Hello and welcome to Why It Just Doesn’t Work (or WIJDW), where I take a look at scenes from various media and discuss why they might be illogical, nonsensical, and/or just … don’t work.
This time, I’ll be taking a look at Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. More specifically, I’ll be talking about the gargoyle trio of Victor, Hugo, and Laverne and certain things they do at certain points in the film.
First off, don’t get me wrong. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favorite animated films of the 90s. While ‘Lighter and Softer’ than Victor Hugo’s original novel (in which, like Victor Hugo’s other best-known work Les Miserables, literally half the cast dies), it’s also ‘Darker and Edgier’ than much of Disney’s material.
It’s memorable for its sympathetic outsider protagonist (Quasimodo), an active and capable heroine in Esmeralda, and one of the darkest, most evil villains in the Disney animated canon, Claude Frollo (and what’s really scary about Frollo is that he doesn’t even realize he’s the bad guy. But since we’re not here to discuss him, a further character analysis can wait for another blog entry). It’s memorable for a great musical score (“Out There”, “God Help The Outcasts”, and Frollo’s “Hellfire” are among the highlights). And it’s memorable for its exploration of good and evil (“Here is a riddle to guess if you can, sing the bells of Notre Dame. Who is the monster and who is the man?”).
Of course, like most Disney films (and their imitators during the 90s), there are the comic sidekicks. This brings us to Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Victor, Hugo, and Laverne are three gargoyles who reside in the belltower where Quasimodo lives. To Quasimodo, they are his companions and his confidants. To everyone else, they are just stone statues incapable of movement or speech.
We are supposed to believe that Victor, Hugo, and Laverne are not REALLY animate statues. They are NOT the cousins of Goliath’s clan from Gargoyles or anything like that. They’re statues that come to life only in Quasimodo’s mind. Quasimodo is the one who actually moves them around the tower. They are manifestations of the voices in his head. So when Quasimodo’s talking to them, he’s actually talking to aspects of himself.
However, it’s easy to forget this as the movie progresses. Particularly when we come to the climax. There, we see the gargoyles doing their part to defend the sanctuary of Notre Dame Cathedral against Frollo’s soldiers. At one point, Victor or Hugo spits out rocks and makes machine gun noises.
And then Laverne sends a bunch of pigeons flying at the would-be invaders, calling out “Fly, my pretties!”, in emulation of the Wicked Witch from the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.
Now THIS is where I have to say ‘Hold it” and proclaim that this is completely out of place. And why? Because both of the above are anachronisms.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set in the days of medieval Paris. This is before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, before Cortez defeated Montezuma … and before machine guns were invented or L. Frank Baum’s original book (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) was written. If indeed, as stated above, the gargoyles are manifestations of Quasimodo’s inner voices, they should not know anything Quasimodo doesn’t know.
Anachronisms in Disney films for the purposes of comic relief can work if the characters involved are wizards, genies, or other magical creatures implied or even stated to be capable of time travel or seeing into the future. But Quasimodo is not capable of either of those things. He is, as the story begins, confined to Notre Dame cathedral and living in the belltower. He’s capable of ringing the bells and constructing a model of the city, but he is not capable of time travel or seeing into the future. And that means the gargoyles should not be capable of such things, either.
And therefore, their anachronisms just don’t work.
Unless, of course, the gargoyles aren’t just Quasimodo’s inner voices after all, but really are magical creatures pretending to be ordinary statues to everyone else. Perhaps, like the frog in Warner Bros’ classic short One Froggy Evening, they have their own reasons for only appearing to be extraordinary to only one person. But thinking along these lines only raises further questions. Namely, who and what they really are and why they are living at Notre Dame Cathedral posing as normal statues to most people.
I don’t think the makers of the film really know. I think they just decided to have a few fun little jokes and didn’t care if it fit in with the premise of the gargoyles being only animate to Quasimodo.
All in all, however, I would highly recommend The Hunchback of Notre Dame despite its flaws.
Agree? Disagree? Have any insights of your own? Feel free to leave a comment.
This article was originally presented in February of 2012. When originally posted, this article received the following comments.
04:51 PM on February 26, 2012
If only they didn’t have them actually attacking the troops trying to storm Notre Dame at the movie’s climax, then the whole ‘them being in Quasimodo’s head’ idea would have worked. That way the comic relief characters could stay in the film and actually make sense. Good analysis Chris.
11:16 PM on February 25, 2012
Hi Chris Lang. I think you have to go with “magical creatures who only appear extraordinary to one person” your comparison to Michigan J Frog is about the best analogy I’ve ever read to explain this concept. If they aren’t, then you’re absolutely correct about the anachronisms-completely impossible in this timeperiod. Also, if they really are just in Quasimodo’s head, they shouldn’t be able to attack the soldiers-good catch there, my friend. Peace.
09:43 AM on February 26, 2012
Hi Chris Lang. I think you have to go with “magical creatures who only appear extraordinary to one person” your comparison to Michigan J Frog is about the best analogy I’ve ever read to explain this concept. If they aren’t, then you’re absolutely correct about the anachronisms-completely impossible in this time period. Also, if they really are just in Quasimodo’s head, they shouldn’t be able to attack the soldiers-good catch there, my friend. Peace.
Oh, I might as well add that those who haven’t seen One Froggy Evening ought to do so. It’s truly a classic short.
Anyway, I think the makers of the film at the time were comparing the gargoyles to Hobbes the tiger of the Calvin and Hobbes strip, and saying they were supposed to be in Quasimodo’s head. But, as I said, that explanation doesn’t make sense given what the gargoyles do in the film.
As for the alternate explanation, like I said it raises further questions. I do have some further ideas, but if I presented them I’d be going into Ratin8tor’s territory and going In Too Deep. 🙂
09:26 AM on February 26, 2012
I don’t know. They are there I think to appeal to the kids this film was aimed at, but they are a distraction. If they did come out, I think they would have to be replaced. Interesting work.
10:56 PM on February 25, 2012
You know I used to defend these characters but the more I think about it, they throw the film off balance. I wouldn’t say that they’re bad characters but rather it feels ad though they’re in the wrong film.