On 21st June 2016, it will be 20 years (yes 20 years!) since Disney released The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Twenty years on, and Disney is still a force to be reckoned with; it won over audiences with the recent successes of Frozen in 2013 and Big Hero 6 the year after, and legends such as The Lion King and Aladdin still bring nostalgic smiles to the faces of people aged between 20-30.
These last two were part of what is called the Disney Renaissance, a 1990’s spate of quality film-making in which many favourites feature, as seen below: The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999).
Yet if you go to Disneyland, a Disney store or simply play one of their many CD compilations, you will find few references to the 1996 hit.
What makes Hunchback stand apart? And why does it deserve more credit than it’s given? Here I’ll pay tribute to Disney’s forgotten gem.
First off, The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in the year following the mammoth success of Disney and Pixar’s Toy Story, the first full length computer generated movie. In the midst of these technological changes and movie milestones, it’s easy to see how much of a contrast the modern tale of toys who come to life stacks is to the story of a medieval, deformed bell-ringer.
Already, competition was stacked against Hunchback. When you stop to think about it, Victor Hugo's novel is an odd story for Disney to adapt. Notre-Dame de Paris, written by the socially conscious (and often radical) author of Les Miserables, is a dark piece of literature in which characters deal with religion, lust and death.
As such in the adaption, sections were omitted, softened or insinuated, but it is still not part of Disney’s usual crop of stories. Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale did little to change the tone of the story and as such, the nature of the film is very different.
There is little in the way of Disney’s usual fantasy; no anthropomorphised animals appear and even in other historically or culturally specific Disney movies of that time such as Mulan and Pocahontas, these films contain fictional elements such as dragons and mystical trees.
When any magic does appear in Hunchback, such as with the gargoyles and Frollo’s vision, there is the implication that it is in the minds of the characters, who notably, eschew Disney’s more conventional roles of prince, princess and evil sorcerer or sorceress.
Because of this, it is one of the most realistic of Disney’s films, and a refreshing change in seeing the studio tackle alternative narratives.
However there are evident attempts to lighten the story. Hunchback features slapstick gags, occasional witty remarks and amusing characters, which admittedly don’t always fit and causes the movie's tone to oscillate a bit jarringly.
Yet there is still a huge amount of wondrous qualities that it possesses. It is one of the most visually resplendent Disney movies. The cathedral of Notre Dame is recreated in loving detail and features in the majority of the film’s most powerful points.
For a dark movie involving skeletal figures and demonic gargoyles, Hunchback also uses contrast and colour with eye-catching results. Though it was released later than Toy Story, there was still room for innovation.
The artists employed new technologies to realise the streets of Paris, in textured panning shots and vast crowd scenes. This animated film has a texture and depth that is rarely seen in other movies, and uses everything from its angles and composition to create a lasting impact.
In its score, Hunchback lacks the power anthems of The Lion King or The Little Mermaid or the jazzy catchiness of Aladdin and Hercules, which is not to say that the music is of a lesser quality. Rather, it is of a risky, alternative and less showy kind. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s efforts should be commended.
The mature instrumentals from Menken feature triumphant and pensive choral chanting, and Schwartz provides some of Disney’s heaviest and most dramatic songs, as we can see:
Quasimodo: You are my one defender.
Frollo: Out there they’ll revile you as a monster.
Quasimodo: I am a monster.
Frollo: Out there they will hate you, scorn and jeer.
Quasimodo: Only a monster.
Frollo: Why invite their calumny and consternation? Stay in here!
Yes, lots of the songs are like this, but what would seem unwieldy in another's hands and other movies is poetry here.
Even if its comedy number “A Guy Like You” feels weaker and oddly placed, Hunchback contains an impressive range of emotions and flavours, from the hopeful and uplifting that we have in “God Help the Outcasts” and “Out There” to the darkness and aggressiveness of “Hellfire” and “The Court of Miracles”.
But Hunchback’s strength is in its characters and story themes, all of which are well-developed and rounded. Quasimodo’s plight is eternally endearing.
Softly voiced by Tom Hulce, his alienation from a society he wishes to connect with is heart breaking, and forms the backbone of a film which explores the virtues of acceptance and the eventual horrors of segregation.
A particular part of the film in which a crowd turns on him is perhaps Disney’s most shocking scene, which remains difficult and upsetting to watch.
Alongside him is Esmeralda, who is a positive female character and potentially one of Disney’s best role models for girls. Outspoken in her beliefs of fairness, caring in nature and able to kick ass when needed.
Facing them is Judge Claude Frollo, who may be one of the scariest Disney villains. After all, he does murder the baby Quasimodo’s mother and attempts to drown him immediately after…and that is only in the first ten minutes!
Frollo remains an interesting and complex character; in the original book, he is in fact the archdeacon of Notre Dame (here played by David Ogden Stiers) though perhaps wanting to avoid the outcry of religious groups, he is re imagined by Disney as a vicious government minister.
Chillingly voiced by Tony Jay, his repulsiveness is not down to his appearance or his skills or power but because of the realism of his motives.
Convinced of his righteousness and paranoid that a takeover of “heathens” is imminent, he is subsequently warped by his infatuation with Esmerelda (which conflicts with his strong religious beliefs) and attempts to exterminate all Parisian gypsies.
Indeed, the producers expected that his main song “Hellfire,” in which his lust and internal conflict is vocalised, would be cut from the final product. It is no wonder therefore, that he is seen as one of the strongest, darkest and most interesting Disney villains.
Twenty years ago, I watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame at a young age, and I knew even then it was a distinctly different movie from what I’d seen before.
It's by no means a true adaptation, as much as its tone reflects that of the book, and might not suit the younger viewers with its scary imagery and heady themes, but it nevertheless provides thoughtful ideas for the mature child or adult viewer.
Its simple entertainment value is not as overt as in other Disney fare; it is a far more subtle creature, whilst rewards with every re-watch.
Even now, I can compare the movie's discourses on society’s acceptance of those who are different, the positives and negatives of religion as well as the misuse of power to what I see on the news.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame directly and overtly acknowledges the terror and cruelty of the world, but also its beauty and tenderness, without the usual trappings of magic, catchy numbers and colourfully cute characters.
To that end, its lessons are essential, and it remains an important movie which questions the nature of humanity.
After all, as the narrator Clopin asks:
“What makes a monster? And what makes a man?”