With titles like Snow White (1937) to Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989), there’s no shortage to select from in Disney’s catalog of films. Yet when I look at their celebrated canon I have had no trouble in choosing a film to select as a perfect example of animated and musical artistry as envisioned by Walt Disney himself. And so in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of my favorite Disney masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (HOND) I tribute it as a grand work of animated filmmaking and one of the very best to ever be released in the genre. First released on June 21, 1996, in a period of renewed critical and commercial success for the company, now known as the Disney Renaissance; in many ways HOND would itself be a renaissance for animated movies and a definite jewel in Disney’s cherished vault. So what sets this movie apart from the others? Well, let us begin.
Any good film begins with a story and HOND has the distinction of having one of the most mature, poignant and intelligent stories especially when compared to other animated films. The majority of Disney movies have typically been based on fairytales and fables or the occasional children’s storybook. Consider then that HOND is based on the eminent novel of the same name by French literary giant Victor Hugo and most certainly not intended for young readers. First published in 1831, Hugo’s work has been acclaimed for the maturity of its subject matter and its dealings with complex social and political issues reflecting the 19th century France he was living in. With themes including prejudice, lust, religious prosecution, and genocide the novel solidified Hugo as a great before his later works including “Les Miserables”. So why would Disney executives choose a classic of world literature, and one certainly not aimed at children, to adapt to an animated film? While I cannot know for sure I suspect that despite the nature of the story the ultimate message of tolerance and love spoke to the filmmakers in a way that made them green- light the project. Besides shouldn’t we expose young children to great works of art in the hopes of widening their growing minds?
And so with this source material, it’s no wonder that this movie and its characters are comparatively darker, more mature and complex than other Disney films. Naturally as with any adaptation elements of the novel were removed and changed and the characteristic Disney flare was added (including singing Gargoyles for comic relief). Nonetheless, it contained references and allegories that went far beyond simply “good and evil”. The words “sin”, “God”, “hell” and “damnation” are not typically heard in Disney (or most animated films) yet they play a central role in HOND. The end result is a movie that is dark, moving and sophisticated yet still with thrills, colors, and songs that define the Disney genre. While it may be argued that kids really don’t understand this all and may even be frightened, the tackling of this subject matter should be applauded; sure I didn’t fully know what was happening in this movie as a child but I was left with a definite impression. When looking back on it as adults it’s not hard to see why HOND is a masterpiece and a sadly often overlooked one.
Part of any great movie is the musical score and in Disney’s case, audiences have come to expect catchy and memorable tunes to be an integral component of their movie viewing experience. The score to HOND composed by Alan Menken is arguably one of his very, very best and that’s saying something when you consider he also scored The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Menken is to the Disney Company what John Williams is to the Star Wars franchise: indispensable. The immense success in the Disney Renaissance years owes much to his music and songs as does the success of HOND. While Menken’s signature has been movie songs in a Broadway musical style, his score for HOND not only contains the aforementioned songs but also complex, stirring, dramatic and exceptionally rousing musical numbers.
One of the most notable elements of this score is the use of Latin and Catholic hymns at numerous points. Including the prayers the Confiteor, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) and Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) it’s another example of why this film is so different from other Disney works. Forget “Let it Go” try singing “Quando Judex est venturus”! Using a large choir, as well as the organ and a full use of the symphony Menken created a true operatic work. Just listen to tracks like number 11 “Sanctuary” to realize how great this score is. Indeed it is most curious that Menken did not win the Oscar for Best Original Score for HOND while winning for all the previous films mentioned; while he certainly deserved the victories for the others to not win for HOND is greatly disappointing, a score he himself has stated as one of his best.
Of course the songs in this movie are equally special and with lyricist Stephen Schwartz great music met with great poetry. The movie begins with “The Bells of Notre Dame” introducing us to the backstory of Quasimodo and his caretaker Claude Frollo and so eloquently asking us “Who is the monster and who is the man?” When I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris I constantly heard the songs and music in my head especially the invocation “You never can run from nor hide what you’ve done from the eyes of Notre Dame!”. With songs like “Out There”, “God Help the Outcasts” and “Hellfire” the deep lyrical meaning shines and makes them not only wonderfully astute but immensely sophisticated.
No story or film would be complete without an antagonist; in the case of HOND, its villain would prove to be one of the more frightening and realistic characters especially compared to other Disney bad guys. Judge Claude Frollo does not have magical powers like Ursula, Maleficent, or Jafar yet he proves to be probably the most perverse and morally righteous of any villain. Voiced so memorably by the late great Tony Jay, Frollo is extremely prejudiced towards peasants, gypsies, and anyone else beneath him. A vindictive, ruthlessly intelligent and arrogantly sadistic figure he shows little compassion for anything except himself. Schwartz’s lyrics point out he “longed to purge the world of vice and sin, and saw corruption everywhere except within.”
More closely resembling actual historical villains, Frollo is a collage of many themes from genocidal mania to religious hypocrisy; greatly disturbed by his simultaneous physical attraction to Esmeralda and his mental revulsion of her people Frollo appeals to the Virgin Mary in the song “Hellfire” (a highlight of the previously discussed soundtrack – see video above). “Let her taste the fires of hell or else let her be mine and mine alone!” he implores. The animated sequence for this song is also particularly memorable featuring ominous hooded figures and an apparition of a scantily dressed Esmeralda dancing in a flame as Frollo fondles the scarf she had tauntingly threw at him. Talk about mature and dark this scene alone almost cost the film its G rating and is remarkably faithful to Hugo’s original conception of Frollo’s lust. As the film progresses and Frollo forges ahead with his ruthless campaign to destroy the gypsies and Esmeralda he becomes increasingly deranged and violent. I cannot recall a Disney villain as effective and frighteningly evil as Claude Frollo (comparable to Scar but far more crazed), but perhaps that’s because the worst villains in the world aren’t sea witches or sorcerers but humans themselves. As a human in a position of power Frollo perfectly exemplifies the corruption of authority and religion and the dangers of intolerance and bigotry. Although the Frollo of Hugo’s novel was more sympathetic and caring his ultimate downfall driven by obsession stayed the same. Animator Kathy Zielinski’s work on the character should also be noted giving us chills and revulsion with Frollo’s scowl and a particular scene where he gropes and sniffs Esmeralda’s hair. As an antagonist, Judge Frollo is a focal point of this film, and one of the most complex bad guys in Disney’s canon; a definite reason why HOND is a tremendous film.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an unquestionable jewel in the series of Disney animated films. For a studio that has produced so many critical successes singling one out as the best is difficult and in reality, most of Disney’s films are of excellent caliber. Yet HOND stands out for numerous reasons including the ones I have just discussed. Whether it’s the gorgeous animation (the animators spent time in Paris studying the cathedral’s architecture closely), its sophisticated and mature subject matter, its glorious score and songs, or its colorful and complex characters from Quasimodo to Clopin and especially Judge Claude Frollo, HOND has stood out as a grand achievement in animated filmmaking. Twenty years later amidst such mega-hits like Tangled and Frozen, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains the most refined and thought-provoking film of its kind and a true testament to the awesome work of its animators, directors, composer, and lyricist. A rare combination of sophistication and entertainment it’s a wonderful experience to watch, especially when older, and some of the very best in movie artistry.