|Scene from Hunchback of Notre Dame|
There were few studios in the 1990's that had as great of a winning streak as Disney. In 1991, they produced the first ever animated film to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination with Beauty and the Beast. With help of course from Alan Menken in the music department, they released a whole string of now iconic films such as Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Lion King, and Mulan. Along with introducing princesses, it was the last gasp of fresh air for traditional hand drawn animation with some of the most beautiful mainstream cinema outside of Studio Ghibli. However, there is one film that often gets forgotten among the traditional musicals: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While it gave the world gypsy princess Esmeralda, it gets overshadowed for being the darker tale that the studio has released. After 20 years, it still remains the most underrated of Disney's 90's animated hits - and it's definitely worth giving a second chance.
Admittedly, it's close to impossible to make a proper adaptation of any Victor Hugo adaptation for children. He was an author whose work was often dense and explored societal struggles as well as France's conflicting religious views. Next to "Les Miserables," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" remains his most recognizable work, and it features ogre Quasimodo the bell ringer along with characters who can easily be called seedy. This is more apparent in older takes, such as the Lon Chaney silent adaptation; of which used Quasimodo as one of the main influences for Universal Studios' monster movie series of the 1930's, and spent half an hour introducing almost every important character. To say the least, it's a dark story and one that would be difficult for kids to latch on to. So, how did they pull it off?
The truth is that it may fail a bit as a loyal adaptation. The bigger triumph is that it even works at all as a family film. Of course, it helps that it featured the talents of Menken - of whom wrote most of the best Disney songs in the decade - along with co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who were responsible for Beauty and the Beast. Along with the reliably fantastic animation team, the sweeping shots of Notre Dame became their own intricate works of art with almost each cobblestone road their own beautiful masterpieces. It was a world rich with character dynamics and striking architectural design. Even before the dialogue becomes significant, it is easy for one to get lost in the beauty of what a bygone style of animation can bring to a film. The detail alone seems to reassure anyone doubting the story's flaws.
Then the story begins with Quasimodo's tragic origin story: a child so hideous that he gets locked in a bell tower and forced to be raised by the manipulative religious figure Frollo. For most of his life, he has only seen the city from several floors up, where he fantasizes about being normal looking. His only friends are three animated gargoyles, of whom give him confidence to finally break out and enjoy his life. This comes with his own circumstances, but it also comes with breathtaking songs such as "Out There," that feature Tom Hulce singing about longing to be free as he gallivants around the church, extending carelessly to corners of the architecture that unveil new and more beautiful scenery. "Topsy Turvy" comes after, introducing an eclectic variety of characters wanting to win the Feast of Fools. Even if the story doesn't cut its ugly people some slack, it does introduce a disturbing story in a way that captivates audiences.
What is probably the most audacious, especially by 1996, is that a mainstream family film would so greatly be about Catholic guilt. The film makes no pretensions about hiding it. Frollo is a religious figure who during "Hellfire" sings lustfully for Esmeralda, of whom he considers to be trash. There's also Disney's greatest song in its entire existence: "God Help the Outcasts," which features Esmeralda singing hopelessly in prayer for God to help the unfortunate. It's a story that perfectly adapts religious guilt into a conflict worthy of a full length story. A lot of the credit could be given to Hugo's excellent writing, but managing to make the least secular text appeal to mass audiences is within itself a miracle. Once again, Menken's ability to write some of Disney's darkest music comes through by turning otherwise haunting contexts into pure ear worms. It also helps that these songs are placed alongside more comical numbers, reflecting a balance that has always warranted Disney as kings of family entertainment.
The film may have not gotten as much attention as every other film in the 90's canon. Besides a nomination for Best Original Comedy or Musical Score at the Oscars, it didn't get much recognition for its beautiful exterior shots or its ability to adapt a haunting story into a family friendly film. However, it features the ambition and excellence that the studio always strove for. It may not have the catchiest songs, and its religious subtext may be troublesome for many. However, it's a film that tries to be about something more than entertainment. As a result, it creates an experience set inside a French city that is unlike anything else that the studio would do again. It was profound in subtext and it's more of a miracle that it is as impressive as it is. The fact that it later had a stage musical version, featuring several of the familiar tunes, is a testament to its craft.
It's been 20 years since The Hunchback of Notre Dame has come out, and it seems like it gets overlooked when thinking back fondly on Disney's greatest decade. Even the lesser Hercules seems to resonate more. Still, it is evidence that the studio's merits far extend beyond what passes for animation nowadays. To pause the opening shot and admire the exteriors is to see something akin to a classic painting. It may lack the adventures or broad characters that make the others more memorable, but this unassuming masterpiece remains their underrated gem because of how well it defies expectations and becomes something greater. It may not be the most faithful adaptation, but it does enough to make Hugo's text come to life in ways suitable for all ages. Now that's an amazing feat that shouldn't be scoffed at.