'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame' Was Disney Animation At Its Riskiest And Most Daring

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1996 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

In the mid-1980s, when Jeffrey Katzenberg sat down to watch an early cut of The Black Cauldron, one of the concerns he had was that the film was too dark. Even in the 1980s, there existed a cultural notion of what was and was not acceptable and expected from a "Disney movie". A film in which a character called the Horned King strives to raise an army of the dead was simply too grim for the studio to handle. 

But The Black Cauldron also arrived at a low point for Disney animation. The studio couldn't push the envelope because they were struggling to get by. Being daring is risky enough when you're popular, let alone on death's door. When, however, you become wildly successful with critics and worldwide audiences, you can push yourselves and your target demographics.

Take, for example, a film from the same studio released in the summer of 1996. This film opens with a six-minute musical number in which a self-righteous and cruel villain murders an innocent, defenseless woman and is just barely stopped from drowning a deformed baby by a horrified priest.

In short, it takes very little time for Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame to establish that it's not fucking around.

Out There

Expectations for Walt Disney Feature Animation were sky-high after the success of Beauty and the Beast. The film's directors, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, had an improbable climb to the top — the 1991 classic was their first feature film, and they'd done the impossible by netting a Best Picture Oscar nomination for the debut. The other frequent directing duo throughout the Renaissance period, John Musker and Ron Clements, would hit a financial height with the following year's Aladdin, their third of four films made during the 13-year period covered in this series. Aladdin had proved that Musker and Clements weren't some kind of fluky pair. They were the real deal, having made three straight films that not only improved upon their predecessors at the box office, but clearly implied a grander, wider scope of storytelling.

By contrast, Trousdale and Wise, after the success of Beauty and the Beast, didn't dive straight back into directing. (Musker and Clements directed three features in the span of just six and a half years.) They first worked on early storyboards for The Lion King before, in 1993, being informed by Jeffrey Katzenberg that they had a new project: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Though Katzenberg left Disney in the fall of 1994, after attempting and failing to take the leadership position left empty after the tragic passing of Frank Wells, his presence was keenly felt throughout most of the Renaissance films released after the creation of rival studio DreamWorks SKG. 

Adapting the Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a daring step forward for Disney and their animators. The studio was no stranger to literary adaptations — it's more remarkable how infrequently Disney's animated fare isn't based on something else. Even The Lion King, which Disney holds up as a rare case of original storytelling, is heavily inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet. But there's a large difference between adapting fairy tales, being inspired by a Shakespearean tragedy, and doing a straight-up adaptation of a tragic novel rooted in social commentary surrounding 15th-century France. 

Like a number of Disney's other adaptations, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is based on source material steeped in horror and sadness. Unlike most of those adaptations, Hunchback could only deviate so much from its source material. The eponymous little mermaid, for one, is turned into sea foam at the end of the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired the 1989 animated classic, which ends in a decidedly happier way. But the works of Victor Hugo aren't just tragic, they are intensely heartbreaking — the novel on which the animated film is based ends with the comely gypsy Esmeralda being hung in the town square and a guilt-ridden Quasimodo dying of starvation as he comforts the woman's dead body. 

Hugo's work is, putting it mildly, not family-friendly. (Please remember: this is the author whose most well-known and popular book has a title that translates in English to, literally, "The Miserables".) The premises of the fairy tales that lead to Disney films of the past were fantastical enough that their dark finales could be rewritten without much concern. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a story of cruelty, lust, greed, and hypocrisy, in which innocent men, women and children are constantly under attack. It's a story where the nasty antagonist tries to set fire to a house with its family inside. It's a story in which both the heroes and villains are drawn to extremes because of the lust they feel for a young woman who dances lasciviously in her introduction. 

And that, to be clear, is what happens in the Disney version.

God Help the Outcasts

The challenges of adapting such adult source material were present from the early going. According to legendary Disney animator Floyd Norman, who worked on the project from its inception, some executives began to be skeptical as soon as they heard songs from the film, written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, such as "Hellfire". "By the very nature of selecting this novel for filming, it implies a certain amount of sophistication," said producer Don Hahn, fresh off the success of both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. In that same article, Peter Schneider, then-president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, said, "The only controversy I've heard about the movie is certain people's opinion that, 'Well, it's OK for me, but it might disturb somebody else.'"

Yet now, it's remarkable to behold The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both for what it does and for what it can't do entirely. The basic premise of the story is still in place in Disney's version. The hunchback Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce, though the original casting choice was Mandy Patinkin, who rejected the role after an initial recording session) lives a painfully solitary life as the bell-ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, circa 1482. Quasi, as he's nicknamed, is a kindly figure dominated by the nefarious Judge Claude Frollo. (Frollo's title was changed for the film; he's an Archdeacon in the novel. The update was an attempt to avoid any potential controversy with the Catholic Church of the 1990s). All that Quasi wants is to see the city up close and be accepted by Parisians, even as his master Frollo (Tony Jay) refuses to let him leave the church. He soon comes into contact with Esmeralda (Demi Moore) as well as the traditionally handsome Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline), returning from the wars by order of Frollo to help him whip Paris into shape. 

Esmeralda's presence in the film feels like a boundary-pushing moment, for at least one unavoidable reason. Those three male main characters harbor an intense sexual attraction to her, a fact the film directly acknowledges. Quasi's attraction to Esmeralda is unrequited — as in the book, he falls for her in part because she's the only person to treat him decently when he escapes the cathedral. In the Disney film, he's inadvertently crowned the King of Fools at the Festival of Fools during the manic and colorful "Topsy Turvy" musical number. Phoebus' attraction is matched by Esmeralda, in part because the two characters are the most conventionally attractive in the film. 

Burning Desire

And then, of course, there is the way that Claude Frollo desires Esmeralda. As represented in the dark song "Hellfire", Frollo sees only two paths: one in which the gypsy woman belongs to him, and one in which she burns...literally. Leaving aside the song for a second — we'll get back to it, don't worry — Frollo is represented as the height, or depth, of cruelty from the prologue. Once the proper film begins, roughly 20 years after the events of "The Bells of Notre Dame", Frollo has become less cartoonishly vicious to Quasimodo and more in line as a passive-aggressive surrogate parent. 

The ways in which Frollo guilts Quasimodo about his desire to explore the world outside the cathedral, and how Quasi initially submits to being locked up in a high place, is a good reminder that the tortured mother-daughter relationship in Disney's Tangled wasn't the first to mine this uncomfortable back-and-forth. Frollo's nastiness is heightened, perhaps, because of Quasi's physical appearance, but the younger character struggles for a while to break out of his master's control. For inspiration on the villain, Disney's animators were as bold as they were in the final treatment, thinking of villainous types from the Confederacy and World War II. In the latter case, they were inspired specifically by the Nazi character in Schindler's List played by Ralph Fiennes, lusting after his Jewish maid even as he slaughters Jews in the Holocaust. (As mentioned at the top: this movie is not fucking around.) 

When Frollo first encounters Esmeralda, it's when she briefly dances at the Festival of Fools in a moment animated in such a way as to skirt the G rating. (Genuinely, the fact that this movie was rated G, in spite of literally opening with cold-blooded murder, is shocking.) Just as in the book, Frollo is set off with lust for this gypsy, and — as much as possible in a Disney movie — Esmeralda's physical beauty is never diminished. Her dance seems to arouse just about every man in the film, whether it's dealt with in sly one-liners, like Phoebus saying to no one in particular, "What a woman!", or in Frollo's tortured mix of excitement and fury. 

Frollo's attraction isn't spoken of with words, but the visuals do enough of the heavy lifting. After the festival, Esmeralda winds up in Notre Dame Cathedral, with the gallant Phoebus lying to Frollo that she asked for sanctuary. Frollo, thwarted for the moment, stands directly behind the gypsy, sniffing her hair. When she asks what he's doing, he says, "I was just imagining a rope around that beautiful neck." Her reply is enough, without saying what's actually going on: "I know what you were imagining." 

On a subtextual level, this is all fascinating to consider. It's not the first time that a Disney animated film featured as a lead a conventionally beautiful caricature of a young woman. (It's frankly easier to count which Disney animated films don't have a conventionally beautiful woman as a lead.) Nor is Hunchback the first time the question of romantic pairing was directly interrogated — Trousdale and Wise's last feature, Beauty and the Beast, does that with the love triangle between Belle, the Beast, and Gaston. But the 1996 picture is the first to directly present the issue of sexual attraction in such blunt terms. 

The "Hellfire" sequence, which is arguably one of the best scenes in the entire Disney Renaissance, presents the internal battle within Frollo as one of high drama. Menken and Schwartz did not shy from the task of treating this character with adult gloves, with lyrics like "This burning desire/is turning me to sin". Children in the audience may not fully grasp what's going on, but anyone over the age of, say, 10 or 11 would have a pretty good idea of the thoughts running through Frollo's mind. The animation, music, and Tony Jay's richly complex vocal performance make for a scene that pushed the boundaries of Disney animation. For a few brief moments, at least, the Disney Renaissance felt like it was moving forward instead of being stuck in stasis.

The Very Eyes of Notre Dame

Only parts of Disney's Hunchback have that freeing, powerful feeling. Among the characters, there are four who don't quite fit with the uncompromising vision of what The Hunchback of Notre Dame is trying to be, and one of them is Esmeralda herself. The way that the three men in the film perceive her is fascinating, even as Esmeralda herself seems like a slightly feistier take on Belle or Jasmine or Pocahontas. (This, too, applies to the animation. The character's supervising animator was, unsurprisingly, a man.) As voiced by Demi Moore, Esmeralda's raspy voice may add to her allure, but Moore's more modern-sounding voice is at odds with the character she's portraying, especially since she feels more like a caricature of both feminine beauty and progressivism.

It also doesn't help matters that, when Esmeralda shifts into singing her one song in the film, the soppy ballad "God Help the Outcasts", her singing voice (provided by Heidi Mollenhauer) sounds absolutely nothing like her speaking voice. There's a disconnect between the visual and the aural in every way with the character. As important as it is for us to grasp why the men in the film lust after Esmeralda, it should be equally crucial for us to know her. Where Beauty and the Beast, for example, gave equal focus to both halves of its story, this one is more male-driven, to its detriment.

And the possible love triangle between her, Phoebus, and Quasimodo feels awfully limp in part because each third of the triangle is at odds with the other two. It's never entirely clear how aware Esmeralda is, for example, that Quasimodo has a crush on her. That crush is, itself, snuffed out very quickly — the other miss of a song, "A Guy Like You" is performed by three characters who are trying to boost Quasi's spirits by implying that his unique physical presence is exactly why Esmeralda will fall for him, not run from him. That song is immediately followed by a scene where Quasi sees Esmeralda consoling and kissing Phoebus. It's the equivalent of watching Ralph Wiggum get his heart broken by Lisa Simpson in an old episode of The Simpsons. You can just about pause the moment where Quasi's hopes are destroyed.

A Certain Something More

It doesn't help that the song, "A Guy Like You", comes from the other major problem in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's not that Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes (who passed away before she was able to finish recording her dialogue) are poorly cast as a trio of gargoyles who serve as comic relief for Quasimodo. Alexander, aside from being hilarious on Seinfeld, had a Tony-winning past on the stage; Kimbrough's baritone is perfect for animation; and Wickes' irascible nature is as clear on the soundtrack as it was in her many on-screen performances. You can't complain with the casting for these characters.

The problem is that a trio of wisecracking gargoyles, including one who threatens to spit on mimes and farts freely, feels like an export from an entirely different movie than one that climaxes with Paris burning, protests, and a near-hanging. "A Guy Like You" tries to acknowledge this, in opening lyrics where Alexander's gargoyle Hugo acknowledges that Paris is "alight" because it's being burned up by protestors and the military alike. But the severity of the protests only makes the frivolous song more atonally unwelcome. 

There's something fascinating about the presence of the gargoyles — Hugo's novel alludes to Quasimodo perceiving the gargoyles to be alive, or communicating with them as if they were, thus allowing Disney to create the characters. But the film never fully grapples with an idea that's pretty complex and mature, that a hero of one of these stories doesn't actually have wacky best friends who serve as comic relief and moral guideposts, but they're just a figment of the hero's imagination. There are just a few acknowledgments of this – when Frollo first sees adult Quasimodo having been "talking" with the gargoyles, he dismissively asks him, "Does stone talk?"

But the gargoyles exist primarily as a balm between the darker moments, which gets at the problem of adapting a story that's not intended for juvenile consumption. It might not be possible to make a "Disney movie" out of bleak material. The complexity of the love triangle — or, in a perverse way, it's a love quadrangle — is such that Quasimodo's happiness only extends so far. Though The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not an extremely faithful adaptation by its finale, Quasi doesn't wind up with the girl. That honor goes to Phoebus, though of course, in the book, no one ends up with the girl. The film echoes Beauty and the Beast slightly here, if you look at it a certain way. In that film, a beautiful young woman falls in love with a hideous-looking man, but that love unlocks his true physical beauty. In this film, a beautiful young woman may have some kind of connection with a hideous-looking man, but she winds up with a conventionally attractive hero.

All this aside, it's entirely to the credit of Hunchback that this film is as remotely interesting as it is. Arguably, Hunchback is the most thoughtful film of the Disney Renaissance — as much as many people (this writer included) adore Beauty and the Beast, Trousdale and Wise's follow-up is vastly more challenging and introspective than you might expect from a studio that also has films where characters sing about being alienated for their flatulent nature. The songs that Menken and Schwartz wrote lean into the intelligent nature of the story, posing the idea that the notion of monster vs. man isn't so easy to pin down based on looks. Schwartz, who then worked on the DreamWorks animated film The Prince of Egypt, would not work with Disney again until the 2007 live-action/animated film Enchanted, and the Renaissance is worse for his absence in later efforts.

But complexities aren't always easy to accept in family filmmaking. Perhaps the core issue is that a truly uncompromising version of this story couldn't come from Disney. Yes, the movie is more adult and more envelope-pushing than their earlier fare, but it's still got to be a "Disney movie". "A Guy Like You" and the gargoyles exist because people didn't just expect to see such wackily humorous characters in Disney movies; they wanted those characters. 

The Ugliest Will Wear a Crown

Or, they would have wanted them. The Hunchback of Notre Dame arrived in theaters a year after Pocahontas, another ambitious and daring film from Disney Animation that failed to come together the way the studio's previous hits had. But that movie grossed over $140 million domestically at the box office, which was both a comedown from The Lion King and Aladdin and a solid number. Hunchback, arriving near the end of June 1996, barely crossed the $100 million plateau. It was beaten out, all told, by a film opening the same day, the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film Eraser. And among family films, Disney's live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians wound up making a good deal more that fall, portending at a future when the studio trafficked solely in such IP cannibalization. 

Critics were mixed on the film, too. There were some, like Roger Ebert, who dubbed it the best animated film since Beauty. Others pointed out the key flaw here, like Janet Maslin did at The New York Times: "There's just no way to delight children with a feel-good version of this story." But perhaps the most obvious sign that the film hadn't hit with audiences and the industry the way that past efforts had was visible in the spring of 1997: that's when Hunchback was nominated for just one Oscar, Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, and lost. The Best Original Song Oscar went to another film released by the Walt Disney Company, Evita, and its sole song written expressly for the film. The studio's run of features that won the Best Original Song Oscar was over. Only once more in the Renaissance would one of their films win in the category.

Time, though, has not been unkind to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The back half of the Renaissance has its staunch defenders, and fans have surrounded the film over the years. Disney has tried to turn Hunchback into a stage musical, though the English-language version of the show that originally premiered in Germany has never made it farther than San Diego. Like many other Disney animated films, Hunchback was given a direct-to-DVD sequel with the voices of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Haley Joel Osment, joining most of the original cast. (Yes, Demi Moore and Kevin Kline were in a direct-to-DVD Disney sequel.) And now, like clockwork, Disney has announced its intentions to make a live-action remake of the film, potentially with Josh Gad as the hunchback himself.

On one hand, a live-action remake of this story could well be more fitting than animation. There are a number of live-action adaptations of Hugo's story, and perhaps the shift in the medium could heighten the horror and complexity of this tragedy. But it will still be a Disney film, which means it will likely still run into the same problems the animated film has. This movie can't quite escape its own origins, and though Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise pushed hard to make this film as thorny as its source, they couldn't quite come together with the right, most appropriate version. (Notably, this is the only other film of the Renaissance they directed.) 

Whatever its flaws, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a genuinely ballsy, ambitious story from a studio that was riding high from past successes. But the moderate returns of both Hunchback and Pocahontas signaled the end of the studio's creative peak. The Renaissance was sliding away from the studio, in spite of their attempts to shift with the culture that was now besotted with computer animation, exemplified by the arrival of Pixar with Toy Story a few months prior. What once felt fresh would soon begin to feel slightly stale.

***

Next Time: Go the distance with a true hero.