‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 25: ‘The most R-rated G you will ever see’

By Sarah Bahr

They know exactly what they got away with.

“That’s the most R-rated G you will ever see in your life,” said Tab Murphy, a screenwriter of 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,” joked Gary Trousdale, who directed the film with Kirk Wise.

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

Maybe the reason had to do with the studio: Nearly all of Disney’s hand-drawn animated movies had been rated G up to that point. Maybe it was the marketing, which presented “Hunchback” as a complete departure from the dark Victor Hugo novel on which it was based, reframing it as a carnival with the tagline “Join the party!” Maybe the higher-ups at Disney exerted pressure, convinced a PG rating would hurt the box office take. (“It was a G rating or bust,” Wise said.)

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

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

Trousdale added, “Nowadays, you can’t even smoke in a G film.”

But one scene in particular defies explanation.

“That ‘Hellfire’ sequence?” Murphy said, referring to the Stephen Schwartz-Alan Menken song sung by Judge Claude Frollo about his conflict between piety and lust for Esmeralda. “Come on, man. Come on.”

Murphy had long wanted to adapt the 1831 Gothic story of Esmeralda, a beautiful Roma girl who captures the hearts of several Parisian men, including Quasimodo, a bell-ringer with a severe hunchback whom Hugo describes as “hideous” and “a devil of a man.”

But then he realized what he’d gotten himself into.

s like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to write a singing, dancing, watered-down film that turns this amazing piece of world literature into a typical Disney movie,’” he said.

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

He decided the story would focus on the colorful fantasy world Quasimodo imagines while stuck in his bell tower. There’d be a festival. Talking gargoyles. A hero to root for.

Instead of Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) being whipped on the pillory, he’s pelted with vegetables and humiliated at the Feast of Fools. Hugo’s troubled archdeacon, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), became an evil magistrate. Disney did not want to take on the church, Trousdale said. Unlike in the novel, Esmeralda (Demi Moore) is saved by Quasimodo and the dashing Phoebus (Kevin Kline), the rebel captain of the guards. All three live happily ever after instead of dying, as both Quasimodo and Esmeralda do in the book.

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

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

At first, Murphy tried to tackle it in words.

“I’d originally written a monologue for that scene that was filled with lots of subtext showing that his anger was all about his forbidden lust for her,” Murphy said. “But then Stephen and Alan said, ‘We think that can be a great song.’”

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

Murphy, Trousdale, Wise and Don Hahn, the film’s producer, gathered in an office, popped the tape into a cassette player and pressed play — and realized what they were hearing.

In a crashing percussive number, Frollo, backed by a choir chanting in Latin, agonizes over his lust and his religious faith and his hatred of the Roma.

“This burning desire,” he sings in the film, rubbing her scarf sensuously against his face, “is turning me to sin.” (Schwartz sang the part on the demo.)

“I swear to God, everyone’s jaw slowly started to drop open,” Murphy said. “At the end of it, Kirk reached over, clicked off the cassette player, sat back, crossed his arms, and said, ‘Well, that’s never going to make it into the movie.’ And it did!”

Though it was never stated explicitly, Wise said a G rating was the expectation.

“The studio felt anything above a G would threaten the film’s box office,” he said. “This was before ‘Shrek,’ or movies that made a PG rating in animation commonplace.”

A G-rated film, according to the Motion Picture Association of America system, which was introduced in 1968, “contains nothing in theme, language, nudity, sex, violence or other matters that, in the view of the Rating Board, would offend parents whose younger children view the motion picture.” Some snippets 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 ‘hellfire,’” Trousdale said.

The first cut of “Hunchback” indeed didn’t pass muster for a G — but it wasn’t the use of the word “hell” or “damnation” that the board took issue with.

It was the sound effects.

In the “Hellfire” number, imagined as a nightmarish, hallucinogenic sequence, Frollo is tormented by hooded, red-robed figures that reflect his slipping grip on reality.

“This burning desire,” he sings, gazing at a dancing Esmeralda figure in his fireplace, “is turning me to sin.”

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

Then Hahn came up with a solution: Make the “Whoosh!” when the hooded judges rush up from the floor a little louder so it would drown out the “sin.” It worked, Trousdale said.

But what ultimately got the film its G rating, Wise said, was a change so tiny that “you’ll never believe this.”

In the scene where Frollo sneaks up behind Esmeralda and sniffs her hair, the ratings board thought the sniff was “too suggestive,” he said.

“They were like, ‘Could you lower the volume of that?’” he said. “And we did, and it got the G rating.”

Neither the posters nor the trailers hinted at the darker themes.

“There was definitely a huuuuuge effort to emphasize the lighthearted aspects of ‘Hunchback,’” Menken said, laughing.

When the film, which cost $70 million to make before marketing, opened on June 21, 1996, it was a bit of a disappointment at the box office, grossing about $100.1 million domestically.

Trousdale said they did get some pushback from parents’ groups about the G rating.

“They were saying ‘You tricked us; you deceived us,’” he said. “The marketing was all the happy stuff and ‘Come to the Feast of Fools; it’s a party!’ with talking gargoyles, confetti and pies in the face. And then that wasn’t the film, and people were really pissed off.”

Tom Zigo, a spokesman for the Classification and Rating Administration, which administers the rating system, said that he could not speak about the specifics of the “Hunchback” G, but that it was “very possible” that a movie rated 25 years ago would receive a different rating today.

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

“Disney was willing to take some chances in that movie that I don’t think they’d take today,” he said. “That’s a PG-13 in my book.”

Yet the movie 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 rewatch and discover references they missed the first time around.

“Maybe, in retrospect, ‘Hunchback’ was a bridge too far,” he said. “But God, am I glad they took that bridge too far.”

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