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10 Facts About Disney’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

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Lust, racism, and religious bigotry aren’t topics that are usually broached in family films. Which may explain why Disney’s 1996 take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t make much of a splash at the box office. Despite this underwhelming response, the movie has since found its audience and now commands a loyal fan base.

1. FROLLO’S JOB WAS CHANGED TO AVOID OFFENDING RELIGIOUS GROUPS.

In the original Victor Hugo novel, Claude Frollo is Notre Dame’s Archdeacon. However, Disney feared that an evil priest wouldn’t sit well with Christian organizations. As such, Frollo was transformed into a judge. Furthermore, the plot’s theological underpinnings were downplayed. “[We] were told not to make the movie too religious—a pretty daunting task when you consider how much of this story takes place inside a big church,” animator Floyd Norman later said. Still, some Bible references couldn’t be avoided. Consider this: The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Disney’s 34th full-length animated feature. Just two of the film's songs—“God Help the Outcasts” and “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire”—contain more references to the words “Lord” and “God” than all 33 of Disney's previous films combined.

2. “THE BELLS OF NOTRE DAME” WAS A LATE ADDITION TO THE SCORE.

The opening number can make or break a musical. Usually, it’s the song that both captures an audience's attention and sets up the story. Yet, surprisingly, Hunchback almost didn’t get one. The original plan was to start the film with spoken exposition and a flashback montage. However, this didn’t satisfy production boss Jeffrey Katzenberg. Feeling that something was missing, he asked lyricist Stephen Schwartz and composer Alan Menken to create a new song for the sequence. Singing duty mostly went to Clopin, a theatrical Gypsy voiced by Paul Kandel, who recalls that “we were about a third of the way through the process of making [Hunchback]” when this ballad was completed."

3. THOSE SINGING GARGOYLES WERE INSPIRED BY THE NOVEL.

Quasimodo’s on-screen sidekicks are three wise-cracking statues named Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Where did Disney get such a wild idea? From the source material. In the Hunchback novel, our lonesome protagonist often talks to the cathedral’s gargoyles. “He sometimes passed whole hours crouching before one of these statues, in solitary conversation with it” reads Chapter III. To create some comic relief, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale simply expanded upon this concept.

4. QUASIMODO COULD’VE BEEN VOICED BY MANDY PATINKIN.

In The Princess Bride (1987), Patinkin took a stab at movie immortality by playing sword maestro Inigo Montoya. Several years later, Disney offered him a very different role. After Patinkin left the medical drama Chicago Hope, the studio asked if he’d consider voicing Quasimodo. He immediately said yes, but soon ran into trouble. Hunchback had already been converted into several live-action movies—including a 1939 classic starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. Since Laughton is Patinkin’s favorite actor, he wanted to emulate that performance. But the producers insisted on a friendlier bell-ringer. “They had their own Disney needs,” Patinkin told the Los Angeles Times. In the end, Quasimodo was voiced by Academy Award nominee Tom Hulce.

5. SOME SCENES WERE ENHANCED WITH COMPUTER-GENERATED TOWNSPEOPLE.

Back in the mid-1990s, hand-drawn animation was still Disney’s favorite technique. Nevertheless, the studio had been integrating computer effects into their feature films ever since 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective. For Hunchback, a special program was used to generate large crowds of people. Both the Feast of Fools scene and the climax are riddled with digital Parisians. Six different body types (male and female) were created in order to pull this off. Each individual bystander was given a unique set of motion instructions. These were randomly drawn from a set of 72 predetermined movements such as clapping and jumping.

6. “HELLFIRE” WAS MODELED AFTER AN ITALIAN OPERA SONG.

Composed by Giacomo Puccini between 1899 and 1900, Tosca is now one of the world’s most popular operas. Act I ends with a song that’s guaranteed to give goosebumps. Called “Te Deum,” it belongs to the villain, Scarpia, who sings about his diabolical plans with a chorus of churchgoers. Almost a century later, Disney gave us the equally unforgettable “Hellfire”—Frollo’s epic solo. “Te Deum” was the song’s main source of creative inspiration.

7. DISNEY ASSUMED THAT THE FILM WOULD GET A PG RATING.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame deals with very taboo subjects, from sexual fantasies to eternal damnation. (There’s also scene where the female lead pole dances.) Naturally, Disney executives didn’t think that the MPAA ratings board would apply their “general admission” stamp. Screenwriter Tab Murphy “fully expected it to get a PG.” As he told the Chicago Tribune, “It felt like a PG movie to everyone, including everybody who signed off on it, from Michael Eisner to Roy Disney.” News of the board’s decision to rate it G was met with widespread disbelief. “Maybe it was the gargoyles,” Murphy suggested.

8. VICTOR HUGO’S DESCENDANTS HATED IT.

Released on June 21, 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame garnered considerable criticism from Hugo scholars—as well as from Hugo's family. In an open letter to the French newspaper Liberation, the author’s great-great grandchildren—Charles, Jeanne, Sophie, Adele, and Leopoldine Hugo—dismissed the movie as “vulgar commercialization by unscrupulous men.” A particular bone of contention was Hunchback’s aggressive marketing campaign. “[The] story used in this film is borrowed from the work of Victor Hugo,” they noted, “but his name is not even mentioned on the posters that now cover the planet.”

9. JASON ALEXANDER WOULDN’T LET HIS OWN SON SEE THE MOVIE.

Hunchback may have defied the odds and nabbed that G rating, but many parents still chose to keep their little ones away. Among them was Alexander, who voiced Hugo the gargoyle. “Disney would have us believe this movie’s like the Ringling Bros., for children of all ages,” said the Seinfeld star. “But I won’t be taking my four year-old. I won’t expose him to it, not for another year.”

10. BELLE FROM BEAUTY AND THE BEAST MAKES A CAMEO.

Keep your eyes peeled: When Quasimodo sings “Out There,” Belle can be seen wandering through the streets of Paris—and, true to form, she’s got her nose stuck in a book. Look carefully and you’ll also spot a peasant shaking out Aladdin’s magic carpet during the same sequence.

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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