Content Warning: There will be a lot of spoilers for the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” movies and novel. I also discuss topics like abuse and ableism.
I like to pretend I have good taste.
Week after week, I stand from my pulpit and hand out judgments. I have criticized the works of Daddy Iger, fantasy movies about death, and even the beloved “Little House on the Prairie” franchise. Although in the past I have admitted to loving “stupid” movies, usually it was because those were comedies with genuine, funny moments. And you may cite my love for the Z-O-M-B-I-E-S franchise as proof that I love bad things, but the truth is, even though the plot of that trilogy is coconuts, they’re still good musicals with talented performances.
But no, it is time that I prostrate myself before you and tell you of a love I have. An undeserving but true love.
I have watched the 2002 movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2” maybe 20 times. This is not an exaggeration. I will watch it, finish it in its entirety, start it from the beginning, and rewatch it. I have repeated this process for literal years. Some demon takes hold of me, and I feel compelled to watch and rewatch the story until it’s stamped into my brain with other pertinent information like “how to walk in a straight line” and “how to swallow liquids.”
Is there any part of this movie that’s good? You ask this, and a part of me wants my shame cycle to complete and say, “No, it is all bad, now burn me upon this pyre.”
However, that is not true, and I think that the “bad” movies we watch over and over again may have more to recommend about themselves than people think. So let me tell you the story of the second Hunchback movie and how my feelings for it have evolved. Then you may decide what to do with me.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2 is the sequel to Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” produced during the ill-conceived period of Disney sequels. Its story goes something like this:
Years have passed since the events of the original movie, and not a Frollo is to be seen. Phoebus, the Captain of the Guards, has married Esmerelda, and they have a son, Zephyr. Quasimodo and Zephyr are besties, and it’s hella cute. Some kind of Parisian Romance Festival is coming, and Quasimodo is feeling whistful, wishing he had a girl of his own to love. To complicate matters, the Circus comes to town, accompanied by a series of robberies and petty thefts. These thefts are organized by Sarousch, the head of the Circus, who plots to steal La Fidèle, the jewel-encrusted bell that will serve as the centerpiece of the Romance Festival. Sarousch forces his assistant/indentured servant, Madellaine, to flirt with Quasimodo to learn more about the bell, which she does reluctantly. Quasimodo falls hard in love with the shy, insecure Madellaine, and she eventually reciprocates. Sarousch’s plans are foiled, and Quasimodo and Madellaine live happily ever after.
Esmerelda does nothing for the entire movie; it is an absolute waste of the character.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2” is arguably the weakest of the Disney sequels, and I completely understand why critics and viewers despise it. It embodies almost everything wrong with a Disney sequel. The storyline, characters, music, and animation are all vastly inferior to the original, which is, unfortunately, standard for Disney sequels. However, no matter how much I protest, a small part of me appreciates the sequels simply because I liked having a follow-up to these characters I had come to love.
Yes, I said “love.” Once upon a time, before I was the pretentious nerd I am now, I was a young girl with no friends save for the ones in movies and TV shows. Something is comforting in knowing that the characters you grew up with are still growing as well, even if those stories are not as ground-breaking as the originals. I also appreciate how these terrible sequels could be avenues for writers to address the teensy little things that went unaddressed in the original film. Teensy little things that may seem unimportant but stay with us long after the movie has concluded.
Like why Quasimodo, the ultimate romantic, must be doomed to a life of singlehood. And that’s a happy ending for this character. In countless adaptations of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Quasimodo usually ends up as a sad skeleton wrapped around the desiccated remains of Esmerelda. Even in the Disney stage musical. Quasimodo only survives in, like, two movies. It’s a huge bummer.
I can’t help but also feel that the storyline is ableist. I understand why Quasimodo (whose name literally means “half-formed,”) might develop feelings for the lovely Esmerelda. She’s hot and actually talks to him after a life of solitude and degradation. And I don’t blame Esmerelda for not reciprocating his feelings. Just because a guy is nice to her does not mean she is required to love him back. Plus, in the Disney movie, there’s clear chemistry between her and Phoebus, and the two seem like a much more even match.
As for Quasimodo, I’m okay with him not winning Esmerelda in the end because he also needed friendship and family more than a girlfriend. The freedom he earns is much more important than romantic love. I also think that the characters are better suited as friends. However, I am not okay with adaptations that show him ending his life after pining over Esmerelda. What kind of message is the audience supposed to take away from that?
“If you’re ugly and one person is nice to you, then you need to follow that person into the grave, even if they don’t like you in that way.” No, absolutely not.
Quasimodo deserved better.
Film critic Lindsay Ellis crafted a fantastic review of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which was filmed on location in front of the incredible cathedral. She made a few interesting points about Victor Hugo’s work, like the story’s original purpose and how so much of it was an ode to the structure of Notre Dame itself. That being said, what I found most interesting was how Victor Hugo himself was willing to adjust the ending of his work to satisfy audience expectations. Hugo even wrote a version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” where Esmerelda lives to the end of the story and then happily marries… some guy. If Esmerelda were allowed to survive to the end of that story, then she had every right to a happily ever after in the Disney movie.
That’s great, and I’m all for Esmerelda getting her happily ever after, but what about my man, Quasi? He was a great guy! I remember the debates I used to have with friends where I insisted that Quasimodo was one of the best Disney bachelors. Of course, my friends vehemently disagreed for reasons that were wrong and dumb, but I stood by my guy despite their protestations. Quasimodo is kind, thoughtful, artistic, and obscenely strong. Plus, he has his own place with a spectacular view of Paris. Do you know what an apartment like that would go for in 2022? A LOT. I checked.
So when I think of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2,” even though I realize it is an objectively bad movie, all I can think is, “Oh, buddy, you found yourself a nice girl to love.”
Even though I previously criticized the characterization in this movie, I have to admit that I really liked the character Madellaine. Madellaine begins the movie as something of a hollow shell. She has lived under the thumb of Sarousch for at least a decade, forced to do his bidding, and the abuse has demolished her self-confidence. Nevertheless, she wants to be recognized for her effort and artistic achievement rather than as a pretty ornament. She also has a conscience and is wracked with guilt for her role in the circus’ crimes.
When Madellaine realizes that the bell ringer at Notre Dame is a disabled man, she knows how f*cked up it is to trick him into a relationship. She only continues the deception because Sarousch forces her hand, and she’s not a defiant person. As Madellaine has been living in terror of Sarousch for the past decade, it makes sense that she’d continue to be his unwilling accomplice. Except, she really starts to like Quasimodo. He’s kind to her and builds up her self-esteem. He laughs at her silly jokes and treats her with respect.
I think some viewers, if not all viewers, were unimpressed by this romance, but I loved it. I think it’s incredibly rare for any kind of media to feature the main character with a significant craniofacial deformity and show them as someone deserving of romantic love. I know that “Beauty and the Beast” narratives are extremely popular, but those tend to end with the “Beastly” character transforming into a handsome prince. Or if he’s a scary alien, he’s also kind of a sexy, scary alien, so still hot. However, if you are not classically good-looking and also not a magical creature, you’re probably going to end up alone.
I realize that there are some exceptions to this rule, as well as a growing number of books where the main “Beastly” character remains a beast (like this book), but it is few and far between. I want to continue to see stories where people like Quasimodo are romantic heroes. I want to see characters like Erik, the Phantom of Opera, have a chance with Christine (and no, I do not count the God-awful sequel “Love Never Dies” as Erik “getting the girl”). I want Cyrano de Bergerac to fess up to Roxanne and give her the chance to love him back. I want Peggy from “The Oblongs” to grow up and marry the handsome speech therapist she dreams about.
I think movies like “Penelope” are a great start. Even though Penelope loses her cute pig snout by the end of the movie, the main character is still absolutely adorable and able to find love despite her “disfigurement.” I also think Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” is a charming rom-com that gives us the ending to Cyrano that we all wanted.
I’m sure there are other films with this kind of storyline, and if you are reading this and can think of one, please feel free to drop it in the comments. I know I’m forgetting at least one at the time of writing this. I think representation in media is a fascinating and necessary topic. That includes representation for those who do not fit into society’s narrow, ableist standard of what is attractive. Regardless of appearance, every person deserves the opportunity to find love and be loved in return. Even, and especially, Quasimodo.
So, readers, you have now heard my argument for why I love this movie. And maybe I can forgive this film’s many cinematic sins because I saw it when I was still in my single digits, and nostalgia can allow you to look at almost anything through rose-colored glasses. I also think, “An Ordinary Miracle,” sung by Tom Hulce, is a sweet song, even if it doesn’t hold a candle to “Out There.” Unfortunately, Alan Menken obviously didn’t work on this movie.
I know this movie sucks, but I love it, and I will probably watch it again this year. It’s on Disney Plus, and as long as I’m paying for that subscription, I’m going to enjoy my trash movie. I like seeing Quasimodo find happiness, even if the rest of the story is dumb. However, if you asked me, “does this movie deserve a live-action adaption?” I would laugh in your face. And then I would say yes, and I would pray to the Disney gods that I be allowed to sit in the writers’ room.