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.

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