It’s probably no surprise that the deaf, one-eyed, mis-shapen monster imagined 165 years ago by Victor Hugo would resurface in the Disney version as a gee-whiz, cuddly creature with the innocence of E.T. and the loyalty of Lassie. On the other hand, it is surprising just how dark and horrific Disney’s visually astonishing 34th animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is for most of its 86 minutes.
With a score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz — the team behind last year’s “Pocahontas”– that lacks, on first hearing, any breakout numbers, “Hunchback” doesn’t play or sound like the kind of blockbuster Disney is used to. Nevertheless, the dazzling technical achievements reassert the style set by “Beauty and the Beast,””The Lion King” and “Pocahontas,” particularly with respect to depth of field. The new film should further secure Disney’s dominance in animation, and connoisseurs of the genre, old and young, will have plenty to savor.
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“Hunchback” does not immediately impress as Disney fodder. Set in 15 th-century Paris, the sprawling 1831 novel is chockablock with violence, prejudice and death; it builds a mountain of sharply observed detail about the pageantry and wealth, the luxury and squalor of medieval Paris, and it lacks a happy ending. Then again, who would have imagined Hugo’s even more depressing novel, “Les Miserables,” would become one of the biggest hits in the history of the musical theater?
Purists will have a field day with “Hunchback,” much as they had with “Pocahontas.” Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Jonathan Roberts have simplified the novel’s sprawling narrative and complex characters. Now the action is centered on the Gypsy-born hunchback Quasimodo (voiced with an attractive, childlike innocence by Tom Hulce), the dashing, heroic captain Phoebus (brought to sonorous life by Kevin Kline), and the beautiful Gypsy dancer with whom both men fall in love, the green-eyed Esmeralda (gorgeously voiced by Demi Moore, with Heidi Mollenhauer doing the singing). They’ve also given the story a ludicrous ending and given Quasi, as he’s called, the inevitable Disney sidekicks, in this case three wisecracking gargoyles voiced by Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough and the late Mary Wickes.
Like “Pocahontas,” the source material has been subordinated to the Disney theme, in this case, tolerance for people who are different. If Hugo presented the heroic Phoebus as something of an opportunist and a cad who wants to bed La Esmeralda without marrying her, such shadings have no place here. And if the hunchback had an understandable ruthless streak in the novel, the movie presents him as a sweet, sad, misunderstood loner whose disabilities are nothing compared with his positively arachnoid agility on the walls and parapets of Notre Dame. The villain of the story, Gypsy-hater Frollo (you can practically hear the mustache curl in Tony Jay’s vocals) is as complex a character as “Les Miz’s” Javert, though again, you wouldn’t know it here.
And yet such soft-pedaling can’t be said to completely displace the story. The film opens with the clouds over Paris broken by the bell towers of the cathedral, the beauty quickly shattered by a terrifying chase scene in which Frollo takes off after a Gypsy woman bearing a mysterious parcel. She is killed, and Frollo opens the package only to find the infant monster. He’s about to drop it down a well outside Notre Dame when the Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) admonishes him to take responsibility.
Frollo turns Quasi over to the church, where he grows up in isolation as the mysterious bell-ringer, singing about wanting to live “Out There,” a song with more than passing resemblance to “Part of Your World,” from “The Little Mermaid.” With the gargoyles’ encouragement, Quasi joins the crowd at the Feast of Fools, where he first meets Esmeralda. The scene turns very ugly when it’s discovered that’s no mask he’s wearing.
Esmeralda rescues him, but not before the roaring crowd pelts him with vegetables and worse. After singing “God Help the Outcasts,” they retreat to his sanctified digs, where Esmeralda remarks on the hunchback’s tender interior: “You’re a surprising person, Quasimodo.”
There are scenes that feature the entire city ablaze, a family torched by Frollo out of its rural home, stomach-churning drops from the top of the cathedral and plenty of battles, all making for a disconcerting mix of melodrama and silliness as the gargoyles comment and the company breaks into song. Very weird.
The end of the novel features Quasimodo observing Esmeralda’s dying convulsions at the end of a hangman’s noose in a public square; in the film, Quasi and Phoebus rescue her from burning at the stake and the hunchback selflessly grasps the lovers’ hands together as if giving them his blessing. After all that’s gone before, it’s a hopelessly incredible resolution.
Still, there is much to admire in “Hunchback,” not least the risk of doing such a downer of a story at all. It’s hard to imagine kiddies making space on the shelf next to their Pocahontases and Simbas for Quasimodo, no matter how sweet his nature. Would you want this guy eyeballing your crib?