|Song by Tony Jay from the album The Hunchback of Notre Dame: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack|
|Length||5:22 (including "Heaven's Light")|
|Writer||Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz|
|Producer||Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz|
When sinful thoughts regarding the beautiful Gypsy woman Esmeralda enter Frollo's mind, he "panics and seeks to rid himself of [its] source". This internal struggle prompts "Hellfire", which has been described as "one of the best Disney villain songs of all time". Frollo "confronts his lusting for Esmeralda...blaming her for turning towards darkness, and pleading to be saved". He sings "destroy Esmeralda, and let her taste the fires of hell, or else let her be mine and mine alone" while the image of Esmeralda "provocatively danc[es] in front of him".
This "scene of lust and longing" that the song is centered around received much press coverage at the time of the film's release, along with the alterations made to give the film a G rating.
"Heaven's Light" and "Hellfire"
The song was intended to contrast the song "Heaven's Light", which was sung by Quasimodo moments earlier, expressing his feelings of love for Esmeralda, while "Hellfire" focuses on Frollo's internal conflict between his feelings of lust for her and his conscience and hate for the gypsies.
The two songs, which are sometimes referred to collectively as "Heaven's Light"/"Hellfire" (for example on the soundtrack where it is track 7), describe two opposing views towards the same woman. Quasimodo sees Esmeralda as "Heaven's Light" while Frollo sees her as a "Hellfire".
It begins in Bb major, before turning to its relative minor G. It soon modulates briefly into C minor, then F major, has a spoken intersection where the bass lies on A, dominant of D minor, the key which the song finally ends in.
"Hellfire" contains parts of the Confiteor, a Latin prayer of confession used by the Roman Catholic Church. This prayer begins directly after "Heaven's Light" and serves as the introduction to "Hellfire". It also provides counterpoint material throughout the song, whose ending also contains the Kyrie eleison.
The instrumental accompaniment to the song serves as a musical motif that alters in tone depending on the action. As well as some variations heard early on (such as in "The Bells of Notre Dame"), this motif "informs much of the score that chronologically follows in the film." Reviewer Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks.com adds that "both 'Paris Burning' and 'Sanctuary!' explicitly continue the instrumental backdrop and Latin chanting of 'Hellfire', a sound that becomes more general in 'And He Shall Smite the Wicked'." Also, "the opening fanfare is also reintroduced at the end of 'Heaven's Light', makes up the melody during the chorus of 'Hellfire', and plays in the instrumental 'Sanctuary!'"
The beginning of the song starts with the Archdeacon swinging the incense-filled thurible, as he and his altar servers walk through Notre Dame, chanting the beginning of the Confiteor. The camera pans upwards to the famous rose window, and flies through it and over Paris, revealing that all the lights in the city are going out as people are turning in for the night. The only light that remains is the light in the Palace of Justice, where Frollo gazes out at Notre Dame from his window, singing to the Virgin Mary about how she knows he is "a righteous man" and above "the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd." Frollo calmly walks to the fireplace before he reveals his fear, pleading to Mary to tell him why he lusts for Esmeralda if he is pure. During this, a fire apparition of Esmeralda dances provocatively in the flames.
Through the second verse, Frollo draws away from the fireplace, revealing a piece of silk that Esmeralda had used to tease him earlier in the film. Frollo sings about how he lusts for her and resents her for it. He accuses her of turning him to sin and denies his own culpability as red-hooded figures rise from the floor, chanting mea culpa ("my fault"). Frollo runs through the chamber, with the cloaked figures standing on either side of him. He desperately pleads with them for forgiveness, claiming that Esmeralda had cast a spell on him and tempted him. He asks them if it's in a part of God's plan that God made the Devil stronger than he (Frollo) himself is. The hooded figures turn into flames, enveloping Frollo as they return to the fireplace as if dragging him down into Hell (foreshadowing his fate).
Frollo continues singing, pleading to Mary to rescue him from Esmeralda's voluptuous temptations that would lead to his eternal damnation. He holds out the scarf and clenches it angrily, stating that Esmeralda must choose him or burn. The fire apparition of Esmeralda re-appears, but her provocative dancing is replaced by her shriek-filled writhing as she is about to burn. A smoke apparition of Esmeralda emerges from the fireplace (pictured above), and as it embraces Frollo passionately, there is a knock at the door. The apparition disappears as a guard enters, telling Frollo that Esmeralda escaped from the Cathedral of Notre Dame where Frollo had "imprisoned" her. Frollo vows to find her, even if it means burning down all of Paris. The guard leaves, and Frollo continues singing, telling Esmeralda that he will give her an ultimatum: she must choose to be his lover or she will burn. Frollo throws Esmeralda's scarf into the fireplace, symbolically burning her as well.
In the final verse, Frollo backs up against a wall, asking God to have mercy on both him and Esmeralda, implying that he ultimately knows that his actions are against God's will. As he sings, shadowy figures holding crucifixes emerge from the light of the fireplace and fly past Frollo. Frollo drops to his knees, saying that Esmeralda will be his love or she will burn. Finishing the song, Frollo passes out and falls face down on the floor in the shape of a crucifix as the fire goes out.
The producers of Disney's adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame stated that they felt that the "Hellfire" scene was important in portraying Frollo as he was in Victor Hugo's original novel. They hoped that this sequence would be one of the greatest animated sequences ever produced. Frollo was animated by Kathy Zielinski and the sequence was storyboarded by French animators Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, who were the heads of the Walt Disney Feature Animation satellite studio in Montreuil, France. The elements of fire, smoke, and shadows in the sequence required significant support from the Feature Animation visual effects department. According to one of the film's directors, Kirk Wise, Frollo's song "Hellfire" needed a visual sequence more meaningful and powerful than past Disney animated features, akin to the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney's Fantasia (1940), which depicted the devil Chernabog rallying his demons for a single night.
In the audio commentary on The Hunchback of Notre Dame DVD, Wise described his fear that he would have to plea with Feature Animation chairman Roy E. Disney and Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner to let them do the sequence. The two executives ended up loving the idea, and no plea was needed.
Wise also indicated that he and visual effects artistic supervisor Chris Jenkins wanted to make sure the "fire-spirit" shots of Esmeralda in the sequence would not endanger the film's possibilities of earning a "G" rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Thus, they went through every frame to ensure that Esmeralda's figure was fully clothed at all times, despite her provocative dancing.
The Latin Chant in the background is the Confiteor, which is a Catholic penitential prayer recited during Mass as an "admission of guilt and wrongdoing". There is a sense of dramatic irony throughout the song as Frollo sings "It's not my fault / I'm not to blame / It is the gypsy girl / The witch who sent this flame / It's not my fault / If in God's plan / He made the devil so much / Stronger than a man", to which the priests (at this point of the song represented by ominous red-hooded figures) reply in a counterpoint melody with Mea culpa, Latin for "My fault", or Mea maxima culpa, meaning "My most grievous fault".
An analysis at "Disney and the Seven Deadly Sins" suggests that the Confiteor chant "manifest[s] as his conscience", and reveals to Frollo "the truth of his actions in regard to lust," which is "a craving for sexual intimacy," leading him to self-indulgence. This "desire for the flesh of another" is a sin, which Frollo struggles over until the very end of his life. Even "when Frollo prepares to burn Esmeralda at the stake in front of the cathedral he offers Esmeralda a chance to live if she agrees to be his lover." The article "The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The House of the Lord" in The Gospel According to Disney suggests that "Frollo is tortured by his lust for Esmeralda, an unrequited passion that curdles into obsessive hatred", and argues that Frollo "prays to be delivered from his sin, prostrating himself before a roaring fire, with a cross above it," and while being presented with two paths, he ultimately chooses lust which leads to his downfall. This sin of the villain is compared to Jafar's greed for power at the end of Aladdin. When Frollo is about to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda, he quotes a biblical verse (supporting the notion that he justifies his wrongdoings as God's will): "And He shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!" The Gospel According to Disney describes what happens next as follows, "Just then, the judge falls to his own death [a pit of fire], in an act of divine intervention."
Jim Miles of Laughingplace.com analyses "Hellfire" by saying that the song marks the turning point when "Frollo's hate for the gypsies has taken on a new dimension", and is "no longer about ending vice and sin [but] about fulfilling his own desires". The scarf he takes from Esmeralda "symboli[zes] the physical manifestation of his desire for [her]", and the resulting internal struggle is illustrated in the song. His life's work involves making the city of Paris "pure and righteous", and no matter how much he wants to be too, he sees a "flame...burning within him" and so turns to God (represented by Mary in the song, notable that in his lust he prays to the Holy Virgin) to "help him overcome those feelings". However throughout his pleading, he holds onto the scarf, thereby holding onto the sin. He tries to rationalize the sin before the "judges of his heart", and seems to be returned to purity, but after the judges disappear the temptation returns. Though he sings "Protect me, Maria" with "repentant agony on his face", he stares into the fireplace and holds onto the scarf, giving into temptation. After being "interrupted by the soldier, he makes a decision within his heart to hold on to the sin". Because the "desire [is now] firmly rooted [within him], he is able to throw away the scarf - the external representation of his inner feelings - into the fire as he has fully accepted this persona. After doing this, he "realizes his mistake, and visually, we see the spiritual battle for his soul--crosses rising above shadowy spiritual figures--but even then, he reconfirms his resolution and proclaims that "she will be mine or she will burn."
Sean Griffin in his work Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out says that Frollo's hate for Esmeralda seems to stem from his hatred of his own feelings. His shame of "turning to sin" overwhelms him, and he turns to blaming and punishing others. He says that Frollo's lust for Esmeralda is strictly heterosexual, his behaviour "mirrors conclusions from studies about homophobia...unconscious conflicts about one's own sexuality or gender identity." He argues that "Frollo's grim determinations to punish Esmeralda [throughout 'Hellfire']" are sparked from his own denial that he has "'urges' that fall outside the rigid parameters of social acceptance."
Miles argues that the "Archdeacon acts as a foil for Frollo" because through his "caring for Quasimodo's dead mother, he exhibits the kindness and love that God calls all Christians to, which is what Frollo fails to understand". He shows Esmeralda compassion while Frollo only feels contempt towards her. He also "does what Frollo should have done" by "direct[ing] her attention to God." The climax of this is when "he leads a prayer in Latin that calls upon God, Mary, the archangel Michael, the apostles, the saints, and...the Father, for forgiveness of sin in thought, word, and deed." This leads straight into Hellfire. Miles says that "while the Archdeacon turns from sin, Frollo chooses to toy with sin."
Home media release
The song was universally acclaimed, and it is considered to be one of the highlights of the soundtrack to The Hunchback of Notre Dame which in turn received mixed reviews. The general consensus is that if the direction taken with "Hellfire" had been taken for the other songs, the film as a whole would have been substantially better.
In a review of the film's soundtrack, Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks.com stated that "the darkest depths of The Hunchback of Notre Dame exist in 'Hellfire', one of the most stunning visual and aural combinations in animation history." Though the film was aimed at children as well as adults, Clemmensen comments that the "constantly frightening Latin chants and a heavy string, timpani, and choral bass" scared the younger demographic (despite attempts at lighthearted music and humour to dilute the film). He argues that if Disney had fully embraced the dark nature of the source material by building the soundtrack upon numbers like "Hellfire" and "Sanctuary!", "the film could have been a brilliant adult feature." He says the "spattering of comedy pieces", which include three "silly songs", are "a significant detriment to the gains of the aforementioned themes and performances", and ultimately cause both the film and soundtrack to be a "mixed bag." Pieces such as "Hellfire" are "serious, dramatically brilliant [and among] some of Menken's very best work." Later on in his review, Clemmensen notes the Latin mass which leads into "[Tony] Jay's hauntingly deep performance of Frollo's torment," and adds that it "produc[es] a song so overwhelmingly compelling in an evil sense that it alone was worth the cost of admission (and the album)."
Jim Miles of Laughingplace.com says that "Frollo's passionate pleading" is "visually astounding, masterfully conceived and animated," and the "standout" of the film. He adds that "accompanied by intense music of agony and complex lyrics of psychological revelation, 'Hellfire' is everything a musical scene aspires to be." Reviewer Kenneth E. Rathburn said the song's "grandeur...contributes and fulfills" more than other songs, such as "A Guy Like You", making it one of the better tracks. Jack Smith of the BBC describes the tone (set by the opening number) as "an unholy marriage of the Tridentine Mass and Les Mis." He says the score, "driven by hysterical choirs and crashing percussion" is most effective in "Hellfire". The San Antonio Express-News described it as The Hunchback of Notre Dame's "true show-stopping tune." A blog review described "Hellfire" as "the darkest Disney song ever" and "the best in the whole film." Simon Brew of Den of Geek! says the suffering Frollo goes through in this song makes him a "far more rounded villain." He describes "Hellfire" as "a stunning piece of work, with the visuals and music working in complete tandem."
The song is considered to be one of the darkest in any Disney film, depicting Hell, sin, damnation and lust; subjects that are generally considered inappropriate for children. This song and sequence prompted the ratings board to consider a PG rating for the film. In its defense, Disney claimed that its adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant to play as much to adult audiences as to children. The studio attempted to produce an animated film with an audience broader than only children, the main target audience of Disney animated features.
Wheeler W. Dixon of Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays said that "Hellfire" "was too much for many adults," which prompted reviewers such as Mark Silver of The Los Angeles Times to say things like: "[Hunchback is] a beautiful powerful film that I would not recommend to children under eight or nine years old."
Animator Floyd Norman recalled the pitching session for the musical, in which Menken and Schwartz were "on hand to perform the songs that would grace the production." He recalls "Hellfire" "clearly ha[ving] the executives squirming nervously," wondering if this material could be in a Disney film.
The "Hellfire" subplot, "involving the villain’s need to desire to screw and/or murder the heroine because of his guilt-ridden lustings for her," which was described as "a cross between Schindler’s List and Sweeney Todd" by Scott Mendelson of HollywoodNews.com, was also referred to by him as one of the Disney events like Mufasa being killed onscreen, that surprisingly were given "G-ratings from the MPAA back in the 1990s," which Mendelson uses as context when discussing Tangled's PG rating.
Religious conservatives boycotted The Hunchback of Notre Dame due to this song, which they said was "a suggestive rejection of purity amplified by imagery of a half-naked Esmeralda dancing in a fire."
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- "Review". DVDizzy.com. Retrieved January 8, 2013.
- Rathburn, Kenneth E. (September 29, 2012). "Disney Soundtracks The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Retrieved January 8, 2013.
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- "My review of The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Retrieved January 8, 2013.
- Dixon, Wheeler W. Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays. p. 54. Retrieved January 8, 2013.
- Norman, Floyd. Animated Life: A Lifetime of tips, tricks, techniques and stories from a Disney Legend. Retrieved January 8, 2013.
- Mendelson, Scott. "Cartoon movies are having a hard time getting "G" ratings these days". Retrieved January 8, 2013.
- Concept art for the Hellfire song
- More concept art, including images of a clothed Esmerelda in the fire
- Lyrics in different languages
- Hellfire in Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film
- Hellfire in The Music of the Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame – Hellfire