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Critics have said it. Intellectual poseurs have repeated it. You have snidely asked yourself: "Where does Disney get off making a children's film out of a Victor Hugo's classic, tragic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Is Disney not satisfied with mousefying Americana; must they now bastardize French culture as well?"
Here's the thing. You haven't read the book. I haven't read it. No one you know has read it. Far more Americans know the true story of Pocahontas (she returned to England with her husband John Rolfe--not John Smith--and shortly thereafter died of smallpox) than of Quasimodo (a fictional character, he in fact has no true story).
Therefore, to ye skeptics I say: judge the film on its own merit, and enjoy it for its own sake. It is yet another high quality Disney feature. For fascinating historical accuracy, Ken Burns is your man. For a good tale, no one beats the mouse.
Far more satisfying (and less flaky) than "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is reminiscent of "Aladdin," with its spectacular cartoon architecture and lively medieval street scenes. Directors Gary Truesdale and Kirk Wise (collaborators on "Beauty and the Beast") tap into the visual power of the Notre Dame cathedral, and the film's most compelling scenes are set therein.
The voice of the hero Quasimodo, Tom Hulce ("Amadeus," Broadway's "A Few Good Men"), brings to his part the sensitivity and youthful enthusiasm that are essential to the Disney hero formula.
Quasimodo however, is a new kind of hero for Disney. At age 20, he is the oldest protagonist in Disney history. A far cry from the beautiful Snow White--hated for her beauty by the jealous Queen--Quasi is reviled by the public for his misshapen form--and Disney spared no effort in making the guy ugly. He yearns to leave Notre Dame, where his ward, the evil Judge Frollo, keeps him isolated.
Judge Frollo, spoken and sung by Tony Jay--a classically-trained stage actor--steals the show as Disney's greatest villain since Snow White's wicked Queen herself. Frollo's solo "Hellfire" combines the best of the score of Alan Menken (music man for all five of Disney's last animated features) with riveting, spooky animation.
Unfortunately, the score is not Menken's greatest. Musical highlights besides "Hellfire" include the opening "Bells of Notre Dame" and "Heaven's Light," but none of these match "Circle of Life" from "The Lion King" or "A Whole New World" from "Aladdin."
"Hunchback" tackles more adult themes than any prior Disney movie. Unlike previous Disney villains motivated by power hunger and jealousy, Judge Frollo is driven by guilt over his lust for the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda (spoken by Demi Moore in her sexiest role of the summer and sung by Heidi Mollenhauer).
In addition to Quasi and Frollo, Esmerelda is faced with a third suitor, the handsome and gallant Phoebus, Captain of the Guards. This love rectangle is new to Disney, as Quasi finds himself competing with another good guy for Esmerelda's love.
Like the clock and candlestick from "Beauty and the Beast," "Hunchback" animates the inanimate for comic relief. Three gargoyles are Quasi's only friends in the cathedral. Like Calvin's Hobbes, the Gargoyles are alive only to Quasimodo. They character's are a small tribute to the original Hunchback's author, as two of the three are named Vic and Hugo.
Most Disney movies aim to be enjoyable for adults as well as thrilling for children. Hunchback may prove to be the opposite, since many of the adult themes will fly over the heads of young viewers, like Notre Dame above Paris.
Regardless, thanks to Disney's story-telling magic (and Herculean marketing efforts), children will see it. Dogs will see it. By taking what could have been a tough story one day when the chips were down and making it into another animated classic, it looks like Disney managed to win one for the Gipper.
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