The other day, I bought the soundtrack to the stage adaptation of my favourite Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I was pleased to find that the tale was beautifully enriched by the new music. It got me thinking about the film itself, a truly underappreciated gem in the Disney catalogue, suffering in part due to the films that preceded it and to the far darker tone that it employed – I think it is assuredly the most adult tale Disney has in its animated oeuvre, and it is a complex tale in a way some more ‘serious’ dramas are not.
In a somewhat loose retelling of Victor Hugo’s original book, the film follows the deformed bell ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce). Raised by sinister Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) after the death of his mother, Quasimodo has been isolated from others his entire life, with only gargoyles to keep him company. One day, he choose to leave his tower and attend the Festival of Fools, leading to a chance encounter with the beguiling gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore). However, she also manages to catch the eye of Frollo, and Quasimodo must help protect her from his guardian.
As with all Disney films of the time, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is just a treat to watch. It is visually and audibly stunning, with a voice cast that truly brings this world to life. To single out just one performer would be doing an injustice to the others, such is the quality here. Each voice is brimming with identifiable character, from Paul Kandel’s mischievous Clopin (his only film role, too) to Kevin Kline’s charming Captain Phoebus.
One of the most striking things about the film is the music. Composer Alan Menken has described it as his best score, and I would be inclined to agree with him (it makes it all the more shaming, then, that this movie failed to win any Oscars, the first film of the Disney Renaissance to do so). Menken incorporates a number of recurring motifs and mixes gypsy music with awesome choral performance to create a score that is strongly evocative of the time and is both powerful and emotive. Coupled with that are the songs – again, underappreciated, but some of them are among Menken’s best.
- ‘The Bells of Notre Dame,’ an opening number that sets the dark tone of the film and sets up backstory for our lead and Frollo. Narrator Clopin explains how Quasimodo’s mother tried to sneak into Paris, leading to her death by Frollo’s hands. Frollo goes to kill her deformed baby, but is told he must raise the child himself if he cares about his immortal soul – he passes the baby to the archdeacon of the cathedral and gives him a name that means ‘half-formed.’ It deals with a number of powerful themes, including infanticide (a first for Disney films, I think), and sets up the big moral question of the movie – what does it mean to be a monster or a man?
- ‘Out There‘– the customary ‘I want’ song. It opens with a little duet in which Frollo tells Quasimodo that the world outside the bell-tower is wicked and he must stay inside. After his master leaves, Quasimodo dreams about the real world, and sings about his romanticised version of it. The first section is very ominous, which leads nicely into the sweeping melody of the second. Hulce’s voice, in contrast to Jay’s baritone, is light and innocent, and song helps explore the theme of entrapment.
- ‘Topsy Turvy‘– this number happens at the Festival of Fools, from Quasimodo’s arrival to his eventual humiliation as the King of Fools. It’s a big showtime tune that propels the plot as well as offering some nice slapstick action in the background and the appearance of all our leads. The song serves as comic relief, and is very carnival-esque in both its presentation and its arrangement – fun, really, is the best way to describe it.
- ‘God Helps The Outcasts‘ occurs after Esmeralda has claimed sanctuary in Notre Dame and has seen how she, Quasimodo and the gypsies are treated by other people. She is encouraged to look to God for help, and so sings a prayer on behalf of the world’s outcasts – it establishes her as a selfless and empathetic character in a world full of the selfish. It is a truly beautiful and heart-wrenching song, and it brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. There is an underlying agony here, but also a message of hope – this tender tune is one of Disney’s most beautiful.
- ‘Heaven’s Light/Hellfire‘– two tunes, one by Quasimodo and one by Frollo, expressing their desire for Esmeralda, and they view this desire very differently. To Quasimodo, her appearance in his life is heavenly, whereas Frollo faces an internal struggle to purge himself of his sinful thoughts towards her. The latter tune is far more interesting – with its Latin chants, heavy bass, themes of lust and damnation and the sinister animation sequence that accompanies it, this is truly one of the most adult things Disney has ever done, and it is all the better for it. I have heard people say that the film would be a lot better if all the numbers in the film followed its style, and I agree wholeheartedly. As it stands, the song is beautifully scored and features a simply haunting vocal performance by Tony Jay – I think it is in contention as one of the best songs Menken has ever written.
- ‘A Guy Like You‘– this song has drawn a lot of flak for the mood whiplash is generates, and I would agree that it is very out of place. The gargoyles encourage Quasimodo to pursue Esmeralda, albeit wrong-headedly. Although the performance is good and the tune is nice and peppy, it was designed to alleviate some of the tension of ‘Hellfire,’ and it just isn’t a good fit. I also find it a touch cruel – it sets Quasimodo up for a massive fall, with the gargoyles convincing him that Esmeralda loves him. It is just unneeded here.
- ‘The Court of Miracles‘– a short number in which Clopin intends to put Quasimodo and Phoebus to death for having found the gypsies’ lair. It is fun and sinister, and a nice little jaunty number.
Now, if there is one big fault with the movie, it is its very shifting tone. This film is undeniably adult, but in order to ensure that children could also enjoy it, comic relief elements were mixed in – the three gargoyles, Esmeralda’s goat. They can be funny, sure, but it results in the viewing experience feeling like one of two halves. We go from ‘Hellfire,’ from Frollo burning down Paris and planning to commit genocide to a perky comic number, and it is somewhat jarring. If the film had completely embraced its dark elements, it would have been tremendous. (In the musical, the ending sees Esmeralda die and, although this is a kid’s film, it works so much better that I wish the filmmakers had chosen to do the same.)
There are a generation of viewers who have seen and loved Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but never found the same affection for this film, and I think it is a great same. I adore it – it mixes the Disney charm (at its peak output) with adult shadings, a story and characters who are emotionally complex and music that stays with you long after the film’s climax. I couldn’t recommend it more – if you haven’t seen it, you are missing out on what is arguably Disney’s best feature.
Director: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Cast: Tom Hulce (Quasimodo), Demi Moore (Esmeralda), Kevin Kline (Phoebus), Tony Jay (Frollo), David Ogden Stiers (Archdeacon), Paul Kandel (Clopin)
Running Time: 91 Mins