Before I go on about the latter half of the Disney Renaissance, I’d like to talk about an element that characterized the earlier Renaissance that you don’t see very often these days in the land of theatrical animation. This element, I feel, faded away with the very feature I’ll be reviewing today…
Start with Beauty and the Beast, the picture that pretty much implemented the formula that would be used throughout the decade. The formula: The big Broadway-style love story epic with a big battle climax at the end, wisecracking sidekicks, complete with songs like the “I Want” song and the villain song and the silly showstopper number that demands that you clap.
While one half of Beauty and the Beast has a simple aura to it, the other half seems very grand, elegant, and a bit bombastic. In my review of Pocahontas, I touched upon how Beauty and the Beast was viewed as a “prestige”, “high art” kind of picture. Something larger than life. No doubt, this feel was emphasized by the big songs and the whole Broadway-inspired structure of it. The film just has this massive feel to it… How could one not walk out of that film and feel a bit “wowed”? Or at least shook?
Aladdin has less of that, it’s bursting with zaniness and comic energy. It’s way less formal than Beauty and the Beast, it’s a lot looser. Since both films broke records and set new box office heights for feature animation, it seemed like Disney’s executives wanted to combine those two ingredients for the following films: The “prestige” gloss of Beauty and the Beast, and the madcap fun of Aladdin. An awkward meshing of this is on full display in The Lion King. The dramatic highs make the bouncier moments seem out of place. Was this a more cartoony, irreverent feature? Or was it a big drama that’s more for the adult audience?
Despite the sweeping tones of these stories, they really didn’t do anything new. Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King may have darker moments and lots of drama, but so did many of Walt Disney’s films. No matter how Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King appear, they were not the first Disney animated movies aimed at adults. As I’ve said many times before on here and elsewhere, the Renaissance era of Disney animation sort of encouraged this belief that every animated film made before the release of The Little Mermaid was an innocuous children’s movie. Walt Disney made his films for the audience, and assumed whoever was in attendance was smart. There was no “target audience”. He didn’t really make movies that aimed to be “highbrow”, either. When he did, he got chastised for it, and if we are to believe some accounts… Fantasia‘s flopping and disastrous critical reception convinced him to cease being that ambitious with the medium. Not to say the features made in the Silver Age are lesser, but Cinderella and Peter Pan are certainly not as bold as Fantasia and Bambi.
I’m confused as to why some felt that Beauty and the Beast, a film that doesn’t take any of the risks that Walt’s best films took, was Disney’s first “adult” or “prestige” movie. If anything, it only got nominated for Best Picture because of Disney’s aggressive pushing, and 1991 being a weak year. All I see is a solid adventure drama with some prestigious coating, a mood that makes the picture seem like it’s lofty and up there. Whatever people thought, Disney’s executives wanted to keep making this kind of picture, but also wanted to reuse the comedic gusto of Aladdin.
This continued with Pocahontas, which is the film that many call the pin that popped the Renaissance balloon. What Pocahontas did do that the previous few films didn’t do was this… It touched upon history, it didn’t adapt a literary classic, and it aimed to touch on a hot subject. A “topical” Disney animated feature…
Disney was chasing the Oscar they didn’t get for Beauty and the Beast, and they thought the surefire way to get it was to combine Dances with Wolves with the mood, structure, and songbook of Beauty and the Beast. Things weren’t going to change… Eisner and Katzenberg slated more projects that had the potential to be prestige movies. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a planned adaptation of Aida looked to continue this new trend. Former studio animator and story man Tad Stones recalled Ron Clements’ gripes with that direction, via an interview collected by Disney historian Jim Korkis, for his Animation Anecdote series on Cartoon Research.:
“What Ron said was that the whole line of features that they were talking about like Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aida (the opera that eventually premiered as a Broadway show instead) were about things that he and John didn’t want to work on. We are not the Miramax of animation. We kind of do what mainstream America would like to see so let’s put that kind of entertainment on the screen. Disney’s done quite well with that. It really did shock Jeffrey into realizing that he was pushing animation to an Art House formula. He started asking, ‘Who is the audience for this?’”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was not as risky as Pocahontas, as it was a work of fiction. The book and its subject matter, however, is decidedly not appropriate for a G-rated Disney film aimed at family audiences. Religion being a heavy theme in the story also made it something of a tall order, and could put it in line with Pocahontas as a relevant and – again – “topical” film. Then again, you could argue that all of the fairy tales Disney adapted into the earlier features weren’t suitable either, especially Pinocchio. For me, Pinocchio is the greatest Disney animated feature of all time and one of cinema’s masterpieces, even if it isn’t as dark as the source material.
Disneyification can be a hot button topic, as it’s often questioned. Are more child-friendly versions of very rough stories necessary? Should they exist at all? Is adapting such stories into G/PG-rated films a big no-no? The other debate is… Do these adaptations dumb down what made those stories so special? For me, a story simply has to work on its own. An adaptation is, to me, meant to take a story and make it the other creators’ own. This is often said of Walt Disney, that he took these stories and infused his own unique elements to make them his own. The “Disney Version”. My question, as the viewer, is… Does that “version” also work?
This all being said, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was perhaps more risky for the post-Walt studio. Perhaps with stories like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, some critical types are more lenient because of how old those tales are, and how many times they’ve been retold. Something like The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the other hand is something that’s seen a few film and television adaptations, along with some stage versions. Unlike a fairy tale, it wasn’t a book meant for a younger audience. Perhaps it was more special, something that shouldn’t be within Disney’s reach despite being on the same level as other stories Disney has adapted in the past. Disney took the risk and went for it, which is kind of admirable in a way.
Did it all pay off?
The show entered development in 1993, Beauty and the Beast directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were whisked off of what they were working on (an adaptation of the Greek myth Orpheus, set to be titled A Song of the Sea) and immediately sunk themselves into the project. Katzenberg must’ve been gung-ho about this, a film that – going back to Clements’ words – would continue what Pocahontas set out to do. This was back when Pocahontas was still in pre-production, while The Lion King was unexpectedly surging ahead in development.
Given what was already behind it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame could’ve been a trainwreck in the making. In the previous part, I looked at Pocahontas and how the executives’ desire to make a relevant, socially conscious, “prestige” picture that was aiming to win the Oscar Beauty and the Beast didn’t get ended up creating something of a disaster. Now why did it turn to be such a mess? The executives in charge of Disney not only wanted to make films that were “prestige” pictures, but at the same time they wanted to make them appeal to all ages. The way they went about this resulted in trouble. Disney’s executives were the anti-Walt Disney, they believed that Disney Animation should target the kids first or at least try very hard to get young audiences interested – regardless of the story they’re trying to tell. Walt played the opposite way, he made films that were appropriate for children but their writing and storytelling was smart for adult viewers.
To the newer executives, Disney Animation “had” to be child-friendly, it had to be for kids, no matter what. Pocahontas amplifies all of the problems that the previous “Renaissance” pictures had. A lot of comic relief is forced into that film, and the tone is all over the map. At times it is very serious, at other times it’s goofy and gratingly childish, as if it’s talking down to young audiences. There’s little nuance, the “deep” themes are annoyingly spelled out for kids, and it doesn’t handle its subject matter with taste.
Would The Hunchback of Notre Dame be the same affair? That depends on who you ask. If it’s me you’re asking… Then…
Not really. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not without the issues that dragged Pocahontas into the ground, but the bigger problems are outweighed by a much stronger story, far better characters, a real sense of energy, a significantly better balance between the entertaining stuff and the darker material, the near-excellent soundtrack, and its gutsier ambitions.
G-rated it may be, The Hunchback of Notre Dame can get pretty rough! If this film were released today, in an age where a mere fart joke can get a PG certificate slapped onto you, it would definitely not be rated G. The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be an outcast story, but it’s splotched with some darkness. A lot of that comes from the baddie. The villainous Judge Claude Frollo (played a very menacing Tony Jay) is not too dissimilar from his book counterpart, he lusts after Esmeralda despite his hatred of gypsies. He is also a bit more complex than the more traditional bad guy likes of Jafar and Scar, and a country mile ahead of the painfully simplistic, gold-digging Ratcliffe. He is conflicted about his plans, he is torn between committing what he sees as a big sin, he’s devoted to God yet such a cruel man. He believes what he does is right, while condemning other heinous acts. The film also has some innuendos and some pretty shocking scenes that one wouldn’t expect Disney to have past the Golden Age. If Frollo’s desires weren’t creepy enough, there’s actually a scene where he gropes Esmeralda and proceeds to smell her hair. G-rated indeed!
He’s also a cold-blooded killer, and is willing to burn down all of Paris in order to find Esmeralda. In one sequence, he sets a windmill ablaze after the family residing in it denies that they are harboring any gypsies. In the opening sequence, Frollo chases Quasimodo’s Romani mother and kills her onscreen. Not a graphic death by any means, it’s still very intense. A lot of the imagery, the mood, and the action is on the level of the best Walt frights. In fact, as great as current Disney Animation has been, they have yet to makee a sequence that reaches the heights of Hunchback.
Does everything else mesh?
Streamlined and simplified the story may be, I like it a great deal. Sure it could’ve used a little more grayness, sure it may be the usual outcast story that isn’t as powerful as the book, sure it may take a lot from the 1939 film adaptation, but I think with the aforementioned darkness and the scale they go for, it’s executed so well. Wise and Trousdale go all out with their direction, making each scene feel huge, absolutely epic in size. Dramatic moments are very intense. The quieter moments don’t fail to be very intimate, giving you time to breathe between the bigger parts. Like Pocahontas, it’s visually loaded and most of it is directed with such care. I love the characters. Quasimodo (played by an on-point Tom Hulce) is very sympathetic and the cruelty he faces definitely channels Dumbo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) is great as well. If Quasimodo is relentlessly gentle, Esmeralda is fiesty, quick-witted, and fierce… And certainly doesn’t take any of Frollo’s hatred!
Captain of the Guard Phoebus (voiced by a smooth and confident Kevin Kline) and her work well off of each other, and the film certainly doesn’t sugarcoat things, it doesn’t give Quasimodo the love interest. Esmeralda chooses Phoebus, which makes for a lot of well-done emotional moments during the middle of the film. The eccentric and foppish Clopin (voiced by long-time theatre actor Paul Kandel, in top form here) is good comic relief, certainly better than some other comic relief characters in this movie. He’s a clown, an entertainer, and has a bit of a sinister side too! Side characters who come and go do their part fine. All of these characters are memorable, they are not the mannequins that inhabited Pocahontas.
Bolstering these strengths is the music by mainstay Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz… Yes, it is yet another big Broadway-esque musical that checks the boxes, but it does so with so much energy and grandeur. The opening alone is chilling, the minute you hear that choir and the pounding bells… You know you’re in for something. ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ recalls Quasimodo’s origins in song form, sung by Clopin. Booming, atmospheric, and perfectly setting things up, it never fails to draw me in. The film also surprisingly injects freshness into the then-already worn out “I Want” song, with ‘Out There’, set to sweeping shots of Quasimodo climbing, swinging, and sliding around the edges of the cathedral.
‘God Help the Outcasts’ might be a little too 90s Disney in its sound (the big, “award bait”-like song), but the theme resonates. ‘Topsy Turvy’ is an explosion of color, strangeness, visual gags, and flat-out fun – it nails the “silly song”. Also hitting a similar bone is ‘Court of Miracles’, where Clopin greets Quasi and Phoebus with a number that’s simultaneously jaunty and sinister. ‘Heaven’s Light’ is a beautiful and touching piece, the perfect antithesis to the dizzying inferno that is ‘Hellfire’. Perhaps this sequence is the peak of 90s Disney’s attempts to emulate the bite of the Walt-era films, their ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ moment. Frollo’s spiraling descent into madness is perfectly captured by this unsettling, swirling, visually arresting flare.
Speaking of which, I do love all the imagery as well. There are striking shots of religious imagery, and visuals like the hooded figures in the ‘Hellfire’ sequence and the glaring statues during ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’. The art direction, the color, the score… It all emphasizes every frame, some of the best of any 90s Disney animated film. Everything about it just screams massive.
So, the rips in the fabric…
The strengths definitely outweigh some of the weaker aspects of the movie, but they’re still there… And no, I’m not talking about a certain problem that many have with the film, myself included. Despite how it’s directed and staged and pulled off, I can still sort of sense that annoying Eisner/Katzenberg arrogance. That “prestige picture, but we gotta have it be kid-friendly!” feel that can be a bit of a bummer when noticed, there are parts where it feels like it’s trying to be high art and mainstream at the same time, creating something of an awkward mix. Some parts, they nail. Other parts, I get a sense of self-consciousness.
Then there’s the gargoyles…
Ahhhh, the gargoyles. What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
For some, they’re the dealbreaker. For me, they’re a thorn in the side. I have nothing against Quasimodo having humorous sidekicks, and also, it is a 90s Disney film so they had to have a comic relief sidekick anyways. By 1996, it was a “no ifs, ands, or buts” situation when it came to wisecracking sidekicks and animals. They’re mostly not funny, though… That’s the problem! If they’re not slapping the mood and atmosphere out of a more serious moment, they’re cracking one-liners or making lame fart jokes. An armpit fart shouldn’t be anywhere near the likes of this kind of story. Imagine that happening in a live-action version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame! There would’ve been absolute panic in the streets! Test screening results (read: bored, random 8 year olds) lead to executives forcing the animators to work them into the ‘Heaven’s Light’ sequence, adding unnecessary comedy to what should’ve been a quiet moment of beauty.
Worse is their aiding in the climactic battle for Notre Dame. The cartoony slapstick completely clashes with the violence, and the tone of the film. It also quashes any possibility of them being figments of Quasimodo’s imagination, because up until then, the film makes it seem like the Garogyles truly are all in his head. Way to contradict yourself, there! Their musical number, ‘A Guy Like You’, is too bouncy and out-of-place. Another “obligatory” show-stopper song with lots of comedy in it. ‘Topsy Turvy’ was enough.
Indeed, The Hunchback of Notre Dame couldn’t run away from the 90s rule book. It’s a film that so badly wants to succeed, a film that wants to be this family-friendly but more adult drama. The animators crew and put their all into it, but the powers-that-be aggressively denied the film the right to be more than just a Happy Meal-selling romp, but despite all of this it does break past barriers, it does succeed at many things, and the schlock barely anchors it… The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to this writer, came out a winner. Warts and all!
Did the public embrace it?
Perhaps a decent-sized chunk of the movie-going public was so turned off by Pocahontas. Either that, or going to see Disney animated movies wasn’t the “event” it used to be. Perhaps the previews and trailers didn’t quite get all of the public interested. Granted, a $21 million opening weekend gross was still solid in 1996, and it wasn’t too many clicks below Pocahontas. It wasn’t, however, the then-large $40 million that The Lion King collected on its first wide-release weekend. The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s legs at the box office were similar to Pocahontas‘, it made over 4 1/2x its opening and just barely eked past $100 million domestically.
This was something of a low for post-Rescuers Down Under Disney Animation. Pocahontas had not only completely missed the grosses of The Lion King and Aladdin, it made a little below Beauty and the Beast‘s original take. There wasn’t much cause for alarm. The Hunchback of Notre Dame made even less, and barely crossed the big one-oh-oh. $100 million was the budget for the movie! Overseas, it fared decently – the final worldwide tally was $325 million. The film did make its money back, but it wasn’t the highly profitable successes that its predecessors were. By the end of its run, a message might’ve been sent. If Disney kept making this kind of movie, the grosses would not match Aladdin and The Lion King‘s takes.
Critical reception was a little better. Pocahontas was certainly divisive. If critics were not upset with the way it handled its ideas, then they were rather shocked by the picture’s dullness. Others gave it some fair marks, but nothing special. That was perhaps the film’s undoing for audiences, more so than the perceived political correctness. Hunchback was either praised for its attempts to be something bolder, or criticized for dumbing down the novel. Generally, it seemed like most critics liked what they saw.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame would end up being the last of the “prestige”-style Renaissance films. The following films take on a looser, less self-important vibe. Years later, even in an era where the Renaissance-style picture is here again in the form of films like Tangled and Frozen, nothing has really aimed for that coating that we saw twenty years ago. The newer musicals indeed pack some serious drama and lots of conflict, but there’s something of a lighter feel to them. None of this booming, operatic, grandiose stuff. Tangled doesn’t feel like Beauty and the Beast, and Frozen certainly doesn’t feel like this film or Pocahontas outside of its big songs. Those films don’t feel like they’re aiming to be arthouse cinema, or anything that would put it in leagues far away from mainstream entertainment… That is not a bad thing.
Bringing up The Princess and the Frog and Moana – the other two contemporary musicals – is rather unnecessary, because both were directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Of course, we know Ron himself staunchly rejected making what he called the “Miramax” type of movie. He and Musker would show this resistance with the film that was next in line after Hunchback. In fact, their entire filmography eschews that prestigious sheen that Wise and Trousdale’s two musicals went for, and none of their films tried to be like The Lion King or Pocahontas for that matter.
The timing couldn’t have been better. With the want for a “prestige” picture from Walt Disney Feature Animation seemingly disappearing, maybe it was time for something different to step into the limelight?