Ah, oui, La belle France. Le pays de Beauty and the Beast, Gerard Depardieu, et naturellement…

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Soundtrack/Score/Music: 8

Story/Screenplay/Narrative: 8.5

Characters/Characterization/Voice-acting: 7

Art Direction/Design: 8.5

Themes/Archetypes/Artistic Interpretation: 9

From RM:

This is a far more spectacular film than it is given credit for.

And it's not just the perceived bias of Wiry and I that thinks so. Our special guest viewers, Steve and PeeDee (PowerDrill), had either not seen it since its original release, or had not seen it at all, and both were wowed by the film's depth and quality.

But I'll get to why in a moment.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the story of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, who has, through various unspeakable actions done by others, become the young ward of Judge Claude Frollo, the most cruel and merciless judge in Paris. Quasimodo has spent all his life in seclusion in the bell-tower, accompanied only by his (shudder) three gargoyle friends, and his hobby of whittling wooden copies of the people he enviously gazes upon down below. Quasimodo's greatest wish is that he could interact with them, but he feels he is unable to because of his deformity, which is supported by Frollo's insistence that he would be rejected. The story follows his first rebellion of Frollo, leading to his unlikely friendships with the entrancing gypsy Esmeralda; the noble soldier Phoebus; his support of them in their eventual rebellion against Frollo's opressive rule, and his eventual acceptance into the community he so longed to be a part of.

There's more plot, but it's best left unsaid, because if there is any film I encourage you to go out and take another good look at, it is this one.

The only real shortcoming of this film is an unfortunate correlation to its grandiose designs. It aims so high, and, for the most part, succeeds. But also because of it's lofty goals, it falls short to a certain extent when it tries to incorporate two Disney standbys, comic relief and love stories. Disney tries and, for the most part, succeeds with dealing with its first real love triangle, even if it is a little isosceles (only two people coming from the same angle! Hunh? Hunh?). The real problem is with such dark material, they didn't know how to insert comic relief, and so the comic relief they create (the gargoyles) is bumbled through and done very poorly. As PeeDee put it, had this film not had Jason Alexander, it would have been a brighter world, both in and out of the film. But that is really the only shortcoming.

It's art design is as focused and beautiful as the building it's focused on. The score/music (by Alan Menken and Broadway stalwart Stephen Schwartz) is deep and powerful, except for the comic relief number, which feels as forced as the rest of their shtick.

My personal favorite element of this film is the titular hunchback, Quasimodo. I maintain that, over the course of this film, they manage to craft him into one of the most sympathetic and genuinely lovable characters in the whole Disney canon. Taught to live in fear of his own appearance and what it would do (and does, at first) to others, he becomes so insecure and desirous of acceptance and love that despite every setback and cruelty he is subjected to, he still maintains a spirit and a soul that is amongst the most pure and wonderful in the history of Disney film.

It should be noted that this movie, while many people believed it to be a failure, outgrossed both The Little Mermaid and Hercules and was the single best reviewed film of 1996 (still holds a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes among top critics, and an 81% overall). Another criticism of the film is how dissimilar it is to its source material. Now, to this I say two things. 1.) Remember that time that Disney WAS true to it's source material? Yeah, me neither; and 2.) This movie is BETTER than the book. It creates more sympathetic characters, and isn't gloom for gloom's sake, like the rest of Victor Hugo's oeuvre. So suck it, Hugo sycophant.

From Wiry:

So, coming into this film I knew I was in an interesting position, 'cause this is one of my favorites of the Disney canon. Its dark tone, combined with well-fleshed characters (including my favorite Disney character of all time, Clopin) and gutsy music, made it a bit of an odd Gothic child in the Disney renaissance. But just because you may have at best vague, and at worst sour, memories of this film, don't be fooled. Sure, it wasn't the return to form we were hoping for following Pocahontas (I'm speaking from my personal experience of original viewings here), but it stands up surprisingly well as its own film.

Let's start with the look of this film. This is probably the most architecture-heavy Disney films I can think of (with the exception of Beauty and the Beast), which is fitting considering how central Notre Dame itself is to the tale. It ain't The Hunchback of Eastern Park United Methodist Church here. The buildings are beautifully rendered, with supreme attention to detail and a camera that's really really good with swooping. The church is a sanctuary and a prison, the heart of the city, a home and a battleground. It also gives us the three characters who are the biggest problem with the film. Alright, let's get this out of the way: the gargoyles suck, they don't fit with the dark tone, and they deserve to be painfully excised from the film. It's not so much I take issue with the idea that, in his solitude, Quasimodo has gone a bit nutty and imagines elements of his home to be his friends. I sort of like that idea, especially if it were executed in a Calvin and Hobbes fashion - Quasimodo sees the gargoyles one way, everyone else another. But the gargoyles do participate in the world, sort of, so we're not really sure what to do with them. They bring in the comedic armpit jokes and anachronisms... which really aren't even needed since we already have plot-appropriate comic relief - Clopin.

But that said, the gargoyles aren't that important to the overall plot, which is well-paced and character-driven. And, the main characters (Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Frollo, Phoebus, Clopin) are fascinating and well-drawn - there's no throwaway, bland prince/princess among them. They guide us through a world more complicated than most in Disney - a world of duality in which religion can be used to persecute or save, a town can be cruel one day and just the next, and a villain can be motivated to action by his desire for sex clashing against his puritanical values. I know I'm getting pretty grand here, but just watch the opening number and you'll see that this film is shooting for the kind of grandness which one associates with, say, Les Miserables.

And isn't it refreshing to see a grand story told without irony, without the nudge and the wink? This kind of storytelling hasn't been seen on Broadway for years. This fear of looking anything straight-on has pervaded our culture from the high and mighty to the hipsters. Sure, Hunchback takes itself seriously, but it's also very very good.

Final Grade: A-

Final Rankings:
1.) The Lion King
2.) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
3.) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
4.) Lady and the Tramp
5.) The Great Mouse Detective
6.) The Jungle Book
7.) Fun and Fancy Free


I was pleasantly surprised with the depth and richness that was this movie. I don't like that late 80s early 90s musical theatre style music, but hey, you can't win em all.

I think where this movie falls short is that it is almost too sophisticated for a young audience, and that Disney's attempt to make it more accessible was to add the gargoyle sidekicks, bleh...

That's all I got.


August 4, 2008 at 2:05 PM  

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