After completing Beauty and the Beast and establishing themselves as Disney's premier artists for the serious, adult side of animation - at least, as serious and adult as it could be practiced at that particular studio - directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise managed, with the aid of Beauty and The Lion King producer Don Hahn, to sell the executives on adapting Victor Hugo's 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris, best-known in English under the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This was, after the misbegotten Oliver & Company, only the second Disney feature to be adapted from a literary source meant for adults rather than children, and unlike Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, Hugo's novel seemed resolutely determined to stay that way. Of the 49 features making up the Disney Animated Canon as of 2009, not another one of them comes from source material half so inappropriate for the Disney brand name.

The film that emerged from this pitch in 1996 is accordingly the darkest and grimmest thing the studio had produced since The Black Cauldron, though I shouldn't hesitate to argue that since the earlier film was such a clumsy mess, its darkness is primarily costuming; while The Hunchback of Notre Dame is in possession of a more existential bleakness that cuts all the way to the bone, making it by far the more sobering experience. For all that, there are those of us who are passionate about the film; me, I'd call it maybe the last great Disney feature (there were at least a couple really good ones still to come, though), and if not for some hopelessly incompetent and wasted attempts to lighten the mood through some bouncy songs and wretched comic relief characters, it might well be able to compete with Beauty and the Beast as the best film of the Disney Renaissance. Absolute darkness, it would seem, agreed well with the designers and animators, and Hunchback is, if nothing else, one of the most richly painted and executed of all contemporary Disney features.

It is not, however, a kid's movie, despite Disney's best efforts to make sure it got a G-rating (which it horribly fails to earn: there is a scene in which the villain tries to burn a family alive in a thatched cottage, for Christ's sake). Probably because of this, it proved to be something of a box office underachiever, only barely scraping up $100 million at the U.S. box office (the lowest domestic gross for a Disney animated feature since The Rescuers Down Under failed to clear $30 million). And while Pocahontas, turning a healthy profit with its $141 million, was seen as putting a dent in the previously gleaming armor of the Walt Disney Company's 1990s resurgence, Hunchback, with its price tag of $70 million before marketing (the second-costliest film in Disney history at that point, after The Lion King), took an axe to that armor; from here on out, most Disney features wouldn't recoup their costs before foreign markets were taken into account; some not even then.

I would rather not blame Hunchback for the eventual death of traditional animation at Disney, though. It's too good to deserve a fate like that; let's wait for something dreadful like Atlantis before I whip out this argument again.

Certainly, I shouldn't like it; as a fan of Victor Hugo, the huge number of changes made to the material ought to make me stark raving mad. Certainly, they often don't seem like changes made to good effect, simply because they come nowhere near the goal of softening up the story enough that it could sit alongside e.g. The Little Mermaid as a dramatic but fun and exciting movie for the whole family; while they do make parts of the narrative too light and stupid for any grown-ups who might be interested. Alas poor Disney! even with anime making inroads into the American market, you still couldn't figure out how to make a legitimate adult animated feature. Perhaps if Hunchback had come out five years later, in the same impulse that led to Atlantis and Treasure Planet, its natural dark spirit might have been given a chance to thrive, rather than fighting to break through, succeeding often but sometimes trapped under a thick layer of inanity.

The story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is familiar enough, even in its Disneyfied form: in the late 15th Century, a deformed young man named Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) is put to work as bellringer at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, at the command of his master Frollo (Tony Jay). At the annual Festival of Fools, he sneaks out of the cathedral where he is condemned to live his every moment, and he meets the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who is kind to him - the first kindness he has ever felt. Frollo too is infatuated with the young woman, and wishes to torment her unto death if he cannot have her; she herself loves Phoebus (Kevin Kline), a dashing captain of the guard. Eventually, Esmeralda is captured and sentenced to death on the very steps of Notre Dame, leading Quasimodo to steal her from the flames and defend her, and the cathedral, against a proper invasion. This is where the movie's most significant split from the book occurs: for the movie has an altogether happy ending, requiring among other things that Phoebus's personality is altered so much from his narrative analogue that he might as well have a different name, and rather doing away entirely with Hugo's tragic arc, although it bears saying that this is not the first film version to graft a happy, or at least a semi-happy ending onto Hugo's story: there are two eminently classic Hollywood adaptations from 1923 and 1939 that do very much the same thing (indeed, the Disney film is adapted from the 1939 film, directed by William Dieterle and starring Charles Laughton, almost as much as it is adapted from the novel itself). Among the other changes made, of varying significance, include Frollo's change from Archdeacon of Notre Dame to Chief Justice of Paris (doubtlessly a change made to avoid angering the religious groups, although it is also present in the '39 version), leaving Quasimodo with his hearing intact, and generally making him not so disgustingly ugly as Hugo had it (understandable, if a bit irritating), and changing the stories of Esmeralda and Quasimodo's births (sad, but you can only fit so much melodrama into a 90-minute film).

The writers - many of them, but Tab Murphy put it all together - also make a rather singularly unfortunate addition, in the form of three gargoyles (which they are not, properly speaking, but rather chimeras: gargoyles function as waterspouts) named Laverne (Mary Wickes until her death, with the role completed by Jane Withers), Victor (Charles Kimbrough) and Hugo (Jason Alexander). Oh, gargoyles named Victor and Hugo! I see what you did there, Disney, you sons of bitches! Gawd. Anyway, the three only come to life when Quasimodo is around, leading to the possibility that like Hobbes the stuffed tiger, they do not actually exist except in his mind. And if this were unambiguously the case, I would probably be able to choke down my dislike of quippy, pop-cultural jokes in animated films, and respect the characters as the manifestation of a desperately lonely mind. But it seems, if anything that it is unambiguously not the case: there are far too many points, especially in the film's climax, where they are seen to perform actions that Quasimodo simply cannot do given the timescales involved, and despite the directors' claims otherwise, I cannot help but regard them as legitimate, fantastical elements studded into an otherwise rigorously realistic narrative.

And if that were the only problem with the trio, that would be hardly worth the mentioning. But they are used for comic relief that is simply too juvenile and silly for the film to bear; from anachronistic gags to some good old-fashioned gas humor. It's not even that they are particularly unfunny (okay, they are), as that they provide too much of the wrong kind of humor for this film. The gags that work in Hunchback are significantly more mordant and dreary: Quasimodo reciting his alphabet has learned "D for Damnation" and "E for Eternal damnation" (oh yes, this is a Disney film with the word "damnation", and more besides, as we'll see); Frollo demands that, as his soldiers try to shoot down Phoebus, that they make sure to avoid his horse. Jokes that are as much unpleasant as they are funny; a good match for the general ill-humor of even a distilled version of Hugo's universe, much more than seeing a stone version of Jason Alexander making armpit farts.

Outside of that one not so terribly small issue, the story actually works, more than it has any right to; it's not Hugo by a long shot, but it addresses many of the same points, and without sacrificing any intellectual honesty along the way. I could maybe do without the forced banter between Esmeralda and Phoebus, but other than that the characters are rather effectively-crafted, even Frollo, whose transparent villainy does not therefore deprive him of motives, reason, or personality. The plot does not wander into any blind alleys, but proceeds forward with a clarity of purpose unlike most of the other Disney Renaissance features, which even at their best sacrifice narrative for character sometimes; Hunchback manages to have one double for the other quite often (even the awful comic relief usually serves to advance some detail of plot). And the story that it tells is a compelling and informative one, all the more so if you don't keep mentally comparing it to the novel, which is something that I admittedly can't do.

With Hunchback, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz got a second chance to demonstrate that they could write a Disney-cum-Broadway musical, and unlike Pocahontas, full of mostly unremarkable tunes, this film boasts some truly excellent songs - some definite ringers, too, but its high points are much higher than its low points are low (although, why cast Kevin Kline in a musical, and then fail to give him so much as a single line to sing? Life would be better if I were a studio executive). I think the main difference lies in Menken: his work here was more inspired than at any point since The Little Mermaid, owing mainly to the chance that the story gave him to play around with music and lyrical quotes from Catholic liturgy: the Dies Irae, Kyrie Eleison, and Confiteor are all quoted either in the film's dramatic, Gothic score, or as counter-melody during the songs. A more thundering, overwhelming musical soundscape has not yet been heard in Disney, save in the classical music-derived Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty.

As for the songs themselves, as I said, there are a couple clinkers. The comic number for the gargoyles, "A Guy Like You" is fine enough for what it is (there are some pleasingly absurd rhymes, including "Adonis" with "croissant is"), but what it is is massively out-of-place, not just in the movie's comedy-free zone, but in the score's soaring, Latin-flecked drama. Esmeralda's "God Help the Outcasts" (performed by Heidi Mollenhauer) has pretty decent lyrics too, but the tune is a bit shallow, and it feels a bit too much like a pop song; it was, however, written very late in the game, and probably could not get so much of the overlaying and depth that Menken's best work boasts.

At the other end, there are two absolutely brilliant pieces. One of these, "The Bells of Notre Dame", opens and closes the film, and parts of it are used throughout the score of the whole feature. It is a piece of musical exposition, something found only rarely in Disney (Pocahontas had it too, "The Virginia Company"), but exceedingly well-executed, with Schwartz's best lyrics in the film and Menken engaging in some very wonderful use of the titular bells to add texture to the tune. But the best song in the film is the duo "Heaven's Light/Hellfire": the first is sung by Quasimodo, a light little half-love song with minimal orchestration and tender lyrics. Its climactic melody, a chiming jingle, is nothing but a lighter version of the music that opens "Bells", and this transitions into a slow Latin chant, over which Frollo prays in music of his lust for Esmeralda. And as he gets increasingly agitated thinking about her, we're off to the races.

That same jingle that ends "Heaven's Light" becomes the main motif in "Hellfire", slowed down considerably and pumped out of the orchestra with an intensity of Wagnerian scope. This song, musically dramatising Frollo's intense physical desire for Esmeralda in decidedly PG terms, and representing his inner torment as hungry flames and faceless monks in red, is very nearly the darkest, most terrifying sequence in the whole output of the Disney Animation Studios; only "Night on Bald Mountain" from Fantasia might compete with it, and I do say might. In my mind, this is the moment that carries all of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: seething music, dramatic, Expressionist visuals, and raw, ugly emotion like Disney usually tries to keep tamped down. If there is an argument that the film is a masterpiece, it begins with this number.

And so at last we come to the film's visuals; and I have saved the best for last. Hunchback may not have the unabashed beauty of The Lion King, but it is otherwise that film's equal in terms of the depth of visual detail, delicacy of lighting, precision of character work, and inventive use of new technology. I refer in particular to a certain computer program invented for the film, which gave the animators unprecedented ability to build crowds: first by drawing a certain number of basic character types (my memory, based on what I seem to recall reading in 1996, it that there were seven), performing several different movements, such as clapping, shading their eyes, raising their hands, and so on. Each of the seven types was then given a small handful of possible color palettes, and all the info: colors, body type, movement - was fed into a computer. The computer operator then typed in the number of people needed for a scene, and the program randomly generated a crowd from all the possible combinations. This works like gangbusters in wide shots, but it does hit a certain difficulty in closer shots, particularly during the "Topsy Turvy" musical number: the characters generated by this program are of significantly lower detail than the characters drawn by hand, and they look rather out of focus. It's not as distracting as watching Belle and the Beast waltzing around what is clearly a wire-frame ballroom, but it's surely something that pulls you out of the moment a bit.

Notwithstanding that, the film looks gorgeous. With all the big-name animators working on the prestigious Pocahontas or the labor-intensive The Lion King, it is curiously the case that Hunchback's supervising animators were mostly "second-stringers" as it were; no Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja or Ruben Aquino on this project. James Baxter does show up to lead Quasimodo, but otherwise most of the supervisors are noted only for side characters with limited screentime: Tony Fucile (Esmeralda), Dave Pruiksma (Victor and Hugo), Russ Edmonds (Phoebus), Will Finn (Laverne). Kathy Zielniski, who created the film's most outstanding work of animation in Frollo, had only previously supervised on The Rescuers Down Under, and this was her last film with Disney. Which is a crying shame, for Frollo is a truly superb villain: his limited movements and twisted facial expressions recall Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, and his expressions especially give him a truly evil, vicious edge; he is the most wholly threatening Disney villain in many years, after several comic bad guys in a row. McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under is the only other completely dangerous villain in the Renaissance; one might well have to go all the way back to Maleficent to find one so unnerving both in act and in design as Frollo. Which is not to say that he's a better character than Ursula, Cruella, et al; just that he's far more likely to cut you.

I single out Frollo, but the animation and design are excellent across the board, and if Hunchback argues for nothing else, it's that the superstar animators aren't necessarily the only ones who can do great work. Esmeralda is as facially expressive as any Glen Keane or Mark Henn woman, and until doing my research for this, I don't think I could have named a single character that Fucile specifically animated; I just knew that he eventually became one of Brad Bird's people. So if you needed the reminder, here it is: when I say "Keane did this" or "Deja did that", know that I'm talking about a whole team of supremely talented people, working under one man's (too rarely, a woman's) direction. Disney's animators are extremely talented artists, across the board. And Hunchback has some terrific character animation to prove it, from characters as physically active and challenging to draw as Quasimodo, all the way to Esmeralda's pet goat Djali.

As far as the rest of the visuals go, this is going to sound peculiar, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the best-directed Disney features ever. It sounds peculiar, at least to me, because ordinarily the direction isn't necessarily something you think about in a cartoon; they are unusually collaborative, and it sometimes seems like all the directors are doing is pointing all the animators in the same direction. But in Hunchback, Trousdale and Wise really push the "camera" in some fascinating directions: the opening pan through Paris is a marvel, and there's a shot near the end of Quasimodo's "yearning" song, "Out There", which completes a smooth motion unimaginable not just in live action, but even in animation before CAPS, as the camera pulls pack from the towers of Notre Dame, between buildings, settles in midair, and then drifts down to ground level, miles away. The multiplane camera couldn't have done this, and without CGI, it's not possible to conceive of doing it in reality. And while that might be the most exciting single shot in the film, it is far from the only one. Very few Disney movies allow their camera to dart about like this, for it is hard and costly, but it makes Hunchback a much richer and engaging and dramatically "big" experience.

The film even has some of the best "editing" I've noticed in Disney: a great mass of matches on action, one of them in "Bells of Notre Dame" almost approaching a morphing effect. In general, the editing in a Disney picture is never unsophisticated, but nor is it particularly aggressive: in Hunchback it implies things about narrative and character just like a real film. I am particularly impressed by the language of straight cutting used around the character of Frollo, primarily but not exclusively in the "Hellfire" number.

And that's really what there is to say about this: it is like an honest-to-God motion picture, and not like a family animated film at all; and it is the filmmakers' refusal to commit to this fact that constantly hobbles Hunchback. There's just far too much immature content for a film that aches to express its maturity. Somewhere, I can imagine a Hunchback that ranks in the very top tiers of Disney's canon; as it is, I must instead only be happy with the singularly ambitious but broken film that, in my mind if not by any objective definition of the period, ended the Disney Renaissance.