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Directors: Gary Trousdale & Kirk WiseRelease Date: June 21, 1996Rating: ★★★Review:
After feature adaptations of several fairy tales and children’s books, and even a non-fiction book on aerial warfare (‘Victory through Air Power’ from 1943), ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ marks the studio’s very first animated adaptation of classic literature, in this case the historical novel of the same name from 1831 by French author Victor Hugo.
Of course, Disney’s version is not the first movie adaptation of Hugo’s hefty book. The most famous predecessors are a silent version from 1923 starring Lon Chaney as the title character, and one from 1939 starring Charles Laughton. The latter adaptation changed Hugo’s bleak and depressive ending into a more uplifting one. Disney gladfully follows suit, ending its own film remarkably upbeat, which is something the more avid Victor Hugo fan will hardly get used to. But more about that later.
The film starts with a ‘Pinocchio’-like opening shot with the camera zooming into the streets of Paris. Immediately it becomes clear that this new adaptation of ‘The Hunchback’ will be a musical, because the first song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ kicks in right away. It is sung by puppet player Clopin (Paul Kandel), whom we zoom into shortly, and who is the initial narrator of the tale, telling about events occurring twenty years before. This is the first of nine songs in 81 minutes, making ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ one of the most song-rich of the Disney musicals.
After the six-minute intro the film’s title appears, and we immediately cut to young adult Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce of Amadeus fame), who remains misshapen as in the original novel, having both an asymmetrical body and face, with one bad eye, a hump, and a limping walk. But the animators also immediately make clear that this is a friendly, kind-hearted, and harmless person. Disney’s Quasimodo is kind and gentle and has a nice voice (by Tom Hulce), so we as an audience hardly must overcome any prejudice.
Moreover, within the limitations of the character’s literally description, the character designers really tried to make Quasimodo as appealing as possible. For example, compare his appearance to that of either Chaney or Laughton, who both look much uglier, and must overcome initial repulsion by the audience by great acting. Disney’s Quasimodo, on the other hand, is instantly likeable, and the viewer even struggles to comprehend why he isn’t loved more by the citizens of Paris.
Quasimodo’s first scene also shows the weird dualism of this movie: at one hand the studio really wants to tell a serious story, with heavy-handed themes, and dramatic music. On the other hand, the film makers apparently don’t dare to leave the cuddly-wuddly world of earlier Disney children’s films, and this leads to a schizophrenic end product, failing to be either entirely for children or the dark tale it could have been.
For example, the studio gives Quasimodo three humanized gargoyles to talk to (perhaps another idea taken from the 1939 film version, which ends with Quasimodo talking to a gargoyle). The appearance of the three gargoyles feels disappointingly formulaic and out-of-tune after the dramatic introduction. The childish half of the movie is further enhanced by the present of an intelligent pet goat and an equally humanized horse called Achilles. These two animal characters don’t speak, but clearly belong to the world of obligate animal sidekicks, which permeate the Disney films since ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989).
True, the gargoyles appear only to be real to Quasimodo, turning to stone as soon as any other character is in the same room, but as we often watch them move without Quasimodo being aware of them, we’re led into believing these stone characters are real, and only pretending to be lifeless when other people are around.
Despite the presence of these cute characters, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is arguably Disney’s darkest movie since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), addressing issues like prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hypocrisy.
Most striking in this respect is the character of the villain judge Frollo, voiced forcefully by Tony Jay. His lust for Esmeralda is clearly an adult theme. This becomes most apparent in the character’s own song of desire, with its erotic fantasy depictions of Esmeralda depicted in the flames he watches. Masterly animated by Kathy Zielinski, this is arguably the movie’s best song, highlighting the complexity of the character. Frollo isn’t just bad, he’s torn inside. Frollo all too willingly marries his lust to his sense of justice and sees no problem in purging the town’s gypsies only to find his object of desire. In fact, Frollo is the most interesting character of the whole film, and certainly one of the most interesting of all Disney villains, for his evilness comes from partly from fanatism and bigotry, and is not purely selfish, even though that’s an important component of his character, too.
Another adult theme is the love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda (voiced by Demi Moore) and captain Phoebus. Esmeralda is the focal point of the movie, being the object of desire of the three male leads, if in different ways for each of them. Phoebus is a bland hero character, and the only one who doesn’t sing. At one point Quasimodo actually believes Esmeralda loves him, and he has to overcome his jealousy of his more handsome rival to help Phoebus finding Esmeralda.
Yet, as the film makers don’t really choose between a light-hearted and a serious narrative, the film remains an odd blend. For example, Quasimodo’s rescue scene is played out very dramatically and seriously. But this scene is followed by a rather frivolous storming of the cathedral, full of silly gags and broad, cartoony animation. One can even hear the Goofy yell when the soldiers fall from great heights to a – I’d say – certain death. This lack of choice troubles and harms the film big time. A Disney cliché scene in which a character seems dead but turns out not to be (see ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Jungle Book’) doesn’t help either.
But what really becomes hard to swallow is the film’s ending, which is all too happy, defying every believability. In Disney’s version Quasimodo seemingly starts a revolution, and the film makers want us to believe that following the film’s events the Middle Ages stopped right there and propelled all citizens of Paris into a post-modern world of tolerance and rainbow harmony, free from despotism, prejudice, and discrimination. If only. For example, ninety years after the events depicted here Paris would witness the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. I’m afraid that although Victor Hugo’s original ending may the more gruesome, it’s also the more realistic one.
The film is more successful as a musical than as a retelling of Victor Hugo’s novel. Alan Menken’s music is in the same modern musical vein as earlier Disney musicals, like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992), but the tone is much more dramatic, verging on the edge of bombast. Unique for this movie is that the score remains its musical character even when there’s no singing. An unexpected element of his score is Menken’s use of leitmotivs. Especially Frollo is identified by a particularly well-composed melody, which recurs throughout the movie. Menken may count this melody as one of his very best ever. Frollo’s song is the film’s dramatic highlight, and as said the best song of the whole film, but Menken’s score reaches epic heights during the rescue scene, when a choir singing in Latin adds to the musical suspense.
The only real mistake in the score is the Gargoyle’s song, the film’s only light-hearted tune. In this tune we’re suddenly confronted with many anachronisms and French cliches completely out of tune with the rest of the movie, like images of a casino, a barber, and a grand piano. What worked in ‘Aladdin’ falls completely flat in ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’. These anachronisms come across as a lack of ideas, instead of original twists, and pull the viewer out of the story, instead of taking him further in. Yet, it must be said that even this song shows the grim image of three people being hanged, even if it’s in puppet form. In the same way, a later song by a bunch of scoundrels remains very merry, even though it’s about killing.
The film’s design is noteworthy for its moody color palette, with blues, purple and orange as its principal colors, which permeate almost all scenes. The human designs are more elaborate, yet less artful than before, with Esmeralda and Phoebus being particularly bland. Unfortunately, somehow, it’s this more generic design that would become standard in the final traditionally American animated films of the late nineties and early 2000s.
The human designs may lack character, their animation is by all means outstanding, and shows that the Disney studio was at the very top of its craft. An example is the Topsy-Turvy song. Set at the Feast of Fools (which was actually forbidden by 1431, while the action takes place in 1482, but this is Victor Hugo’s error), this song features elaborate movement, fast cutting, all kinds of camera angles, and many different characters, both traditionally animated and computer animated. But all the movement and the characters’ emotions remain readable all the time. In fact, one can watch this sequence in silence and still know what’s going on.
Other pieces of animation I particularly like is when Frollo wriggles his sword out of a piece of wood while entering the cathedral, and the one in which Esmeralda asks Quasimodo to come outside, shot from Quasimodo’s perspective, thus making Esmeralda reaching out to us. But these are just examples in a film overflowing with excellent character animation.
Computer animation is limited to special effects, especially for creating crowd scenes. With help of computers, the studio could generate crowds of hundreds of people, without having to animate each person individually. When one looks closer, the animation looks terribly stiff and lifeless, but as the eye normally follows the fully animated leads, the result is convincing enough, and luckily not out of tune with the fully animated lead characters.
In all, ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is a well-made film with a very interesting musical score, and great animation. It’s a daring piece into more serious territory, something the studio would never repeat. And I understand why, because as long as the Disney studio doesn’t dare to leave its compulsory family character, it will never succeed in retelling dramatic stories like Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ convincingly. This film certainly fails to do so, despite all the effort, and remains a schizophrenic product that leaves the viewer wondering what it could have been if the studio would have made more daring choices.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ and tell me what you think:
‘The Hunchback of the Notre Dame’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD