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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)



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Sadly, the timing of Hunchback was all wrong. Five years ago, when Disney's classic, Beauty and the Beast, was released, the love of Disney's animated features was a fad; now, sadly and nonsensically, it's almost a fad to dislike them. Complicated with Hunchback following on the heels of 1995's disappointing Pocahontas, the result is one of the most underrated, unjustly passed-over films in a long time -- because, frankly, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is among the best work Disney has done in the last fifty years. It is foolhardy to compare Hunchback with the early classics, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, or Bambi, and I will not attempt to do so. But Disney's recent films -- classics nearly every one, don't get me wrong -- have all been outdone.

Hunchback's one valid accusation is that it is not particularly faithful to its source material. It's a strong argument, which I nimbly parry by pointing out that many of Shakespeare's works were frightfully inaccurate with regard to actual history let alone a prior fictional work, yet few would quibble with the greatness of those. Similarly, Disney has taken a masterpiece of literature and used it to inspire a masterpiece of animation, and no matter how different they are, they are still both classics in their own right -- just don't go in to Disney's Hunchback expecting an undistorted incarnation of your favorite novel. Without beating around the bush any longer, what makes Disney's film so magnificent?

For starters, it's got an extremely solid story, arguably surpassing even that of Beauty and the Beast, which had admirably solid plot, but which was nevertheless (nitpick alert) marred by Beauty being the story's pawn rather than its maker. Quasimodo, the hunchback, is never carried by the plot, but is active in its creation, as are his co-stars. The characters make the story, and there is not a single second of screen time where they are not in character, believable in their actions, or sound in their logic. Quasimodo is torn between a desire to see and participate in the world and the cruel, restrictive upbringing of Frollo, a local judiciary, which has made him insecure to the point of self-abasement. Indeed, one of Hunchback's most horrific moments come not from some fearsome monster of evil, but when Frollo sings of how much a monster Quasimodo is, and Quasimodo, so much under Frollo's influence and direction, starts to sing along.

Frollo, incidentally, is no ordinary Disney villain. He's as well rounded a character as they come, not just a selfish evil guardian for Quasimodo, but a ravaged soul, acting on his prejudice and hatred for the local gypsies but struggling with his desire to possess one, by the name of Esmeralda. He's also devilishly clever and manipulative, an unnervingly powerful combination. Esmeralda enters the story when Quasimodo first ventures out in to the world, becoming his first real friend. The fourth character, pleasantly voiced by Kevin Kline, is the soldier Phoebus, the final corner to the love square.

Which brings us to the gargoyles, often lampooned as the product of Disney studios adding needlessly cute, loony co-stars for the sake of the kids in the audience. Not so. The gargoyles, we discover, are active when only Quasimodo is around; when others enter the scene, they become rigid and lifeless. I won't presume to give a definitive statement on their real existence any more than I'd do so for Hobbes, from Bill Watterson's famous comic strip. But I will say that it is easier to believe an individual isolated from the world but permitted to observe it would have a company of imaginary friends than to believe he wouldn't (the scene where Quasimodo introduces Esmeralda to the bells is touching). The gargoyles just may represent those sides of Quasimodo's personality he is scared to bring out through himself.

The story is a complex one, involving a complicated array of relationships, emotions, and internal struggles, and it is all done with style, insight, and inspiration. The animation in Hunchback takes the art to new heights...literally. The exhilaration one feels watching Quasimodo romp about the top of the cathedral are breathtaking and will make many -- especially those afraid of heights -- a little giddy. The crowd scenes are also noteworthy pieces of animation, for each person in the crowd is an individual, distinguishable from the masses. Alan Menken's gothic music, while a modern Broadway-style score, recalls the operatic themes of the era and is alternately tender and haunting as the story dictates. It is not his most memorable score, but it's one of his best.

All things considered, there is no legitimate reason why The Hunchback of Notre Dame should not be universally accepted as not only a classic but a masterpiece. It's almost there now, and I predict, with a little time, it one day will. Should you take your kids to see this film? Honestly, it isn't really aimed at the younger generation. Think twice before taking young kids, for there are several horrifying scenes that may frighten them. Other kids will be fine, but they aren't going to pick up on all the intricacies of the story -- the ideal audience for Hunchback is a more mature one than for most other Disney animated features.

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