‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 25: ‘The Most R-Rated You’ll Ever See’


They know exactly what they got away with.

“It’s the most R-rated G ever in your life,” said Tab Murphy, screenwriter for Disney’s animated “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which was released 25 years ago this month.

“Thousands of dollars must have changed hands somewhere, I’m sure,” Gary Trousdale, who directed the film with Kirk Wise, joked.

However it happened, a ratings board made up of parents decided that a film with a musical number about lust and hellfire and a plot involving the threat of genocide against Gypsies was suitable for a general audience. .

Perhaps the reason was related to the studio: almost all of Disney’s hand-drawn animated films were rated G by that time. Perhaps it was marketing that presented “Hunchback” as a complete departure from the dark Victor Hugo novel on which it was based, calling it “Join the Party!” Redefined as a carnival with the tagline. Maybe Disney’s higher-ups have pressed on, convinced that a PG rating will hurt the box office. (“It was a G rating or bust,” Wise said.)

But the fact that Disney’s darkest animated film earned a rating on par with “Cinderella” shows the subjectivity of the rating system—and how much parents’ tastes have changed over the years.

“PG today is the equivalent of G in the 1990s,” Wise said.

Trousdale said, “Nowadays, you can’t even smoke in a Zee movie.”

But one scene in particular defies explanation.

“That ‘hell’ sequence?” Murphy referred to a Stephen Schwartz-Alan Menken song sung by Judge Claude Frollo about his struggle between piety and lust for Esmeralda. “Come on brother. Come On

Murphy has long wanted To adapt the 1831 Gothic tale of Esmeralda, a beautiful Roma girl who captures the hearts of many Parisian men, including Quasimodo, the bell-ringer with a grim hunch that Hugo calls “disgusting” and “a Man’s Devil”.

But then he realized what he had achieved for himself.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to write a sing, dance, watery movie that turns this wonderful piece of world literature into a typical Disney movie,'” he said.

But, he said, it was the Walt Disney Company executives at the time, Roy E. Disney and Michael D. It was to Eisner’s credit, that he took a pragmatic approach.

“I was never told to stay away from this or that or you can’t,” he said. “They were like, ‘You write the story you want to tell, and let us worry about your brand.

Of course, the Hugo novel, in which several major characters die at the end, was “very disappointing” for a Disney film. So Murphy had to get creative.

They decided that the story would focus on the colorful fantasy world Quasimodo imagines while he is trapped in his bell tower. There will be some festival. Talking crooks. A hero to root for.

Instead of killing Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulse) on a pole, he is thrown with vegetables and humiliated at the Feast of Fools. Hugo’s troubled archer, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), turns out to be an evil magistrate. Trousdale said Disney didn’t want to compete with the church. Unlike in the novel, Esmeralda (Demi Moore) is saved by Quasimodo and the flamboyant Phoebus (Kevin Kline) of the Guards’ rebel captain. All three live happily ever after rather than die, as do both Quasimodo and Esmeralda in the book.

But, Wise said, there was always one looming issue he had to deal with: Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda.

“We knew this was going to be a really delicate subject,” he said. “But we also knew we had to tell that story, because it’s the key to the central love rectangle.”

At first, Murphy tried to tackle it in words.

“I originally wrote a monologue for that scene that was filled with a lot of subtext showing that his anger was about his forbidden lust for her,” Murphy said. “But then Stephen and Alan said, ‘We think this could be a great song.'”

Six months later, a small package from Schwartz, who wrote the song, and Mencken, who composed the score, arrived at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Inside was a cassette with a new song.

The film’s producers Murphy, Trousdale, Wise and Don Hahn, gathered in an office, inserted the tapes into a cassette player and pressed the play – and realized what they were hearing.

In a crashing percussion number, Frollo, backed by a choir in Latin, groans over her lust and her religious faith and her hatred for the Roma.

“This burning desire,” he sings in the film, rubbing his scarf sensually across his face, “is turning me into sin.” (Schwartz sang the part on the demo.)

“I swear to God, everybody’s jaws slowly started to open,” Murphy said. “At the end of it, Kirk reached out, clicked the cassette player, sat back, crossed his arms, and said, ‘Well, it’s never going to be in the movie.’ And it did!”

Although it was never explicitly stated, Wise said G rating was expected.

“The studio felt that anything above G would be a threat to the film’s box office,” he said. “This was before ‘Shrek,’ Or films that have normalized PG ratings in animation.”

A G-rated film according to the Motion Picture Association of America system, which was Introduced in 1968, “The subject does not contain language, nudity, gender, violence or other matters which, in the opinion of the rating board, would offend parents whose young children view the motion picture.” Parts of language, it says, “may go beyond polite conversation but they are common everyday expressions.”

“We never thought we’d get away with the term ‘hell’s fire,'” Trousdale said.

The first cut of “Hunchback” didn’t really necessarily have a G – but it wasn’t the use of the word “hell” or “damn” that the board made issue of.

It was the sound effect.

In the number “Hellfire”, conceived as a nightmare, hallucinatory sequence, Frollo is tormented by hooded, red-clad figures that reflect his slipping hold on reality.

“This burning desire,” she sings, looking at the figure of Esmeralda dancing in her fireplace, “is turning me into sin.”

Trousdale said the ratings board was uncomfortable with the word “sin”. But the sequence was already animated, and the soundtrack was recorded, so they couldn’t change the song.

Then Hahn came up with a solution: “Whoosh!” Make it When the hooded judge lifts a little louder off the floor it pours out the “sin”. It worked, Trusdale said.

But the film eventually got its G rating, Wise said, a change so small that “you’ll never believe it.”

In the scene where Frollo hides behind Esmeralda and smells her hair, the ratings board thought the sniff was “very suggestive”.

“They were like, ‘Can you reduce the amount of that? They said. “And we did, and it got a G rating.”

nor poster Nor did the trailers hint at deeper themes.

“There was certainly an attempt to emphasize the lighter-than-usual aspects of ‘Hunchback’,” Mencken said, laughing.

Tagline of the film? “join the party!”

“Maybe it was the right campaign for the studio to get people into the theater,” Hahn said. “But I’m sure I wouldn’t do that today — I think there’s a truth-advertising responsibility that we probably overlooked then.”

When the film, which had cost $70 million to make before marketing, opened on June 21, 1996, it was a bit disappointing at the box office, grossing approximately $100.1 million domestically. Trousdale said she has received some pushback from parent groups about G ratings.

“They were saying, ‘You tricked us; You betrayed us,” he said. “Marketing was all happy stuff and ‘Come to the feast of fools; it’s a party!’ Talking gargoyles, with confetti and pie in the face. And then that movie wasn’t there, and people were really pissed.”

Tom Jigo, A spokesman for the Classification and Rating Administration, which administers the rating system, said he could not speak about the specifics of “Hunchback” G, but it was “very possible” that a film from 25 years earlier was given a title. Will receive different rating today.

Hahn, Mencken, Murphy, Trousdale and Wise all agreed that the film would have no chance of getting a G rating today — or even, Murphy suggested, being made at all.

“Disney was ready to take a few chances in that movie that I don’t think they’ll take today,” he said. “It’s PG-13 in my book.”

Yet the film has stood the test of time — Frollo, Wise noted, feels like a “very contemporary” villain in the #MeToo era — and remains a favorite among young adults who revisit those references. Search and find what he remembered the first time.

“I have read posts on fan pages of some fans in their mid-20s and 30s who were very young when I saw this,” Trousdale said. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, it messed me up when I saw it as a kid, but I still love it.'”

Mencken said that “Hellfire” pushed the envelope more than any song Disney has ever written.

“Perhaps, looking back, ‘Hunchback’ was a bridge too far,” he said. “But god, am I glad they took that bridge too far.”



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