The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)


The Hunchback of Notre Dame is among the darkest films Disney has ever produced, on par with The Black Cauldron for sheer terrifying evil and outpacing Scar for inciting chills.

But Quasimodo is a different kind of hero. Far from the bumbling unlikely hero of Cauldron, or a would-be king rising to challenge his usurper, Quasimodo’s quest is simply to learn to love himself and dare to let others love him. His is a far more universal story than the dark tales Disney had previously told.

The film is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 classic, but as with all Disney adaptations, it differs significantly from the source material. As Walt famously told his team to ignore everything about The Jungle Book’s plot, the Disney studio in the 1990s was set firmly on making Hunchback as family-friendly a film as possible.

Frollo, rather than being the archdeacon of the church is now a judge. Esmerelda is threatened and hurt, but does not die in the end and the sexual tension of the story is toned down significantly.

The character design, though never expressly mentioned in any official source, bears some resemblance to Englishman Joseph Merrick who was born about 30 years after the original novel was published. The rest of the characters bear significant resemblance to their voice actors: Demi Moore as Esmerelda, Kevin Kline as Phoebus and Jason Alexander as Victor the gargoyle.

This was my first time seeing the film and I wasn’t disappointed. The animation is stunning and the animators mastered the integration of computer animated components in almost every scene with their hand-drawn elements. Carts, bells and streets are all drawn with computers and characters were added on top by hand. The music was well done, matching the Disney formula to a tee but missed the magic of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast: Nobody is still humming any tune from this movie, despite it having a beautiful score. The story is very dark; the sexual obsessions of a religious judge are twisted into hatred, violence and, ultimately, into madness, but Quasimodo’s spirit remains admirably pure throughout.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first post-renaissance film as Disney animation enters a new phase, finding a more modern, more universal and more easily marketable audience.

This was also the first film made entirely without Jeffrey Katzenberg, who left the studio in 1994. Katzenberg went on to form Dreamworks, an enormously successful rival to Disney. One of his last big coups at Disney was to sign the distribution deal for 1995’s Toy Story, cementing Disney’s relationship with Pixar.

This was a period of massive expansion in the company’s history. In 1994, Disney Interactive — the company’s video game division — was founded. The following year, it bought a 25 per cent stake in the California (now Los Angeles) Angels baseball team. Then, only months later, purchased television network ABC before creating yet another new division, Disney Online, that fall. By the time Hunchback was released in 1996, the company also announced plans for what would become Disney’s California Adventure, which was built on the same lot as Disneyland, and launched Disney Radio and At the same time, production on a Broadway version of The Lion King was ramping up, ready to open the following year. It was a busy time in the company’s history.

But Walt’s nephew, Roy, remained the head of the animation department and the work continued there unabated. Though the tone of films from Hunchback onward changed significantly, they all followed Walt’s tried and true principle: Great stories with unforgettable characters.

Reviews for the film were mixed. The theatrical release came in second place behind the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Eraser and ahead of Jerry Bruckheimer’s The Rock. The New York Times called it “the latest and most uncertain of Disney’s animated efforts,” going on to use adjectives like “sanctimonious” and “condescending” to describe the film — ouch.

The reviewer also picks up on the stock characters and story structure that had begun to creep into Disney’s animated efforts. As Howard Ashman argued during production of The Little Mermaid, the classic musical formula requires a song early in the production in which the heroine explains to the audience what she wants out of life. That lesson became “Part of Your World” and the reprise of “Belle.” But after nearly a decade of this tactic, audiences picked up on it and it ceases to serve it’s purpose. As the reviewer put it:

By now, almost any song in a Disney film seems to be serving the standard purpose of others before it. There’s frequently a get-me-out-of-here ballad, in which the hero or heroine longs for a change of scenery. In this case it’s “Out There,” in which Quasi yearns to escape Notre Dame.

Quasimodo failed to grab the audience in the same way as Ariel or Belle.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a perfectly enjoyable film and notable for the quality of artistry and the calibre of staff who worked on it (most of whom came from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin). But it fails to achieve modern classic status and, in retrospect, it is more indicative of the changing climate at Disney and for officially signifying the end of the renaissance.

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