the sake of a G-rating.

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