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Friday, June 22, 2012

Disneyear: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Disney once again found itself in a rut after the disappointment of Pocahontas. While some films they released afterwards were hits, none ever got the acclaim and prestige of the previous famous four film. This was also the point were Disney was becoming a little less popular with the crowd, so Disney needed something to being back its audience. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the film that came out next and... probably wasn't the best choice of story to bring back your old audience. I mean this is a famously dark and twisted story about the corruption of the church and the overuse of power that it had back in 15th century Europe... as told by the artists at Walt Disney studios as a musical... think about that! So as you'd guess, the final film changed around a few things to be a little more suitable for the family. I don't really think this was a very big hit when it first came out though it is growing a fan base. Does it have its flaws? Despite that, I really do love this movie. So I guess it's off to the Festival of Fools to see what makes it work and what... holds it back some.

In 15th century Paris, we get our introduction from a puppeteer who tells the story of how a wicked government priest named Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) kills the mother of a deformed baby and comes close to killing the child too until the Archdeacon (David Ogden Stiers) orders him to raise the child as his own. He reluctantly does, but to add insult to injury names the child Quasimodo (which according to the puppeteer means "half-formed") and hides him from the world in Notre Dame cathedral's bell tower. Years pass as he grows to be a young man (Tom Hulce) and wishes to go to the Festival of Fools, the equivalent of an April Fools party mixed with Mardi Gras. Frollo forbids it of course but goes only for duty. After gaining some support from his gargoyle friends (Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and Mary Wickes), Quasimodo sneaks into the festival and is considered a big hit with the crowd due to his appearance. Then for some reason, the crowd turns on him rather sporadically and is tied up, to which a gypsy woman named Esmeralda (Demi Moore)  frees him and then is persecuted by Frollo for freeing the hunchback and witchcraft, which is really just parlor tricks. She claims sanctuary in the church but Frollo has guards around the place so if she does get out, she has two options: be Frollo's lover or die. (Pretty twisted) She does get help from Phoebus, the captain of the guards (Kevin Kline) and Quasimodo, the three try to defend the gypsy culture and it's people, Notre Dame cathedral, and Esmeralda herself from Frollo's cruelty. After one of the most intense climaxes in Disney history, Quasimodo makes a new life for himself and is declared as a hero in the town.

Oh wow, Disney! I mean wow! I don't even know how they got away with half of this content. Give them credit, this was a very ballsy move on their part. Like I said earlier, the original book by Victor Hugo is about the corruption of church. Here, the film doesn't directly attack the church (I don't think they'd get away with that!) but it does touch up on some issues with faith, righteousness, good, evil, heaven, hell, damnation, even lust! There were moments when I was watching this like when Frollo smells of a woman's hair and I thought "this is a Disney movie?!?" Sex especially is a big Disney no-no and to see some of this imagery was pretty shocking, but it never goes too far. Remember, this is a family film! Kids can see the good with loving relationships and the bad of mindless, vengeful lust. 


Wouldn't you see this image in something like Night on Bald Mountain from Fantasia?
There's also the scale of this movie. Watch it again, it's just gigantic! Some of these angles, colors, shadows, backgrounds, and camera movements really make everything seem big. A lot like in Bambi and The Lion King, just the sheer size of this film makes everything seem more grand and more important. The songs also help with it. We have your heartfelt and fun song, but then we have songs like The Bells of Notre Dame, God Help the Outcasts, and Hellfire. These are just big songs and the choir makes everything seem more important.

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Now let's discuss the characters because they are likable (for the most part, but I'll get to some of them in a minute) That's Amadeus as Quasimodo and there really is a kindness to his voice. Even if he's not the best singer ever, there's a lot of warmth and heart in his performance. His range is just good. Esmeralda is a nice, caring character who only wants justice for her people and Phoebus does see the evil and problems with what Frollo does and wants to help Quasi and Esmeralda. There's also some heartbreak too. Quasimodo doesn't get the girl (I don't think that's a spoiler) but is able to accept it, find acceptance with the people of Paris and makes a new life for himself. 

Our three heroes.
Then you have one of the best Disney villains ever: Frollo. He does all the bastardy things Disney villains do but justifies himself in doing so because he thinks he's a soldier for God. The film makes him very complex too. He hates gypsies and want to destroy them all but has this insane lust for Esmeralda, the gypsy woman he arrested for witchcraft but also wants her dead. I just think he's a badass villain.


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Now let's to get what doesn't necessarily work for the film's favor. Not necessarily fall flat but some elements feel like they're there because of being held back by the fact it is a Disney movie. One thing is that the explanation of the gypsy culture is pretty complicated, especially for a kid. They're said to be thieves but they're allowed to run a festival. Frollo wants to rid the world of them yet still goes to said festival. Esmeralda says they're not all thieves, yet there's a secret lair made up of stolen items. I suppose you could argue that this shows the complications of the gypsy culture, but it would only confuse people more.

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One minor nitpick is the romance between Phoebus and Esmeralda... it's not that interesting. They just crack one-liners at each other. But to be fair, the film does set time for them to talk and get to know each other better, though scenes like that are kind of scarce in this film. They're there, but not that often

Plus, I still feel for poor Quasi...
Then there's the gargoyles... ok, Disney. I don't mind comedy relief in a film like this but do you have to make them so damn obnoxious? One: how dare you not give Jason Alexander one funny line to say! Shame on you! Two: the film is about not judging people by appearances, yet that's constantly what they do to each other! Third: I'd honestly tolerate them if they were imaginary. At first, it looks like they are! There's a musical number with them and in the next scene it looks like it was all in Quasimodo's head. What a great yet tragic way to get your comedy relief in! But during the final battle... they help him save the day. They fight off the guards and throw stuff at them... there's no way he could have dreamed that. I don't know how, maybe it's Disney magic, but do they have to be so annoying?

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I know Hunchback has it's flaws and from a character and storytelling perspective, this isn't the strongest Disney film out there and for Disney to even pull this off, they had to make it simpler or go all out with the story. But I personally really love it. Give them credit, this is a hard story to adapt and I'm amazed that it pulls it off as well as it does. It's definitely one of the darkest! I don't care if it's clunky, I don;t care if it's flawed, the stuff that works well works unbelievably well. I love the scale, I love the imagery, I love the content, it's just one of my fvorites. Despite it's problems I do see why Disney made it. If you're a fan of the original book, you may not like it. But if you know what you're getting into (Think about it: it's Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame!), then you might like it fine. I never really did watch this one much as a kid, but I can really appreciate it as an adult. 

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