I must be a movie-going anomaly, because I consider The Disney Studio’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame the best animated feature ever made. Victor Hugo purists have complained about the movie’s liberties (particularly with the comic relief of the three gargoyles, which I admit is a bit of a stretch for sidekicks). And the story, of course, is way too dark for anyone expecting a lighthearted Disney cartoon. But then, perhaps that’s part of the point.
The movie was directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Those names are worth noting because they also directed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which was the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Obviously that gave the duo some clout to make pretty much what they wanted. They certainly chose one of the darker stories to animate, and it showed at the box office when it grossed only (only?) $96 million. But it is a story superbly told on all levels.
Hunchback Of Notre Dame Synopsis
The film’s opening scene tells, in song, how the hunchback was stolen from a gypsy by Claude Frollo, an evil judge (changed from a priest in the original story) who has a huge hang-up about gypsies. Frollo sees that the child is physically deformed and intends to drop him down a well, until a priest shames him into keeping the child as his own. He condescendingly names the child “Quasimodo” (meaning half-formed) and keeps him locked in a bell tower where he learns to ring the bells for the city of Paris. And in that first ten minutes, you’re thinking: These Disney guys are really serious.
From there, the movie introduces Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and Frollo’s troubled officer Phoebus (Kevin Kline), both of whom come to befriend Quasimodo. Yet the movie doesn’t go for easy answers, and when the movie (controversially) ends happily, it feels quite earned. Because along the way, Quasimodo certainly needs a friend or two. Voiced by Amadeus‘s Tom Hulce, he does a song called Out There in which Quasimodo expresses his longing to simply get out in the real world one day, and it beautifully lays the groundwork for everything that follows.
That song is part of an unjustly overlooked score by Disney vets Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, and it’s only one element of the most underrated work you’ll find in animation. There’s an astounding scene where Frollo privately confesses his lust for Esmeralda, and as G-rated numbers go, it’s a pretty hard G. But I found it refreshing that the Disney group was willing to take some chances here, unlike their much safer audience-pleasers, such as the politically correct Pocahontas.
Stylistically, artistic coordinator Randy Fullmer, art director Dave Goetz, layout supervisor Ed Ghertner and background supervisor Lisa Keane set out to incorporate Hugo’s Gothic vision and spent considerable time analyzing the author’s own drawings and artwork. His concept of a three-tiered universe with heaven above, the gritty streets of urban Paris viewed as Hell, and the bell tower of Notre Dame as the bridge between the two became one of the film’s central themes. Quasimodo is symbolically viewed as being trapped between the two worlds.
During the early stages of development, the creative team took a ten-day field trip to Paris to closely observe the cathedral at Notre Dame and other key locations (the Palace of Justice, the location of the Court of Miracles). Hugo used the cathedral as a centerpiece of his tale and the film makers remained faithful to that concept by making it a multifaceted character; expressing different moods and reactions to each of the principals.
As production got underway in Burbank, co-producer Roy Conif relocated to France to supervise a team of 100 artists and animators at Disney’s Paris-based feature animation studio. Utilizing a tremendous pool of talent from all over Europe, this group added an element of authenticity and contributed about ten minutes of animation to the overall effort, including the prologue and a portion of the climactic battle sequence. Renowned film makers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi, who played a key role in storyboarding the film, served as sequence directors in Paris.
For all of its happy ending, the movie doesn’t cop out, either. Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl, but he gets something much better- the acceptance he has always craved. Disney movies have offered a lot less palatable messages. And for those who think that a Disney cartoon shouldn’t rattle anyone, I say: Remember what happened to Bambi‘s mom?