Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 21 June 1996
The criticism Disney received over its interpretation of the Pocahontas story was revived somewhat when they decided to animate Victor Hugo's famed novel Notre-Dame de Paris.
It was a controversial decision, reminiscent of similar comments made about Alice in Wonderland over forty years earlier. It was controversial not just because of the novel's fame but because of its subject matter. Notre-Dame de Paris was a very dark story, after all -- hardly typical Disney fare.
While they (again controversially) kept some of the darker elements, the story was (still controversially -- Disney can't win sometimes) modified to provide the requisite "happy" ending -- although not in the way you might expect.
The story tells of a deformed young man, adopted as a baby by the cruel and self-righteous Judge Claude Frollo. Frollo had chased and killed the baby's mother (as he hated her kind, the Gypsies); compelled by fears of divine retribution, he provides for the hunch-backed child and names him Quasimodo (or "half-formed").
Quasimodo grows up in the dark belltower of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, serving as its bell-ringer, believing himself to be a monster, and dreaming of spending time in the open. But when he meets the beautiful Gypsy Esmeralda and the noble soldier Phoebus, other options present themselves, and he begins to realize that maybe Frollo is wrong about him... and the Gypsies he persecutes.
Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz once again provided the songs for the film (as they had for Pocahontas). The soundtrack here is a considerable improvement; although derided as containing mostly forgettable songs, I find it to be stunning. Menken used several different themes in his music, each appearing in several different songs and repeatedly in the background music. It's not apparent when viewing the movie, but listening to the soundtrack reveals the full extent of the cohesiveness of the entire work.
The film opens with a stunning introduction, rivaling the opening sequence from The Lion King. This epic, 6-minute song, "The Bells of Notre Dame" tells the back story behind the film, accompanied, of course, by the same brilliant animation found throughout. The song contains a full spectrum of emotions, moving from contentment of everyday life, to the fear of Quasimodo's mother, to the action-packed chase scene (underscored by urgent religious chants in Latin), to the admonishment of Frollo by the Archdeacon, to Frollo's reluctant decision to care for the boy. The song positively soars at the end, reaching the same heights as the cathedral's bell towers over the streets of Paris, thanks to Paul Kandel's beautiful tenor. It's a masterpiece.
About the Latin chanting -- the soundtrack is scattered with various Latin religious chants, such as Kyrie Eleison (God have mercy), Dies irae, Dies illa (Day of wrath, that Day), and Quantus tremor est futurus/Quando Judex est venturus (What trembling is to be/When the Judge is come). These chants are prominent in "The Bells of Notre Dame" and in "Heaven's Light/Hellfire", but they also provide a powerful undertone to much of the background music.
"Heaven's Light/Hellfire" is really two songs; the first is short and sung by Quasimodo as he exults in the caring shown to him by Esmeralda. It serves (by way of contrast) as an introduction to the second. Hellfire was the song that nearly pushed the movie to a PG rating; in it, Frollo sings about his lust for the Gypsy Esmeralda, blaming her and the devil for his sinful feelings.
The song begins with these Latin lyrics (translated), sung by a chorus: "I confess to God almighty,/To blessed Mary ever Virgin,/To the blessed archangel Michael,/To the holy apostles, to all the saints..." Then Frollo begins his (English) confession, while the chorus continues: "...And to you, Father,/That I have sinned,/In thought,/In word and deed..."
The song continues, and Frollo sings: "Like fire,/Hellfire,/This fire in my skin,/This burning/Desire/Is turning me to sin./It's not my fault;/I'm not to blame/It is the Gypsy girl,/The witch who sent this flame./It's not my fault,/If in God's plan;/He made the devil so much/Stronger than a man." Under this text, the chorus repeats, "Mea culpa/Mea culpa/Mea maxima culpa," subtly (and unless you know Latin, unrecognizably) proving that Frollo, in his heart, knows the truth, yet he insists on continuing to lie to himself. It's a very powerful song, completely out of place in a Disney film, yet it adds a needed adult touch to the movie that helps make it credible.
The rest of the songs are mostly forgettable, although the requisite "hero's lament" ballad, "Out There," is not bad. But as I said, the score is incredible, weaving together themes from the songs with powerful Latin lyrics to perfectly and cohesively underscore the action on screen. I consider the soundtrack to The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be Alan Menken's best complete work (although certain individual songs rival it). Bette Midler recorded a version of "God Help the Outcasts" and All-4-One recorded "Someday," which was cut from the film.
The voice cast is filled with experienced and talented actors, some from TV, some from film, and many from Broadway. Tom Hulce (Mozart in the movie Amadeus) lends his tenor to Quasimodo, causing the hunchback's voice to reflect his inner self and not his outward appearance. Tony Jay, who has inherited the role of Shere Khan from George Sanders and was seen as Nigel St. John in Lois and Clark, gives an outstanding performance as Frollo. Demi Moore and Kevin Kline are on hand as Esmeralda and Phoebus, although Esmeralda's ballad "God Help the Outcasts" was sung by a stand-in.
Quasimodo's only companions in the belltower, the comic-relief gargoyles, are Hugo, Victor (get it?), and Laverne. Hugo, the fat, jolly one, was voiced by Jason Alexander; Victor, the tall, serious one, was voiced by Charles Kimbrough. Their only song is "A Guy Like You," containing lyrics like "Paris, the city of lovers,/Is burning this evening;/True, that's because it's on fire,/But still there's l'amore," and "When she wants ooh-la-la,/Then she wants you-la-la..."
The film was unfortunately mostly snubbed at Oscar time, garnering only a single nomination (Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, losing out to Emma). It had the same luck at the Golden Globes, and even inexplicably nominated for a Razzie.
The film was granted a direct-to-video sequel in 2001, called simply The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. In it, the situation at the end of the first movie (wherein Phoebus, not the story's protagonist Quasimodo, gets the girl) is "rectified" by providing a new love interest for the bell-ringer.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a much underappreciated film, and doesn't deserve many of the criticisms it received. Most critics praised the visuals (particularly those of the cathedral, which are stunning) but derided the story and music as insufficient. Roger Ebert gave it a full four stars, but he was among very few to regard the film that highly. Nonetheless, it is a finely-crafted film, only somewhat atypical for Disney (and then only in certain places), and is far too often overlooked.
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.