In the same vein as Pocahontas, Disney attempted a darker tone for its next feature film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Based on Victor Hugo's famed novel, the film had again assembled a high-calibre crew: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, directors of the beloved Beauty and the Beast, were helming the project; acclaimed producer Don Hahn was producing and Alan Menken returned for scoring duties. What set this film apart from the other animated films was that Disney dealt with themes of religion, virtue, lust and intolerance, among others, and the challenge was to make this film still suitable for all audiences. They didn't entirely succeeded on that front but I think that is a positive thing, because Hunchback appeals to an adult audience in a way few Disney films have.
Beginning with the main character's deformity, you can see this is not your usual animated film with bright colours and cute animals. Evil and darkness surround every part of the film, starting with the film grim prologue. Similar to Beauty and the Beast, the filmmakers' message is crystal clear: true beauty lies within. Quasimodo may look like a monster, but you can see that he is a very sensitive and tortured soul, someone who, despite living a lonely and isolated life, is full of kindness and goodness. What's more impressive is that the hero's journey is a tough one. Not only does Quasimodo have to break free from Frollo's chains, but also he suffers from his unrequited love for the only person who was ever kind to him. The scene where Quasimodo realizes that Esmeralda loves Phoebus is heartbreaking because you can feel Quasimodo's pain but then his absolute resolution to help them in spite of that makes him even more relatable and likeable. The rest of the cast is also superbly constructed as Esmeralda and Phoebus become Quasi's true friends and, together, help each other survive in a city full of fear and darkness. This brings me to Judge Claude Frollo, one of the most menacing and creepy villains in the entire Disney canon. Brilliantly animated by Kathy Zielinsky and superbly voiced by the late Tony Jay, Frollo is the perfect character to show us that, sometimes, evil lurks in those who seem virtuous. He's not only a completely narrow-minded character who thinks he's acting on behalf of God, but he's also full of hate and intolerance towards those who are different than him. In the context of the film, he's the perfect foe for Quasimodo, and their relationship is a fascinating amalgam of pathos that comes from fear and manipulation, to rebellion and final confrontation.
The music, again is superb with a powerful score from Menken that not only sets the mood for the film but is full of religious themes that gives the viewers a sense of how the society in Hunchback works.
One element that has been a point of contention is the gargoyles. Designed to be comic relief in a very dark film, many have claimed that their presence just takes away some of the film's seriousness and majesty. While I can understand that and agree to some extent, it's not like they're Jar Jar Binks. Sometimes their presence can be grating but it's not enough to ruin the film's powerful story.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame may not be a flawless classic but its ambitiousness and risky storytelling is more than enough to secure a high place in the Disney canon. Rating: 4.5/5.
Next Week - Animated Classic #35 Review: Hercules (1997).