movie film review | chris tookey

Hunchback Of Notre Dame

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  Hunchback Of Notre Dame Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
6.88 /10
Quasimodo .............. Tom Hulce , Esmeralda .............. Demi Moore (singing voice: Heidi Mollenhauer), Frollo ................. Tony Jay
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Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Written by: Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, Irene Mecchi, Noni White and Jonathan Roberts. Based on a story by Tab Murphy from the Victor Hugo novel Notre Dame De Paris. Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Music by Alan Menken.

Released: 1996
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 86

Hunchback falls for gypsy girl in mediaeval Paris.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Walt Disney would have cancelled his studio's latest blockbuster before it left the drawing-board. Its grim, adult overtones mean that it can be recommended only with reservations to those who look to Disney for safe, wholesome, children's entertainment. It is, all the same, a triumph.

Producer Don Hahn and directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise have already achieved movie immortality thanks to Beauty and the Beast, a musical cartoon which many people, including me, regard as the finest ever made. Their latest effort is very nearly as impressive.

Literary purists and disgruntled Frenchmen may feel that it takes liberties with Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, Notre Dame De Paris. It does narrow the focus down to the story of Quasimodo and adds three comic gargoyles plus a happy ending, but this is no sanitised version of the original.

The story should still, er, ring a few bells. It is about a deformed bell-ringer who falls hopelessly in love with a gypsy girl Esmeralda, and tries to rescue her from the Paris mob and the racial bigot Frollo - a judgmental cleric in Hugo's original, a clerically-minded judge here.

Esmeralda, huskily voiced by Demi Moore (Heidi Mollenhauer supplies her singing voice), is a belle who swings between being a temptress - with her Rita Hayworth curves and flashing eyes, she must be the sexiest animated heroine since Jessica Rabbit- and a street-smart feminist with a neat line in anti-male repartee.

Still, she doesn't seem too twentieth-century or holier-than-thou when she prays for her fellow gypsies. As someone who suffers from racial intolerance herself, she has an instinctively kind response when she sees a fellow outcast - Quasimodo - tortured by the Paris crowd. Her character is a good deal more historically convincing than Disney's Pocahontas.

Quasimodo (voiced by Tom Hulce, who also turns out to be a pleasant singer) is even more sympathetic. Younger and cuddlier than in previous film versions, he is a cross between a brutalised child and the Birdman of Alcatraz (the first time we see him he's encouraging a fledgling to fly). Most children should identify with him, pity his plight, and admire his fearless athleticism around a Cathedral which is one vast, Gothic adventure playground.

So why will this Hunchback give some parents the hump?

Here is the first Disney cartoon to portray erotic obsession. Judge Frollo is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes's Nazi Commandant in Schindler's List, in the way he can't understand why he is attracted to a woman of an "inferior" race. He sniffs Esmeralda's hair with fetishistic enthusiasm. His big aria, Hellfire, contains images of her dancing seductively - and, unless I am much mistaken, subliminal flashes of her dancing nude.

Parts of the film are frightening: especially Frollo's visions of demons, and Quasimodo's descent into the gypsy catacombs. These episodes are no more scary than parts of Fantasia, or the Wicked Queen in Snow White, or any number of fairytales - but they could give nightmares to the very young, or the very nervous.

The story of Frollo's relationship with Quasimodo is dark indeed. Frollo is kind to his adopted "son" only because he enjoys exerting power over him. Like any victim of child abuse, Quasimodo has no way of knowing that the way he is being treated is out of the ordinary. He feels guilty because his thoughts of ingratitude make him feel even more monstrous than he already is. He has to decide between fear of his "father" and fear of the unknown.

The film's cynicism about religion, like its scepticism about father-figures, belongs to a new generation of Disney film-makers. Walt would have rejected both as dangerously anti-establishment. Nonetheless, the religious pitfalls are skirted with some skill. Frollo is in the wrong not because he is religious but because he is a religious hypocrite, seeing evil only in others, never himself.

The film is not as depressing as Victor Hugo's original. There, Quasimodo's outward deformity creates a deformity within, and there is no reprieve for Esmeralda.

Even so, this is Disney's darkest picture, with a pervading atmosphere of racial tension, religious bigotry and mob hysteria. Gone is that bland, Disney confidence in the fundamental goodness of human nature. In its place is the less reassuring - but surely more realistic - view that most people have it within them to be good or bad, and that it requires courage to be good.

In striving to make a film which is as satisfying for grown-ups as for children, perhaps the Disney team has made it a little too sophisticated.

The songs are superb for the way they develop plot and deepen character, and Stephen Schwartz's lyrics are his finest yet, but they are probably too urbane for children to appreciate. Alan Menken's score is more likely to appeal to fans of the post-Sondheim musical, than to infants content with singing about the wheels of the bus going round and round.

But the design is enchanting. The cathedral of Notre Dame is as magically portrayed in all its moods as Monet ever managed - cruel and forbidding one moment, iridescent and nurturing the next. The animators' visual imagination sets new standards with an exhilarating sense of movement and dizzying camera angles. The choreography of the production numbers is on a par with Beauty and the Beast, and there can be no higher praise.

The light relief is genuinely funny. Even very small children will be enthralled and uplifted by the story, while the sexual aspects should (unless something is very wrong at home) go over their heads. The film will be appreciated on different levels by everyone who sees it.

It has two valuable lessons for all ages - that beauty on the inside is more important than beauty on the outside, and there is a beauty in a willingness to stand up and be counted, even if one is in an unpopular minority.

Though not for every child or parent, this is the best version yet of Hugo's novel, a cartoon masterpiece and one of the great movie musicals. I doubt if it will be as successful commercially as its recent predecessors, but Disney can afford to take a few risks. It's proof that the studio is no longer afraid of tackling difficult themes on a variety of levels, and that its new generation of film-makers is more talented and ambitious than ever before.

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