Can the upbeat Quasimodo win the heart of young audiences despite such adult themes?
In The Little Mermaid, Disney gave us adorable crustaceans crooning about life ”Under the Sea.” In Beauty and the Beast, the studio gave us dancing teacups singing ”Be Our Guest.” And now, in its latest animated musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (opening June 21), audiences will be treated to a catchy little ditty called ”Hellfire,” sung by the villainous judge Claude Frollo as he fantasizes about the curvaceous Gypsy Esmeralda belly dancing inside his fireplace. ”Hellfire, hellfire, there’s a fire in my skin,” he moans. ”This burning desire is turning me to sin.”
Hellfire? Desire? Sin? Yup, and a whole lot more — all in a cartoon that, notwithstanding its G rating, may be the darkest, most adult animated film Disney has ever made. ”Disney would have us believe this movie’s like the Ringling Bros., for children of all ages,” says Jason Alexander, who voices the role of one of Hunchback’s three amiable gargoyles. ”But I won’t be taking my 4-year-old. I wouldn’t expose him to it, not for another year.” Alexander has reason for concern. The dirty deeds in Hunchback — murder, the torching of a peasant cottage, and a lengthy public emotional and physical humiliation of the film’s hero — make Disney’s 1994 film The Lion King look like…well, like a kid’s movie. Even the score, by Disney’s eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, is scary. ”Every time my kid hears a minor chord,” admits Alexander, ”he runs for the hills.”
There are plenty of minor chords in this major departure from the studio’s tradition. With Hunchback, Disney’s best traditional animators, led by Beauty and the Beast directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, set out to make a more complex, literary, and sophisticated film than Beauty. In the days when ex-studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was in charge, he would likely have pushed for more comic relief to Victor Hugo’s grim tale, for cheerier musical numbers, for fewer undercurrents of adult sexuality (Katzenberg even enforced a no-facial-hair dictum for his cartoon leading men). In the wake of his departure for DreamWorks SKG, the remaining Disney brass gave the animators freer range. But it was still ”a struggle for us to communicate what we were after,” admits Wise, ”and sometimes to convince them that we were not going to scare anyone off.”
From the moment in 1993 when story executive David Stainton, inspired by the Classics Illustrated comic book of Victor Hugo’s weighty 1831 sociopolitical melodrama, persuaded Disney to retell the story of the Notre Dame bell ringer, Wise and Trousdale recognized the difficulty in turning the tale into a musical light enough to resonate with kids. ”We knew it would be a challenge to stay true to the material,” says Wise, ”while still giving it the requisite amount of fantasy and fun most people would expect from a Disney animated feature. We were not going to end it the way the book ended, with everybody dead.”
”Part of the experience of watching movies like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast,” adds Trousdale, who tends to complete his partner’s sentences, ”is being able to go through those darker areas and emerge out in the light on the other side.”