Wednesday, September 5, 2012

D52 Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This movie is surprisingly one of the best ones I’ve seen throughout this project. I’d go as far as to say it’s only second to Beauty and the Beast in way of quality. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it all the way through previous to this, and the film is very underrated.

That being said, I’m astounded the film got a G rating. It’s surprisingly taboo for a kid film! What with the evil religious figure and trying to drown a baby for being disfigured and trying to force a gypsy into sex or else she’ll be burned to death, etc. You know! For kids!

The animation is gorgeous, with some of the more underrated Disney songs. “Hellfire” is probably my favorite song from this film; it always gives me goosebumps whenever I listen to it. (Plus, if you listen, it’s real Latin in the background.)

Another reason I like this movie is because they didn’t make Judge Frollo a one-note villain. Sure, he crosses his Moral Event Horizon really early on in the movie, but you actually get to look deeper into it and see why he acts the way he does. He honestly thinks that he’s fighting an epidemic and doing God’s work, and you also get to see him struggle against himself when he realizes that he’s in lust with the gypsy girl Esmeralda. (Love at first pole dance, am I right?)

I have to say, I’m honestly surprised Disney chose to adapt this Victor Hugo book into a film. True, they’ve done depressing fairy tales before (The Little Mermaid comes to mind) but this was kind of an interesting choice, especially with how hauntingly depressing the book is. (Spoiler alert: Esmeralda dies; Quasimodo curls up around her dead body and refuses to leave until he eventually dies of starvation. Again, perfect choice for a kid’s movie!)

Of course, there are the obvious reasons I enjoy this film so much: I emphasize with it. I was bullied a lot when I was younger and I was a very ugly, awkward looking teen. There were times when they’d even reference this movie. Even today, I feel like there’s a whole different world out there I’m not a part of and that I don’t understand, and that even though they might not be staring at me, it feels like they are.

Plus, this kind of story hits very close to home for me because a lot of my family has mental illness or other physical or mental defects. A lot of those babies were drowned or hidden away, or most of them were sent to insane asylums. Sadly, everything back then boiled down to the question “What will the neighbors think?” If I or some of my family or friends had been born back then, we would’ve been packed off somewhere.

In doing my research on this subject, I’m reminded of Nellie Bly’s undercover journalism. In the late 1800s, she took on an undercover job for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, making history by checking into an insane asylum to investigate reports of cruelty and overall neglect: as a patient.

She went all out. In order to get in, Bly rented a room at a cheap boarding house and started acting crazy – pestering the other residents, acting afraid of them for no reason, refusing to go to bed, claiming to have no memory of anything she did. (So, in other words, acting like that crazy old lady upstairs at my old apartment.)

They decided to have her arrested and institutionalized, as was the style at the time. Right away she exposed the flaws in their system – the doctors diagnosed her as “undeniably insane” and a “hopeless case with no chance for a cure.” Keep in mind; this is when she was entirely faking it. The place she wound up was called Blackwell’s Island. Over 10 days, she was stuck in a filthy facility that served gruel, broth, and bone-dry bread. Showers were buckets of frigid water dumped on her head. Nurses beat the patients who refused to shut up, and these institutions were also happy hunting grounds for doctors and nurses to sexually abuse the patients as well.

Bly found that the conditions weren’t just a matter of poor funding or a misunderstanding of mental illness, it was pure diabolical torture. She described being made to sit perfectly still and silent on a wooden bench for 14 straight hours, with nothing to read, no one to talk to, and completely cut off from the outside world. She spoke to the other patients and came to the conclusion that many of them were perfectly sane but had been broken by the hellish conditions.

Her employers sprung her after ten days, and the story caused a huge splash. She was eventually asked to assist a grand jury with rolling up Blackwell’s Island and giving input on how mental wards should be reformed. That took a ton of bravery on her part, and we owe her a lot. I remember hearing about her in school and she said that she witnessed a man being held in a cage who they said had lost his mind; he couldn’t speak and only grunted and growled like an animal. But when they brought him his dinner, she found that he took his peas and made tiny pyramids out of them, and that’s when she realized that even though outwardly he seemed brutish and frightening; there was still an intelligent mind within.

Anyway, aside from the big history lesson/tangent, yes, this was a great film. It’s highly underrated and while it hits a little too close for me to watch frequently, it’s definitely in the top three I’ve seen so far. Hopefully more people decide to go back and give this one a watch, and that it’s given a proper remastering and DVD release sometime soon.

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