“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is an unfairly forgotten Disney classic. You would be hard-pressed to find anybody who calls this their favorite Disney film, and yet the strength of the story, quality of the animation, and inspired musical score is on par with all of the classics. The thing that segregates this film from the others is its surprisingly dark tone (making it arguably the darkest animated film every created). The content is mature, the main character is the ugliest face in Disney animation, the music is operatic, and the sequence in which Frollo expresses his debauched desires for Esmeralda to a chorus of red-hooded figures that burst into flames is completely disturbing. That sequence has earned its fame as one of the greatest Disney villain sequences of all time, but it also makes me question whether this film was designed with children in mind. When you add in the treatment of Quasimodo at the Festival of Fools, the philosophy on how to properly whip a prisoner, a family’s home being purposely set on fire with them inside, and the marching two main characters to the gallows/trying to burn the other at the stake, it is clear that this film is not intended for young children. The scariest part of the film is Judge Frollo, who has one of the most villainous voices of any Disney character. You wouldn’t expect it from his appearance and that goofy-looking hat, which is why the voice is such a necessity to make him scary. The beady black pupils and creative “camera angles” that make him look like a giant also help. If you don’t have any other reason to watch this film, it is worth experiencing for Tony Jay’s truly disturbing performance. The voice casting of Quasimodo was detrimental to the success of this film. Kids weren’t exactly snuggling up with their hunchback plush doll when the film came out, so it was important that this character had a voice that would make him seem familiar and non-threatening. Tom Hulce’s unique, childlike voice is very “Amadeus” but also perfectly fits this youthful rendition of Quasimodo. While I appreciate that he provided the speaking AND singing voice for the character, this is one instance where a substitute singer would have been preferred. Hulce has the singing ability, but his tone quality and distracting vibrato did not suit the character’s appearance as convincingly as his speaking voice. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the absolutely gorgeous animation of Notre Dame. The distinct style of the Disney Renaissance can be seen in the detail and colors of the stone. Alan Menken’s dark scoring captures the Gothic mystery of this story from the opening chant to the haunting minor orchestral themes that manifest themselves in each song. Menken has always had an affinity for writing a catchy hit, but he elevates the music to artistic expression throughout this film. The artistry is at its finest as he weaves the mass texts in and out of the various songs, with particular effectiveness when the Dies Irae mixes with “The Bells of Notre Dame” and using the Confiteor (a prayer of confession) as an introduction to “Hellfire.” Meanwhile, “God Help the Outcasts” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written for a Disney film and “Out There” has that magical Disney sound, but the operatic nature of the music has caused the soundtrack to fade out of popularity. One of the biggest flaws of this film is its misuse of comic relief. Whenever that old guy gains his freedom, the expectation of him losing it again could be one of the classic comical Disney movies; unfortunately, his reactionary “Dangit!” is an unnecessary anachronism that takes us completely out of the moment. Moreover, the comical sidekicks (a.k.a. gargoyles) are way over the top. Sebastian, Abu, Mushu … all of these sidekicks manage to add comic relief without ruining the serious moments. Even Timon and Pumba , who comically introduce the romantic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” sequence in “The Lion King,” disappear during the important moments and then reappear at the end of the song to transition us back into the story. But these gargoyles are a constant interruption and the “A Guy Like You” song feels totally misplaced as Paris is burning down. Disney often releases the tension with a lighthearted number, but it feels inappropriate due to the serious nature of this story. Outside of the gargoyles, a lot of the comic relief feels like an attempt to make the film kid-friendly, but I just wish that Disney would have gone for it and created a truly dark animated film. I wish that they would have ended the film with the epically high final note of “The Bells of Notre Dame” instead of spoiling it with another cheesy gargoyle line. I wish that the “Hellfire” sequence was longer. There are a lot of things that could have been better, but the bottom line is that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is an underappreciated masterpiece that deserves to be mentioned alongside the great films of the Disney Renaissance. If you have not watched this film as an adult, you just may find its dark themes to be a refreshing departure from the Hakuna Matata tales that defined our Disney development.
[Pictured: Disney's darkest film is definitely better suited for adults]