Hellfire, lust, betrayal and bigotry. Not your typical Disney fare, but then again, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris was not exactly typical Disney source material. Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale followed up their Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a film that mixed the adult themes of Hugo’s novel with the songs and humor of Disney animation.
The film begins in the shadow of Notre Dame’s imposing, Gothic cathedral, where gypsy-hating Judge Frollo murders the mother of a misshapen infant named Quasimodo. Under orders from the cathedral’s archdeacon, Frollo raises the child as his own, keeping him locked up in the Notre Dame towers as a bell ringer. The hunchback's only friends are a trio of stone gargoyles, who encourage him to go find human companionship in the outside world.
"Quasi" goes public at the Feast of Fools, where his hideous countenance wins him the crown as “King of Fools.” When gypsy leader Clopin discovers that the face is no mask, the crowd turns violent. Quasi’s salvation comes in the form of dark, curvaceous gypsy dancer Esmeralda. The pair flee, but are cornered by Frollo’s new captain of the guard, the handsome and roguish Phoebus. Esmeralda’s beauty, pluck and plight win over the captain, who changes loyalties. The gypsy becomes an object of desire not only for Quasi and Phoebus, but also for Judge Frollo, who channels his lust into feelings of hate, plotting the complete extermination of the gypsy camp.
Darker in tone than most Disney films, Hunchback was still a feast for the eyes, using newly-developed computer animation techniques to carry the audience soaring over crowds and sweeping through cathedral spires. Disney marketed the film with its usual fast food and toy tie-ins, but the story was clearly aimed at older children and adults.
While it wasn’t a crowd-pleasing favorite like The Lion King or Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was still a sizeable hit, proving that the Disney name could support more than just funny animals and fairy tales.