Incredibly, this month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Disney’s animated movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which premiered in New Orleans on June 19, 1996.
Adapted from Victor Hugo’s 19th-century gothic novel Notre Dame de Paris, it is a tale that may not seem an obvious choice for a film adaptation aimed at a Disney family-friendly audience. It must have been a highly creative pitch that convinced company executives to agree to retell a macabre story that explores dark themes of persecution, obsession, sin, murder, and the abuse of power. They must have felt their version would be in keeping with the Disney brand and prove popular with fans, but even with a Disney makeover it came as a surprise to the studio that the finished movie received a G-rating from the Motion Picture Association.
This tragic tale of the lonely disfigured Quasimodo, who falls in love with the beautiful Esmerelda while confined to the stone walls of Notre Dame cathedral, has been retold many times. This includes the 1939 version starring legendary actor Charles Laughton and screen goddess Maureen O’Hara in the title roles, followed in 1956 by Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida’s interpretation, and in 1982 by British actors Anthony Hopkins and Lesley Ann Down.
Disney’s movie is visually stunning. With a combination of hand-drawn characters and computer-generated background animation, the opening scene is very reminiscent of Pinocchio with a sweeping 3D aerial shot, gradually closing in over the rooftops of the city. With Alan Menken’s impressive score and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics, audiences are treated to the chiming melodic The Bells of Notre Dame as the camera focuses in on the imposing cathedral against the French skyline. You know at this point that this is going to be an epic retelling of the story.
Menken does not disappoint with his musical score, creating such memorable songs as Hellfire inspired by Puccini’s Te Deum from the opera Tosca. This fits perfectly with the dramatic hymn-like tone you would expect from a movie that is dominated by the famous Parisian cathedral.
The touching and heartfelt song God Help the Outcasts is sung by Esmerelda in her enforced sanctuary inside the church. It is an emotional plea for acceptance set against the beautifully animated interior with stain glass windows and incredible lighting and shading effects.
In my opinion, the movie’s antagonist, Judge Frollo, is perhaps one of the most frightening Disney villains ever brought to life. Voiced superbly by Tony Jay, other actors originally considered for the role were Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jacobi. Jay’s voice is so chillingly smooth and evil, he would fit perfectly into a Shakespearean tragedy!
For some light comic relief, Disney animators brought the cathedral’s stone gargoyles (or rather Grotesques) to life as Quasimodo’s only friends. It is never clear if these characters come to life only in Quasimodo’s mind or if they have magical powers to be seen only when they want to be. These three cheeky characters, Victor, Hugo and Laverne, encourage Quasimodo to join the Festival of Fools where he is saved from humiliation by the vivacious gypsy Esmerelda (voiced by Demi Moore).
An interesting piece of trivia is that if you look closely at the townsfolk in the square during Quasimodo’s song, Out There, you can just about make out Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast walking along the cobbled streets reading a book. Just behind her is a peasant shaking out a rug, which looks suspiciously like Aladdin’s magic carpet…
In the same year that the movie was released, a 30-minute musical version was performed at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as part of Walt Disney World’s 25th-anniversary celebration (the year of the infamous birthday cake castle!). This colorful, high-energy show ran from 1996 to 2002.
Fans of The Hunchback of Notre Dame have been excitedly waiting for a live-action version since Josh Gadd began dropping tantalizing teasers about two years ago. Although not yet officially confirmed, the rumors that this will be happening soon are still circulating on social media.
It would be great casting to have Gadd play Quasimodo. Already a Disney fan favorite for his portrayal of LeFou in Beauty and the Beast and for lending his voice to the lovable Olaf in Frozen, he is not only a great comic actor who could expertly lighten the tension of some of the darker scenes in the movie, but he also has the ability to portray a character’s childlike vulnerability and naivety, which is a major part of Quasimodo’s character.
After 25 years, The Hunchback of Notre Dame deserves the live-action treatment. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long!
My name is Karen Burns and although I am based in the UK, I have been a lifelong Disney fan. For a little girl growing up in London, this magical place was a distant wonderland I could only ever dream of visiting. But it finally happened in 1990 when I was 16 years old. I have a nostalgic connection to Disney as it reminds me of many happy family moments watching the movies with my parents and two older brothers. I have since been back to Walt Disney World with my husband and then again with our two daughters, and I have also visited Disneyland Paris which has my favourite Cinderella castle. I love the medieval storybook aesthetic which is so stunning! Fast forward to the present day when I found Lou’s podcasts and then my excitement when he asked for contributors to the WDW Radio website. I love to write and wished I had had the confidence to make it my full-time career choice. My current midlife crisis has however seen me dabbling with freelancing and gradually growing a writing portfolio which has given me so much joy. To write about my happy place is truly a dream come true.