"What makes a monster and what makes a man" - the main ideology behind Disney's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' isn't something an animated kid's film would usually tackle. Adapting any Victor Hugo tale is already a heavy feat, but this also needs to be a mainstream family feature from the company with the Mouse Mascot - that's not a challenge, that's insane.
Infanticide, lust, damnation, antagonism, genocide and sin, the themes of Disney's 'Hunchback', doesn't that sound like something you want to introduce the kids to. In 1996, for any of these themes to be in any children's media was quite groundbreaking, and the fact that they attempted to tackle any of this idea is part of the staying power of the film and the reason we still celebrate it to this day. But that's not to say the film isn't without problems - the gargoyles being the biggest - but when it works, man, it's one of the most powerful Disney films.
There is an epicness baked into the foundation of the 'Hunchback' story. Paris, the setting of Notre Dame, is already grand enough, but once again Disney's musical genius Alan Menken along with Stephen Schwartz truly went to a god-like level here. 'The Bells of Notre Dame' perfectly welcomes you into the darker world of the film with its overall operatic score. 'Out There' is another beautiful song up there with the best from the 90s Disney musicals. 'Topsy Turvy' is a fun celebration song, while 'God Help the Outcasts' is a truly moving song. 'A Guy Like You' is the worst of the bunch, and perfectly illustrates all the problems with the film and how badly the gargoyles were integrated into the story. 'The Court of Miracles' is one of those forgotten Disney tracks, but it's a really catchy number. Still, the star of the show is 'Hellfire', easy Disney's darkest song put to screen. Judge Frollo lustfully confronting Esmeralda - accompanied with the jaw-dropping animation - makes him one of the studio's best villains.
The gargoyles. They are often the point of contention when talking about how this film is a masterpiece, and yes, they do weigh the film down, but everything around them is so strong. They simply should not have been there - or, at least, not voiced by Jason Alexander. Since they were used so heavily in the marketing along with the 'Festival of Fools' scene, it's a big reason why the film underperformed and caused outrage. If you are a fan of the source material, you watch the trailers with lines like "they butchered my boy" and don't want to watch, while if you're a parent it looks like a fun Disney film, which is the complete opposite of what the film is.
The marketing for 'Hunchback' is quite an interesting beast. 1994's animated 'The Lion King' became the king of successful toy sales (of course, until the current reigning animated queen, 'Frozen'). The book 'The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence' notes that merchandise for the studio accounted for 20% of the operating income in 1999, decades before they had merchandise giants like Marvel, 'Star Wars' and even Pixar. 'Pocahontas' merchandise netted US$100 million for toy brand Mattel, yet 'Hunchback' is only estimated to have brought in US$70 million. While that figure isn't anything to cry about, it showed the start of the decline in popularity that Disney was having with its animated films that would continue until 2013 with Elsa and co.
The film was also meet with backlash - not just because it's "too dark" for kids, but also due to its religious undertones. This came from all different sides and added to the disappointing box office.
Despite all this, Disney still viewed 'Hunchback' as a viable franchise, with the film receiving one the cheapest looking direct-to-DVD Disney sequels of all time with 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame II'. It also was adapted into a stage musical - this time with a much more mature audience in mind, and it works really well. 'Rhythm of the Tambourine', 'Esmeralda' and the 'Finale' song are incredible numbers, but because of the aforementioned religious backlash the film received, it will never make its way to Broadway or any kind of mainstream theatre circuit. Plus it's had a decent presence in the company's theme parks for a number of years, and they only removed the 'Festival of Fools' show to make room for the new 'Star Wars' section in recent years. And of course, the live-action remake is in the works, simply titled 'Hunchback' (I wish they called it 'Hunch'), with Josh Gad involved. There is no chance in hell it will be anywhere near as dark as the original; if anything, it will only have even more tonal issues.
A moment of silence for every dollar bin knockoff animated 'The Hunchback of Norte Dame' film, but a special shoutout to the one where Quasimodo gets wings.