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Writers, co-directors and producers for Disney’s 1996 animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame say notes from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) resulted in several of the film’s sounds being edited to earn the movie’s G rating, according to a new interview with The New York Times.
That includes lowering the volume of villain Judge Claude Frollo sniffing the hair of the movie’s young Romani female lead, Esmeralda, and increasing the sound of swooshing robes to cover up the character’s voice actor, Tony Jay, saying the word “sin.”
In a piece published Monday for the 1996 Disney film’s 25th anniversary, writer Tab Murphy described the entire movie, which is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 French Gothic novel, as “the most R-rated G you will ever see in your life.”
Despite receiving the same rating as films like Cinderella, the movie was almost able to get the entire “Hellfire” number, which features Frollo singing about being torn between his faith, lust for Esmeralda and hate of the Romani, cleared by the MPAA.
“We never thought we’d get away with the term ‘hellfire,’” co-director Gary Trousdale said of the song and the sequence.
Ultimately, it wasn’t so much the language as the sound effects that both created and solved several issues.
One major note the team received on the musical number — which features a choir singing in Latin, swirling smokey images of Esmeralda and red-hooded figures enveloping Frollo amid some other fiery religious imagery — was about the character’s use of the word “sin.”
Trousdale said that the MPAA was “uncomfortable” with Frollo singing, “This burning desire is turning me to sin,” according to the Times. But the soundtrack was finished recording and the sequence already animated, so the team used a solution suggested by producer Don Hahn.
As that group of hooded figures rush up from the floor, the team made the “whoosh” sound of their robes louder, effectively drowning out Jay saying “sin” — and earning the approval of the MPAA.
But perhaps the odder edit — and the one Wise said “you’ll never believe” — involved Frollo sneaking up behind Esmeralda to sniff her hair. The film ratings board’s complaint was that the actual sniff was “too suggestive.”
“They were like, ‘Could you lower the volume of that?’” Wise told the Times. “And we did, and it got the G rating.”
According to the MPAA ratings guide, “A G-rated motion picture 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.”
Writer Murphy says the Walt Disney Co. executives at the time, Roy E. Disney and Michael Eisner, took a hands-off approach. “I was never told to stay away from this or that or ‘you can’t do this,’” he said.
But the changes were ultimately made because the studio wanted to keep that G rating.
“The studio felt anything above a G would threaten the film’s box office,” Wise said. “This was before Shrek, or movies that made a PG rating in animation commonplace.”
Several members of the film’s creative team said they believed the film’s G rating would never happen today.
“Disney was willing to take some chances in that movie that I don’t think they’d take today,” Murphy said. “That’s a PG-13 in my book.”
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