Film Reviews:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

(Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, US, 1996)

For their most recent animated feature film, Disney studios adapted Victor Hugo's famous tale of a deformed bell ringer named Quasimodo, (voiced by Tom Hulce) and his love for the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Demi Moore). Filtering the story through the winning framework they have honed on such modern hits as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the result is stunning to look at. However, the film sometimes seems overly derivative of other recent Disney movies, and is sometimes unbalanced by the perceived need to include a wide number of stock scenes, characters and songs styles.

Although none of Alan Menken's music is strongly melodic, Steven Schwartz' lyrics effectively illuminate character, while also advancing the plot, and avoiding simplistic platitudes. Three stone gargoyles provide a few merry moments of comic relief, but their appearances are sparse, and ultimately unnecessary. The film's pacing suffers from the inclusion of equal amounts of comedy, romance, music, adventure, and scares. Given the necessary audience demographics (the film presumably needs to appeal to the youngest children, as well as their parents), it is not surprising that the story can't spend more time on its strongest moments, but instead sticks rigidly to the formula which has previously proved so successful.

But if Hunchback is overly conventional in its emulation of the successful formula behind other, recent Disney hits, it is positively radical in comparison to the movies the studio made during its first golden age. That Disney have been so successful in updating their wholesome, (yet by today's standards highly repressive) 'family values' credo is nothing short of miraculous. Where Disney once portrayed patriarchal, white American families as almost divine, now sympathy is accorded to society's 'outcasts': such as the dark skinned gypsies, and the hunchback Quasimodo. By contrast, the villainous Frollo, (Tony Jay) is a hypocritical Christian, who murders innocent women, and contemplates infanticide without a qualm.

Esmeralda is a glorious creation, by far the film's most radical and interesting character. The latest in new Disney's line of feisty, self possessed, heroines, she is able to fight as well as any man, yet also possesses a sensual, feminine beauty that beguiles even the villain. Romantic lead Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline), is far less interesting, although his heroism includes knowing that he must refuse a direct order to burn a villager's house to the ground. Frollo is a more interesting character, and his song, Hell's Fire is truly remarkable, tackling as it does, some very adult emotions. Tormented by a desperate, doomed lust for Esmeralda, he is inflamed by visions of her dancing within the great open fire, the same flames he associates with hell, the same flames which also rage within him.

Although the film empathises with Quasimodo, it is soon clear (even to the hunchback himself) that the beautiful gypsy girl he loves will never reciprocate his feelings. While she treats him with kindness, her referral to him as the 'boy', indicates that Quasimodo could never be a serious rival for her love. As a result, the movie's message of tolerance becomes compromised. It is okay to be nice to ugly people, but on no account start a romance with them, the film seems to imply. Especially not when an attractive military man is showing interest in you. Disney's current team of animators have fully grasped the possibilities afforded by computer generated images. Where previous films have tended to include CGIs that were clumsy and obvious, or else overly showy, in Hunchback, they are beautifully incorporated into the surrounding animation. Quasimodo leaps and darts around Notre Dame, allowing us to see giddying shots of the stone structure. The grand stained glass windows are particularly beautiful, full of shimmering splendour. Shots of the cathedral looming high above Paris, contrast well with low angles that emphasise the cathedral's grasp for heaven. The result is highly atmospheric, and make the film visually breathtaking, even in its full screen video version. In such scenes as Quasimodo's rescue of Esmeralda, or, when he is seen ringing the bells in silhouette, the film achieves a hyper real quality, that mixes a convincing solidity, with the magical fluidity of animation.

Although not the best of the new Disney's self proclaimed 'classics', Hunchback is far superior to both the melancholic Pocahontas and The Lion King, whose appeal was solely juvenile. By contrast, Hunchback is generally successful as both a romance and a musical, and, most importantly, is a fun film for children.

Adrian Horrocks