Sometimes cited as a sign of the waning of the Disney Renaissance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was actually an astounding reminder of the skill and power of Disney animation. Considering how different the source material was from Disney’s usual fare, it’s a wonder that Hunchback even got off the ground, and its uncharacteristically dark themes set it apart from most of their canon. Though some detractors accused the film of watering down Victor Hugo’s original novel, Disney’s Hunchback succeeds in capturing the power of his immortal story in a compelling package that both kids and adults can enjoy on different levels.
I’ve always loved animation that can entertain a mature audience without dwelling on mature content. Hunchback’s themes include prejudice, compassion, genocide, obsession, damnation, eternal damnation, and unrequited love, and as a kid, hardly any of that registered in my mind. I could recognize the presence of more sophisticated topics and emotions, but I simply enjoyed the music, the humor, and the more facile lessons. More recent viewings have revealed layers I never noticed before. For instance, Disney has a long history of comic relief sidekicks, yet here they feature the humorous gargoyles as Quasimodo’s straightforward allies, as well as imaginary friends that reflect his long solitude and inner psyche. Thus, though they are the most kid-focused aspect of the film, they serve a purpose that is not entirely out of step with the serious narrative.
The film’s most outstanding aspect is Alan Menken’s music, possibly his greatest Disney score ever. While other films’ songs may be catchier or more charming, Menken has crafted an illustrious, flowing score that can join those few other musicals that deserve to be christened “glorious.” The singers are also well-cast, particularly Paul Kandel as narrator Clopin, whose high note on “The Bells of Notre Dame” instantly provokes goosebumps. Tom Hulce’s soft voice lends sincerity to Quasimodo’s “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light,” while Tony Jay’s inimitably low tones endow Frollo with austerity and menace such that I’m surprised I haven’t recognized his baritone more often. Frollo is arguably the most villainous of Disney baddies; rather than fratricide or megalomania, he is willing to damn an entire city and his immortal soul for his own lustful pursuits, hauntingly presented in the song “Hellfire.” The non-singing roles are also memorable, including Demi Moore as Esmeralda (different singing voice) and Kevin Kline as the instantly likable Phoebus (yet another positive change from the novel).
In addition to the music, the hand-drawn animation is stunning, with a crispness absent from most other Disney features. The attention to shadows contributes to the animation’s realism, and the crowd scenes are remarkably detailed and impressive, especially Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda.
The film also doesn’t completely sugarcoat its subject matter; an entirely crowd-pleasing ending would have paired Quasimodo with Esmeralda, but though she doesn’t die as in the book, the filmmakers leave the film serious enough to not allow Quasi’s every dream to come true. It’s a surprising move for a company that rarely leaves its leads without companionship, though they left the unrealistic romance to a lesser sequel. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a singular achievement in book-to-musical adaptation, and I’d like to see if such a feat could be pulled off with some other grim classic. Since The Phantom of the Opera, Oliver Twist, and Les Miserables have already been taken, perhaps The Count of Monte Cristo or A Tale of Two Cities? You never know.
Best line: (Laverne, the gargoyle) “Quasi, take it from an old spectator. Life’s not a spectator sport. If watchin’ is all you’re gonna do, then you’re gonna watch your life go by without ya.”Rank: 55 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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