I’m of the very proud and polarizing Disney generation. The renaissance of Disney films were ones I saw in theaters, owned at home and could recite as a child (Hell, still can for most of them) and while many did not age well for me, I’ve found that several actually mean even more to me now as an adult than they ever did when I was a bright, strange child. A common complaint that film critics now have of those 90s era Disney movies is that they have a “tone” problem.
That’s a bit reductive, isn’t it?
Just blanketly saying something has a tone problem doesn’t explain why, how or what to do about it and makes the reviewer (often one of the Youtube variety) seem like an expert without necessarily being an expert. So let’s talk about tone, tonal dissonance, Disney movies and what it means to really have a tone problem.
I come at this from two angles: one of them being a comic book fan and the other being an anime fan. Tonal dissonance is abundant in both of those genres. FLCL naturally flows between nihilistic angst and bright rock music. Cowboy Bebop can in one scene talk about the existential misery of being alive and knowing you will one day die alone and pair it with a corgi high on mushrooms. Neither of those undercut the pathos or emotion of the prior scene but because of genre and style, we accept that the tone can abruptly change. Comic books also often change the tone on a dime from serious death scenes cut in between the normal pageantry of daily life for the rest of the citizens of a named non-descript city.
Now, I won’t defend all Disney movies of this era. Some do have a serious tone problem (Lookin’ at you, Hercules.). But many are firstly a product of their time (the 90s) and they were also fundamentally a children’s movie. Instead of simply writing some of these movies off as having tone problems, perhaps it’s better to admit some of the daring steps they made despite being a kid’s movie.
Let’s take my favorite Disney movie: The Hunchback of Notre Dame as an example.
This movie…it’s a doozy. It does have some serious tone issues in the form of three obnoxious dated no longer relevant celebrity voiced gargoyles. But the rest of the film, the rest of this wonderfully animated and voice acted and paced movie is just a brilliant example of what this movie could have been. Hunchback is a dark movie for a Disney film. The main character is deformed, the main antagonist is the literal embodiment of people’s fear of the Catholic church and Catholic guilt in general. It created in Esmeralda one of the most active agents of her own free will Disney will make until the post-renaissance and later characters like Elsa and Moana. The music could easily be its own blog post featuring some of my favorite songs in all of Disney discography. And the animation was some of the best of its era.
But that tone problem. Those gargoyles. The Goofy yell in the middle of a literal siege in the thrilling climax of the movie. All of it for some is just too much and it makes it difficult to see that underneath all of that is a movie that is fundamentally different from others of its kind. Think about it, it’s adapted from a novel that is by far not safe for children. And while the movie takes plenty of liberties from the novel, I think it actually does a few things better than the novel. The movie paints Frollo as almost a sympathetic man, truly just one haunted by his repressed sexuality and the immense pressure under him and the threat of eternal damnation. As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, I can vouch that the Hellfire sequence is the literal manifestation of Catholic guilt. Esmeralda’s scene in the cathedral to the tune of God Help the Outcast is one of the most famous Disney songs around. But for the chances the movie tried to take, some things had to remain the same. This is a Disney picture, after all. It has to have an animal sidekick of some kind. The good normal looking heteronormative person has to fall in love with the princess/gypsy dancer. It has to have an uncomplicated unilaterally happy ending. That’s how Disney’s made their money for decade and a story about a church official and his…wants aren’t gonna stop the Disney cash cow from doing what it does best.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind this was the 90s. It was a different time. Everything was strange when it came to tone. A normal 90s kid like me juggled between the dark oppression of Batman the Animated Series to the fun camp of Looney Toons. As children, we didn’t mind the tonal issues. We laughed at the fart jokes, singing animals and stupid side plots. They’re insufferable now that many of us are adults with educations and have now read more than one book. But if you held most things to that standard, they’d simply fall apart. Now, I’m one of the last to use “It’s a kid’s movie” as a blanket excuse. I’m an anime fan. Plenty of the anime and animated movies from Japan that I watched were meant for kids but had deeper plot points than some American serialized television shows. I don’t say that to excuse the faults of any movie, Disney or otherwise, just to help frame the issue a little more.
But being older really helps frame many of these movies better. Hunchback becomes less and less about the weird diegetic gargoyle singing and more about a struggle between the sacred and the profane. In Hunchback I see a man struggle between his faith, his desires and his position of power. I see a character with the purest of hearts but unfortunately cursed with a face that the rest of the world finds detestable. I find comfort in music that is wonderful and Latin verses that I had to sing and chant in mass with my family. I see Paris in a way that many young kids have never seen before. I see imagery that to anyone who has read another book would instantly be impressed with. I see so many other things than just a really strange joke that tried to insinuate a gargoyle is attracted to a goat.
Mulan has one of the best most jarring tonal shifts of all from the bright, very misogynistic A Girl Worth Fighting For to the literal scorched Earth and destruction left behind by the Huns. Pocahontas has plenty of strange tone shifts between loving the Earth and nature, respecting native cultures and the relative similarity and mirroring from each side of an argument or conflict to jokes about food and cute animal distractions.
So what is there to be done about tonal dissonance? I admit now, if I want to watch Hunchback I skip around a lot. I hit the list of things I want to see like the subtle tone and key shift from Heaven’s Light to Hellfire. The Court of Miracles scene is a must if I have a copy that kept that scene in. God Help the Outcast is beautifully animated and I mostly just ignore anything involving Captain Phoebus and his rushed romance with Esmeralda. If the tone problem bothers you, I can totally respect that. It irks the hell out of me, too. But I won’t deny what these movies did. I still sing these songs. My friends and I can still recite the movies. This was our childhood. This was my childhood and even if it was tonally off, that’s okay.
I’ll keep singing The Bells of Notre Dame.