Thursday, June 29, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Movie fans sometimes label the years from 1989 to 1999 as a "Disney Renaissance." Sparked by the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid, the Mouse House hit the screens with 10 movies during that time period, several of which rank among their best-known products and rival those created during the studio heyday of Walt Disney's lifetime.

One feature of most of these renaissance-era releases is the use of well-known actors as the voice cast, with the standout example being Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin. Demi Moore and Kevin Kline were probably the best-known names in the 1996 release The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with title character Tom Hulce rounding out the marquee names. But Notre Dame is sometimes the forgotten cast member of the renaissance show, eclipsed by Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

It's not hard to see why; it's pretty easily the most "adult" of the list, with references to ideas like infanticide, lust, attempted mass murder and damnation. Esmeralda, the character voiced by Moore, seems to have spent more time studying with Jessica Rabbit than Snow White, and Kevin Kline's Captain Phoebus acts quite aware of the difference. "Look at that disgusting display," huffs his superior, Judge Claude Frollo, when seeing the Gypsy Esmeralda dance. "Yes sir!" Phoebus replies, raising his helmet visor for a better view.

The story is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although there are some new characters added and the ultimate fate of several others is changed. Probably for the best, or else Disney might have been sued by the parents of some severely traumatized children. Killing Bambi's mom is nothing compared to what goes on in Hugo's book.

Quasimodo (Hulce), is orphaned when Frollo (Tony Jay), pursuing his Gypsy mother to arrest her, causes her death. Frollo is about to kill the baby when the Notre Dame cathedral archdeacon confronts him, forcing him to let the malformed baby live. Frollo agrees, on the condition that the boy live at the cathedral and never go into the outside world. He grows to become the bell-ringer, befriended by three stone gargoyles who help make his life enjoyable -- and who provide proper Disney comic relief. Many years later, Frollo seeks military reinforcements to either eliminate the Gypsies or drive them from Paris. His new officer, Phoebus, is uneasy with this work from the start and, growing deeply fond of Esmeralda, decides to work against Frollo. Quasimodo winds up working with him when his own crush on Esmeralda endangers her and draws Frollo's wrath.

As mentioned above, Notre Dame is probably one of the most adult-level animated movies Disney produced during its history, and certainly during the renaissance decade. Mulan had massive battles and Pocahontas the threatened execution of John Smith, but neither had Notre Dame's undercurrents of Frollo's genocidal hatred of the Gypsies and his lust for Esmeralda. But that greater maturity may make give it a more lasting impact than some of the other renaissance-era movies and certainly helps elevate its quality.

It's by no means perfect -- during production Moore took her best shot but eventually told producers her husky voice was not equal to the task of her single song, "God Bless the Outcasts." Singer Heidi Mollenhauer doubled her and has a great voice, but her performance is really too smooth to match the tone of Moore's spoken lines.

Even at only 91 minutes, the movie drags, probably having one song too many. My vote for eviction goes to "A Guy Like You." The comic-relief gargoyles don't fit as well into the storyline as the Beast's enchanted housewares, and this number featuring them really emphasizes how their presence and antics don't match the tone of the rest of the movie.

And (spoiler alert!) Disney wimps out in the end by having the beautiful Esmeralda fall in love with the handsome Phoebus instead of Quasimodo. The studio often touts its support of diversity. But when given the opportunity to actually be brave enough to have a movie about how un-beautiful surfaces may cover kind and beautiful souls follow through on its premise, creators chicken out. Yes, Quasimodo's unrequited love is handled gently and with dignity. But the move is inconsistent with everything we've been told for the previous 50 minutes and robs Esmeralda of some of the depth and quality of her character.

Even with those flaws, though, Notre Dame is rightfully a part of Disney's decade-long string of hits that marked the end of the hand-drawn animation era for American studios and the beginning of digital and CGI work. And the time spent with Quasi, Esmeralda and Phoebus is not wasted, either on an entertainment level or in sparking some reflection on how we answer, "Who is the monster and who is the man?"

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