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Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were first-time directors when they led the production of Beauty and the Beast to become one of the very best (and most successful) movies in Disney history, and for some reason, they decided that their next project would be an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. It is still baffling to consider that somehow, someone convinced the executives at Disney that this dark tale of lust and violence would be a great fit for their family friendly musicals. The guys at Disney changed the ending into a more upbeat one, but even then, I think most people will agree -no matter whether they like the movie or not- that this is not the ideal material for the kind of product the Walt Disney Company was producing during the mid-nineties.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered in 1996, got mostly positive reviews, but was a box-office disappointment. It made less than Pocahontas, becoming the second film in a row that made less money than its predecessor and setting off a trend that would continue for the foreseeable future. Financially speaking, the Disney Renaissance’s glory days were behind, but had it also passed its creative peak? That is to say, is The Hunchback of Notre Dame any good? Most critics will tell you it is. I don’t know about the reaction at the time of its release, but nowadays most people look at the fact that such an anomaly exists amongst Disney’s 90s output and marvel at it. There is a lot of critical support for what is considered Disney’s darkest movie since The Black Cauldron. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think those people are wrong.
I’m pretty sure all good comments about The Hunchback of Notre Dame are based on a single scene. I’m talking, of course, about the “Hellfire” number that comes roughly midway through the film. In it, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), who’s the villain of the piece, expresses the struggle between what he believes to be the right thing and his inner desires. He is a hateful minister whose job is to get rid of the gypsys living in Paris, but he is also very much attracted to gypsy woman Esmeralda (Demi Moore). In “Hellfire”, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (who were also the team behind Pocahontas) show Frollo tormented as he represses his lust. I must admit, the scene is very well made. The use of clerical music of the time mixed with the movie’s main theme is very effective, and kudos on Disney for trojan-horsing such an inappropriate theme into a G-rated movie, but one “mature” scene does not a good movie make.
My problem with The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not the adaptation of the novel itself. I must reveal out front that I have not read the original novel, although I am familiar with it enough to know the major changes made in this adaptation. For example, Frollo, who is the Archdeacon of Notre Dame in the original movie, is turned into a Judge probably in order to avoid complaints from religious groups, and I don’t mind. I think the general plot outline the people at Disney designed for the movie is a fairly effective one. I mean, Victor Hugo already presented the people behind this movie with pretty great character dynamics, and Disney’s decision to turn Quasimodo into the kind of young dreamer that populates their movies actually works. I have no problems with how things unfold from a story perspective, but the execution does absolutely nothing for me.
Again, Hunchback is not without merit, and like Pocahontas before it, it features some pretty strong visuals. Thee are shots in which the camera pans over Paris and makes its way to reveal the cathedral which are just beautiful. Frankly, almost anything involving Notre Dame as a location is pretty fantastically realized. I prefer the overall design and visuals of Pocahontas, but there is no denying the people in charge of the art direction in Huchback did a terrific job. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quasimodo’s “I Want” song, called “Out There”. There is a shot in which he slides down on what seems like some kind of acqueduct that is one of the very best shots Disney realized during this period.
With that out the way, let’s get into the stuff I don’t like. First, the characters. Like I said, the story is there, but both the voice acting and the animation fall short on this count. Quasimodo and Frollo are by far the best animated characters, and the ones that get some gravitas out of voice actors Tom Hulce and Tony Jay respectively. Frollo is a much darker and twisted (and not as flashy) version of the refined male villain, which makes him interesting, but also really difficult to enjoy. On the other hand, Quasi is yet another bland lead that benefits mostly from the craftsmanship Hulce and the animators are willing to bestow upon him. The rest of the characters are all bad. Esmeralda, as voiced by Demi Moore, is supposed to be edgy and fierce, but ends up feeling even blander than Quasimodo. Similarly, her main love interest, Captain Phoebus, is a completely baffling character and a complete waste of Kevin Kline’s talents. The relationship between these two is a mess. A moment of “cute” banter by Esmeralda and Phoebus inside the Cathedral makes for one of the worst moments in the film. Apparently, this was another time at which all the big animators at Disney was working on Pocahontas, and it kind of shows. Like I said before, the art direction is top-notch, but the character animation (except for Quasi and Frollo) looks rather lifeless compared to the work done in Pocahontas, The Lion King and Aladdin.
The worst thing about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though, and I think everyone who has seen it and isn’t a six year old will agree with me, are the Gargoyles. These inanimate objects come to life to be Quasimodo’s only friends (it is never quite clear whether they are really magical or only a product of the character’s imagination). They are there to provide the comic relief, which I guess was necessary when turning such a ominous tale into a Disney movie. The problem is not in the decision to have comedic moments, but the type of comedy. If you found the anachronysms of the Genie in Aladdin, or the body-fluid humor of Pumba in The Lion King a little irritating, then these Gargoyles will be your worst nightmare nightmare. Not only is the humor unfunny and stupid, the movie also fails to navigate the balance between dark and comedic moments. The transitions from a tragic scene into a, for the lack of a better word, stupid one, are mostly jarring. The worst of those, obviously, involves the Gargoyles, and comes when they get their only (thankfully) musical number… right after a horrific scene in which Paris has been raided and set on fire.
Does it show that I don’t like the movie? I’m sorry, I get that these people were trying to do something different and daring, but to me, every moment of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is either cringe-inducing or just plain boring. I guess this is just one of those cases in which I simply don’t see what people could like about this movie, which quite frankly, I thought was far less beloved than it actually is. I will give it the fact that trying to adapt a novel by Victor Hugo into a family movie is a daring and ambitious project in and on itself. However, I am much more impressed by the idea itself than almost everything in the execution.
Next Week: Ambitious dramatic projects didn’t work so well for Disney, so they’ll try something more cartoony with Hercules.