My household watched the 1996 Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame recently. A notable thing about it to me was that the humor seemed in such poor taste. Which made me wonder, was 1996 just culturally different? Slapstick humor includes an emaciated old man imprisoned in a cylindrical cage tumbling over and over while someone runs on top of it, before he escapes, only to accidentally fall into some stocks. Ha! During a song, romantic rivals are jovially represented as hanging in the gallows. Various jokes are made around two men being sentenced to hanging without trial or ability to speak (‘any last words? didn’t think so’). Maybe I’m wrong that this would all seem weird to current viewers, and instead I’m just out of touch.

The ‘G’ rated Disney film also seemed as if it was from a different culture in other ways, for instance the overt sexuality, its combination with religion, and the seriousness of the violence and hatred. At one point Frollo grabs Esmerelda in an apparent attempt to imprison her, but then presses his face into her hair and breathes in the smell. At other times he sings that his burning desire for her is turning him to sin, before asking the Virgin Mary to destroy her and send her to burn in hell if she won’t have him. “Destroy Esmeralda…And let her taste the fires of hell…Or else let her be mine and mine alone…Hellfire, Dark fire…Now gypsy, it’s your turn…Choose me or, Your pyre…Be mine or you will burn”. Later in his attempts to find Esmerelda, and also to bring about a genocide against the gypsies, he locks a family in their house and sets fire to it. Another time he burns her at the stake himself, until she is rescued.

I wonder whether these things also seemed strange at the time, or if norms have changed since 1996 (or if I’m wrong about what they are like now). I recently listened to the audiobook of The Better Angels of our Nature, which made me more aware of how norms around violence have changed in the long run, so I am curious about whether I can see it happening at the scale of my life. For instance, apparently only a couple of hundred years ago normal people would find burning a cat alive good entertainment. In twenty-five years, do we also get to see another tenth of that much change?

Looking at critical response in Wikipedia, it sounds fairly positive, though there was indeed some controversy (including protests?) over the sexuality as well as apparently the possibility of ‘homosexual undertones’ (which seems like a clearer case of norms having changed quickly). Gene Siskel, writing in in 1996, actually remarks on the tastefulness of the humor! (‘These ideas are presented with effective songs and, yes, tasteful bits of humor’.) Roger Ebert loved it 4/4 much.

On the other hand, I didn’t find evidence of people complaining much about its tastefulness in modern times either, so perhaps it’s just me or a more local cultural difference (I think a couple of my housemates also mentioned finding the humor to be bad).