Hunchback is perhaps the most serious and adult cartoon film Disney has ever come out with. While not terrifying to younger kids like The Black Cauldron may have been, Hunchback delves into very mature matters that go over kid's heads. While being extremely watered down to make it a G movie, the film still deals with lust, infanticide, sin, profanity, religious hypocrisy, the concept of Hell, prejudice, and social injustice, as well as the acceptance that Quasimodo longs for. As a child I understood the main concept of the movie; don't judge a book by its cover and to not be prejudice. Almost everything else didn't really hit me. But I knew, even then, that this was a far darker film than any I had seen, at least in the Disney realm. Now, Bluth films, that's another story. The Secret of NIMH freaked me the hell out when I was young. How is this film dark? Well, for starters, the beginning has Frollo about to drop a baby down a well. Frollo has that whole song about his messed up love for Esmeralda. Then you have Clopin who seems all nice until they go underground and then he gets all sinister. I still don't like Clopin to this day. The guard burn down those people's house, Esmeralda is almost burned at the stake, and the whole Court of Miracles is guarded by a bunch of people in skeleton costumes. Not exactly kid stuff. Now, that doesn't make the film bad. I do like it a lot. More now then I did when I was young. It definitely has one of the best openings of any Disney film. Also, have you ever noticed that evil characters also have evil horses? Just saying.
So how did Disney get the bright idea to adapt a depressing book into a children's movie? Well, development executive David Stain had apparently been reading the Classics Illustrated comic book edition of the story and decided to pitch it to the Disney higher ups. Disney liked the idea and wanted Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise to direct. They were looking at a few other projects but they didn't seem to be working so they decided to drop what they were doing and join up. This was the second time Trousdale and Wise directed a Disney film, the first being Beauty and the Beast. Both had read the story and knew they had to do something to make the story more child friendly. So, they added three talking gargoyles, make Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Phoebus kinder than they are in the novel, and making Frollo a judge instead of an archdeacon. I'm guessing they didn't want an evil religious character. To get some inspiration, animators and many others in the crew traveled to Paris to get some detailed looks at Notre Dame itself and make the film as accurate as possible. A small note about the animation. Remember the song Topsy Turvy? If you look at the crowd during it, and in fact at any other time there is a large crowd, you'll notice that there aren't that many different looking people. Disney basically created a group and had their computers regenerate them a bunch of different times to make it look like Paris is packed. I remember seeing a thing about it on the Disney Channel a long time ago, but can't find the clip now.
Some of the voice actors were picked because they had already worked with Trousdale and Wise on Beauty and the Beast, namely Tony Jay and David Odgen Stiers who voice Judge Claude Frollo and the Archdeacon, respectively, and who had voiced Monsieur D'arque and Cogsworth, respectively, in Beauty and the Beast. Others were picked because they had a unique voice, namely Demi Moore, who voiced Esmeralda. The producers wanted a non-traditional voice for Esmeralda and apparently Moore had the right kind of unusual voice! The voice of Clopin was found when the directors saw Paul Kandel playing a role in a stage version of Tommy. Quasimodo was voiced by Tom Hulce who is best known for portraying Mozart in Amadeus. Kevin Kline voiced Captain Phoebus, Kline best known for...well he's in a lot of weird movies, but I'm sure you've seen Wild Wild West. No? Good for you! If you were more fortunate you saw him in Dave or A Fish Called Wanda. The most recognizable of the gargoyles is probably Jason Alexander, who was in this little show that you probably haven't heard of called Seinfeld. The music was again tackled by Alan Menken. I really like the music for this film. The whole thing reminds me more of a Broadway musical than any other Disney movie. From "The Bells of Notre Dame," to "God Save the Outcasts," to "Topsy Turvy," this movie has Broadway written all over it.
Victor Hugo's novel, in which the film is based off of, has been widely portrayed in different mediums, whether in movies, television, plays, or comic books. So it's safe to say that it's a fairly popular story. But unless you've read the book or seen one of the other movies that is more faithful to the book, then you don't know what really happens. The story begins at the feast of fools, where Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools. The gypsy Esmeralda shows up and Quasimodo, along with Captain Phoebus, and Archdeacon of Notre Dame Claude Frollo. Frollo, like in the movie, is torn between his obsession with Esmeralda and his dedication to wiping Paris clean of sin. He orders Quasimodo to capture Esmeralda, but Quasimodo is quickly captured by Phoebus and his guards who save Esmeralda. Quasimodo is sentenced to be flogged and put out in the middle of the square for humiliation. Bounded, Quasimodo is dying of thirst, and Esmeralda takes pity on him and gives him water, thus saving him. He is now completely smitten.
Esmeralda is later charged with the attempted murder of Captain Phoebus, though it was actually Frollo who tried to kill him, seeing that he was about to score with Esmeralda. She is sentenced to death by hanging and is only saved from the noose when Quasimodo swings down and spirits her away to Notre Dame, invoking the law of sanctuary. Clopin, a street performer, and a bunch of Paris' criminals attempt to save Esmeralda by storming Notre Dame. Frollo convinces the King to help him get Esmeralda out of Notre Dame, basically breaking the law. Quasimodo is confused and drives Clopin and the riff-raff away, thinking they are there to hurt Esmeralda. He then decides to help the King's men find her, thinking they are there to help. Frollo "rescues" Esmeralda but is unsuccessful in winning her heart, so he does what any reasonable person would do: he has her hanged. Frollo laughs as Esmeralda is hung which sends Quasimodo into a fury. Quasimodo pushes Frollo off of the high reaches of Notre Dame in anger, then goes to the vault where they threw Esmeralda's corpse. He lays down with it until he starves to death. When people open the vault later and find the skeletons, Quasimodo's bones turn to dust upon trying to remove them. Happy ending right? Almost everybody dies! Hooray! An interesting note is that the book's true protagonist was Esmeralda, not Quasimodo. If you think about it, this movie is one of the only ones, besides maybe Pocahantas, where the guy doesn't get the gal. Depressing! At least they both don't die though. I always didn't like the ending of this movie though. I though Quasimodo deserved a little more hapiness! Oh well. At least Frollo died at the hands of what I can only assume was God's will. Coincidence that the gargoyles head just happend to fall off when he was on it? I think not.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released on June 21st, 1996 with the premiere coming two days before, screening at the New Orleans Superdome. The film went on to gross just a little over $100 million domestically, making it not one of the better money making Disney films of the Renaissance era. It did however do pretty well overseas, as one can imagine. Most critics gave the movie mixed reviews, claiming that it was too adult for kids and thus not appropriate for them. Others, mostly ones that were diehard fans of the novel, claimed that the film was too watered down and that the characters fell back on cliches. In other words, Disney couldn't win. While it may not be the very best of the Renaissance era, it still is one of the most breathtaking. The songs alone are worth seeing the movie for. So, if you haven't seen this one in awhile, dust it off and give it a watch.