A gem that has several very visible flaws; yet, with these flaws, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" shines as the best from the Disney factory yet.
For, at first, the company name and movie title didn't quite appear to sit well together. You don't marry the king of novel Gothic gloom (Mr. Victor Hugo) with one of the world's most beloved (if not biggest) animation companies and expect the usual world population to be at the reception; but expect even Mr. Walt Disney to pat himself on the shoulder blade (or what's left of it) for allowing a hideous hunchback to be transformed into a Gene Kelly-Incredible Hulk combo type of hero.
This "hero" is Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), which by the way means half-formed.
It's about his distorted education (whoever teaches the alphabet using abomination, blasphemy, condemnation, damnation and eternal damnation ?), his humiliation (being crowned the king of fools), his first love and his big, big heart.
It's about how our outward appearances should not matter (sounds familiar?). It's about believing in yourself but not being self-righteous. And it's about reliving the magic of Oscar-nominated "Beauty and the Beast", directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (both, incidentally, were also responsible for "Hunchback".) Wise and Trousdale obviously had a vision that didn't exactly conform to your usual "and they lived happily ever after" type of fairy tale. They employed a lot of artistic license when rewriting the plot. It was, after all, a cartoon; but they didn't allow it to become an excuse to dissolve the poignancy and tragedy into nothingness. Quasimodo did not get the girl.
Nobody exactly lived "happily ever after". There was an amazing amount of implicit blood and violence. All that with Quasimodo's unrestrained outburst near the end and the best animated celluloid representation of the kiss contribute to the real emotions that flowed from the characters.
Talking about being real, the drawings in "Hunchback" were simply breathtaking. The two directors and chief artists actually made their way to the famed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to experience first hand the magnificence and beauty of it. For ten whole days, they walked through, looked from, sat on, literally lived and breathed Notre Dame. The artists even "swatched" some dirt just to match the colour! The result was such artistry that even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would have wanted to call their own. The scenes in the market place, the panoramic view of the steps of Notre Dame and beyond all left me gaping in wonder and sheer excitement that such representation could be possible through animation; it's all thanks to computer animation.
Computer or no computer, animation has certainly come a long way. From the days of "101 Dalmatians", "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" and "Cinderella" to "Hunchback" (Disney's 34th full-length animated feature film), there have been no lack of originality. Like its predecessor, "Hunchback" is definitely original material destined for the Oscars. Like the directors functioning as visionaries, the stars that are being voice casted work like magic. Tom Hulce takes centre stage as Quasimodo's voice, giving it a raw passion and sounding appropriately un-handsome. A very plucky, wild and fiery gypsy Esmeralda voiced very convincingly by Demi Moore. It is almost a reprisal of her recent role in "Striptease" as an exotic dancer (euphemism for stripper) , which censors here will not take to kindly. Kevin Kline did justice to the inclusion of the devistatingly handsome Captain Phoebus by giving him that wickedly humorous edge. All the voice actors gave such a brilliant performance that they didn't allow the celluloid to imprison their characters, rather they added a very human dimension that made very cartoon pop right out of the screen.
The animated feature film, though being a highly collaborative effort (especially the case with Disney), hangs on three main factors to work well: the directors' vision, the voice casting and the drawings themselves; all of which we have looked at previous to this. In the case of a Disney cartoon, however, the music also features as one of the facets of a Disney gem. What I would have considered a loss for Disney with the death of Howard Ashman has been filled by Stephen Schwartz; this is not to say that I am dismissing the Elton John-Tim Rice-Hans Zimmer team responsible for "The Lion King".
The incredible sensitivities that Ashman had with his writing was what made the songs to "Mermaid", "Beauty" and "Aladdin" so rich and beautiful; John-Rice-Zimmer's music to "The Lion King" worked well because it was supposed to be grandiose and wild. And by roping in Schwartz for "Pocahontas", Disney saved the audience the pain of having the tenderness of the script and characters shattered by inappropriate lyric and musical sensibilities.
The same goes for "Hunchback". I can see the amount of effort Schwartz took with every little word; even with the adaptation of the canto Gregorian chants. The echoing of Quasi's wrongly instilled self-perception by making his first song lines "I am deformed, I am ugly". The self-inflicted pun of being "old and bent" (he's a hunchback) in "Out There". The partying frenzy he gets the audience into with "Topsy Turvy". The trio of gargoyles Victor, Hugo and Laverne (Murphy Brown's Charles Kimbrough, Seinfeld's Jason Alexander and Mary Wickes of "Sister Act") doing a very Broadway "A Guy Like You". Emeralda (singing voice provided by Heidi Mollenhauer) a very Christian "God Help The Outcasts". And the opening "The Bells of Notre Dame" by Clopin (my favourite character in the movie) all point to Schwartz's lyrical genius. Two lines that really stuck were "And it's the day we do the things that we deplore/ On the other three hundred and sixty-four" from "Topsy Turvy". The rhyme and convenience of "deplore" and "364" is nothing short of brilliant.
The one song that stands out as the highlight of the movie the brilliant juxtaposition of Quasi's "Heaven's Light" and Frollo's "Hellfire". The contact with Esmeralda sparking off two disparate reactions from two very different men; to borrow a phrase from the storyteller, Clopin (Paul Kandel doing a splendid and candid job), we all end up wondering "who is the monster and who is the man".
At the end of the day, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" succeeds where most other Disney movies fail: to be a cartoon not for kids, but for grown-ups depicting grown-up problems. "Hunchback" will not gross as much in terms of merchandising as "The Lion King" did. It's also a safe bet to say that kids will go back home without the usual "boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, kills dragon that captured girl and they lived happily ever after" feeling. Yet, I still applaud their efforts in daring to try something so truthful and yet still so enjoyable. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and most importantly, it made me think. For a long time to come, "Hunchback" will be seen as the movie Disney took all kids (8-80) on a field trip to this place called "the real world".