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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Starring: Demi Moore, Heidi Mollenhauer
Director: Gary Trousdale
Rated: PG
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: June 1996
Genres: Animation, Family, Kids

*Also starring: Tony Jay, Kevin Kline, Paul Kandel, Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, Mary Wickes, Jane Withers, David Ogden Stiers

Review by MrBrown
4 stars out of 4

Last summer, Disney made a bold move by tinkering with its tried-and-true formula for kid-friendly animated features and releasing the underrated, surprisingly serious and more adult-oriented Pocahontas. Believe it or not, Disney has made an even bolder move with its ambitious 34th full-length animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Startlingly adult and with an oppressive dark tone, Hunchback is also quite simply the most brilliant and poignant animated feature to come from Disney since 1991's Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast.

This adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel tells the tale of Quasimodo (voice of Tom Hulce), the deformed bell-ringer of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Locked in the bell tower since his youth by the cruel Minister of Justice Frollo (Tony Jay), Quasimodo yearns to be "out there" among the people. He gets his chance during a town festival and instantly falls in love with sultry gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Demi Moore), who befriends the lonely Quasimodo but becomes enamored with the gallant captain of the guard Phoebus (Kevin Kline).

Sounds like typical Disney fodder--an outcast hero, a beautiful heroine (who's also an outcast), a truly hissable villain, and much romantic longing and angst. But Hunchback is the most atypical of all Disney animated features. Bravely, wisely, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (who also did Beauty) and screenwriters Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, and Jonathan Roberts, while adding a dollop of humor in the form of three wisecracking gargoyle companions (voiced by Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes), have not extensively sugarcoated Hugo's dark tale. The result is shocking--and incredibly potent. Right in the prologue, we see Frollo murder Quasimodo's mother and attempt to drown the infant Quasimodo in a well; from then on, the audience becomes witness to the unspeakable abuse Quasimodo receives, from the townspeople, who crown him king of the festival only to mock him; to more from the embodiment of cruelty that is Frollo, who continuously belittles his appearance and his worth as a person--in song, no less. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that Quasimodo sings along with him. For all the lighthearted moments--and, unlike in the nearly totally straight Pocahontas, there are quite a few--there's no escaping the atmosphere of dread and sadness, from the intricately detailed, cold, imposing walls of Notre Dame and the shadows that engulf each corridor to the always sad, often crying face of Quasimodo and the ominous music.

Alan Menken's score is definitely his most daring for an animated feature, adopting an appropriate Gothic sound full minor chords and choirs chanting in Latin. Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz also push the envelope in terms of subject matter, too: in the eerie dirge "Hellfire," the pious Frollo expounds on his hypocritical, consuming lust for Esmeralda--"Hellfire/Dark fire/The fire in my skin/This burning/Desire/Is turning me to sin." Not exactly kids' stuff; in fact, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a song that children will find especially singable. The two lighthearted tunes, including a comic showcase for the gargoyles called "A Guy Like You," aren't nearly as catchy and infectious as an "Under the Sea" or "Be Our Guest." But there are a couple of gems here--namely, the two central ballads: the traditional protagonist "I Want" song, "Out There"; and Esmeralda's haunting prayer "God Help the Outcasts," definitely the most spiritual and transendent tune to emerge from an animated feature. More than any other Disney animated feature, Hunchback lends itself to a second life as a Broadway show; the opening number, "The Bells of Notre Dame," isn't so much a song as it is a group of sung recitative lines, a writing technique commonly found on the stage.

Hunchback is also the most visually stunning animated feature to come from Disney or anywhere else. The exterior walls of the cathedral are rendered in such intricate detail, as are the legendary bells, and the faces are extraordinarly expressive. There are more than a few knockout sequences visually, the most memorable being the "God Help the Outcasts" number, in which Esmeralda walks through the cathedral, lit only by candles and, ultimately, light shining through a colorful, astonishingly detailed stained glass window; and Quasimodo's daring rescue of Esmeralda. Trousdale and Wise have said that they tried to take animation to visual lengths never attempted; they certainly succeeded in that respect.

Hunchback's all-around success also extends to the voice casting. Hulce brings great vulnerability and gentleness in speaking and singing Quasimodo, firmly establishing this "monster"'s humanity. Moore imbues Esmeralda with her characteristic sexual bravado and insouciance; it's amazing how much the character resembles Moore, both physically and spiritually. Kline makes Phoebus a charming, likable lug by giving him an appealing sense of self-effacing humor, and Kimbrough, Wickes, and especially Alexander hit the right comic notes as the gargoyles. The breakout star in the piece, however, is Jay, whose deep, Brit-inflected tones just ooze menace and evil, making Frollo perhaps the most despicable villain in Disney history.

Hunchback's darkness will, in all likelihood, prevent it from receiving Lion King-size grosses, but don't be surprised if it just happens to win an Oscar nomination for Best Picture next year. It is much more than just a moving, emotionally resonant cartoon--it is a moving, emotionally resonant motion picture, period.

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