THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

The one that took a huge risk.

After a string of unprecedented successes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the animation department of Walt Disney Pictures were beginning to feel more confident with taking chances on projects they likely would have fled from just ten years earlier. After the cataclysmic disaster of the jarringly dark The Black Cauldron, no one within the studio’s walls would dare suggest anything that didn’t fit the cheerful fairy tale mould of films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

But as the decade progressed and films like The Lion King and Pocahontas tackled darker and more mature themes, the studio began to strive towards crafting animated feature films with more substance than just a gushy love story. Spurned by the Academy’s acknowledgment of Beauty and the Beast, the animators were assured they could create valuable pieces of cinema that would be taken seriously by the industry. And they were about to tackle their most artistically challenging project and Disney’s darkest animated film to date.

The idea of a Disney animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic 1831 Gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (or Notre-Dame de Paris, if we want to get technical) began in 1993 when development executive David Stainton proposed the idea to then-studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. In recent years, the musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Les Misérables had become a major Broadway and West End smash, proving there was an appetite for the themes of Hugo’s work.

Notre-Dame de Paris had been adapted by Hollywood several times over the decades, notably a 1923 silent film starring horror movie icon Lon Chaney and a 1939 drama starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. Both Hugo’s original work and the film adaptations were decidedly sombre pieces, rooted in misery and pain and concluding in rather tragic fashion. On its surface, the grim tale of the hunchbacked bell ringer surface didn’t seem like the typical fodder for a Disney animated feature.

But Disney had proven itself capable of mining darker narratives for animated gold, particularly after twisting the original gloomy fairy tale of The Little Mermaid into something far more palatable for younger audiences. As such, Katzenberg approved Stainton’s proposal and immediately began the hunt for the film’s director. At the time, Beauty and the Beast directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were developing an animated feature based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Both were summoned to Katzenberg’s office and told to drop the Orpheus project and begin production on The Hunchback of Notre Dame instead, alongside their Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tab Murphy was assigned the task of adapting Hugo’s novel into a screenplay, with the clear instruction to make Quasimodo the central figure of the narrative, much like both live-action film adaptations. To lighten the story somewhat, a love triangle was crafted between Quasimodo, streetwise gypsy Esmerelda, and kindhearted soldier Captain Phoebus. It was also decided to rework the novel’s rather bleak conclusion, which featured the brutal hanging death of Esmerelda at the hands of the villainous Claude Frollo and Quasimodo consequently dying of starvation after refusing to leave her grave. Dark, right?

But what made The Hunchback of Notre Dame so refreshingly unique was Murphy’s determination to stick closely to Hugo’s original narrative, particularly its rather shocking opening sequence where Quasimodo’s mother is inadvertently murdered by Frollo before the antagonist considers drowning her deformed baby in a well outside the Notre Dame cathedral. It’s only after the cathedral’s archdeacon intervenes that Frollo ceases his murderous plan, choosing to atone for his sins by raising the child and forcing Quasimodo to remain inside the bell tower of the church.

In Hugo’s novel, Claude Frollo was himself the archdeacon of the church, but Katzenberg was concerned casting a member of the church as the lead villain in a Disney animation would cause complaints from the Catholic Church. Murphy was instructed to change Frollo to a ruthless judge who saw himself as the commander of morals and decency in Paris. For the creation of Frollo, the writing team were influenced by nefarious figures of history including those from Nazi Germany, the Confederate South, and Ralph Fiennes’ performance as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List.

With an abundance of grim themes including infanticide, lust, damnation, genocide, and sin, Trousdale and Wise added three talking gargoyle characters to serve as comedic relief and offer Quasimodo a trio of confidantes who offered timely advice and moral support. While it’s never explicitly explained, it’s obvious these characters are figments of Quasimodo’s imagination, born from a life of seclusion-induced loneliness.

Originally, the three gargoyles were to be named Chaney, Laughton, and Quinn, after the three actors who had portrayed Quasimodo in previous live-action adaptations of Hugo’s novel. However, Disney feared the estates of the actors would sue over the unauthorised use of their names. As such, the characters were renamed Victor, Hugo, and Laverne, with the latter named after Andrews Sister singer Laverne Andrews. Television comedians Charles Kimbrough and Jason Alexander were cast to voice Victor and Hugo respectively, injecting their flair for comedy into both roles.

Pop singer Cyndi Lauper was originally cast to voice Laverne, with the character envisioned as a sassy, energetic know-it-all who consistently clashed with Victor and Hugo. However, over time, the character was reworked into a wiser, mature character, leading to Lauper being replaced by Mary Wickes, who was best known for her role as Sister Mary Lazarus in both Sister Act films. Sadly, Wickes passed away on October 22, 1995, from complications following hip surgery. With only one recording session left for the film, her remaining six lines of dialogue were finished by actress Jane Withers.

For the lead role of Quasimodo, Katzenberg initially approached Broadway star Mandy Patinkin for the role. After clashing with the production team over their direction to create the character as less monstrous than past incarnations, Patinkin abruptly left the production, declaring “I just can’t do this.” The team instead turned to Oscar-nominee Tom Hulce to perform Quasimodo with a younger voice more in line with Hugo’s description of Quasimodo as being 20-years-old. By all accounts, Hulce landed the role after just one audition, including a stirring rendition of the number “Out There.”

To add a dash of star quality to the production, Demi Moore was cast to voice the role of the film’s heroine, Esmerelda, bringing her husky, sultry tones to the seductive character. While Moore had no singing training, she bravely performed several demos for the film’s composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. After realising she simply wasn’t up to the task, she defeatedly admitted, “You’d better get someone else.” For the umpteenth time, Disney instead enlisted another performer to provide the singing elements of one of their characters, with cabaret singer Heidi Mollenhauer hired to provide Esmerelda’s singing voice.

To assist with the production, Trousdale, Wise, Menken, Schwartz, and key members of the animation team took a trip to Paris for ten days, with three days devoted to exploring Notre Dame itself. The team were given unprecedented access to the cathedral including a private tour of the passageways, stairwells, and towers where they took extensive photographs, video footage, and sketches of key settings for the film’s action.

When the team returned, they discovered most of the Disney animation team were busy working on both The Lion King and Pocahontas, resulting in additional animators being hired from Canada, England, Germany, France, and Ireland to assist with production. The team ultimately swelled to such a large size, the production was moved to a spacious warehouse facility in Glendale, California, which the team soon nicknamed “Sanctuary.” Through the use of the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), the team were able to create an architecturally accurate schematic of Notre Dame, which was intricately designed down to the smallest possible detail.

For the creation of sequences involving large crowds, Trousdale and Wise used computer animation technology similar to that used in the design of the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King. With the use of a software program appropriately titled “Crowd,” six distinct types of characters of varying genders and sizes were created, with each assigned over 70 specific movements to craft realistic and random crowd movements. The team also employed digital wizardry to allow Quasimodo to hastily move about the cathedral, creating sweeping fluid movements not possible by the use of traditional hand-drawn animation alone.

After completing their work on Pocahontas, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and composer Alan Menken were offered their choice of multiple projects the Disney animation team were working on, including a lively re-imagining of Greek mythology hero Hercules and a sweeping retelling of the life of Chinese heroine Mulan. But the pair were attracted to the underlying themes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, seeing it as an opportunity to craft something completely different to their previous work with the studio. The pair crafted several tracks which drove the film’s narrative, with Menken composing an epic score with hints of religious hymns through the use of a swelling choir of voices.

During production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was originally scheduled to be released in December 1995. However, following the departure of Katzenberg in late 1994, the film was pushed back to a summer 1996 release date to accommodate for the changing landscape of Disney management. For the film’s lavish premiere at the New Orleans Superdome on June 19, 1996, Disney played the film on six large screens for over 65,000 people. The screening was preceded by an enormous parade through the French Quarter featuring floats and performers from Walt Disney World.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame opened on June 21, 1996, to relatively positive reviews. While Roger Ebert declared the film “the best Disney animated feature since Beauty and the Beast,” and Time magazine called it “a grand cartoon cathedral, teeming with gargoyles and treachery, hopeless love and tortured lust,” The New York Times noted the film’s conflict with its intended audience by writing, “There’s just no way to delight children with a feel-good version of this story.” From the box office results, it was clear audiences were just as confused by its dark tone.

The film grossed just over $100 million at the U.S. box office and a further $225 internationally for a worldwide total of $325 million. Much like the relative underperformance of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame paled in comparison to the spectacular box office results of films like The Lion King and Aladdin, further proving Disney animation was experiencing a sharp decline in popularity.

To add insult to injury, The Hunchback of Notre Dame became the first Disney animated film of this new Renaissance era to fail to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, marking the end of Disney’s much-envied dominance over this category. Menken and Schwartz did receive a nomination for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, but were beaten by the score of Emma composed by Rachel Portman, who became the first female winner of this category.

In recent years, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has finally seen the re-evaluation it deserves. After years of being dismissed as a failure of the Renaissance period, many have begun to rationalise the film was perhaps ahead of its time and somewhat at odds with the tastes of mid-90s audiences. They wanted beautiful love stories starring beautiful people. They didn’t want a deep introspection of profound topics animation rarely bothered to touch. The film is innately concerned with shining a light on prejudice, injustice, and the abuse of authority. It’s simply not what people of 1996 wanted from a Disney animated film designed to keep their children busy for 90 minutes.

That’s not to suggest The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a perfect film. For all its ambition of tackling heavy topics, the filmmakers couldn’t resist injecting a dose of childish humour into the film to lighten the mood and present something more digestible for younger audiences. Look, I get it. Disney animated features are inherently crafted for children. They needed to add those three gargoyles to keep the interest of youngsters more accustomed to the giddy delights of Disney’s treasure trove of silly supporting characters. But they often feel like they’re from another film altogether and never quite gel with the setting they’ve been plonked into.

The film’s constantly juxtaposing themes create a rather befuddled film that can’t seem to settle on one tone throughout. It’s undoubtedly the darkest Disney film ever made, but its more dramatic elements are consistently undone by lowbrow humour that almost jettisons what the film is ultimately attempting to say. If the filmmakers had stuck to their guns and crafted a truly authentic adaptation of Hugo’s work, it could have been the greatest Disney animated film ever made. Alas, it’s ultimately a rather problematic piece of cinema.

That being said, The Hunchback of Notre Dame may well be the most beautifully animated work in the Renaissance period. The animation of Notre Dame itself is masterful, offering a meticulous recreation of one of the world’s greatest pieces of architecture. After a devastating fire destroyed much of the cathedral in 2019, Disney’s film now takes on a new emotional resonance, standing as a beautiful tribute to a building we have seemingly lost for the time being. The “Hellfire” sequence is easily one of the most spectacularly designed moments in Disney’s history, blending hand-drawn animation and computer effects in a way that still dazzles over 20 years later.

Quasimodo stands as one of the most unique Disney protagonists ever created, with an aesthetic completely against the typical designs we had seen in Disney’s previous work. The fact a “deformed” character is still able to capture your heart is a testament to both Hulce’s endearing performance and Menken and Schwartz’s beautiful music, particularly “Out There,” which has since become an iconic piece of music for anyone who’s ever longed to feel “normal.”

As one of Disney’s boldest and most ambitious projects, The Hunchback of Notre Dame offered a unique perspective of the world from a character literally hiding in the shadows. It begged audiences to consider the cruel ways society treats those who don’t fit in amongst the common folk and the damage that can have on someone’s psyche. It highlighted how a sociopathic villain could belittle someone into submission but offered a glimmer of hope by showcasing the effect kindness can have on that downtrodden individual.

It’s a film that simply didn’t belong in an era that ultimately wasn’t ready for a tale centred on tolerance. The mid-90s are dotted with films which asked us to laugh at those with oddities that didn’t fit a narrow view of normal. After all, 1996 was the year of The Nutty Professor, which ridiculed the large stature of its titular character and invited an audience to do the same. The Hunchback of Notre Dame rightly didn’t play a hunchback for laughs. It took an enormous risk that didn’t quite pay off, but it’s one that absolutely should have.

Is The Hunchback of Notre Dame a Disney Classic? While its competing themes damage its overall impact, there’s so much majestic beauty in the film’s narrative and animation, crafting a sweeping tale that never quite received the kudos it deserved. Unlike many Disney animated features, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has only become greater with time, and that has to be the hallmark of a true Disney Classic.

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