The Hunchback of Notre Dame Revisited

(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. 

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