by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, January 14, 2012


My continuing foray into Disney's fifty official Animated Classics. As always, don't hesitate to share your thoughts/memories/complaints in the comments section below. Links to previous entries have also been included below.

Title: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996; based on the novel by Victor Hugo)

The Plot: The deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, orphaned as an infant and adopted by a cruel master, longs to escape the confines of his tower.

The Songs: "The Bells Of Notre Dame," "Out There," "Topsy Turvy," "God Help The Outcasts," "Heaven's Light / Hellfire," "A Guy Like You," "The Court Of Miracles," "Someday"

A Little History: Story executive David Stain originally sought to turn Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris into a feature film at Disney, inspired by the Classics Illustrated adaptation of the story. Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty And The Beast) selected Notre-Dame as their next project, eager to tap into the novel's rich thematic potential. Many characters and story points, however, had to be toned down for family-friendly appeal: Quasimodo is now capable of intelligible speech, Frollo has been "promoted" from archdeacon to Chief Judge, three wisecracking anthropomorphized gargoyles (named Victor, Hugo, and Laverne) are added as comic relief, and both Esmeralda and Quasimodo survive at the end. The animators traveled to Paris to study the detail and design of the actual Notre Dame cathedral (and were granted office space at Disneyland Paris during their stay). They also made extensive use of CG imagery for the cathedral bells, stained-glass windows, snow flurries and crowd scenes. The song score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas) incorporates selections from the Gregorian chants, including the Kyrie and Dies Irae. For the "Hellfire" sequence, co-director Wise and visual effects director Chris Jenkins made sure that Esmeralda's fiery apparition appeared fully clothed at all times, in order to avoid a PG rating. Cameo alert: Belle from Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin's magic carpet, and Pumbaa from The Lion King make fleeting appearances (all in the same shot!) during a verse of "Out There." This was the final screen role for veteran actress Mary Wickes (Laverne), who died of complications from cancer eight months prior to the film's release. Disney debuted The Hunchback Of Notre Dame at the New Orleans Superdome on June 19th, 1996, where it played on six gigantic screens to a crowd of 65,000. The film grossed $100 million in the U.S. and another $225 million around the globe. It was nominated for - but did not win - Best Original Score at the 1997 Academy Awards.

How It Broke New Ground: The first animated Disney film to embrace the subject of God and religion as thematic material. As such, it drew fire from religious conservatives and left-wing politicos who deemed the movie's sexual subtext, scenes of violence, and use of derogatory terms such as "hunchback" as morally offensive. Also the first Animated Classic to utter the word "damnation."

How It Holds Up Today: A misguided attempt by Disney to transform Victor Hugo's sociopolitical classic into suitable family entertainment. This is especially frustrating since you can feel the animators striving for something richer and more emotionally complex than they'd ever tried before, only to pander to the audience at regular intervals. Take the song "Hellfire," for instance, in which the pious, loathsome villain Frollo (Tony Jay) is torn between his devotion to God and his lust for the gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore). It's a beautiful sequence, filled with stark religious imagery and evocative melodies (indeed, almost every song has twice the personality of anything in Pocahontas). It's also wildly inappropriate for a G-rated film, relying as it does on heavy uses of the word "hell" and sexual subtext. This is followed almost immediately by "A Guy Like You," sung in typically dumbed-down Disney fashion by Quasimodo's three gargoyle friends, and it's this constant waffling - between moments of undeniable power and obligatory comic relief, just when things start to get a bit dicey for the kiddies - that's truly offensive. Why bother pushing the envelope if you're just going to pull your punches every time? It's a nagging reminder to everyone concerned that, despite the best of intentions, you can't always have it both ways.

Grade: C+



  1. I have to admit, I liked some of the songs...but I do agree that it was too adult for the kiddos watching. I don't think mine have seen it...

  2. Yes, try explaining the lyric "This burning desire / Is turning me to sin" to an impressionable 10 year old sometime. See where that gets you!

  3. Yeah, not a hit with the kiddos and I agree... it had potential to be so much more, but missed the mark. Owned and listened to the soundtrack a number of times before finally seeing the movie. I loved a few songs and then there were those like "A Guy Like You" that just didn't belong. Finally saw the movie, amazed at why people didn't grasp it and never saw it again. *sigh*