The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
In 15th century Paris, a Romani woman who has entered the city illegally is chased by Judge Frollo and his soldiers. She is killed on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral, and Frollo is about to kill the infant she had been carrying as well, until he is stopped by the archdeacon of the church. He makes Frollo swear to take care of the child, despite its disfigured appearance. Frollo agrees on the stipulation that the boy, whom he names Quasimodo, must never leave the cathedral.
Twenty years later, Quasimodo, now the cathedral’s bell ringer, leaves Notre Dame against Frollo’s direct orders so that he can attend a peasant festival being held in the square. Quasimodo is eventually attacked by the crowd after Frollo’s men incite a riot, but he is saved by a young Romani girl named Esmeralda, who claims sanctuary inside the cathedral afterwards. Phoebus, the captain of Frollo’s guard, refuses to arrest her while she’s on holy ground, which gives Quasimodo the opportunity to help her escape in return.
Enraged by her escape and consumed by lustful desires for her, Frollo begins a campaign of terror as he has his guards turn Paris upside down looking for her. Eventually Phoebus directly defies orders to kill innocent people, and Frollo orders him to be murdered by his own men. He is shot with an arrow, and Esmeralda finds him and brings him to the cathedral for Quasimodo to look after. When Frollo goes to Notre Dame that night, he learns that Quasimodo had helped Esmeralda to escape from the church, and bluffs him by saying that he knows where the rest of the Romani in Paris are hiding.
Quasimodo and Phoebus attempt to warn the Romani, but end up leading Frollo’s men there instead. Frollo sentences Esmeralda to burn at the stake, but Quasimodo frees her and takes her into the cathedral, while Phoebus frees the rest of the Romani and organizes the citizens of Paris against Frollo. Frollo and Quasimodo fight on the cathedral’s balcony, only for both to fall off. Frollo plunges to his death, but Phoebus catches Quasimodo. Esmeralda and Phoebus convince Quasimodo to leave Notre Dame, and he is hailed as a hero by the rest of Paris.
The idea to adapt Victor Hugo’s lengthy, serious novel was proposed by an animation executive at Disney, David Stainton, in 1993, after he’d read a comic book version of the material. He went to Jeffrey Katzenberg with his idea, who was still very much on his “get another Best Picture Oscar nomination” quest. Trousdale and Wise, the directors of Beauty and the Beast (whose Best Picture nomination had kicked off this whole thing) had taken a year off after finishing that movie. They were only just now starting work on their next project, an adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus. Katzenberg called them into his office, and pretty much ordered them to drop everything and start working on Hunchback instead.
Since the ending of the original book isn’t exactly family-friendly (pretty much everyone, including Quasimodo, dies), they decided early on to change the plot to allow for a happy ending. They did have precedent, however. Victor Hugo himself had written the libretto to an opera version where Phoebus and Esmeralda survive together. They also changed Frollo from an archdeacon to a judge, to avoid making the Church the villain, and gave Quasimodo three gargoyle sidekicks for comic relief.
Since The Lion King and Pocahontas were both in production at the same time, Disney didn’t have enough animators for the project. They had to hire a bunch of new people to finish the movie, and set them up in a big warehouse in Glendale. They also went out of their way to hire European animators, completing about 20% of the film at a new studio set up in Paris itself. For the big crowd scenes, the directors wanted moving backgrounds, instead of the static, painted crowd backdrops that Disney would have used in the past. The Lion King’s team had just finished the wildebeest stampede scene, so Trousdale and Wise borrowed the tech to create some of the first digital crowd scenes in film history.
The movie was originally supposed to come out at Christmas in 1995, the same year as Pocahontas. However, Katzenberg was abruptly forced to resign from the company in October 1994, after a power struggle between him and CEO Michael Eisner. The fallout pushed the production back, and it ended up being a summer 1996 release. It ended up getting good reviews from critics, and performed well at the box office, becoming the fifth-highest grossing movie worldwide that year. However, there was also considerable backlash against the movie, mostly from religious groups who objected to the overtly religious themes and borderline adult plot that many thought was inappropriate for children.
In my review for The Rescuers Down Under, I called that film the “forgotten movie of the Disney Renaissance”. I stand by that statement, but I do think that Hunchback has an almost equal claim on that title. Before this viewing, the last time I’d seen the movie in its entirety was when it first came out in theaters. I was 14 at the time, and it left so little of an impression that I don’t remember us even bothering to get the movie on VHS. I get the sense that I’m not alone in this, as you never really hear about it anymore or see it referenced much by Disney.
And that’s a real shame, because this movie is highly underrated.
First, let’s get my largest criticism out of the way. I wish there was a Phantom Edit-style recut that completely took the three gargoyles out of the movie. They seriously clash with the tone of the rest of the film, and the humor that they do provide is clearly a step down from previous sidekick characters like Lumiere & Cogsworth or Timon & Pumbaa. If they had really been serious about pursuing that second Best Picture nomination, they should have committed to the maturity of the source material, instead of trying to hedge their bets.
Other than that, however, I think that the movie succeeds at pretty much every other aspect. The voice work is great, and I was never distracted by the stunt casting even though there’s several big-name actors in the cast. Kevin Kline and Demi Moore were marquee names in the mid-90s, but I wouldn’t have placed their voices without their names in the credits. Tom Hulce is also really good as Quasimodo, bringing his theatrical background to the character’s conflicting emotions. But the real standout has to be Tony Jay as Frollo. A veteran character actor with an instantly recognizable baritone voice that got him a lot of villain roles, he plows into the part of Frollo with gusto. His Frollo deserves to be held alongside Scar and Gaston in the pantheon of male Disney villains, and the fact that he pretty much never gets mentioned annoys me to no end.
The film’s music is also absolutely top-notch. As with most of the rest of the movie, you never really hear any of the songs from Hunchback discussed in the pantheon of great Disney songs outside of the movie’s apologists (with one exception, which we’ll get to in a moment). But I think that the music here is light years better than Pocahontas, and compares well with the beloved soundtracks for Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. It helps that there were a lot of Broadway veterans in the cast. Tom Hulce, though an Oscar nominee, is better known these days for his theater work, and Kevin Kline won three Tonys. Some of the best songs actually go to a relatively unknown actor, Paul Kandel, whose Clopin goes from the soaring “The Bells of Notre Dame” to the raucous “Topsy Turvy”.
But the best song, and in fact the single best thing about the movie, has to be “Hellfire.” I’m just going to come right out and say it: “Hellfire” is the single best Disney villain song. Better than “Be Prepared.” Better than “Gaston” or “Kill the Beast.” Better than “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” And the Academy nominated Kenny Loggins and Celine Dion over it. Philistines.
Most of Disney’s villain songs are rather showy affairs, where the villains explain to the audience their goals and how evil they are going to be in achieving them. “Hellfire” is different. It’s one man, alone in a room, staring into the fires of his own soul as he contemplates damnation over his lust for a woman. It’s a somber, minor-key affair, filled with Gregorian chanting and images of smoke and fire. It’s absolutely stunning, and if the rest of the movie had held to this tone I think Katzenberg would have had that nomination he wanted. This is the one song that even Hunchback haters typically acknowledge as a masterpiece.
Speaking of the movie’s tone, “Hellfire” is probably the best example of the overall maturity of the film. What other Disney villain addresses religion, lust and sin in their song? Frollo even openly tries to coerce Esmeralda into having sex with him before condemning her at the climax. This is Don Bluth levels of darkness in a kid’s film. While it probably contributed in a large way to Hunchback being passed over in the last 25 years, it’s also a large part of why I enjoyed the movie so much more as an adult than I did back when I first saw it in theaters.
Unlike quite a few of the movies I’ve watched for this project, Hunchback has aged like a fine wine. I appreciate it way more now than I did as a kid. I didn’t even talk about the animation itself in the main review, which is uniformly gorgeous (even the “ugly” Quasimodo manages to be endearing). This might be the biggest change in my opinion on a Disney movie in the entire canon.
Animation: A (while the songs/plotting/voice acting might fluctuate, one thing that the Renaissance has consistently gotten better at with each movie is the visuals)
Main Characters: A- (Quasimodo might be one of the most emotionally complex Disney leads, and Tom Hulce does a great job with him)
Supporting Characters: B (this is the one place where I really have to dock the movie some. The gargoyles frankly annoyed me every time they were on the screen, though Clopin and Esmeralda helped to bring the rating back up some)
Villains: A (Hellfire. ‘Nuff said)
Songs: A (The rest of the music is no slouch, either. I’m particularly fond of “The Bells of Notre Dame” that opens the film)