Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Out of respect for the stunning visuals and family entertainment value of Disney's 34th animated feature, I can do no less than recommend The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Sadly, however, this is the least-enjoyable animated feature to come from the studio since its 1989 rebirth. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a notch below last year's Pocahontas, which, in turn, was a drop from the previous year's The Lion King. Apparently, Disney's new wave of animation peaked early; their releases have been in a slow-but-steady decline since the delightful Beauty and the Beast.

Still, all things considered, The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn't bad, it's just a little disappointing. Despite the over-hyped and overexaggerated "darkness" of the production, kids will love it, so a box office success is assured. And those who carefully review the family entertainment competition this summer will rightfully conclude that Hunchback is the surest bet.

It's curious that the movie to use the most adult source material has yielded the least potent results. Obviously, Victor Hugo's vision of The Hunchback of Notre Dame couldn't be made into a Disney cartoon -- it violates almost every aspect of the studio's traditional, feel-good/happy ending formula. So, predictably, the screenwriters diluted it, but, in doing so, they siphoned off the elements that give the story its unique power. With the darkest and most unpleasant aspects of Hugo's tragedy eradicated, there's not much left. The poorly-focused remains are likely to appeal most strongly to the under-12 crowd. Unlike past efforts, there aren't many in-jokes and double- entendres to catch the attention of the adults in the audience.

The film loosely follows Hugo's narrative. After opening with a six-minute prologue describing how Judge Claude Frollo (voice of Tony Jay) becomes the guardian of the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame, Quasimodo (voice of Tom Hulce), Hunchback launches into the meat of its story, which involves a curious love quadrangle. The center of attention is the gypsy Esmeralda (who looks and sounds like Demi Moore). Frollo, a powerful magistrate in 15th century Paris, whose self-proclaimed duty is to eradicate sin, wants all the gypsies dead, including Esmeralda. At the same time, however, he's having trouble fighting a lustful desire for her. The captain of his guards, Phoebus (voice of Kevin Kline), has fallen madly in love with the gypsy girl, as has Quasimodo, who becomes her friend and confidante. In Hugo's book, the interaction between these characters fuels a complex and multi-layered drama. Not so in this movie, where Quasimodo's three talking gargoyle companions (Victor, Hugo, and Laverne; voiced by Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Mary Wickes, respectively) exhibit more personality than the humans. For, although we come to feel for "Quasi", neither Esmeralda nor Phoebus makes a dent in our sympathy.

With his twisted back and distorted features, Quasimodo is an atypical Disney hero. However, to avoid giving children nightmares, the animators have softened his appearance. He's not monstrous or ugly; he's just different. Children who consider themselves oddballs or outcasts will likely identify with the hunchback. And the life-lesson about tolerance and respect for others will be understood by nearly everyone who watches the film.

According to Disney, Frollo is the most conflicted and complex villain to have ever been brought to the animated screen. I suppose that's true on one level -- after all, he's tormented by his own lustful impulses, and acts out of religious zeal rather than plain nastiness -- but I doubt many viewers will notice. Ultimately, Frollo comes across as a bigoted, intolerant, but not overly-frightening, bad guy. The most impressive thing about him is Tony Jay's deep, resonant voice.

From a musical standpoint, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is lifeless. The songs, co- written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, lack energy. There are no show- stopping, toe-tapping numbers. In fact, there's nothing remotely memorable about any aspect of Hunchback's soundtrack -- it's easily the poorest effort to come from Menken since he started churning out scores for Disney (he's done all of the new wave animated features except The Lion King).

On the other hand, the animation is crisper and more impressive than anything since Beauty and the Beast, and certain computer-aided sequences are even more eye-popping than Beauty's sterling ballroom scene. The Festival of Fools, where Quasimodo first ventures out of the bell tower, is a riot of color and movement, with intricately-animated backgrounds that are more interesting than the foregrounds. Later in the film, when Paris is burning, the audience is treated to a stunning display of crimson and orange. And the sequence where Frollo confronts his lustful inner demons, with images of Esmeralda painted by tongues of fire, is inspired.

If you believe that the primary purpose for animated films is to enthrall children, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an unquestionable success. If you're looking for entertainment for the whole family, this movie will fit the bill. But if you're anticipating something that's as diverting for adults as for younger viewers, Hunchback may disappoint. Since the release of The Little Mermaid, Disney has set a high standard for its animated work, and, for the first time, one of the studio's releases struggles to distinguish itself.

Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1996-06-21
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1