Disney has adapted a whole bunch of really dark stories in their animation canon. In The Fox and the Hound’s original novel, the train killed Chief, Todd died from exhaustion and the hunter shoots Copper just before he moves into a nursing home. The evil queen in Snow White is forced to dance in hot iron shoes until she dies at Snow White’s wedding. The mermaid dies and turns into sea foam in the original The Little Mermaid fairy tale. In the original Cinderella, the step sisters cut off parts of their feet to try to fit into the tiny glass slipper, and then their eyes are plucked out by birds at Cinderella’s wedding. And of course in Sleeping Beauty, the prince bangs sleeping beauty and impregnates her when she’s in her spell induced sleep, because that’s not creepy. But of all the dark stories that Disney Studios adapted into kids films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is quite possibly the darkest by far.
Released in 1996, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is still the darkest movie in their animation canon, touching on themes of lust, infanticide, genocide, damnation and sin. It’s a really bold movie that still managed to get a G rating. In fact, it surprised pretty much everyone at Disney when it didn’t receive a PG rating. For the most part it paid off, with generally positive reception and earning $325 million on a $100 million budget. That made it by far the most expensive animated movie in history at the time, with Pocahontas’s $55 million in second. It’s now seen as an underappreciated classic by a lot of people, and after rewatching it, I can see why. However, seeing how it made less than Pocahontas at the time, it didn’t restore people’s faith in Disney after Pocahontas’s disappointing results and very mixed reception.
First, let’s talk a bit about the original novel. Written by Victor Hugo in 1833, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is very critical of the Catholic Church and the corruption and abuse of power within. Taking place during the reign of King Louis XI, it stars a barely verbal and half-blind hunchback. If you want to know more about the story feel free to look it up, but pretty much everyone dies by the end. Esmeralda is hanged, Frollo is pushed to his death by an enraged Quasimodo. Quasimodo then finds Esmeralda’s grave, where he stays until he starves to death. It’s only a little horrific.
Production began for The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1993. The team took a trip to Paris for a number of tours of the famous Cathedral, even being shown hidden rooms and passages not normally seen by the general public. They also visited the Palace of Justice and the original location of the Court of Miracles, a slums district that acted as an underground hideout for the Gypsies in the movie. Obviously some major changes were made to the movie early on, like turning Frollo into a judge instead of a Catholic Priest like in the original story.
The story is about a deformed hunchback, Quasimodo, who was kind-of adopted by judge Frollo after he killed Quasimodo’s Gypsy mother on the outside steps of Notre Dame. He’s usually confined to the cathedral, acting as the bell ringer. Frollo hates Gypsies, suspecting that they’re all inherently criminals. He leads a number of campaigns against them, going out of his way to accuse some of their trickery as straight up sorcery. Despite this, he’s infatuated by the young entertainer, Esmeralda. Keeping his public face going, he tries to have Esmeralda arrested to either force her to be with him, or to be executed. That’s where the lust themes come in.
Quasimodo falls for Esmeralda as well, but one of his character arcs is coming to terms with the fact that, while Esmeralda sees the hunchback as a friend, she’s more interested in Phoebus, Captain of the Guard. That leads to yet another bold choice for Disney. Not only does the main character not get the girl, but as a deformed man, he certainly doesn’t look like your traditional Disney lead.
Frollo is easily Disney’s most complex villain, and up there with the best Disney villains as a direct result. He’s very prejudiced against the Gypsies to the point where he’s genocidal. He considers himself a man of God and sees it as his duty to rid Paris of the Gypsies. At the same time, he falls for Esmeralda. He’s dealing with all sorts of internal guilt and is worried about his own salvation, split between desires of the flesh and what he sees as his purpose in life. He parallels religious extremists quite well, going directly against both the wishes of the Archdeacon and common sense.
The animation in this movie is incredible for its time and is even impressive today. A lot of the environments were done in computer, especially the outside of Notre Dame. The building is well detailed with its Gothic architecture, its stained glass windows and its gargoyle statues. Other hand drawn backgrounds are brilliant with their medieval Paris locations, the street decorations during the festival of fools and some great character designs. In addition to its massive $100 million budget at the time, The Hunchback of Notre Dame held a few more records when it released. It featured the largest crowd in animation history, and as far as I can tell, it remains the largest crowd in traditionally animated movies (Disney’s Tangled holds the record for largest crowd in an animated movie now). They achieved this large crowd by digitally creating 6 basic body types in the festival and giving them 72 random animations. Apart from that, every single character in this movie is completely hand drawn.
The music in this movie is mostly great, to the point where I’m surprised none of its songs earned any Academy nominations. The soundtrack was nominated for Best Original Score, but lost to Emma. The opening “Bells of Notre Dame” sets the scene for the movie by touching on the movie’s themes and giving it a slightly mysterious flavor. The song was actually added to the movie late, with the original plan being a spoken narration. “Topsy Turvy” is a fun number that captures the insanity of the festival of fools.
But the real highlight is “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire”, a pair of songs played right after each other. Heaven’s light, sung by Quasimodo. “Hellfire”, Frollo’s number, highlights the villain’s internal struggle perfectly. It starts off a bit soft as he worries about his sinful thoughts, and builds to an epic finisher where he decides to rid the temptation from his life, whether she takes his hand or dies. It’s quite possibly the greatest villain song of any time, from any medium. The song’s melody acts as a musical core for the soundtrack, and it’s an epic one. This pair of songs alone mentions God more than all 33 previous Disney animated features combined. You know what – I’ll just post the song below so you can hear its glory for yourself.
Yeah, “Hellfire” should have won that Academy Award. Not that the winner, “You Must Love Me” from Evita, isn’t a good song in itself.
With all that said, this movie is far from flawless. For one, the comic relief sidekicks are in the form of three gargoyles. They’re not quite annoying, but they’re nowhere close to funny. There is one interesting aspect to them at first, in that they only talk when Quasimodo is alone. There’s the potential idea that they’re just in his head. That would be a brilliant use of tragic comedy that would also stay true to this movie’s darker tone. That potential is ruined at the end of the movie when they directly get involved in the final action scene. They wouldn’t be funny either way, but at least they’d be more interesting as figments of Quasimodo’s imagination. Their song, “A Guy Like You”, feels like it just wastes 3 minutes.
Another flaw happens during the festival of fools. Quasimodo leaves the cathedral for the first time during the festival. At first he’s celebrated for his strange appearance, but the crowd turns on him for no apparent reason. While there aren’t too many other flaws, there are moments that feel forced, like the writers and animators were following notes by the people in charge instead of doing what they wanted. For example, the romance between Esmeralda and Captain Phoabus isn’t the least bit interesting. They just exchange a couple of one liners with each other and nothing else.
Despite the movie’s shortcomings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a lot going for it. The movie looks and sounds fantastic. The climax with Frollo trying to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda on top of the cathedral is kind of epic. The themes are straight out of The Ugly Duckling, and for the most part they work. Although a lot of fans of the original novel complained about the many, many changes, there’s no way Disney could have gotten away with a straight adaptation. They didn’t even kill Quasimodo at the end like they originally planned. Instead, he earns his acceptance among the people of Paris. For what it is, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a good movie that’s worth checking out. Flawed, but good.
Next up is Hercules, the only Disney movie from the 90’s I haven’t seen. After that, it’s Mulan, and then the last Disney Renaissance movie, Tarzan. I’m going to see if I can finish the renaissance this week, and then I’ll slow down a bit during the early 2000’s so I can also get going on my Camp Nanowrimo project. I’m really not looking forward to Disney’s early 2000’s movies, which a lot of people call their second dark age. This time, there’s a good reason for it.