Last summer, Disney made a bold move by tinkering with its
tried-and-true formula for kid-friendly animated features and releasing the
underrated, surprisingly serious and more adult-oriented Pocahontas.
Believe it or not, Disney has made an even bolder move with its ambitious
34th full-length animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Startlingly
adult and with an oppressive dark tone, Hunchback is also quite simply the
most brilliant and poignant animated feature to come from Disney since
1991's Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast.
This adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel tells the tale of
Quasimodo (voice of Tom Hulce), the deformed bell-ringer of the Notre Dame
cathedral in Paris. Locked in the bell tower since his youth by the cruel
Minister of Justice Frollo (Tony Jay), Quasimodo yearns to be "out there"
among the people. He gets his chance during a town festival and instantly
falls in love with sultry gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who befriends
the lonely Quasimodo but becomes enamored with the gallant captain of the
guard Phoebus (Kevin Kline).
Sounds like typical Disney fodder--an outcast hero, a beautiful
heroine (who's also an outcast), a truly hissable villain, and much romantic
longing and angst. But Hunchback is the most atypical of all Disney
animated features. Bravely, wisely, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
(who also did Beauty) and screenwriters Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob
Tzudiker, Noni White, and Jonathan Roberts, while adding a dollop of humor
in the form of three wisecracking gargoyle companions (voiced by Jason
Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes), have not
extensively sugarcoated Hugo's dark tale. The result is shocking--and
incredibly potent. Right in the prologue, we see Frollo murder Quasimodo's
mother and attempt to drown the infant Quasimodo in a well; from then on,
the audience becomes witness to the unspeakable abuse Quasimodo receives,
from the townspeople, who crown him king of the festival only to mock him;
to more from the embodiment of cruelty that is Frollo, who continuously
belittles his appearance and his worth as a person--in song, no less. What
makes it all the more heartbreaking is that Quasimodo sings along with him.
For all the lighthearted moments--and, unlike in the nearly totally straight
Pocahontas, there are quite a few--there's no escaping the atmosphere of
dread and sadness, from the intricately detailed, cold, imposing walls of
Notre Dame and the shadows that engulf each corridor to the always sad,
often crying face of Quasimodo and the ominous music.
Alan Menken's score is definitely his most daring for an animated
feature, adopting an appropriate Gothic sound full minor chords and choirs
chanting in Latin. Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz also push the
envelope in terms of subject matter, too: in the eerie dirge "Hellfire," the
pious Frollo expounds on his hypocritical, consuming lust for
Esmeralda--"Hellfire/Dark fire/The fire in my skin/This burning/Desire/Is
turning me to sin." Not exactly kids' stuff; in fact, you'd be pretty
hard-pressed to find a song that children will find especially singable.
The two lighthearted tunes, including a comic showcase for the gargoyles
called "A Guy Like You," aren't nearly as catchy and infectious as an "Under
the Sea" or "Be Our Guest." But there are a couple of gems here--namely,
the two central ballads: the traditional protagonist "I Want" song, "Out
There"; and Esmeralda's haunting prayer "God Help the Outcasts," definitely
the most spiritual and transendent tune to emerge from an animated feature.
More than any other Disney animated feature, Hunchback lends itself to a
second life as a Broadway show; the opening number, "The Bells of Notre
Dame," isn't so much a song as it is a group of sung recitative lines, a
writing technique commonly found on the stage.
Hunchback is also the most visually stunning animated feature to
come from Disney or anywhere else. The exterior walls of the cathedral are
rendered in such intricate detail, as are the legendary bells, and the faces
are extraordinarly expressive. There are more than a few knockout sequences
visually, the most memorable being the "God Help the Outcasts" number, in
which Esmeralda walks through the cathedral, lit only by candles and,
ultimately, light shining through a colorful, astonishingly detailed stained
glass window; and Quasimodo's daring rescue of Esmeralda. Trousdale and
Wise have said that they tried to take animation to visual lengths never
attempted; they certainly succeeded in that respect.
Hunchback's all-around success also extends to the voice casting.
Hulce brings great vulnerability and gentleness in speaking and singing
Quasimodo, firmly establishing this "monster"'s humanity. Moore imbues
Esmeralda with her characteristic sexual bravado and insouciance; it's
amazing how much the character resembles Moore, both physically and
spiritually. Kline makes Phoebus a charming, likable lug by giving him an
appealing sense of self-effacing humor, and Kimbrough, Wickes, and
especially Alexander hit the right comic notes as the gargoyles. The
breakout star in the piece, however, is Jay, whose deep, Brit-inflected
tones just ooze menace and evil, making Frollo perhaps the most despicable
villain in Disney history.
Hunchback's darkness will, in all likelihood, prevent it from
receiving Lion King-size grosses, but don't be surprised if it just happens
to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture next year. It is much more than
just a moving, emotionally resonant cartoon--it is a moving, emotionally
resonant motion picture, period.