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“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” at 25: “The most rated G R you’ll ever see”

They know exactly what they got away with.

“This is the highest rated G R you’ll see in your life,” said Tab Murphy, writer of Disney’s animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, released 25 years ago this month. -this.

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

Either way, a rating committee made up of parents decided that a movie with a musical number about lust and hellfire and a plot involving the threat of genocide against Gypsies was appropriate for an audience. general.

Maybe the reason was studio related: Almost every hand-drawn Disney animated film had been rated G up to this point. Perhaps it was the marketing, which presented “Bossu” as a complete break with the dark Victor Hugo novel it was based on, reframing it like a carnival with the slogan “Join the party!” Perhaps senior Disney officials lobbied, believing that a PG rating would hurt the box office. (“It was a G note or a bust,” Wise said.)

But the fact that what is arguably Disney’s darkest animated film was rated on par with “Cinderella” reflects the subjectivity of the rating system – and how parents’ tastes have changed over time. years.

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

Trousdale added: “Today you can’t even smoke in a G movie.”

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 at. “

MURPHY HAD WANTED A LONG TIME to adapt the Gothic 1831 story of Esmeralda, a beautiful Roma girl who captures the hearts of several Parisian men, including Quasimodo, a bell ringer with a severe hunchback that Hugo describes as “hideous” and “a devil of a man “.

But then he realized what he had gotten into.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to write a sung, danced, watered down movie that turns this amazing piece of world literature into a typical Disney movie,” he said.

But, he said, it was thanks to then-Walt Disney Company executives Roy E. Disney and Michael D. Eisner that they took a hands-off approach.

“I’ve never been told to stay away from this or that or you can’t do that,” he said. “They were like, ‘You write the story you want to tell, and let us take care of our brand.'”

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

He decided that the story would focus on the fantastic and colorful world Quasimodo imagines as he is stuck in his steeple. There would be a festival. Talking gargoyles. A hero to defend.

Instead of Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce) being pilloried, he is bombarded with vegetables and humiliated at the Feast of Fools. Hugo’s troubled archdeacon, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), has become an evil magistrate. Disney didn’t want to take on the church, Trousdale said. Unlike 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 Quasimodo and Esmeralda do in the book.

But, Wise said, there was still one looming problem they faced: Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda.

“We knew it would be a very sensitive subject,” he said. “But we also knew we had to tell this story, because it is the key to the central rectangle of love.”

At first, Murphy tried to approach him with words.

“I had originally written a monologue for this scene which was filled with many sub-texts showing that his anger was entirely related to his forbidden desire for her,” Murphy said. “But then Stephen and Alan said,” We think this can be a good 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, put the tape into a cassette player, and hit play – and realized what they were hearing.

In a shattering impactful number, Frollo, supported by a choir singing in Latin, agonizes over his lust and his religious faith and his hatred of the Roma.

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

“I swear to God everyone’s jaw slowly started to open,” Murphy said. “At the end, Kirk reached out, turned off the tape player, sat down, folded his arms and said, ‘Well, that’s never going to be part of the movie.’ And it did! “

ALTHOUGH IT HAS NEVER BEEN EXPRESSLY, Wise said a G rating was the expectation.

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

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 which, of the rating committee’s opinion would offend parents whose young children watch the film. Some language snippets, he says, “may go beyond polite conversation, but they are common everyday expressions.”

“We never thought we would get away with the term ‘hellfire’,” Trousdale said.

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

It was the sound effects.

In the issue “Hellfire”, imagined as a nightmarish and hallucinogenic sequence, Frollo is tormented by hooded and red-robed figures who reflect his slippery grip on reality.

“This burning desire,” he sings as he watches a silhouette of Esmeralda dancing in her fireplace, “turns me into sin.”

The rating committee was uncomfortable with the word “sin,” Trousdale said. But the footage was already animated and the soundtrack recorded, so they couldn’t change the lyrics.

Then Hahn came up with a solution: do the “Whoosh!” When the hooded judges rush from the ground a little harder to drown out the “sin”. It worked, Trousdale said.

But what ultimately got the film its G rating, Wise said, was such a minimal change “you’ll never believe it.”

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

“They were like, ‘Can you turn the volume on this?’ “, he said. “And we did, and he got a G grade.”

NOR THE POSTERS nor did the trailers hint at the darker themes.

“There really was a huge effort to emphasize the light aspects of ‘Hunchback’,” Menken said with a laugh.

The slogan of the film? “Join the party!”

“Maybe this was the right campaign for the studio to bring people to the theater,” Hahn said. “But I’m sure I wouldn’t do that today – I think there is a responsibility for truth in advertising that we maybe overlooked at the time.”

When the film, which cost $ 70 million pre-release, premiered on June 21, 1996, it was a box office disappointment, grossing an estimated $ 100.1 million domestically. Trousdale said they had been reluctant by parent groups about the G rating.

“They were like ‘You deceived us; you deceived us, ”he said. “The marketing was all there was to it and ‘Come to the fool’s day; It is a party!’ with talking gargoyles, confetti and face pies. And then it wasn’t the movie, and people were really pissed off.

Tom Zigo, a spokesperson for the Classification and Rating Administration, which administers the rating system, said he couldn’t talk about the specifics of “Hunchback” G, but that it was “very possible” that a film rated it 25 years ago gets a different rating today.

Hahn, Menken, Murphy, Trousdale, and Wise all agreed that there would be no way the film would get a G rating today – or even, Murphy suggested, to be shot at all.

“Disney was willing to take risks in this movie that I don’t think they would take today,” he said. “It’s a PG-13 in my book.”

Still, 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 and uncover references that ‘they missed the first time.

“I read articles on fan pages of a few fans in their mid-twenties and thirties who were quite young when they saw this,” Trousdale said. “They say to me ‘Yeah, it just ruined me when I saw him as a kid, but I still love him.'”

Menken said “Hellfire” pushed the boundaries more in terms of what Disney does than any song he has ever written.

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

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