- I must be a movie-going anomaly, because I consider The Disney Studio’s 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.
- 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. For all of its happy ending, the movie doesn’t cop out, either. (SPOILER SENTENCE!) Quasimodo doesn’t get the girl, but he gets something much better — he 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?[